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Opinion: Beijing wary of Myanmar elections

Blocking ethnic minorities from elections increases likelihood for violence down the line.

Shan minority delegates
Delegates from ethnic minority northern Shan state listen to a speech of Lieutenant General Thein Sein, the fifth-most powerful man of Myanmar's ruling junta, at an opening session of the National Convention in Yangon, Oct. 10, 2006. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING, China — While the West would like Myanmar’s November elections to lead toward democracy, China is seeking something far more straightforward: stability.

When the leader of Myanmar’s military government, Than Shwe, visited Beijing earlier this month, he sought to reassure Chinese leaders that elections would not produce any negative fallout along their 2,192-kilometer shared border.

Conflict along the border has been an enduring characteristic of post-independence Myanmar, where a handful of ethnic groups maintain their own territory, militias and political representation.

But Beijing has just cause for concern after the Myanmar military’s August 2009 offensive into the Kokang region shattered a 20-year cease-fire and sent more than 30,000 refugees into China’s Yunnan province.

The military campaign caught China’s capital by surprise, even though its provincial leaders may have seen it coming. Tensions on the border remain high as the election commission has blocked one major ethnic group (the Kachin) from registering parties and barred even their independent candidates.

One Kachin leader warned that failure to find a political solution to their legitimate concerns makes war more likely. Such hardball politics by the regime in Naypyidaw worry the Politburo even more than the White House.

Unlike Washington’s cautious engagement, Beijing has taken matters into its own hands. After the Kokang offensive, the center lost trust in provincial Yunnan’s ability to report timely, accurate information to the capital and dispatched officials to gather intelligence.

Beijing directly engaged with the border ethnic groups, a domain mostly reserved for Yunnan. It has brokered private mediation between the Myanmar government and the border groups in an effort to keep both sides talking and prevent conflict.

Earlier this year, China forced the leader of the Wa, the ethnic group with the largest militia and most contentious relationship with the government, to attend negotiations with Naypyidaw officials despite his repeated refusals.