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Opinion: Beijing wary of Myanmar elections

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

Elections, which are expected to be neither free nor fair, are only raising the stakes. Beijing had hoped to see broad participation by the ethnic groups to boost the poll’s credibility and to decrease the risk of confrontation. But the Wa have refused to allow elections in their territory, and the Kachin have been disenfranchised.

In the long-term, this may well make the already precarious situation between the ethnic groups and Naypyidaw even more fragile. And as Naypyidaw pressures the groups to transform their militias into government-controlled border guard forces, the resulting stand-off increases the possibility of another military offensive.

Beijing wants to avoid this scenario at all costs. But managing its relationships with Naypidaw and the ethnic groups is a fraught exercise. Both sides are suspicious of China. The government worries about China’s long-standing support to the ethnic groups on its border.

And while some of these groups appreciate China advising Naypyidaw against military action, others feel that Beijing, by forcing them to the negotiation table, has abandoned them to protect its own security and commercial interests.

The groups also increasingly resent large-scale Chinese investments — including in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states. Many projects are increasing popular resentment towards China due to unequal distribution of benefits, environmental damage and harmful impacts on local communities and traditional ways of life.

Many believe such ill-will motivated the April 2010 bombing of China’s Myitsone hydropower project. Activists see some large-scale investment projects in cease-fire areas as China playing into Naypyidaw’s strategy to gain control over ethnic group territories, especially in resource-rich Kachin state.

For risk-averse Beijing, it all makes for a volatile mix in an election year. At a time when China is pushing border stability in Myanmar, elections lacking participation from major border ethnic groups — the Wa, Kachin and others — may set the stage for potential conflict.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is North East Asia project director at the International Crisis Group.