By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Myanmar and the looming war for its borderlands Part Five

Whereby the Wa are keen to shed their image as Myanmar’s drug lords or China’s proxies. An apparent friendly attitude toward the Tatmadaw in the uncertain situation that followed the coup could have jeopardized the past partnerships China has established, not only with Myanmar, but also with the other ASEAN members. Negative criticism of the military, on the other hand, risks a potential disruption of an alliance with one of its closest neighbors. Therefore, the distant yet uncritical attitude toward the political situation in Myanmar in the Chinese government-approved state media reflects the economic and geopolitical considerations that China constantly must weigh on the matter.

Whatever little most Chinese outside Yunnan know about the Wa comes mainly from a series of music videos where young girls, accompanied by young men beating drums, shake their long hair back and forth. 

Tellingly, these dances are not performed in a rural Wa setting but in purpose-built theaters in front of big audiences. The famous Wa hair dancers are, in fact, the daughters of city cadres who are of Wa, Chinese, or mixed Wa-Chinese ancestry.1 According to anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjo, the Chinese have created “an official socialist-era image of the Wa as a member of the happy family of nationalities within the Chinese nation: as exotic dancers full of primitive energy, now sanitised and harnessed under Communist Party guidance, the socialist-era version of Wa primitivity.”2

In line with this thinking, ethnic theme parks have been established in several Chinese cities where one of the main attractions is to come and watch real Wa head-hunters performing exotic dances. Young Wa, because of their dark complexion, are hired to perform not only as wild Wa but also “as Africans, as Maori, and as American Indians.”Those performers are Wa from Yunnan and Burma who have migrated to Chinese cities to find work in factories, and they take part in those spectacles to earn some extra money. But it is easy to imagine what the Wa dancers themselves think about their ethnicity and culture being exploited in this way. Moreover, according to Fiskesjo, “It is telling that Wa people use a Chinese loan word, tiaowu (‘dance’), for all such Chinese-staged dances. They reserve their own indigenous word for ‘dance’ (ngroh) for their own revived social dancing, such as the traditional ‘dancing in’ of a new house.)”As China has abandoned its Marxist-Leninist ideology in favor of state and private capitalism, the concept of nationalism also has a new meaning. It is no longer a socialist brotherhood of nationalities which it used to be in theory, though not always in practice, but a pride in being Chinese and that China is really a nation-state. China’s president Xi Jinping is the torchbearer of that idea, and he clearly sees himself as the third great leader in modern Chinese history. Mao Zedong liberated China from feudalism and oppression, created the People’s Republic, and managed to unify the diverse country. Deng Xiaoping modernized China after Mao’s death in 1976 and created a much more prosperous society based on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics which, in effect, meant state-supervised cut-throat capitalism. Xi is going to turn China into the dominant world power and, as such, there is no room for internal divisions along ethnic or linguistic lines. In short, as the Hong Kong-based author and journalist Philip Bowring has pointed out, “Mao destroyed the old order, Deng laid the foundations for a modern economy, Xi is making China great again.”5

James Millward, a China scholar, and historian at Georgetown University in Washington, wrote an op-ed published in the New York Times on October 1, 2019, in which he argued that Xi, when he came to power in 2012, abandoned Chinas until recently relatively tolerant previous tradition of accepting ethnic diversity, in which no fewer than fifty-five nationalities were recognized in addition to the majority Han.6 Instead, Xi’s government began promoting a less tolerant pan-Chinese identity known as zhonghua while the Han language, previously known as hanyu became guoyu, or the ‘national language.’A major target for those new policies was the restive Turkic-Muslim Xinjiang region in the west with its traditional discontent with central authorities. I11 July 2019, China's ruling State Council issued a white paper entitled ‘Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang,’ in which it claimed that Xinjiang has “long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory” and that the region’s Uighur “formed through a long process of migration and integration.”8 They are “part of a Chinese civilization” and “Islam is neither the indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uighurs,” the paper stated.9

Non-Chinese historians acknowledge that the Uighurs are indeed a Turkic people related to similar ethnic groups in Central Asia. Control over the area where they live changed hands several times in history between foreign invaders and local warlords until China’s Manchu-led Qing Dynasty conquered it and, in 1884, established a province called Xinjiang, or ‘The New Frontier’ in Chinese.

Today, bilingual education has been abolished not only in Xinjiang but also in other ethnic areas such as Tibet and parts of Yunnan. The Chinese are one people speaking one language. And China is one nation which includes Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and all the islands and islets in the South China Sea. There is no room for diversity, or real autonomy for any part of the Great Chinese Nation.

The problem is that the unified nation state Xi wants to create never existed, and, as Millward wrote, “Concentration camps will not turn Uighurs and Kazakhs into faithful zhonghua Chinese who eat pork and disregard Ramadan. Violent policing will not make Hongkongers abandon calls for the autonomy promised in the territory’s mini-Constitution. Religious repression and demonising the Dalai Lama will not endear Tibetans to the party. Military threats will not make Taiwanese feel closer to the mainland.”10

Then there are ‘the primitives’ like the Wa with their drums and exotic dances. For a proud people like the Wa with a long history of de facto independence, this is nothing short of humiliation of the young performers and their families. Older Wa have not forgotten what happened in their hills in 1958, when newly arrived Chinese political commissars did their utmost to eradicate old traditions and beliefs, the very essence of their identity. The ‘revival’ of Wa culture, which is now taking place in a grotesque form solely for the purpose of entertainment, bears little resemblance to what it was in the past.

While the Wa in China are ruled by Beijing and those in the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Burma are totally dependent on China for trade and the acquisition of weaponry, there is a deep, historically motivated distrust of the Chinese. That has deepened in more recent years with the promotion of ethnic theme parks, the hair­throwing dance, and similar absurdities. It is hardly surprising that the Wa in Burma in a small but not insignificant token of resistance use Vincent Young’s romanized version of Wa, not the system the Chinese introduced in Yunnan in the 1950s.

Millward’s article was appropriately titled ‘What Xi finping Hasn’t Learnt from China’s Emperors,’ and he argues that Xi’s dream of a political and cultural homogeneity runs contrary to Chinese traditional approaches to diversity. However, the controversy surrounding the question of what kind of nation China should be is much older than Xi’s coming to power in Beijing, as general secretary of the communist party in 2012 and as president in 2013.

It began when Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his republican revolutionaries rose in rebellion in 1911, overthrew the last Qing ruler in 1912, and inherited an empire which consisted of many nationalities and had no fixed borders. Imperial rule was concentrated in the court in Beijing, and the further away from that center the empire stretched, the weaker the central power became. Certain areas like Tibet may occasionally have paid tribute to the emperor, but that did not equate to recognition of sovereignty. Rather, it was more like a ‘bribe’ that had to be paid in order to be left alone. The demand for clearly demarcated borders came with the arrival of Western colonial powers, which in the nineteenth century were busy carving up Asia between themselves: the Russians in the north and the west, the British in India in the south, and the French in the southeast. That, in turn, led to a number of border conflicts; that with India sparked a war in 1962 and remains unresolved even today.11

China’s new republican rulers, as the renowned sinologist Maria Adele Carrai has pointed out, “shifted the locus of authority from a sacred and moral Heaven to the people, identified China as one nation among many, in an equal relationship with the others, and began to use international law as the normal framework through which to conduct international relations.”12 However, what that nation should consist of was not clear. Some Republicans saw no reason to include non-Han areas while Sun Yat-sen sought to establish a union of nationalities,’ which he identified as the Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Uighurs.13

According to Sun, interim president of the new republic, that also meant that there was also a ‘Chinese nation,’ and that concept was used for the first time in a statement which he issued on January 5, 1912: “Now we have staged an uprising and the general situation has been settled. The Chinese nation is so brave to overthrow the autocratic government of the Qing dynasty and found the republic.”14 Never before had any official Chinese document talked about the existence of such a ‘Chinese nation.’ China was the Middle Kingdom, ruled by an emperor.

Mongolia, or ‘Outer Mongolia to distinguish it from ‘Inner Mongolia where Beijing had firmer control, had taken advantage of the upheaval, and declared independence on December 1, 1911. Likewise, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a similar declaration of independence on February 13,1913.15 Chinese armies tried on several occasions to invade Tibet, but with limited success. Although foreign countries never recognized Tibet’s independence, it continued to function as a de facto independent country throughout the republican period.

The Chinese did not intervene militarily in Mongolia, but its status as a separate nation was never recognized by the Republic of China. Maps produced in Taiwan, where the Republic lived on after the communist victory on the mainland in 1949, identified Mongolia as a Chinese province until the island began to act more as an independent entity in the early 2000s. It still officially is, but more recent maps of the Republic of China tend to be blurry when it comes to the mainland boundaries.

In the beginning, the Chinese communists had a more lenient view of the non-Han nationalities, which was affirmed in the Communist State Constitution of 1931:

The right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China, and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority. All Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans, and others living on the territory of China shall enjoy the full right to self-determination, i.e. they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer.16

The policy was abandoned as soon as the communists seized power in Beijing and the Peoples Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949. The independence of Mongolia, now a people’s republic allied with the Soviet Union, was recognized so as not to create a rift in the communist camp. Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Ulan Bator were established as early as October 16, 1949. However, Tibet, bordering India, was a different matter. On October 7, 1950, the Chinas Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet, and on May 23, 1951, a 17-point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ was signed between The Chinese and a representative of the 14th Dalai Lama. Tibet was, in effect, occupied, which led to an uprising in 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent flight to India, where he remains in exile.

The PLA also marched into multiethnic Yunnan were some tribal people, among them the Wa were largely unaware of what was happening in a country they did not even know they belonged to. The only Han Chinese the Wa had encountered before that were merchants who occasionally ventured into their hills. But border security especially in view of Kuomintang forces encamped inside Burma on the other side was of utmost importance and the Wa Hills were gradually brought under central control, first leniently and after 1958 more brutally. ‘The Menglian-Dai-Lahu-Va Autonomous County was set up in 1954 in the area opposite what is now Panghsang and covering, as the name implies, tracts inhabited by Dai, or Shan, Lahu, and Wa. It was followed in 1955 by the creation of the Cangyuan Va Autonomous County’ further to the north, and in 1964 by ‘The Ximeng Va Autonomous County’ between Menglian and Cangyuan.17

In the official version, this was done “in the course of practicing regional autonomy ... many Va were trained, paving the way for implementing the Communist Party’s united front policy for further winning over and uniting with the patriots from the upper strata of the Vas, and for carrying out social reform in Va areas.”18 While some Wa were recruited, put in schools where they had to learn Chinese and after that given some responsibilities in the local administration, those ‘autonomous’ counties were run by a communist party cadres and most of them were Han Chinese.

In Xi’s China, with the introduction of zhonghua as the nationwide concept, and with the culture of a few ‘primitive’ peoples like the Wa being degraded to entertainment status in what amounts to human zoos, Han Chinese nationalism has been carried to the extreme. As Marxism-Leninism was discarded sometime in the late 1980s at least unofficially as the state ideology nationalism replaced it. Under Xi, nationalism has been promoted more vigorously than it was under any of his predecessors in attempts to rally the people behind the top leadership and its policies. The same nationalism and visions of China's greatness are also the main driving forces behind Xis multibillion US dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Despite the radical transformation that China has undergone in the post-Mao era, however, the old chairman was never purged from official politics. His picture can be seen on Chinese banknotes and a huge Mao portrait hangs over Tiananmen, ‘the Gate of Heavenly Peace,’ in Beijing even today. As the British historian and China expert Julia Lovell concludes, the Soviet Union could discard Stalin and still have Lenin as revolutionary founder; the Communist Party of China (CPC) has only Mao.19

That kind of respect, however, does not extend to those who were close to Mao when he was at the apex of his political power during the Cultural Revolution. The most notorious of them, Maos dreaded intelligence chief Kang Sheng, is even considered a nonentity, and his name is rarely mentioned in official circles. Only Chinese intelligence professionals recognize the crucial role he played in building the country’s internal and external intelligence services.20

Kang Sheng was posthumously expelled from the CPC a few years after his death in 1976, and then slipped into official oblivion. His rule of terror was such that he was best forgotten. Massive Chinese support for overseas Maoist parties and insurrections may also have died with Kang, but some of the old comrades were not forgotten.

In her book about Maoist movements in various parts of the world, Julia Lovell suggested that after the leaders of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) had been driven into exile in China in 1989, where they supposedly became marginal, impoverished figures “who could occasionally be glimpsed in the cities of the south and west China” and that their Mao jackets were tattered and their toes poked through their old cloth shoes.21 She may have been right in saying that “the ‘revolutionary diplomacy’ of the Mao era has become an embarrassing memory, to be expunged in Orwellian style from the official record,”22 but the rest is nonsense. China did look after the old CPB leaders as well as even some of the younger cadres who fled to China in 1989. As I witnessed when I visited them in Kunming, they had indeed been given government pensions and been provided with free accommodation in apartments in Kunming, while Thakin Ba Thein Tin and Ye Tun had private homes with staff looking after them in Changsha, where they lived inadequate comfort.23

However, the exiles were not allowed to engage in any kind of political work. Some of they did, though, and one exile in Tengchong in western Yunnan even maintains a bilingual Burmese and English website, which, however, does not appear to have been updated since 2016.24 A few CPB members who were of Sino-Burmese descent was given Chinese citizenship. It should also be remembered that some of the veterans, and not only ethnic Wa who served as military officers in the CPB’s army or former Red Guard volunteers from China, remained with the UWSA. One of them is Aung Myint, or Li Chu-le, a Sino-Burmese an old-timer from central Burma who once served as Thakin Ba Thein Tins top military adviser and later became a foreign liaison officer and spokesman for the UWSA.

Regardless of old loyalties, a new, more dynamic generation of leaders took over China in the 1980s and 1990s and that was also reflected in new setups in the security services. The CPC had an effective intelligence apparatus even before it seized power in 1949, and the party’s emphasis on security enabled it to identify and neutralize infiltrators among its own ranks, maintain control over its ‘liberated areas’ during the civil war, and eventually take over Beijing and proclaim its Peoples Republic. Shortly after the proclamation of the new regime, the now ruling CPC established the Ministry of Public Security, known as Gonganbu, which remained its main intelligence service until the Ministry of State Security (MSS) was established in 1983. The Cultural Revolution was not only over, it also led to a complete reversal of policies. Deng proclaimed that “reform is Chinas second revolution,” and turned out to be exactly the capitalist roader’ he had been condemned as when he was purged during the Cultural Revolution.25 As China scholar David Ian Chambers writes, the post-Mao shakeup even reached the ranks of the intelligence services: “As rehabilitation began to gather momentum in the early 1980s, they culminated in the reappearance of once-purged intelligence cadres in their former units or alternative pre-retirement comfort posts. Countless solemn memorial meetings honoured the dead.”26

The MSS consisted of a completely new breed of younger, better-educated officers who were usually recruited before or during their university education. Many of them were graduates of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the Beijing Institute of International Relations, the special training facility at the Jiangnan Social University in Suzhou, and the Zhejiang Police College, which drew students from across the country.27

The the transformation could be noticed also in the workings of the powerful International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (ILD/CPC). Originally established in 1951, it was once tasked with overseeing relations with foreign communist parties, those in power as well as fraternal movements all over the world, among them the CPB. Under Deng, it expanded its mission to include non-communist parties, which meant “any foreign political party that was willing to meet with it.”28

Under Xi, those new policies have been refined. Official and semiofficial organs like the wire service Xinhua, the China Daily, and especially the Guangming Daily, have become important actors in China's drive to promote its views on the international stage. Gone are the surly, taciturn correspondents who hardly ever socialized with their foreign colleagues. The new ones tend to be younger, speak excellent English, and are active in international press clubs. One of their tasks is to promote Xis BRI. Originally known as OBOR, short for the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, Xi called it “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.”29 Chinas propaganda machinery began to promote it as a revival of ancient trade routes dating back to Marco Polo and the fabled Silk Road.

The the problem, though, is that the existence of an ancient Silk Road along which desert caravans crossed from China through Central Asia and on to European markets is a popular myth of relatively recent origin. No historians dispute the fact that there was substantial trade between Europe and China dating back to medieval times. But whatever caravan trade there was through Central Asia, it did not to any large extent involve silk. According to British historian Susan Whitfield:

There was no ‘Silk Road’. It is a modern label in widespread use only since the late 20th century and used since to refer to trade and interaction across Afro-Eurasia from roughly 200 BC to AD 1400. In reality, there were many trading networks over this period. Some of these dealt in silk, yarn, and woven fabrics. Others did not.

Some started in China or Rome, but some in Central Asia, northern Europe, India or Africa—and many other places. Journeys were by the sea, by rivers and by land, and some by all three.30

Bowring also argues that the trade “was mostly maritime, involved China but was mostly conducted by non-Chinese.”31 The early traders were Arabs and people from what is now the Indonesian archipelago, followed by the Portuguese in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and later the Dutch, French, British, and other Europeans. The Chinese explorer Zheng He, a eunuch from Yunnan whose fleets sailed across the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, was a rare exception. Historically, the Chinese were not great seafarers, nor did any Chinese merchants trudge through Central Asia with camels laden with silk or anything else. It was not until China turned into a major trading nation in the 1980s and 1990s that Chinese ships, after being absent for half a millennium, could be seen on the world's oceans.

So where did the notion of an ancient ‘Silk Road’ come from? It was first used in German and then in the plural, Seidenstrassen (silk roads’), in an academic report published in Berlin in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who had traveled extensively in Central Asia.32 However, the term did not gain mainstream usage until one of von Richthofen’s students, a Swede called Sven Hedin, literally followed his teacher’s footsteps and in 1936 published a book called The Silk Road.33 That was the first time the term appeared in English, and it caught on because it appealed to Western notions of the exotic East. It was Eurocentric, and as Hedin points out in his book, “The name ‘Silk Road5 is not Chinese and has never been used in China.”34 Indeed, it was likely first used officially in China in the 1980s when author Che Muqi published a book titled The Silk Road: Past and Present.35 Lars Ellstrom, a prominent Swedish Sinologist who trekked the length of China from 2009 to 2011, sums it up: “Why is the term used in China today? It is good marketing for the nation and contributes to tourism.”36

What was originally meant to be little more than a catchy book title has, since Hedin wrote it in 1936, assumed a life of its own, and led to all kinds of theories—and myths—about cultural and economic exchanges between China and Europe, supposedly dating back to medieval times. A recent BBC documentary even called it “the world's first global superhighway where people with new ideas, new cultures, and new religions made exchanges that shaped humanity.”37 Pan Qi conjured up a ‘southern Silk Road’ in his 1985 article for the Beijing Review by inventing an old trade route down to Southeast Asia.38 Again, there is no doubt that trade between Chinas southern regions and Southeast Asia existed in ancient times, but it involved tea, jade, and precious stones, not silk. In addition to that ‘Silk Road,’ there is also the supposed ‘Maritime Silk Road’ as well as a ‘Pacific Silk Road,’ and even an ‘Ice Silk Road’ connecting China with northern Russian ports in the Arctic Ocean all the way to Europe. Von Richthofen and Hedin could hardly have imagined what they would set in motion by using that term, which they probably did only in order to captivate the attention of their Western audiences.

Whatever the case, the BRI is a reality today, and Burma’s key role in connecting China with the outside world actually predates Xi’s plans by several decades. In 1993, a curious monument was erected in Jiegao, a two-square-kilometer enclave of Chinese territory south of the Ruili River, which otherwise forms parts of the border between China’s Yunnan Province and Burma’s Shan State. It shows four figures wheeling a circular object between them, their determined faces pointing south. The Chinese characters on the base say ‘Unite! Blaze Paths! Forge Ahead!’ Or, in more mundane terms, ‘Southeast Asia here we come!’

The monument was placed there shortly after the Chinese had built a new wide bridge across the river, connecting the town of Ruili with Jiegao, which at that time consisted of little more than bamboo huts and rice fields. Only a few years later, the tiny enclave was packed with high-rise buildings, luxury hotels, stores selling all kinds of wares, and a huge jade market where buyers from all over China came to shop for the precious stone, which is found in its imperial green variety only in Hpakan in Burma’s Kachin State. Every morning, caravans of trucks laden with Chinese consumer goods left Jiegao for points beyond Muse right across the border, the towns of Lashio, Mandalay, and Rangoon, and even as far as Moreh on the Indian border. The research that Chinas economic intelligence operatives had done was paying off.

The next step for China was to construct pipelines through Burma, from the coast to the border near Ruili, through which oil and gas from fields in the Middle East were pumped into China. Then came plans to build a high-speed railway from Yunnan down to the deep- seaport of Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal where the pipelines begin. That facility was also partly built by Chinese contractors, and Kyaukphyu, in turn, was only one of several ports on the Indian Ocean rim that China was involved in initiating and then taking part in constructing. Others were Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. In August 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea and shipping lanes through the Suez Canal.

In many ways, it all began with the establishment of new trade routes through Burma in the early 1990s. The Chinese must already have realized at the time that when it comes to trade none of their neighbors is as important as Burma. No other country can give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the congested Malacca Strait and contested areas in the South China Sea. Border disputes and regional rivalry with India make access through that country impossible, and the Chinese-built highway connecting Xinjiang with Pakistan is clearly unsuitable for all-year traffic.   

The times may have changed since the leaders in Beijing exported revolution, but what the CPB had failed to achieve for China on the battlefield—extend influence all the way to Southeast Asia—was accomplished by cross-border trade, diplomacy, and most importantly political and economic support for Burma’s military government at a time when it was considered and treated as an international pariah. After the 1988 massacres of pro-democracy protesters, the United States, the European Union, Australia, and even Japan had imposed sanctions and boycotts on Burma, but China blocked any attempt to have the United Nations Security Council take action against the junta in Rangoon. When Western nations stopped trading with Burma, the border at Jiegao remained wide open. China also supplied Burma with badly needed military hardware. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, China exported an estimated US$1.2 billion worth of armaments to Burma, ranging from battle tanks, heavy artillery, and surface-to-air missiles to defense radars, jet fighters, transport aircraft, frigates, and patrol boats.39

Without all that assistance, combined with the China trade, the Burmese junta would probably not have survived. Western sanctions alone did not cause Burma to fall into the hands of the Chinese, as many foreign observers have argued. But Western policies certainly made it easier for China to implement its designs for Burma. This, in return, caused some in the West to criticize a policy of isolating Burma and “handing it over to China.” These concerns were outlined as early as June 1997 in a Los Angeles Times article by Marvin Ott, an American security expert and former US Central Intelligence Agency analyst, who concluded: “Washington can and should remain outspokenly critical of abuses in [Burma]. But there are security and other national interests to be served ... it is time to think seriously about alternatives.”40

However, the turn did not take place overnight. Between 2000 and 2008, the George W. Bush administrations bipartisan Burma policy not only maintained sanctions put in place by Congress during the previous Bill Clinton administration, but added new ones in an attempt to support Burma’s democratic forces. In late 2007, the brutal suppression of a massive protest movement led by Buddhist monks led to more punitive measures being taken, and Burma’s military leaders faced further international criticism over its disastrous response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. While the Bush administration maintained a hard line against the regimes leadership, it also sought to take advantage of additional space to support civil society on the ground by expanding humanitarian assistance and other programs inside the country.

The revelation in the early 2000s that Burma and North Korea had established a strategic partnership helped to tip the balance in Washington. North Korea was reportedly providing Myanmar with tunneling expertise, heavy weapons, radar, and air defense systems, and—it is alleged by Western and Asian intelligence agencies—even missile-related technology.41

Some leading foreign policy voices, such as then-Senator Jim Webb, began arguing that it was high time to shift tack and start to engage the Burmese leadership, which seemed bent on clinging on to power no matter the consequences. When the Barack Obama administration came into office in January 2009 on a platform of reversing Bush-era foreign policy, many saw an opening for a change in attitudes towards Burma as well. A general election had been held in November 2010, which ended formal junta rule by senior general Than Shwe and brought in a government led by Thein Sein.


That election, as well as a referendum held in 2008 to adopt a new constitution that had been drafted under military supervision, was blatantly rigged. The constitution was carefully written so it would preserve the military’s ‘leading role in national politics,’ even if a truly civilian government were to assume office. A quarter of all parliamentary seats were reserved for the military, and no important clause in the constitution can be changed without more than three-quarters of the members of parliament voting in favor of such an amendment. In effect, the military has veto power over any attempt to change the 2008 constitution and thereby limit its power. What Burma went through in 2011-12 was not a Transition to democracy,’ as some Western analysts surmised, but the preservation of military rule behind a civilian facade.

That did not matter. It was seen as the opportunity that the West needed to mend fences with the Burmese leadership. Burma suddenly had a new face and was now a country ostensibly run by a constitution and a nominally civilian government, not a junta. With a new administration in Washington, it was the perfect time for Burma’s still military-dominated leadership—Thein Sein had retired’ from his position in the military to become president—to launch a charm offensive in the West, and for the United States and other Western countries to begin the process of detente. Both the US and Burmese leadership viewed pulling Burma from its uncomfortable Chinese embrace and close relationship with North Korea as a key element of this new era.

The Burmese-American historian Thant Myint-U has argued that “there is a myth in the West that Burma’s reforms in 2011 were the result of a desire to tilt away from China. The truth was much more complex.”42 In fact, that is not a myth, and the reasons behind the generals’ decision to improve relations with the West is not that difficult to understand.

In order to understand Burma’s rather dramatic policy shift, it is instructive to look deeper into what was discussed in inner circles of the military in the early 2000s. Then condemned and isolated by the international community, the ruling military junta announced in August 2003 a seven-step ‘Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy.’ That plan called for the drafting of a new constitution, which happened in 2008, and general elections, which were held in 2010. A new parliament would then be formed that that could “elect state leaders” charged with building “a modern, developed, and democratic nation.”43

The ‘roadmap’ was made public and was followed almost to the letter. At the same time, a confidential ‘master plan’ outlined the need to change in order to lessen the heavy and increasingly uncomfortable dependence on China and improve relations with the West. A classified 346-page dossier titled ‘A Study of Myanmar- U.S. Relations’ was compiled as early as August 2004 and circulated internally among Burma’s military leaders. It stated that the country’s recent reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron had created a ‘national emergency’ that threatened the country’s independence.44

The authors of the Burmese-language dossier are not known, but it is attributed to one ‘Lt. Col. Aung Kyaw Hla,’ who is identified as a researcher at the country’s prestigious Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin. However, it is unclear whether ‘Aung Kyaw Hla is a particular person or a codename used by a military think-tank. Anecdotal evidence suggests the latter. According to the dossier, Burma must normalize relations with the West after implementing the official roadmap and electing a government so that the regime can deal with the outside world on more acceptable terms.

Aung Kyaw Hla goes on to argue that although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit ‘strategic interests’ Although the author does not specify those interests, it is clear from the thesis that he is thinking of common ground with the US vis-a-vis China. The the author cites Indonesia under former dictator Suharto and communist-ruled Vietnam as examples of US foreign policy flexibility in weighing strategic interests against democratization and human rights.

If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Burma would also gain access to badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other global financial institutions. The country could then emerge from ‘regionalism,’ where it depended on the goodwill and trade of its immediate neighbors, including China, and enter a new era of ‘globalization.’

The master plan clearly articulated the problems that must be addressed before Burma could lessen its reliance on China and become a trusted partner with the West. The main issue at the time of writing was the detention of prodemocracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who Aung Kyaw Hla wrote was a key ‘focal point’: “Whenever she is under detention pressure increases, but when she is not, there is less pressure.” While the report implies Suu Kyi’s release would improve ties with the West, the plan ultimate aim, which it spells out clearly, is to crush’ the opposition.

The dossier concluded that the regime could not compete with the media and nongovernmental organizations run by Burmese exiles, but if US politicians and lawmakers were invited to visit the country, they could help to sway international opinion in the regime’s favor. In the years leading up to the policy shifts in 2011 and 2012, many Americans, including some congressmen, did indeed visit Burma and often proved less critical of the regime than they previously had been. In the end, it seems that Burma’s military leaders successfully managed to engage the US rather than vice versa.

A breakthrough came in September 2011 when Thein Sein announced that his the government had decided to suspend a controversial US$3.6 billion hydroelectric power project in Kachin State. Located at Myitsone were the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka converge to form the Irrawaddy, it was a joint venture between China Power Investment Corporation, Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power, and Asia World Company, a conglomerate founded by former opium warlord Luo Xinghan and his family. Some 600 square kilometers of forest land would have been flooded if the dam were built, and the 6,000 megawatts of electricity it was planned to generate would have been primarily exported to China.

The US had quietly supported opposition to the dam, and as a result of that and other moves by Thein Sein, including the release of political prisoners, the lifting of press censorship, thus allowing the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties to operate openly, and initiating a peace process, relations with the United States improved rapidly, exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. In early December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a high-profile visit to Burma, the first such trip by a top­ranking Washington official in more than fifty years.

Both China and North Korea were high on the agenda during Clinton’s visit. Subsequently, strategic and economic concerns have risen up the bilateral agenda even as human rights and democratization have been steadily de-emphasized. As a result, the two old adversaries, Burma and the United States, increasingly ended up on the same side of the fence in the struggle for power and influence in Southeast Asia. Burma was no longer seen by the United States and elsewhere in the West as a pariah state that has to be condemned and isolated.

Clintons visit to Myanmar was followed by a visit by President Obama in November 2012, who returned to Rangoon two years later as the country finally took its turn as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In May 2013, Thein Sein became the first Myanmar head of state to visit the United States since the old dictator Ne Win was there in 1966.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released shortly after the 2010 elections, and she became a member of parliament after a by-election in April 2012. Then, in November 2015, her NLD scored a landslide victory in the national elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counselor, which made her de facto head of state. By the time she arrived in Washington for a state visit in September 2016, US-Burma relations had been almost completely normalized. On the occasion of her visit, she and President Obama announced the lifting of all remaining economic sanctions.

The developing friendship between Burma and the United States prompted China to start searching for new ways to shore up its relationship with Burma. In 2012, academic-style journals in China ran several articles analyzing what went wrong with Beijing’s Burma policy and what could and should be done to rectify it. One proposed measure was to launch a public relations campaign in Burma aimed at overhauling China’s current negative image in the country.

Beijing also began furiously reaching out to other elements of Burmese society, including the NLD and other democrats, utilizing the CPC’s ‘government-to-government,’ party-to-party,’ and ‘people- to people policies to widen the CPC’s contacts which until then had been limited to the circle of regime leaders and their business cronies.

In addition to these soft power’ tools, Beijing had through its contacts with the UWSA and other ethnic armies have the ability to either facilitate or frustrate any efforts by Burma’s leaders to assert control over the country and establish durable peace. In 2011, China began carefully implementing this mix of hard and soft power tools to maintain a position of influence with both the Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi governments.

Burma was also prepared in its efforts to maintain its independence. To strengthen its position vis-a-vis China, Burma turned not only to the US but also to its partners in ASEAN, which it chaired in 2014. Even more significantly, when General Min Aung Hlaing, who was appointed commander-in-chief of Burma’s military in March 2011, went on his first foreign trip in mid-November, he did not go to China but instead to China’s traditional enemy, Vietnam. Myanmar and Vietnam share the same fear of their common, powerful northern neighbor, so it is reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had a lot to discuss with his Vietnamese hosts.

While the Burmese government seeks to build deeper relations with other nations in the region, stark domestic challenges continue to hinder meaningful economic or political developments at home. As history has shown, Chinas dual-track policy government-to- government’ and party-to-party’— has maintained distinct leverage and influence over Burma’s rebel groups as well as the government, further complicating the peace process that Thein Sein initiated in 2011. The distinction between government-to-government’ and party-to-party’ may seem artificial in a country like China where there is only one party, and that party controls the government. But it has enabled the Chinese to maintain relations with the Burmese government, the NLD, and groups like the UWSA.

The Chinese government consistently denies reports of interfering in Burma’s ethnic conflicts, but Beijing’s tacit support for the UWSA tells a different story.45 Chinas interest in the talks between Burma’s government, its military, and the country’s many ethnic armed groups is also not motivated by a desire to find a final solution to decades of civil war. China does not seek peace, it wants stability which it can use to its geostrategic advantage. In the case of Burma, that means maintaining and strengthening the economic corridor from Yunnan down to the Bay of Bengal and the port at Kyaukphyu, which gives China access to the Indian Ocean.

Maintaining the status quo by keeping the UWSA strong enough to deter the Burmese military from attacking it, gives China the advantage it needs to maintain influence, and it would be foolish to give it up. In other words, minister in the president’s office Aung Min’s warning to the demonstrators in Monywa in November 2012 was well founded. Even at that time, Burma had every reason to be wary of China, and was aware of the cards it could play to regain the influence in Burma that was partly lost under the Thein Sein government.

Thein Seins peace process was far from the first attempt to negotiate an end to Burma’s civil wars. There had been the 1963 peace parley, meetings with the CPB and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 1980, and numerous talks with various ethnic armies that led to a series of ceasefire agreements in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This time, however, the talks became an international affair as dozens of foreign, mainly Western, peacemakers flocked to the country. They brought with them millions of dollars in aid packages, organized seminars, and arranged study tours for ethnic leaders to Northern Ireland, Colombia, Guatemala, and South Africa as well as their own home countries—Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands.

However, given their lack of actual insight into the issues that had kept the civil wars alive for decades, the Western peacemakers were before long outmaneuvered by the Chinese, who from the very beginning had also taken an active part in the so-called ‘peace process.’ None of the Westerners could exercise the same degree of influence over the ethnic armies, or for that matter the central government. China also had direct, geostrategic interests in Burma— access to the Indian Ocean—while for the foreigner's participation in the talks was little more than an exercise in promoting their own perceptions of peacemaking, human rights, and democracy.

Besides, it was not clear what the talks were all about because any concession to ethnic minority claims, such as the reintroduction of a federal system, would be impossible as the 2008 constitution cannot be changed unless the military wants it. They have time on their side, and again made it clear that it is their duty to uphold the constitution, not to change it. Even former president Thein Sein, once hailed by some Western writers as 'Burma’s Gorbachev’ because of the changes he introduced, told the people to vote in the November 2020 election for candidates who would “take care of race and religion as well as the military, which tirelessly fulfills its national duties.”46 It is also known, the ex-president said, that efforts are being made “to weaken the military that protects our country... [and] our the country is likely to be devoured by outsiders, under excuses of democracy and human rights.”47 Thein Sein was not a reformer but a military man, and the Chinese knew much better than any Western diplomat, democracy advocate, or peacemaker how to deal with him and other military leaders as well as its civilian politicians, and how to play their cards in the so-called ‘peace process’

China’s official delegate to the peace talks is Sun Guoxiang, Beijing’s special envoy for Asian affairs, and he has repeatedly expressed support for the process. As a Foreign Ministry official, he is playing only one role in China’s multilayered foreign policy. Sun’s positive message, with constant references to ‘amicable talks’ and ‘friendly neighborly relations’ are only the surface a layer of that policy.48

The the second layer consists of the ILD/CPC, which maintains close contact with groups such as the UWSA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang, the Mong La-based National Democratic Alliance Army (Eastern Shan State), and the KIA.

The the third layer is the PLA, which maintains links with other militaries across the world. Apart from selling weapons to foreign governmental and nongovernmental clients, directly or through front companies, it provides beneficiaries such as the UWSA with a wide variety of armaments. As we have seen, those armaments are then shared with other ethnic armed groups in Burma.

China may have transformed its economic system from rigid socialism to free-wheeling capitalism, but politically it remains an authoritarian one-party state where the CPC is above the government and the military. The old policy of a fictitious distinction between party-to-party and ‘government-to-government’ relations, which dates back to Maoist times, have remained unchanged.

Consequently, Chinas main man in dealing with Burma’s many political actors is not Sun but rather Song Tao, head of the ILD/CPC. Song was educated at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, from September 1988 to August 1991, at a time when the Tiananmen Square massacres took place.49 The fact that he did not defect shows that he was immensely loyal to the CPC. He served as assistant to the Chinese ambassador to India in the early 2000s before becoming ambassador himself to Guyana and the Philippines. In October 2015, Song took part in a high-profile visit to North Korea and the following month took over the post of ILD/CPC chief from Wang Jiarui, a CPC veteran who was in charge of maintaining relations with communist parties in North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.

In recent years, Burma and North Korea have been Song’s most important assignments. It is worth noting that he visited Pyongyang with an art troupe’ in mid-April, shortly after the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been to Beijing as part of China attempts to force him to the negotiating table with the United States and South Korea, with China playing its own games from behind the scenes.

While Song is not a high-profile figure like Sun, he is known to work actively in the background and prefers to meet Burmese politicians and army officers in Beijing rather than Burma’s new capital, Naypyitaw. However, he did go to Naypyitaw in 2016 and 2017, where he met Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing. Moreover, ‘party-to-party’ relations have been maintained with the NLD as well as the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The CPC’s position above the government in Beijing, as well as the PLA in the Chinese hierarchy, explains why China can publicly praise Burma’s peace process while quietly providing the UWSA with heavy weaponry. Support for the UWSA and its allies serves as a stick’ in Beijing’s relationship with Burma, while diplomacy and promises of aid and investment are the carrot.’

In order to show that they, and only they, would be able to help the Burmese government solve its internal ethnic problems, the Chinese have also been instrumental in helping the UWSA set up the oddly named seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which was formed on April 19, 2017.50 It effectively replaced an earlier, mainly Thailand-based the alliance called the United Nationalities Federal Council, which fell apart after several of its members had made peace with the government.

Launched on October 15, 2015, the government has called for what it termed a ‘Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement’ (NCA). However, it was not nationwide and only three of the ten groups have signed it— the three with any armed forces: the Karen National Union (KNU) and its Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and the Restoration Council of Shan State. The other seven are more like NGOs or tiny militias than real rebel armies. By contrast, the seven members of the FPNCC represent more than eighty percent of all armed rebels in the country. They have refused to sign the NCA, arguing that political talks must come before any agreement is formalized with the government.51

That the conclusion is based partly on the experiences of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which did sign a ceasefire agreement in 1994, but instead of the promised talks, the Burmese army began attacking them in June 2011. Since then, the war in the far north has become even more intense, with more than 100,000 Internally Displaced Persons, and the Burmese military for the first time in the history of the civil war using helicopter gunships and jet fighters to attack rebel positions.

Significantly, the FPNCC has called upon China to supervise the peace process, including overseeing all talks with the government, “Chinas positive involvement in Myanmar’s (Burma’s) peace process has become more important and cannot be averted,” the FPNCC said in a statement released on March 28, 2018.52 This follows an August 24, 2017 FPNCC press release, which stated that “to be successful, we request China to [be] more involved in [the] Myanmar (Burma) peace process.”53 The FPNCC has also declared support for China’s BRI to seize influence over Burma’s future direction.

After a brief hesitation during the 2011-15 transition from direct military to quasidemocratic rule, China is once again reasserting its influence in Burma, and it is doing so through its time-tested multilayered policies. China’s role in the peace process was clearly demonstrated when, on May 18, 2018, leaders of all seven members of the FPNCC were summoned to Kunming for talks with Sun Guoxiang. Sun made it dear that China would not accept any fighting near the border, which had occurred when the Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) attacked a casino near Muse on May 12, this being the reason why the Chinese summoned the FPNCC to Kunming. Among those killed were two Chinese nationals.

Sun also urged the FPNCC to take part in further talks with the government and the military. Even if they would not be accepted as participants and therefore not allowed to speak, he suggested that they could distribute their demands in writing. Perhaps more significantly, he told them to stay clear of any Western peacemaking outfits. “Whenever the West gets involved, it only leads to more conflict” he said.54 Only China would be able to act as an arbiter in the ongoing peace talks.

While China exerts influence over the FPNCC as a group as well as its individual members, it would be wrong to view them as Chinese puppets. Their reluctance to sign the NCA is one example of this, as are attempts by some of the groups, notably the KIA, to reach out to Western governments and NGOs. In April 2014, General Gun Maw, the deputy commander-in-chief of the KIA, traveled to the United States, where he met State Department officials and urged the US to play a role in Burma’s peace process.55 But that, and the lack of expected US involvement, could also be why he was sidelined in January 2016.56 In January 2018, the Kachin elected N Ban La as their new leader and he is seen as more aligned to China and less keen to win sympathy from the West.

Nevertheless, interviews with lower- and middle-ranking Kachin officers suggest that not everyone in the movement shares his policy of steering it closer to China and the UWSA. Even N Ban La admitted in an interview that many Kachin is apprehensive of the fact that several UWSA leaders have been indicted by US courts for their involvement in the Golden Triangle drug trade.57 The KIA and the UWSA are partners in the FPNCC.

Sentiment among the other FPNCC members is more difficult to ascertain. They are dependent on the UWSA for arms and ammunition and there is no difference of opinion when it comes to rejecting the NCA in its present form. But no other group is as close to China security services as the UWSA. In private conversations, they express a desire to diversify international contacts and acknowledge their inability to do so because of Chinese pressure and the dominant role China has come to play in the peace process.58

On the other hand, Singapore researcher Andrew Ong points out in a recent article that the Wa are not as dependent on the Chinese as many outside observers have suggested. The UWSA is also connected with business interests elsewhere in Burma:

With telecommunications systems and somewhat a stable kyat only a [s/c] relatively recent phenomena in Myanmar [Burma], the UWSA has for decades relied on Chinese currency and Chinese markets for its rubber and mining industries, construction technology, and communication networks. Yet since the 1990s, the UWSA has demonstrated creativity and ability to navigate different routes, markets, and investments to buttress its self­reliance. Collaborations between Wa-owned companies and other Myanmar [Burmese] conglomerates point to strong business ties with elites in Yangon [Rangoon] and Mandalay.59

The UWSA has used proxies such as Ho Chin Ting alias Ai Haw alias Hsiao Haw to invest in enterprises such as Yangon Airways and a chain of hotels in Burma, among them the luxurious Thanlwin Hotel in Rangoon. Ai Haw is the principal owner and managing director of Yangon Airways.60 Any armed conflict with the Burmese army would put such investments in jeopardy, and keeping those has become even more important as the UWSA is switching from producing narcotics to more legitimate business pursuits, such as tin mining and prospecting for rare earth metals. Therefore, the UWSA is more interested in maintaining the status quo than joining forces with the KIA, the TNLA, and other allies in their fights against the Burmese army. The KIA leader N Ban La is known to have asked the UWSA to launch attacks on the Burmese army to relieve the pressure on his forces when they came under attack, but the UWSA turned down the request.61

The FPNCC has also acted independently in the peace process. On April 19, 2017, it issued a 47-page counterproposal in Burmese and English, the essence of which is that “all ethnic revolutionary armed forces may participate in the political dialog and political negotiations and finally enter into Federal Political Agreement” (sic). ‘Finally indicates that political talks would have to be held first and an agreement signed later. The statement also calls for the withdrawal of the Burmese military from “conflict areas of national minorities.”62

The statement reflects deep suspicions of the authorities’ intentions with the talks, and already in September 2015, before the NCA was announced, the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) issued a statement urging the KIA not to sign the NCA without political guarantees and stating that unless political goals were materialized, “KBC opposes disarming.”63

As the most influential civil society organization among the predominantly Christian Kachin, the KBC apparently did not want the KIA to repeat the same mistake as was made when it signed a ceasefire agreement with central authorities in 1994 and then came under attack, ironically only a few months after the then Thein Sein government had announced its ‘peace process.’ Since then, fighting has spread to Kokang, to Palaung areas in northern Shan State, and to Rakhine State, where a new force, the Arakan Army, fought battles with the Burmese army. Overall, Burma has not seen such heavy fighting since the 1980s.

The Wa position in the talks is that they want an official Wa State to be carved out of Shan State, amendments to the NCA and Burma’s 2008 constitution, and recognition of the Wa-controlled areas on the Thai border.64 It may be impossible for any Burmese government to concede to the last demand as it would mean recognition of the forcible eviction of thousands of Shan from that area. As for the other demands, the Burmese military has shown no interest in even discussing those issues. China may be the only viable interlocutor, but there are, after all, possible channels for other mediators through which they could balance the UWSA’s reliance on China as the sole middleman.65

Ong, the Singapore researcher identifies the World Food Program (WFP), which has worked in the Wa Hills since 2004, as one of the avenues for securing ties with the Wa. He points out, though, that the WFP’s programs have been scaled down owing to “lack of funding and shifting priorities.”66 He also argues that premature rumors of the willingness of the UWSA to sign the NCA have created confusion among its allies, and “is part of the motivation to create a unified stance under the FPNCC.”67 Ong asks for a more nuanced approach to the Wa, which would include increased development assistance to lessen their dependence on China.

Any direct international involvement in this would mean a fundamental change in attitudes towards the UWSA, which may not be possible for the FIS in light of the 2005 indictments. It is, however, possible to work indirectly through local NGOs, civil society groups, and the Wa church, even if Christians have recently come under pressure from the UWSA leadership. On September 9, 2018, the UWSA, apparently acting on orders from China, issued a statement instructing all of its military officers and administrators to “find out what the [Christian] missionaries are doing and what are their intentions.”68

Church workers were detained and churches demolished during a campaign that is believed to have been prompted by Chinese suspicion against the possible influence from foreign missionaries, or that those missionaries would use the Wa Hills as a base for spreading their gospel to China.69 Hardly coincidentally, the announcement came after John Cao, an ethnic Chinese pastor and a permanent US resident was arrested in March that year for illegally crossing the Sino-Burmese border. In June, he was sentenced to seven years in prison on immigration-related charges. Cao, a prominent figure in Chinas 'house church movement,’ where believers gather at home rather than in officially approved and tightly controlled churches first became active in the Wa Hills in 2013. There is no reason to believe that Cao was more than a philanthropic church worker, but the Chinese, as well as some of the UWSA leaders, saw the emergence of faith-based organizations and movements as a challenge to their authority. The territory controlled by the UWSA is not run along any democratic lines. There is only one party, the United Wa State Party, and Bao Youxiang, in his capacity as chairman of the administration, general secretary of the party, and commander of the armed forces, is the paramount leader, not unlike Xi Jinping in China.

Even so, UWSA’s leaders have indicated that they would welcome ties with non-Chinese actors. As for now, they have no choice but to work closely with the Chinese. China and the Wa leaders also share a common interest in avoiding any armed confrontation between the UWSA and the Burmese army. But the UWSA position, to maintain the status quo, is untenable in the long run. No country would want to accept an entirely self-governing state within its boundaries. The Chinese realize this and are putting pressure on the UWSA to enter into some kind of deal—not the NCA, which is unworkable—with the central government. Consequently, there is also an obvious conflict of interest between the Chinese and the UWSA, and with no ‘third party’ involved with the Wa, China would remain their only choice.

At the same time, it would be unrealistic to expect the Chinese to compromise on its geostrategic interests and lessen the ties they have with the UWSA and its allies. Some dramatic events in August 2017 also played to the advantage of the Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya from northern Rakhine State fled to Bangladesh following a Burmese army crackdown on a small insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which had attacked a number of police stations in Rakhine State. The refugees brought with them tales of systematic murder, burning of villages, and mass rape of Rohingya women and girls. Rather than tracking down the ARSA, the Burmese military unleashed its fury on the civilian Rohingya population.

The West condemned the carnage, and as the refugees were hoarded into squalid, makeshift camps in Bangladesh, Gambia, a small, Muslim-majority state in West Africa, brought the case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Burma stood accused of genocide, and to the astonishment of many of her former admirers, Aung San Suu Kyi went to The Hague to claim otherwise. The Rohingya crisis turned Burma from having been the darling of the West after the 2011-12 reforms into an international pariah. Aung San Suu Kyi was also stripped of a number of international awards she had received when she was seen as a model fighter for democracy and human rights. However, the NLD s landslide victory in the November 2020 elections was largely the result of Suu Kyis immense popularity among the country’s Burman Buddhist majority as well as in many ethnic areas, where she is seen as the only person outside the military who is capable of leading the country. The International Crisis Group concluded in a report after the election: “While the Rohingya crisis has demolished her image abroad, her personal defence of Myanmar [Burma] against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 has, on the contrary, enhanced her aura at home, as has her prominent leadership of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”70

Spurned by the West, Aung San Suu Kyi turned to China for sympathy and assistance. She traveled to Beijing to meet Xi, and was promised political support as well as loans and credits. The situation was back to square one with the West condemning the Burmese regime and reimposing sanctions, while China, once again, lent support and made it clear that it would block any attempts by the UN Security Council to take action against Burma.

But mistrust of China runs deep in Burma among the population at large, and especially among the country’s armed forces. Years of fighting the CPB have left deep scars in the minds of many senior army officers, and no one in the top military leadership would want to see a return to the days when Tt. Col. Aung Kyaw HI a,’ whoever he was, felt compelled to write his rather an alarmist thesis. The Chinese are well aware of that and, for their long-term game plan—an economic and the strategic corridor from Yunnan down to the Indian Ocean—to succeed, they need the UWSA.

But can China really count on the Wa? The Burmese Wa and their UWSA maybe Chinese puppets, but as history as well as more recent developments have shown, they are no Chinese stooges. They have their own political and social goals, and only time will tell whether they will get their state and be able to live in harmony with all other nationalities in the Union of Burma—and lessen their present, heavy dependence on a much stronger eastern neighbor that has never treated them fairly.


1. Magnus Fiskesjo (2014), ‘Wa Grotesque: Headhunting Theme Parks and the Chinese Nostalgia for Primitive Contemporaries,' Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, vol. 80 (August), p. 10. Available at https://www.tandf0nline.c0m/d0i/abs/10.1080/0014184 4.2014.939100

2. Ibid. p. 10.

3. Ibid. p. 17.

4. Ibid. pp. 10-11.

5. Philip Bowring (2017), 'Chinas Silk Road Illusions,5 The New York Review of Books (October 25). Available at road-illusions/ (accessed April 16, 2020).

6. James Millward, James (2019), ‘What Xi Jinping Hasn’t Learnt from Chinas Emperors,5 The New York Times (October 1). Available at opinion/xi-jinping-china.html

7. Ibid.

8. ‘Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang.’ Available at english/20i9-07/2i/c_i38244704.htm

9. Ibid.

10. Millward (2019).

11. For an account of that border conflict and war, see Bertil Lintner (2018), Chinas India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

12. Maria Adele Carrai (2019), Sovereignty in China: A Genealogy of a Concept Since 1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 107.

13. Ting Tsz Kao. 1980. The Chinese Frontiers. Aurora, Illinois: Chinese Scholarly Publishing Company, p. 148.

14. Zheng Dahua (2019), ‘Modern Chinese nationalism and the awakening of self­consciousness of the Chinese Nation,5 International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology, vol. 3, no. 11. Available at oi9~oo26-6#Sec7

15. See (accessed April 18, 2020). For the full text of the announcement, which was made public on February 14, see (accessed April 18, 2020).

16. Carrai (2019), p. 127.

17. Ma Yin (ed.) (1989), Chinas Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, p. 279.

18. Ibid. pp. 279-80.

19. Julia Lovell (2019), Maoism: A Global History. London: The Bodley Head, p. 427.

20. L C. Smith, and Nigel West (2012), Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, p. 133.

21. Lovell (2019), p. 426.

22. Ibid. p. 427.

23. I have visited several CPB exiles in Kunming and other towns in Yunnan on numerous occasions, and found all of them well-clothed and well-fed.

24. See

25. 'Reform is China’s Second Revolution (1985), China Daily (March 28). Available at content_29714471.htm

26. Dr. David Ian Chambers (2012), cThe Past and Present State of Chinese Intelligence Historiography,’ Studies in Intelligence, vol. 56, no. 3 (September).

27. Smith and West (2012), p. 181.

28. Anne-Marie Brady (2003), Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the Peoples Republic. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, p. 200.

29. Elizabeth C. Economy (2018), The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 3.

30. See Whitfields blog with an introduction to the book she edited: Silk Roads: Peoples Cultures and Landscapes, Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. The blog is available at

31. Email to me from Philip Bowring, January 18, 2020. See also his book Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of the Winds. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

32. Tamara Chin (2013), 'The Invention of the Silk Road,’ The University of Chicago Press Journals, vol. 40, no. 1 (Autumn), p. 196. Available at io86/673232?seq=i#metadata_info_tab_contents

33. Sven Hedin (1936), The Silk Road. London: George Routledge & Sons.

34. Ibid. p. 226.

35. Che Muqi states on the cover to his The Silk Road: Past and Present, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989, that “In ancient China, the Silk Road ran across Eurasia for thousands of kilometres. For more than a thousand years after the second century B.C. a great flow of silk and silk fabrics was transported from China to the West over the road, hence the Silk Road. The economy, culture and arts of Western countries were also introduced to China by this road. The Silk Road once played a great role in promoting friendly relations and economic and cultural exchanges between China and European, Asian and African countries.’ This is pure propaganda, not backed up by any independent historical research.    -

36. E-mail from Lars Ellstrom, January io, 2020.

37. See “The Silk Road”, BBC, February-April, 2020, po3qbi30

38. See Chapter One.

39. For a complete list of Chinese supplies of military materiel, see Andrew Selth (1995), Burma's Arms Procurement Programme, Working Paper no. 289 (September). Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

40. Marvin Ott (1997), 'Don’t Push Myanmar Into Chinas Orbit,’ The Los Angeles Times (June 9). Available at southeast-asia

41. First reported by Bertil Lintner and Shawn Crispin (2003), in 'Dangerous Bedfellows,’ Far Eastern Economic Review (November 20).

42. Thant Myint-U (2019), The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. London: Atlantic Books, p. 157.

43. For an overview of the roadmap’, see David Arnott, Burma/Myanmar: How to Read the Generals' “Roadmap”: A Brief Guide With Links to the Literature. Available at (accessed April io, 2020); and Khin Maung Win, address at a Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies seminar in Rangoon, January 27-28, 2004. Available at burmat0day2003/2004/02/0402i8_khinmgwin.htm

44. A copy of the dossier is in my possession. All quotes from it here are my translations from the original in Burmese.

45. Sui-lee Wee (2015), 'Myanmar official accuses China of meddling in rebel peace talk,’ Reuters (October 8). Available at china-idUSKCNoS22VT2oi5ioo8

46. San Yamin Aung (2020), ‘Myanmar’s Ex-President Tells Voters to Protect Race, Religion, Military in 2020 Election,’ The Irrawaddy (January 7). Available at https:// race-religion-military-2020-election.html

47. Ibid.

48. This account of Chinas policy toward the Wa, Burma, and Chinas involvement in the peace process is based on discussions with several former CPB members who worked with Chinese officials for years and now are close to the UWSA leadership. For security reasons, the time and place of my meetings with them cannot be disclosed.

49. For a biography of Song Tao, see https://en,

50. Its members are the United Wa State Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State, Kachin Inde­pendence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and Shan State Army (not to be confused with the army of the Restoration Council of Shan State, which uses the same name).

51. Interviews with leaders of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Ruili, China, March 10, 2018. Leaders and member of the KIA have expressed the same views in several discussions with me ever since their ceasefire with the government broke down in June 2011.

52. Nyein Nyein (2018), “Northern Alliance Seeks Continued Support from China in Peace Process Negotiations,” The Irrawaddy (March 29). Available at https://www. peace-process-negotiations.html

53. Bertil Lintner (2017), ‘China looms large over Myanmar war and peace,' Asia Times (November 28). Available at myanmar-war-peace/ .

54. Minutes from the meeting are in my possession.

55. ‘Gun Maw (2014) urges US to play role in Burma's peace process. The Democratic Voice of Burma (April 22). Available at us-to-play-role-in-burmas-peace-process-burma-myanmar-kachin/39806

56. Joe Kumbun (2017), “The Tripartite Power Struggle in the KIO,” The Irrawaddy (June 30). Available at power-struggle-kio.html

57. Bertil Lintner (2018a), ‘Spurned by West, Myanmar's Kachins look to China,' Asia Times (January 24) Available at myanmars-kachin-look-china/

58. Interview with TNLA leaders, Ruili, March 10, 2018.

59. Andrew Ong (2018a), ‘Engaging the UWSA: Countering Myths, Building Ties,' The Tea Circle (August 20). Available at

60. Interview with a former (now retired) high-ranking Burmese military intelligence officer, Rangoon, August 30, 2018. See also stakeholders/myanmar-peace-center/169-uwsa

61. Interview with a source close to the UWSA, Ruili, March 9, 2018.

62. A copy of the proposal is in my possession.

63. Lintner (2018a). The article contains an interview with N Ban La during which these issues were discussed.

64. Ong (2018a).

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. A copy of the Chinese-language statement is in my possession.

69. See Bertil Lintner (2018b), ‘Why China fears Myanmar’s Christians,' Asia Times (September 17). Available at myanmars-Christians/ and several-christian-clergy-members. That China is worried about the influence Western missionaries may have on the Wa was confirmed in an email to the author from a source in Yunnan, September 18, 2018.

70. victory-aung-san-suu-kyis-party-myanmar-what-cost


For updates click homepage here





shopify analytics