Myanmar’s Kokang Challenge and China

ISSSP Reflections No. 25, April 10, 2015

Authors: Ms. Suparna Banerjee and Ms. Ramya PS

Source: International Rivers

Northern Shan state in Myanmar has been witnessing serious confrontation since 9 February, 2015, a few days before Union Day celebrations- when fighting began between the Kokang Army or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Burmese government forces. Kokang troops attacked Myanmar’s Army outposts near the town of Mawhtike. Kokang is one of the four self administered areas established in 1989.  

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, has declared emergency  (for 90 days) in the area until the middle of May. On 21 February, government troops have imposed a curfew and claim to be in control of the situation. The Myanmar government has accused that apart from the Kokang other ethnic groups like Kachin, Palaung and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army are supporting the fight which has been denied by the leaders of their respective groups. It is also reported that government soldiers fighting in the area are holding 14 civilians and forcing them to work as porters and human shield. The men were said to be conscripted when around 20 ethnic Kokang families were en route back to their homes from Maidihe refugee camps. Although, the women and children were later released the men are still under detention.

The Kokang are Han Chinese people living in the area for centuries. The MNDAA, formerly the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), is a China backed guerrilla group. The support provided by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the CPB led to anti-China protests in Myanmar in the later part of 1960s. China has however, maintained that it does not fund the rebels in any way. It signed a bilateral agreement with the Myanmar government in 1989. The agreement collapsed in 2009 when the rebels were asked to join the paramilitary Border Guard Force (BGF) under the command of the Myanmar military. It is then, one is reminded of the “Kokang Incident” of 2009 which witnessed a series of bloody clashes in August displacing close to 30,000 people and creating a refugee crisis for China. Ethnic Kokang are not considered citizens by the Burmese but they do have government issued ID Cards. However, even after the passage of a bill allowing the temporary card holders (also known as ‘White cards’) to cast their vote in the planned referendum on Constitutional amendments in May, the government backtracked following heavy protests. Only a day after signing the controversial bill into law on February 11, 2015 President Thein Sein issued an executive order that all white cards will expire on March 31st virtually negating the right to vote in the referendum.

However, this internal conflict within Myanmar has impacted its neighbour China. The external dimension poses challenges at different levels. The issue gains salience because the ethnic linkages are not only causing border tensions but, have wide ranging security implications for the two states.

China and Myanmar share a long land border of 2,000km that underlines the level of interaction and ethnic affinity they share. The two nation-states resolved their border dispute amicably in 1960 and significantly, Myanmar was the first non-communist state to recognise PRC. Thus, the two states have enjoyed friendly ties although, certain phases such as in the latter part of the 1960s saw deterioration of bilateral relations as a result of anti-China protests in Myanmar. Historically, the bilateral relations have seen more ups than downs.

The in-fighting within Myanmar in the recent months, has two broad implications for China. Firstly, the conflict has led to a spillover of thousands of refugees into Chinese side. The skirmishes have so far caused 130 casualties and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing, some across the border to China and others down South. Over 60,000 Burmese have entered into the border region since the fighting began in February. Other reports indicate that over 30,000 have fled the conflict ridden areas and entered the Chinese side. Certain reports have stated that China has provided accommodation and other health services for more than 14,000 refugees. Although, the exact number of refugees is disputed it cannot be denied that China would try its best to avoid dealing with the increasing humanitarian crisis.

Secondly and significantly the MNDAA are ethnically Chinese. According to the provisional result of the 2014 census the Kokang region has a population of around 95,000 of which 90 per cent are ethnic Han Chinese. Heightened hostilities between the rebels and the Tatmadaw forces could instigate Han Chinese nationalism within China. Moreover, MNDAA Chief Pheung Kya Shin (in China he is known as Peng Jiashen) has used social media to rally the support of the Han Chinese in their fight against the Tatmadaw. He has in the past appealed to the Chinese to remind themselves of our common race and roots and give money and efforts to rescue our people.’ Therefore, to allay such nationalist sentiments the Chinese censors are blocking online images of the refugee camps and pictures of causalities. Some reports have indicated that the Chinese Government has blocked images of ethnic Han Chinese being injured or killed by the Burmese Tatmadaw on Weibo and other social platforms.

The spill-over effect of the continuing conflict becomes all the more significant as it has resulted in causalities on the Chinese side. The death of four Chinese citizens in a sugarcane field in Lincang on 8 March, due to bombings by Myanmar’s Armed Forces is a growing concern for China. Since, the onset of the conflict this year several stray bombs have fallen on the Chinese side. A Sino-Myanmar working group is currently investigating the bombings. What has been worrying is the alleged incursion by Myanmar’s Air Force into Chinese airspace causing damage to property. Fan Changlong, Deputy Head of the powerful Central Military Commission stated that Myanmar has ‘many times’ intruded into Chinese territory and warned of ‘resolute and decisive measures.’

Reports of China banning entry into the refugee camps and blocking supplies have come to light but denied by China stating that these are only ‘rumours’. In reaction to the recent bombings and loss of Chinese life, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA Air Force have increased the levels of patrolling in the bordering villages of Yunnan province where stray bombs and intrusions from Myanmar’s side have been detected. Therefore, in terms of humanitarian response and military signalling China appears to have learnt to handle tensions with its conflict ridden neighbour from past experiences of 2009, 2012 and 2013.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin summoned Myanmar ambassador Thit Linn Ohn following the 8 March bombing by Myanmar’s Air Force. Also, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi visited the hinterland province of Yunnan and called for protection of the property and life of the local Chinese. Myanmar for its part has denied that their warplanes entered Chinese airspace and blamed the rebel forces for carrying out the intrusions.

The current crisis puts pressure on the Chinese policy of ‘non-interference’ in foreign countries. The Chinese position so far has been that the conflict remains an internal issue of Myanmar. But, with the loss of Chinese life China, at least for allaying domestic pressures would be compelled to play a more proactive role. The statements by Fan Chanlong and the Chinese Foreign Minister Yi could be seen in this context.

Myanmar plays a crucial role in China’s one road-one belt policy and also forms a significant partner in the realisation of the ‘maritime silk road’ touted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Significantly, the major oil and gas pipelines running through Myanmar to China’s Yunnan province reinstates China’s strategic interests in maintaining friendly ties with Myanmar’s ruling elites. But how far strategic interests trump ethnic border issues remain to be seen.

The role played by external players such as China in the internal conflict within Myanmar is significant. However, one cannot negate the implications such rebels pose to the functioning of Myanmar. Importantly, MNDAA wields enormous influence by effectively building economic strongholds and simultaneously engaging in political power-play.

An octogenarian warlord since 1989, Pheung has been accused by successive US administrations of being involved in drug trafficking- first in Opium and then in methamphetamines. He has been living in exile since the “Kokang Incident” of 2009, probably in China and is reported to have resurfaced to establish his control over the area which has been taken over by the Army.

Post the exile of Pheung the group saw an inter Kokang split with one faction led by Deputy Chairman Bai Souqian, allied with Myanmar’s army while the other remained loyal to the MNDAA. Thus, the reason behind the recent clashes could be Pheung’s intention to reclaim his position as the head of the Kokang autonomous Region which is also a thriving drug and gambling business area. Li Guoquan, was arrested on 23 February for suspected charges of financing the Kokang rebels. The arrest of Guoquan is interesting because he is related to Peng Deren who is the military commander in charge of operations for the MNDAA.

Myanmar is battling an internal war. The friction between the centre dominated by the Burmese and minority dominated periphery has been the cause for long drawn political instability. As seen with the Kokang conflict a spill over of Myanmar’s internal war into China has a negative impact on bilateral relations. Furthermore, the possibility of other rebel groups following suit is a cause for concern especially, with Myanmar being at the cusp of a historical transition.

About the Authors

Ms. Suparna Banerjee is a Junior Research Fellow at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at mail[dot]suparnabanerjee[at]gmail[dot]com

Ms. Ramya PS is a Junior Research Fellow at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at ramya[dot]panuganty[at]gmail[dot]com

Picture Courtesy: International Rivers

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