The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
ARTICLE
The First Shots are Fired
By WAI MOE OCTOBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.7

Recent clashes on the Sino-Burmese border ended almost as soon as they began, but the threat of an all-out war remains

The fall of the Kokang capital of Laogai to Burmese government troops on Aug. 24 has put other ethnic cease-fire groups based along Burma’s border with China on the alert and raised questions about how close ties between Naypyidaw and Beijing are likely to affect the future of ethnic struggle in Burma.

Although the Burmese junta’s forces managed to seize control of Laogai without firing a single shot, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the main Kokang militia, put up some resistance before retreating to the Chinese side of the border. The guns have since fallen silent, but with other armed groups now preparing for war, many people, including Chinese immigrants, are fleeing before the next outbreak of hostilities.

Refugees from Kokang in northeastern Burma rest at a temporary shelter at the border town of Nansan in China’s yunnan Province on Aug. 30. (Photo: Reuters)

Adding to the urgency of this mass exodus are widespread reports of abuses committed by Burmese forces as they strengthen their hold on the region. 

“Government soldiers have been very cruel in Laogai,” said a staffer working with an international nongovernmental organization (INGO) that was operating in Laogai until junta troops took over the town. (Most aid agencies working in the area have since moved to Lashio, the largest town in northern Shan State.)

“After the army came into town, it became a small Nanking on the Sino-Burmese border,” said the INGO worker, comparing the situation in Laogai to the Nanking Massacre of 1937, in which the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered thousands of Chinese civilians.

Exaggerated or not, such descriptions give some sense of the rising tensions in the region, and are also likely to attract the attention of the Chinese authorities, who have been observing developments on their border with growing unease.

According to one Laogai resident, Chinese troops can be seen watching the town from the other side of the border through high-powered binoculars. Sometimes, he said, the Chinese soldiers witness Burmese troops beating Kokang civilians (who belong to the same Han ethnic group as the majority of Chinese) and Chinese immigrants.

The key to the Burmese regime’s easy success in overthrowing the Kokang was its use of the tried-and-true strategy of divide and rule. By basing a unit of Military Affairs Security (MAS)—the latest incarnation of the regime’s military intelligence apparatus—in Laogai, the junta was able to learn about a split within the Kokang leadership that it readily exploited when the time came to move against the MNDAA.

In a report leaked to The Irrawaddy, the MAS unit in Laogai informed their commanders of a conflict between MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng and Bai Souqian, No 2 in the Kokang leadership, over business interests and the issue of succession. Although Peng wanted his son, Peng Daxun, to be his successor, the report advised the regime to back his rival, Bai Souqian. Unlike the younger Peng, who was described as heavily involved in the drug trade, Bai was seen as “clean.” More importantly, the report said, he was more likely to be a reliable ally of the regime.

And so, on Aug. 24, the junta announced that Bai Souqian was the new leader of Kokang, ousting Peng Jiasheng and forcing him to flee to territory controlled by his allies, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), reportedly with 200 to 300 of his men. Meanwhile, the remaining MNDAA troops, most of whom remained loyal to Peng, engaged in skirmishes with the Burmese forces until, less than a week later, hostilities abruptly ended and around 1,500 troops—the bulk of the MNDAA force—handed their weapons over to the Chinese authorities in exchange for shelter.

This desultory resistance should not have come as a surprise to the Burmese commanders, who were informed by the MAS report that after a 20-year cease-fire, the Kokang leaders seemed more interested in amassing fortunes from their various business enterprises than in fighting for ethnic autonomy. However, the report added, the Kokang’s attachment to their riches also meant that they would not give up their arms easily. 

This is why, just five months after proposing to the Kokang and other ethnic cease-fire groups that they transform their militias into border guard forces under Burmese military command, the regime decided to take preemptive action. By going after the Kokang, the junta sent a clear message that it was ready to act decisively against any other group that refused to fall in line with its plans.

Now that it has effectively eliminated the MNDAA rebels, it remains to be seen how the regime will deal with the far more serious threat posed by the 20,000-strong UWSA.

The Wa have also refused to participate in the border guard scheme. Unlike the Kokang, however, they are well-equipped to resist the junta’s demands. They remain firmly entrenched in eight brigades—three in the north, in and around their capital Panghsang, near the Sino-Burmese border, and five in the south, near the border with Thailand. The Burmese army estimated in April that the UWSA had only 4,349 troops in the north, but as tensions in the area grow, more are believed to have been deployed from the south.

An even bigger issue looming over this volatile situation is how China will act when matters come to a head. So far, Beijing has attempted to play the role of negotiator, urging both sides to settle their differences without resorting to war. Since last year, according to sources based on the Sino-Burmese border, Chinese officials, including officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), have hosted several meetings with the Burmese regime and ethnic groups to help them settle their differences.

Despite its desire to remain at least ostensibly neutral, it is clear that Beijing’s highest priority is to maintain stability, both on its border and in its relationship with Naypyidaw. This was highlighted earlier this year, when a PLA officer met with Kokang leaders in a border town in China’s Yunnan Province. According to the MAS report, the PLA officer told the Kokang bluntly that China would oppose any action that destabilized the border region. He also told them not to jeopardize Sino-Burmese relations, because China could not afford to lose access to Burma’s energy resources. When the Kokang leaders raised objections about Burma’s 2008 military-backed constitution, the PLA officer simply told them to accept it.

Beijing has not been quite so forceful with the generals in Naypyidaw. Apart from reiterating their calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, Chinese leaders have applied no real pressure on their Burmese counterparts. This should send a signal to the other cease-fire groups—the UWSA, the Kachin Independence Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army—that Beijing is not going to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of old allies based in Burma.  

“We should not forget that Beijing stood by and watched as Burmese soldiers abused the Kokang and Chinese in Burma,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former Communist rebel who is now an observer of Burmese military affairs based in Yunnan. “China is too hungry for Burmese gas and the Sino-Burmese oil pipeline to worry about the ethnic armies.”

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