Control of oil, water at issue in Burma peace talks

Seven of Burma's hold-out ethnic rebel armies formed a new committee this week to prepare collective talks with the government in anticipation of the next round of peace negotiations. Participating groups in what is now being called the "Northern Alliance" were the Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS), and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The meeting was held in Pangkham, administrative capital of the UWSA-controlled territory. After eight other northern ethnic armies have signed peace deals in recent years, these groups remain officialy at war with the Tatmadaw, the government's armed forces.

The government, under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, held the first round of nationwide peace talks, known as the 21st-century Panglong Conference, last August, in an effort to finally end the northern insurgencies. But the government has twice postponed the second round of talks originally scheduled for February, amid renewed fighting in the north. (Mizzima, April 20; RFA, April 19)

As the rebels prepared for talks, President U Htin Kyaw was arriving in China, where he is to discuss a potential deal on the Myitsone Dam—a controversial Beijing-backed mega-project that could be an obstacle to peace in northern Burma. Until recently, China had been pressing for completion of the 6,000-megawatt project, despite widespread opposition within Burma, which effectively forced the government to suspend work in 2011. Now, Beijing is discussing alternative options with Burma, including developing a number of smaller hydro projects and securing access to a seaport at the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine state as compensation for shelving the Myitsone project. A terminal for a new Chinese-controlled oil pipeline linking Burma's north to Kyaukpyu is also foreseen.

Less officially, China also has a hand in timber and mineral interests in northern Burma, which operate with varying degrees of legality in the conflict zones. In 2014, Global Witness found that the black market jade empire in Burma's north could be worth up to $31 billion—equal to nearly half Burma's legal gross domestic product.

This runaway exploitation is already taking a toll on the watershed of the Irrawaddy River, where the Myitsone project is planned. The mothballed dam project would impose limits on downstream flows of the Irrawaddy, which communities rely on for rice production. The coming weeks will determine whether China will accept abandoning of the project in exchange for greater access to northern Burma's resources, and whether the region's rebel armies will accept a bigger Chinese footprint in the resource sector as the price of ending the Myitsone project. Outrage over oil exploitation by US companies in the 1990s helped fuel the region's ethnic insurgencies in the first place. (Foreign Policy, April 18; Reuters, April 6; Mizzima, April 12; China Daily, April 11; NYT, March 31; International Rivers briefing)