More than one battle is underway in Burma, with policy contortions little understood by the outside world. There's the government's ongoing struggle with an abundance of ethnic resistance armies and then the larger struggle between the West and China for influence.
Foreign intervention in Burma's peace process is becoming a war by proxy, dividing policymakers in every country involved.
The Burmese government seems intent on a military solution to its troubles with ethnic insurgency. As delegates gathered for March talks with insurgents in the border town of Ruili, hundreds of Burmese army trucks were sending more soldiers and heavy equipment into Kachin State.
Yet in Europe only a few days earlier, President Thein Sein, ex-general-turned-civilian politician, proclaimed, "There's no more fighting in the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict" between government forces and an abundance of ethnic resistance armies. This despite almost daily attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, KIA in the far north, frequent skirmishes with the Shan State Army in Shan State - a group that has an official ceasefire agreement with central authorities - and more government troops taking up new positions in Karen State in the hills bordering Thailand.
While western NGOs and think tanks are scrambling to engage in Burma peacemaking, the mighty neighbor to the north is taking charge. On 13 March, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao admitted that decades-long ethnic conflicts are having a severe impact on cross-border trade, yet China would continue to develop cooperative relations "based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, including non-interference in each other's internal affairs."
The fact is that China has a long history of involvement in Burma's internal affairs, dating back to its massive military support for the now-defunct insurgent Communist Party of Burma from 1968 to 1978. Today China has a direct interest in stability in Burma and Kachin State, in particular, where it has large investment in mineral exploration, hydroelectric-power generation, retail trade and agro-industry.
Chinese methods for promoting peace differ considerably from the "peace-and-reconciliation-through-dialogue" approach of western interlocutors. In Kachin State, China is waving a carrot to the government in Naypyidaw by putting pressure on the KIA and allowing Burmese troops to detour through Chinese territory. China is waving a big stick as well. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, 21 December, China has supplied Burma's most powerful ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army, UWSA, with large quantities of military hardware. Chinese-made armored personnel carriers with machineguns have been spotted in the UWSA's Panghsang headquarters in Burma across the Yunnan frontier.
The UWSA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1989. China does not want another war. By letting the UWSA acquire heavy weaponry, China sends a strong message to Naypyidaw: Don't mess with us.
It's hardly secret that China is unhappy with Burma's moves to improve relations with the West, especially, the United States. Beijing is still smarting from the Burmese government's decision in September 2011 to suspend construction of a US$3.6 billion China-backed mega-dam in Kachin State, which would have flooded 600 square kilometers of forestland, displaced thousands of villagers and supplied 90 percent of its electricity to China. Two months later, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to Burma, the first in decades by such a high-ranking Washington official. Burma's drift away from its close relationship with China had begun, and the West responded with enthusiasm. Sanctions were eased, aid and investment pledged; criticism of human-rights abuses by the Burmese army in ethnic minority areas all but disappeared from agendas of Western governments.