China, Myanmar border on a conflict By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - An ominous lull has fallen over northern Myanmar since the military
government's defeat last week of Kokang ethnic insurgents. All sides appear to
be preparing for the next round, which, depending on the scale of the offensive
or counter-offensive, could plunge other ceasefire regions into renewed civil
It is unclear whether Myanmar's generals are willing to challenge the
better-armed ethnic Wa and Kachin - and by proxy potentially China - or if
recent moves are part of an elaborate strategic bluff. By taking out the
Kokang, which in their tens of thousands fled across the border into northern
China, the junta has tested both Beijing's resolve to back Myanmar-based
insurgent groups and the willingness of the ceasefire groups to militarily
support each other.
Many analysts believed that past Chinese support for ceasefire
groups along its border would discourage the junta from carrying out its
threats to force them to transform into border guard units under the
government's command in advance of next year's democratic elections. That
analysis was bolstered by reports that Chinese officials told their Myanmar
counterparts that they would brook no instability along their shared
2,185-kilometer border in the run-up to this October's 60-year celebrations of
the communist victory in China.
Myanmar's junta has demanded that the main ceasefire groups in northern
Myanmar, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence
Army (KIA), the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA) and
the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) reduce the size of their
forces and join a Myanmar army-administered Border Guard Force.
The transformation of autonomous militias to state-controlled border guards
would require the various ethnic political organizations battling for autonomy
in their regions to lose their armed wings and effectively diminish their
negotiating leverage vis-a-vis the regime. All of the mentioned groups rejected
the proposal. Instead they requested to continue with the current ceasefires
until after elections and work out new arrangements with a democratically
China has been supportive of the ceasefire groups through calls for national
reconciliation, by mediating in disputes between the groups and Myanmar's
military and by putting pressure on the regime to refrain from using force to
press its demands. Those overtures suit Beijing's broad aim of maintaining
stability in border areas while simultaneously providing Beijing military and
political proxies in case of instability inside Myanmar, as witnessed in the
massive civil unrest in 1988 and 2007.
Myanmar's stability is important to China because of its hefty investments in
natural resource extraction and the country's strategic geography as a conduit
to the sea for trade from China's landlocked southwest Yunnan province.
Construction of an oil and gas pipeline is slated to begin this month and
finish in 2012 which will allow China to receive shipments of Middle Eastern
fuel without having to travel through the Malacca Straits. China is known to
fear the potential of a naval blockade there in any potential conflict with the
The recent offensive against the Kokang resulted in China reinforcing its
police and military units along the border and a rare rebuke from the Foreign
Ministry. A statement released from Beijing on August 28 said China "hopes that
Myanmar can appropriately solve its relevant internal problems and safeguard
the stability of the China-Myanmar border". It went on to request that the
government "protect the safety and legal rights of Chinese citizens in
Myanmar in turn apologized for any Chinese casualties that occurred during the
hostilities and thanked Beijing for its assistance in caring for refugees.
According to Chinese officials in Yunnan province, around 37,000 refugees
streamed across the border in the wake of the recent fighting. Security
analysts are now eyeing the outcome of meetings between Chinese and Myanmar
officials and the impact they could have on regional security.
Dropping the gauntlet
Many were surprised by Myanmar's apparent willingness to challenge China on the
ceasefire groups. Opposition sources claim that two meetings between high-level
officials already took place on August 31, entailing one in Yunnan between
Myanmar Deputy Home Affairs Minister Brigadier General Phone Swe and Chinese
Minister for Public Security Meng Jian, and another in the northern Myanmar
town of Lashio between senior officers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army
and the Myanmar Army, including Lieutenant General Min Aung Hlaing, commander
of all units in Shan State.
An alliance of ceasefire groups known as the Myanmar Peace and Democracy Front
(MPDF) and encompassing the MNDAA, UWSA, NDAA and the KIA was established in
March to show a united front against the military regime and its autonomy
eroding Border Guard Force proposal. The alliance was only announced in August
when tensions between the Kokang-led MNDAA and the Myanmar military began to
mount. Another ceasefire group, the Shan State Army (North) located in central
Shan State, is also believed to be linked to the grouping.
The MNDAA were recognized by the Myanmar military as the weakest link in the
loose alliance. By exploiting a split among the Kokang leadership over its
position on the Border Guard Force proposal, the regime was able to move
quickly against the MNDAA on August 27 and drive them from their capital across
the border into China or into the surrounding mountains in only two days.
The offensive tested the resolve of the 20,000-strong UWSA to come to the aid
of their neighboring alliance partners. The alliance was previously touted as a
mutual security guarantee, but that is not how it played out on the
battlefield. Although a force of around 500 UWSA soldiers from its northern
Namteuk-based 318 Division initially reinforced the Kokang, they pulled back
the next day to Wa-controlled territory south of the Namting River.
Some Myanmar watchers saw the tactical retreat as a lack of resolve on behalf
of the UWSA, an assessment the Myanmar army may now share. At the same time,
Myanmar's generals now have some idea of what China's response would be to
potential offensives against other ceasefire groups.
It is unclear what battlefield advantage Myanmar military's may have gained by
its successful assault against the Kokang, but its reinforcement of units
facing other insurgent positions, including the placement of more artillery and
tanks against the NDAA and Wa troops along the China and Thai borders, suggests
it believes it has won an upper hand.
At the same time, strategic analysts doubt whether the military could launch a
full-scale offensive against ceasefire groups and maintain security over next
year's elections. The UWSA and KIA represent stronger adversaries than the
MNDAA. The UWSA has 20,000-25,000 soldiers backed by mortars, artillery and
anti-aircraft weapons. The KIA has another 5,000 soldiers under arms and were
previously able to hold the Myanmar army at bay for nearly two decades.
Security experts, including a Thai intelligence officer who spoke on condition
of anonymity, believe it could take a decade or more of heavy fighting to
finally subdue the groups. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Wa fought bloody
pitched battles with the Myanmar Army as part of the Burmese Communist Party.
The Wa are even better armed now than they were then. Even without Chinese aid,
the KIA, UWSA and NDAA could adopt guerrilla strategies that prolong the
The insurgent forces of the Karen, Karenni and Shan on the Thai-Myanmar border
are also a thorn in the regime's side, despite losing substantial territory and
largely disowned since the 1980s by Thailand. Bangkok previously supported
ethnic groups along its border as a buffer against Myanmar but now commercially
engages with the regime, including the import of crucial natural gas supplies.
With the predictions of possible protracted warfare and by showing its hand
against the MNDAA, it is unlikely that Myanmar's military will be able to exert
control over the ceasefire regions in time for the 2010 elections. The large
number of troops it would take to defeat the insurgents would also weaken the
regime's hold over security in other parts of the country.
Myanmar's junta still clearly fears the possibility of widespread urban civil
unrest, as seen in the 2007 Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution and which some
Myanmar watchers believe is still simmering below the surface. The regime thus
requires a large security presence in and around Myanmar's cities as a
deterrent against future protests.
Ceasefire groups in other parts of the country are similarly peeved with the
border guard proposal and provisions in the new constitution and may see
renewed hostilities in the north as chance to resume their armed struggles.
Such groups, analysts say, could include the New Mon State Party in the
southeast, which was the first group to reject the border guard proposal, as
well as groups representing smaller ethnic minorities such as the Karenni and
Pa-O in eastern Myanmar.
The need for the army to shift troops to the north would also give beleaguered
non-ceasefire groups such as the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army
(South) breathing room and an opportunity to rebuild their beleaguered forces.
A worst case scenario for the regime could see these groups joining with the
northern insurgent groups in a new, wider alliance. Although these alliances
have not fared well in the past and for the time being seem unlikely, it is a
scenario that would quickly over-stretch the regime's ground forces.
China may eventually call Myanmar's bluff. While China has willingly accepted
Kokang refugees onto its soil, Beijing would no doubt be less tolerant of the
sustained disruption in trade and investment caused by large and persistent
refugee flows driven by more open warfare. Ramped up Chinese support for the
ethnic groups would limit the impact of Myanmar military assaults on border
regions and potentially spark a protracted war that Myanmar's cash-strapped
regime clearly cannot afford.
That could mean the generals allow other ethnic groups to retain their arms and
ceasefire status until after the elections and then push them to negotiate a
new deal with an elected government under the new constitution. That scenario,
however, would require the generals to swallow their military pride, something
they have shown a strong aversion to in the past.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached
at [email protected]