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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 1, 2009
Border war rattles China-Myanmar ties
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - Myanmar military operations against an ethnic insurgent group have forced tens of thousands of refugees across China's southern border and ratcheted up bilateral tensions between the usually allied neighboring nations.

Now there are growing fears that Myanmar army actions against the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) could explode into a wider conflict as other ceasefire groups, including the heavily armed United Wa State Army (UWSA), are dragged into the fighting.

The 20-year-old ceasefire agreement between the ruling junta and MNDAA has fallen victim to the government's attempts to exert its

 

authority over border areas before democratic elections are held next year. Some analysts believe the guerilla MNDAA has suffered heavy casualties and that at least one-half of their estimated 1,500 armed forces have fled into China.

In response, Beijing has deployed extra troops and armed policemen to the area to guard against a possible spillover of the violence across its border. A senior Chinese envoy has been dispatched to the Myanmar capital at Naypyidaw to convey Beijing's "serious concerns" about the situation, according to a senior Chinese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

By the weekend, an estimated 50,000 refugees had fled from northeastern Myanmar into China, a local Chinese government official in the Yunnan province city of Kunming told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. The first wave of refugees crossed the border nearly three weeks ago, he said. "First, they came in dribs and drabs, and then in much larger numbers," according to a resident on the Chinese side of the border.

Up to 30,000 people earlier this month streamed into the Yunnan provincial town of Nansan and other nearby villages from ethnic Kokang areas in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State, according to Kitty McKinsey, regional spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees based in Bangkok. "Chinese authorities are providing emergency food, shelter and medical care," she said.

Over the weekend, the apparently defeated remnants of the Kokang army fled across the border, a Kokang military leader told Asia Times Online. At least 700 soldiers handed over their weapons to Chinese authorities as they crossed the border, discarded their green military uniforms and donned blue overalls supplied by their Chinese hosts. They are being held close to the border in a separate camp from the other refugees by heavily armed Chinese security forces, the Kokang military leader said.

Chinese refugees
Some of those who have fled the fighting are believed to be Chinese citizens, including businessmen and workers who in their thousands have migrated to Myanmar's Kokang areas over the past decade. Most businesses, including money changers, restaurants, casinos and entertainment venues in Kokang areas are either owned or run by Chinese citizens. Hundreds of traders also cross the border every week to do business and trade in the Kokang capital. They have been advised to suspend their activities until the situation stabilizes, according to Chinese sources.

One Chinese official, who requested anonymity, said that Chinese central authorities were "extremely upset" by the spillover effects of the Myanmar military's actions and were "furious" that they had not been forewarned about the offensive. After a flurry of diplomatic contacts, both in Beijing and Naypyidaw, Myanmar has "apologized" for the instability caused across the Chinese border, according to a Myanmar Foreign Ministry official.

It appears the military operations were aimed primarily at capturing a Kokang arms factory, Myanmar leaders told their Chinese counterparts. But Myanmar analysts remain skeptical and believe this was a pretext at best. "The junta knows it must move to disarm these ethnic rebel groups, and the Kokang are the weakest militarily," a Burmese academic and military specialist at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, Win Min, told Asia Times Online. "Before the military launched this attack the authorities have been trying to portray the Kokang leaders as drug dealers."

The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and speak a dialect of Mandarin, but have lived for many decades inside Myanmar. They have their own armed militia and fought against the Myanmar army for several decades demanding autonomy. They were part of the Burma Communist Party and agreed to a ceasefire in 1989, which until now had held.

The Kokang were also heavily involved in the narcotics trade and were known until recently to be major opium producers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, their area has been poppy-free since 2003, though some analysts have contested that assessment.

Well-planned assault
Tensions had been rising in Myanmar's border areas for months as the military junta pressured various ethnic rebel ceasefire groups - including the Kachin, Kokang and Wa - to surrender their arms before democratic elections planned for next year. The Myanmar government wants to integrate these groups under the national government as border police guard units, but these and other ethnic groups along the Chinese border have resisted integration.

Thousands of Myanmar troops took up positions in the Kokang area in early August before launching their major offensive last week. Security along the way to the Kokang headquarters at Laogai had been tightened by the Myanmar military, while rice and food supplies were prevented from entering the area, according to one resident.

On August 8, a local Myanmar officer sent soldiers into the area to investigate reports that the Kokang forces were operating an arms factory. They also reportedly entered the home of Kokang military leader Peng Jiasheng in search of narcotics. He has reportedly since fled into the neighboring area controlled by the UWSA, which is believed to have more than 15,000 troops under arms.

Since the fighting subsided, the Myanmar army is in total control of the Kokang capital, Laogai. Once a bustling border town, full of bars, discos, karaoke clubs and gambling dens, the town center is now virtually deserted except for Myanmar soldiers. Most of the refugees fled with only the clothes on their back and a suitcase and left most of their possessions behind, according to aid workers.

Some refugees are now weighing whether to return to their homes for fear that their property will be looted by the soldiers. But they are also worried about living under Myanmar army rule. "We fear that the soldiers will not treat us well," a 53-year old Kokang woman told Asia Times Online. "We have heard how the army rapes women and children, forces the men folk to carry supplies and executes anyone who refuses to obey them," she said.

But with the Kokang promising to retaliate, and with the more powerful UWSA coming to their aid, the prospect for an orderly return of displaced persons is distant. "More confrontation and military encounters are expected in the following days and thousands of villagers are fleeing to the China-Burma border to avoid the war, and subsequent human-rights abuses," said a statement from the Kokang group.

Analysts believe other ceasefire groups could be targeted next. "This does not augur well for the other ceasefire groups like the Kachin and Wa," said the academic Win Min. "This may be a preview of what's to come," he added. Earlier this month, the Kachin, Kokang and Wa leaders all formed an alliance, known as the Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front, in which they mutually agreed not to surrender their arms before the scheduled elections.

Now there is a very high risk of a return to widespread armed conflict along the China-Myanmar border, according to a Chinese government official who closely follows events in Myanmar. "The problem is that the Wa are very close to the Chinese government and it would be very hard for them to desert them at this crucial point in time," he added.

At the same time, China wants to restore peace to border areas before it destabilizes areas of China. Beijing has advised Myanmar to stop fighting and encouraged a new ceasefire settlement with the Kokang, an arrangement China has offered to mediate, according to Chinese government sources. Beijing wants the refugees to return to Myanmar as soon as possible, but has no intentions of pushing them back, said the official. At the same time, Chinese authorities are guarding against the refugees traveling and attempting to settle further inland.

The military offensive bears out recent suggestions that Myanmar is bidding to assert itself against China, widely seen as the reclusive regime's main international backer. In the past few months, the ruling junta had reportedly become disillusioned with Beijing's lack of support for its attempts to disarm the rebel groups, including those that enjoy a special relationship with China.

Some say the enthusiastic reception the junta recently gave to United States Senator Jim Webb - usually only reserved for heads of state - was a clear sign of the junta's attempt to move away from its diplomatic reliance on China. In another jab at Beijing, this week's edition of the Myanmar Times ran a short agency news story on Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visiting Taiwan, after it was approved by government censors.

It represented the first time Myanmar's tightly controlled media had even mentioned the Dalai Lama in more than 20 years, according to Yangon-based diplomats.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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