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Burma must negotiate a web of vested interests if it is to end conflict with rebels in its far north and bring a halt to civil wars that have wracked the country for decades, experts say.
Bloody unrest in Kachin State has displaced tens of thousands, killed an unknown number of fighters and civilians and undermined government reforms.
Recent ceasefire talks have included senior military and rebel figures, raising hopes that Burma’s quasi-civilian regime could succeed in its quest to declare a countrywide peace.
But the region, rich in natural resources and of huge strategic interest to neighbouring China, is criss-crossed with conflicting interests that threaten to destabilise the peace efforts.
“President Thein Sein is sincere in trying to end the conflict but he’s facing all sorts of interests from all sides that push in the opposite direction,” said independent analyst Mael Raynaud.
Ending multiple civil wars, that have gripped parts of Burma since independence from Britain in 1948, is a key demand of the international community which has praised the country’s political and economic changes.
The Burma leader, who shed his army uniform to take power two years ago, has agreed tentative ceasefires with most major ethnic groups — although there have been some localised skirmishes.
But Kachin unrest has raised questions over his ability to rein in the army, which historically used national unity as a justification for junta rule.
“Peace would be the final achievement that makes Thein Sein an unquestionable leader… That’s the end of the conservatives, and they don’t like it, to say the least,” said Raynaud.
Fighting intensified at the end of last year with the army edging closer to the rebels’ headquarters near the Chinese border.
Independent analyst Richard Horsey said two incidents of stray shells landing across the frontier prompted a “strong response” from Beijing, which has since facilitated negotiations.
A major motivation for China to encourage dialogue is an oil and gas pipeline, traversing rebel territory, that it views as “critical to the economic development of southwest China”, he said.
But its involvement has proved controversial, with observers claiming Beijing has placed its own interests at the fore.
“The Chinese want to be more than observers. They want some kind of tripartite role,” said one Burma observer close to the talks, adding that the government had resisted.
Discussions appeared to be bearing fruit. But the latest round of negotiations was abruptly postponed earlier this month, with all parties giving contrary accounts of the delay.
An analyst with knowledge of the process said China’s fears about potential United Nations involvement had seen it push Kachin rebels to decline the meeting.
“Terms were agreed by both sides, China came in and scuppered the entire thing,” he said. The Chinese embassy in Rangoon rejected the claims.
Other observers put the delay down to scheduling problems, while the rebels blame the Burma government.
“You have to understand we really meant to go there,” said James Lum Dau, Kachin Independence Organisation deputy chief of foreign affairs, adding that the UN, United States and Britain were all tipped to participate.
Implementing any peace deal is also contingent on local interests in Kachin, which observers say may conflict with the wider policies of the negotiators.
A Rangoon-based analyst said while Beijing focuses on regional and energy security, local powers in Yunnan, southwest China, have historically helped support the rebels with arms and logistical help in exchange for business interests.
“Yunnan is making money out of the conflict in Kachin,” he said.
The Burma observer said he did not think “army would be willing to prolong the fight”, but confirmed officers on the ground could be stirring up trouble for their own financial gain.
“A lot of clashes occur not because of military issues but because of these clashes of business interest,” he said.
Among the rebels there are also elements that stand to gain from perpetuating the conflict, said Raynaud.
And as powerful interests wrangle over the spoils, he said those with the most to lose are left marginalised.
“The refugees, the soldiers at the front, they are pawns in a confrontation whose wider stakes they do not understand.”