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Part 1: PLA masses on the border

By Xu Er

HONG KONG - On September 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a press conference that China had early that month changed its guard on the border with Myanmar in Yunnan province, with People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers taking over the border defense responsibilities from local armed police. He said the move was a normal adjustment and had been completed, adding that many journalists had asked him about the issue the day before.

In fact, Kong's statement came out of the blue - nobody was asking any questions about the China-Myanmar border. The focus of the press conference was China's military buildup on its North Korean border. However, the Beijing government was evidently eager to let the world know that it was massing its forces on the Myanmar border as well, hence Kong's seemingly irrelevant statement.

For despite China's preference for a low profile, it likes to keep the outside world posted on what's happening on its borders.

Intrigued by Kong's remarks, Asia Times Online sent a team to the southern province of Yunnan, and into Myanmar itself, to investigate the nature and scale of the border "adjustment", and to try to determine why it is taking place. Had a US military force been secretly deployed inside Myanmar, as one rumor had it? Or, more likely, was Beijing worried that the embattled military dictatorship in Yangon was losing control of the country all on its own, without interference by Americans in the shadows?

ATol found that Kong did not tell the whole truth by describing the deployment as a routine adjustment. The deployment is large, and existing border patrols have not been replaced, but have been reinforced by well-equipped units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

A restaurant owner in a night market near the southern border witnessed the "military adjustment" one night in early September. He said the fleet of army trucks from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and other places could have numbered in the hundreds, to say nothing of other vehicles. It took about 10 minutes for these trucks to pass by his door. They were heading toward Yunnan's border with Myanmar within the province's Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture.

As with the situation on the Sino-North Korean border at the end of September, the changes on the China-Myanmar border were clearly reinforcements, not replacements. The existing border police were not removed; in fact, to make things more complicated and mysterious, some of them were transformed into a "mobility brigade". For local residents, this is one of the signs of prewar preparations.

The military buildup is most conspicuous in Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture. Originally, there was one military branch zone and an armed-police branch stationed in the prefecture. The former was north of Jinghong, while the latter was on Jingdexi Road beside Jinghong Produce Market. Both of them were of division level. Military units 7702 and 7701, both under the branch zone of Xishuangbanna, have been stationed in Menghai and Mengla counties as well as Jinghong for a long time.

At the same time, armed police of a regiment size have also been quartered respectively in places mentioned above. In Daluo town of Menghai, which is on the border, there is one checkpoint with 26 police officers. Though small in size, its head, surnamed Zhu, is nonetheless a lieutenant-colonel, equivalent to a battalion commander in the military. A large number of armed police have been removed from the border because of the "adjustment", but some 100 police officers (equivalent to a company in size) are still kept in this tiny town.

The armed police that were stationed in Menghai and Mengla previously, one regiment in size each, seem to have been withdrawn. Yet a new mobility brigade with more than 300 officers has been set up along with existing forces: a squadron of armed police guarding the prison and a border brigade.

According to informed sources, the evacuated armed police were not sent far, but were redeployed in the deep forests closer to the border for tighter defense, forming a garrison model of armed police in the first frontline and PLA troops in the second.

On September 9, the newly arrived troops took over the barracks and the battalion headquarters from border police. Villages that were never garrisoned before were now for the first time fortified. According to informed sources, the reinforcements were PLA 13th Army field troops who were beyond the command of the Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture Military Branch Zone.

The 13th Army is nicknamed the Chuan Army (ie Army from Sichuan province) in the locality, for it has apparently never been back to Yunnan since 1968, when the province came under the Chengdu Military Zone. Since that time, the field army stationed in Yunnan has been the 14th Army. But now, the Chuan Army has broken the convention and marched into the "taboo" region, a possible indication of Beijing's desire to reinforce the border. The 13th Army is ranked as a Level A field army, equipped with sophisticated armored weaponry, while the 14th is an inferior Level B, largely consisting of infantry.

The 13th Army has fielded troops in numerous towns and villages in the area. Radar and missile forces have been deployed in a deep valley near Mengzhi village, which has been demarcated as a forbidden zone.

At the time of Asia Times Online's investigation in the area, rumors were rife that US paratroops had infiltrated northern Myanmar to establish an air force base there. ATol confirmed that the rumor originated from the PLA barracks and soon spread among the local residents. Informed sources in Washington and Bangkok told ATol that the rumors were totally groundless. Some Bangkok sources insisted that the Thai government would not tolerate any such unilateral US action in neighboring Myanmar.

Other sources in Beijing told ATol that China's reinforcement is a result of its fear that the military government in Yangon might collapse because of domestic and international pressure. As Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been put under house arrest for the third time, opposition voices are mounting. Internationally, the clamor against the junta has been mounting, even within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is always reluctant to interfere in the internal affairs of a member state.

Under these circumstances, even if the military government of Myanmar can hold on to its rule, its ability to control the border could deteriorate dramatically, leading to fighting among warlords in the region. For that and other reasons, China has seen the need to strengthen its own defense of the border.

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