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