Myanmar's Chinese-sponsored peace talks conclude without deal

Myanmar's junta officials and the tripartite ethnic armed alliance meet in Mongla, northern Myanmar's Shan state, June 2, 2023. [AP Photo]

Chinese-sponsored talks in Myanmar between the junta and three of Myanmar's ethnic armies, known as the Brotherhood Alliance, aimed at persuading the three to support the junta's election plan concluded without an agreement Friday.

The alliance of the Arakan Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army has been providing military training and supplies to anti-junta forces.

The talks were held over two days in the Mongla region in northern Myanmar's Shan state, near the Chinese border. According to local reports, the meetings were attended by Guo Bao, China's special envoy from neighboring Chinese province Yunnan's Foreign Affairs Department.

"Both parties exchanged opinions and agreed to hold a second meeting," Kyi Myint, a spokesman for the National Democratic Alliance Army - which is separate from the Myanmar National Democratic Army and is one of the groups that facilitated the talks - told VOA.

"Three ethnic armed groups were in attendance to express their views and listen to the junta's point of view," according to Kyi Myint, who coordinated the meeting. "They said they would submit reports to their respective central executive committees," he added, "but they did not reach any agreements with the junta officials."

First meeting since the military coup

The peace talks between the junta and the alliance, assisted by China, were the first since the military coup in 2021.

"We would not be willing to meet with the junta without China," said Khaing Thu Kha, a spokesman for the Arakan Army, in a phone interview with VOA on Thursday.

He told VOA, "We demanded the release of our detained members by the junta, to revoke the designation of our group as an 'outlaw association' and to end travel restrictions in Rakhine so that aid can be delivered to the victims of Cyclone Mocha," which struck the western province May 14.

Major General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the junta, responded to VOA on Thursday, expressing optimism about the meeting. "Our delegation broadly discussed building trust, national reconciliation, multiparty democratization, and building a federal union, to cooperate in peace and developments," he said, adding that their delegation was led by Lt. Gen. Yar Pyae, chair of the National Solidarity and Peacemaking Negotiation Committee.

According to local reports, the junta officials at the meeting asked the alliance to support its long-planned election, but the alliance refused to discuss the matter.

The junta asked the ethnic armed groups to support its election plan after the coup in 2021, with the promise that power would go to the winning party. However, the junta has not set a date for the election and has only stated that it will take place when there is peace. The planned election has been called illegal both in the country and around the world.

"It is premature at this time for our side to make definitive statements," Khaing Thu Kha told VOA. "The military junta has stated that it wants to build trust, but from our perspective, that will take time and numerous discussions."

When asked about China's role in the peace talks, Khaing Thu Kha said, "China was only sponsoring the meeting and they were not involved in our discussion."

Although there is no official cease-fire between the armed groups and the Myanmar junta, according to Khaing Thu Kha, the Arakan Army has ceased fighting with the Myanmar military on humanitarian grounds. The other two armed organizations, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, have fought the junta's forces on occasion, but are not engaged in fights with the military now, he said.

China's agenda

A May 30 alliance statement pointed to China's role in initiating the meeting, saying that in "accordance with the mediation" of Chinese authorities, alliance and junta representatives would meet in Mongla on June 1.

Than Soe Naing, a China-Myanmar expert and former member of the Communist Party of Burma, told VOA that the junta was using the discussions to persuade ethnic armed groups not to join the anti-coup resistance movement, as well as to gain support for the forthcoming elections.

"This in line with China's agenda of nonalignment by the armed groups with the National Unity Government and the People's Defense Forces," said Than Soe Naing.

"The NUG and the PDF are seen by China as being supported by the U.S. especially because those groups are mentioned by name in the BURMA Act as part of the recently passed NDAA," Than Soe Naing told VOA, referring to language in the National Defense Authorization Act broadening the U.S. government's authority to impose sanctions against the Myanmar regime and aid opposiion and resistance groups.

"China wants to portray itself as an international peacemaker," Than Soe Naing told VOA. "For instance, China is actively leading the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh back to Rakhine state; but China's underlying goal is to prevent Western countries and democratic forces from further influence in Myanmar and Southeast Asia in general."

State media in Myanmar reported last Tuesday that a top official from Chinese military intelligence, Major General Yang Yang, conferred with the junta's deputy leader in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, prior to the peace talks. The official, the first Chinese military leader to publicly visit Myanmar since the 2021 coup, met with Deputy Senior General Soe Win to discuss "cooperation between the two armies."

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang also came to Naypyidaw May 2, meeting with the junta's leader, General Min Aung Hlaing.

"Such visits by Chinese officials only serve to bolster the junta's legitimacy," said Than Soe Naing.

According to the online publication Irrawaddy, Qin's visit was followed by protests around the Myanmar over China's connection with the military junta. One of these was a demonstration in Letpadaung, in Sagaing region, home to a contentious copper mine operated by China, during which a Chinese flag was burned.

A demonstration by Burmese-Americans against China's support for the military junta in Myanmar also took place outside of the Chinese Consulate General in New York Friday.

"If the Chinese government acts against the will of the Myanmar people to pursue their interests by maintaining close ties with the junta, anti-China sentiment will rise both within and outside the country," Than Soe Naing told VOA.