YANGON • A top negotiator in Myanmar's peace talks with ethnic rebels has accused neighbouring China of derailing a nationwide ceasefire deal last week that would have brought in Japan and Western nations as observers to monitor an end to decades of conflict.
Beijing has denied the accusation, but the rare public criticism exposes growing tensions between China and the South-east Asian nation, which has sought to reduce its dependence on Beijing and build relations across the globe since a reformist government took power in 2011.
Mr Min Zaw Oo, a senior official at the government-linked Myanmar Peace Centre, which coordinates talks to quell the patchwork of insurgencies that have lingered in Myanmar since independence in 1948, said China's special envoy had pressed two key rebel groups to not sign the peace accord. After envoy Sun Guoxiang's intervention, only eight out of 15 groups that were invited by the government committed to the agreement. Some of the other groups are headed by ethnic Chinese commanders and have received funding and support from Beijing in the past.
"China usually says they want stability. Of course they want stability, but at the same time they want to wield influence on the groups along the Chinese border," said Mr Min Zaw Oo, who added that he had stayed quiet on China's interference until now, "but it was time to stop whispering".
The eight groups are due to sign the ceasefire agreement this month. The other groups would be allowed to sign later, Mr Min Zaw Oo said, but there was no immediate word if any fresh negotiations were ongoing.
China objected to clauses in the deal that would have included Western nations and Japan among international observers of the conclusion of the peace process, Mr Min Zaw Oo said.
"The choice of witnesses is a particularly sensitive matter. In the context of competition, even rivalry, between China and Japan, it's not surprising that these issues would come up," said Mr Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst and a former United Nations official in Myanmar. "China has seen that particular area of Myanmar, and Myanmar more broadly, as its regional neighbourhood."
The friendship between Beijing and its southern neighbour was firm when Myanmar was a pariah state under military rule.
China is still Myanmar's largest trade partner, with significant commercial and strategic interests in a country that sits on the rim of the Indian Ocean, and its covert support of some rebel groups has long given it leverage in Myanmar.
But it has watched nervously in recent years as its own influence waned while Washington lifted some sanctions and engaged with the semi-civilian government.
Beijing rejected Mr Min Zaw Oo's claims that it had meddled in the peace process.
"China has consistently supported all sides in Myanmar in resolving differences through peace talks in service of signing a national-scale ceasefire agreement at an early date," said Mr Hong Lei, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.