Friday, August 18, 2017

Questions over China’s role after delay in talks

The Chinese government’s refusal to allow international observers at Kachin peace talks has delayed the latest round of negotiations, the Kachin Independence Organisation says, despite the Chinese embassy in Yangon rejecting the allegations.

Kachin Independence Army soldiers on the frontlines near Laiza in January. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)Kachin Independence Army soldiers on the frontlines near Laiza in January. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Talks between the government peacemaking team and Kachin Independence Organisation were scheduled to take place in Myitkyina on April 6 but have been postponed until after water festival.

“China proposed to us that it was proper to invite Asian observers. They are not willing to let Western countries sit at the round table and see what they are discussing in regards to the Kachin issue,” KIO spokesperson U La Nan told The Myanmar Times on April 10.

“We’ll try again to have international observers attend. It’s one of our criteria for the talks.”

Earlier in the week, peace activist and member of Kachin Peace Network Daw Khon Ja told Weekly Eleven that the delay was due to the Chinese government’s refusal to allow international observers to attend the talks.

“International observers from the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations are ready to attend the meetings, but China doesn’t want them to attend and rejected their offer. That is why the meeting was delayed again,” she was quoted as saying.

Several sources said China had objected to a point in an earlier agreement drafted by the government and KIO stipulating that an international observer be present for future talks.

Daw Khon Ja’s comments were spread quickly through social media and the Chinese embassy responded on April 7 with a statement saying it “feels regret for [the] lack of factual basis of those reports”.

“China fully respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Myanmar and support Myanmar government in its efforts to maintain national unity and ethnic harmony as the close neighbour and truly friend of Myanmar,” the statement said.

“Chinese side is willing and always ready to render its humble support and assistance to the peace talk between the two sides in the future, as requested by the Myanmar Government, helping them get long-term peace through peace talk.”

The statement did not address the issue of whether China would allow third-party observers but a spokesperson from the Chinese embassy said in an email that it had not interfered in the talks in any way.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times on April 8, Daw Khon Ja stood by her initial comments.

“The KIO proposed to the government at the last talks that they would like international observers from the US, UK and the UN. The government agreed, but the point was left out of the final agreement because China didn’t accept it. Now, they have objected again,” she said.

The Chinese government has been serving as a facilitator for peace talks since February, with two rounds of talks held in the Chinese border town of Ruili. At the conclusion of the first round of talks, on February 4, the government and KIO released a joint communiqué saying that discussions touched on “persons who may attend as observers and organisations which may attend as witnesses, at the next meeting”.

China was influential in bringing the two sides together for the February talks following a flare-up in violence in mid-December. However, its efforts to host negotiations are also seen as a reactionary measure to US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell’s comments that the US would be willing to act as an intermediary.

“Soon after US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell’s visit to Kachin State in mid-December, China decided to act and offered to host the peace talks to preempt a similar move by Washington,” Yun Sun, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, said in the February 20 issue of the Asia Pacific Bulletin, which is published by the East-West Center.

A spokesperson from the US embassy in Yangon said last week that the US had not been asked to act as an observer but would consider doing so if an invitation was extended from “all sides”.

Other sources gave mixed reasons for the delay of the April 6 meeting.

The Peace-talk Creation Group, a Myitkyina-based organisation that has helped with the facilitation of prior talks, told The Myanmar Times last week that it was because the Chinese had refused to allow observers.

“We had also have heard this information from the KIO. China won’t accept an observer from the US,” said group member U San Aung.

But the Myanmar Peace Center denied that it was the reason, instead attributing the delay to logistical problems.

“The talks were postponed because observers, those invited by KIO, could not arrive in time. Therefore, the meeting will be held after Thingyan, but we can’t fix the date,” said Dr Min Zaw Oo, program director of the centre’s ceasefire negotiation program.

The vice chair and spokesperson of the United Nationalities Federal Council, Saw David Tharkabaw, also said the Chinese government was not responsible for the rescheduling.

“It isn’t that,” he told The Myanmar Times by telephone. “It is because the other side, the government side, was not ready yet.”

He said that the next round of talks were being planned for the end of April but said the location had not yet been decided.