East Asia’s Bloodiest Border War
Myanmar’s conflict with the Kokang rebels blows up
On March 31, the government of Myanmar signed a major ceasefire agreement with 16 rebel groups. But the ceasefire didn’t include the Kokang.
Burma has several ongoing internal wars that have lasted on and off for decades. But the conflict with Kokang rebel groups is one of the most recent to deteriorate back into violence. There’s also a risk — albeit a small one — that it could blow up into a larger war.
The Kokang are an ethnic Han Chinese minority group who live in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state. Persecuted for decades, the Kokang speak Mandarin, have their own armed groups and live far removed from the country’s political elite.
Their homeland — the self-administered region of Kokang inside Shan state — was relatively calm throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But in 2009 and again in 2015, ceasefire agreements broke down between Myanmar and a coalition of rebels led by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.
In February, the predominantly Kokang MNDAA rebels launched a series of attacks on the army. The Burmese army — also known as the Tatmadaw — took heavy losses. At least 47 troops died during three days of clashes.
Thousands of people fled across the border into China’s Yunnan province. These refugee camps are currently off-limits to United Nations observers.
Then a Myanmar air force jet bombed China.
On March 13, the jet dropped bombs on a sugarcane field near the Yunnan province city of Lincang. The blast killed four and wounded nine Chinese. The bombing was apparently a mistake — with the pilot attempting to attack MNDAA rebels on a mountain inside Myanmar.
That was a big deal. But there are a lot of reasons why China doesn’t want to go to war with its southern neighbor. At the same time, there’s little Beijing can do to stop the conflict — which is itself fueled by competition for resources.
Much of Myanmar’s problems can trace to the rotating cast of military generals who ruled the country for nearly half a century.
Multi-sided civil wars between the military juntas and ethnic minority rebel groups went on for decades. Ceasefire agreements came and collapsed. Rebels fought the regime and each other.
The country’s wars today are heavily economic in nature. The MNDAA has ties to the opium, tea and rubber trade. Control of the Kokang region by armed groups means control of resources — and the same is true for the military.
In 2011, the country transitioned to civilian rule headed by Pres. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. But elements of the old military regime remain in positions of prominent influence within the party and the country — particularly in controlling farmland.
For years, private companies linked to military officers and paramilitary groups have confiscated large amounts of land from farmers in Shan state — often without informing them or giving them any way to negotiate.
The stolen land is frequently converted into rubber plantations.
The situation isn’t exclusive to Shan state, but it’s a particularly bad situation. For one, the state is populated by ethnic minorities who fear standing up to the military, owing to years of brutality and civil war.
“Once the land had been confiscated, the army appears to have handed it over to private companies and political cronies,” a recent report from the human rights organization Global Witness stated. “Now villagers’ lands are under commercial rubber plantations which have destroyed their livelihoods, pushing them deeper into poverty.”
The roots of Shan state’s insurgent conflicts are far more complicated and go back decades. But the stealing villagers’ land makes the war worse, and the Burmese military encourages it by forcing their own soldiers “to pay their own wages by becoming farmers and businessmen,” the Global Witness report stated.
But the biggest beneficiaries are private companies, such as rubber Myanmar holding conglomerate Sein Wut Hmon. According to Global Witness, the firm works with the military through a revolving door of military officers-turned-plantation barons.
In some cases, the human rights group stated, soldiers have confiscated land in the presence of Sein Wut Hmon employees. In other cases, villagers have encountered soldiers who told them they worked for the company.
“The fact that the majority of confiscations in [northeastern Shan state] tend to be conducted either directly by the Tatmadaw or by companies and other actors with strong military ties exacerbates this situation,” the Global Witness report stated.
But there are two larger reasons explaining why the military is taking people’s land.
For one, it feeds a growing Chinese appetite for raw materials. Much of Shan state’s crude rubber production heads to markets to China — and Chinese companies have heavily invested in Myanmar plantations.
The other reason has to do with Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule and state privatization program of the mid-2000s. In short, while the military lost its formal hegemony over the country’s political system, it wouldn’t give up its economic hegemony so easily.
Plus, the military leaders knew their time ruling the country was running out. Beginning in 2006, the Tatmadaw used the privatization process to accelerate its land confiscations.
“They did this in order to ensure that the economic power ceded by the military institution passed to the hands of the military elite and their associates before the country opened up to the world in 2011,” Global Witness stated.
Then there’s the sheer military presence in Shan state.
Because of the decades of war and its proximity to the Chinese border, it’s one of the most heavily militarized areas of the country — with 13 Burmese army battalions based there. These troops own their own plantations, farms and forests — and come into direct conflict with rebel competitors.
What makes the situation potentially explosive is the proximity to China. The Burmese military has accused China of aiding the Kokang, a charge which Beijing adamantly denies.
These allegations are likely part of a political strategy by Myanmar’s military elite, and aimed at stoking anti-Chinese sentiment. That could help the Union Solidarity and Development Party in elections this year, according to the New York Times.
The ruling party — while formally controlled by civilians — includes former military officers in senior posts. This includes the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation — which has helped “retroactively ‘legalize’ these [land] confiscations which had taken place years earlier,” Global Witness stated in its report.
Retired Lt. Gen. U Myint Hlaing is Myanmar’s current agriculture and irrigation minister — and he’s the former commander of Burmese military forces in Shan state.
“He is one of the most powerful and controversial ministers in the current government and reported in national media to be ruthless in his dealing with ethnic minority groups,” the human rights group added.
To be sure, the Chinese military has responded to the bombing of Yunnan province — but not with violence. Beijing deployed fighter jets and air defense systems to the province, and has stepped up border patrols.
But it’s hard to see how — or why — China will go any further. Beijing is being pulled in different directions. The MNDAA issues Mandarin-language appeals to the Chinese population, and commenters in the Chinese press have insisted that Beijing support the rebel group with military aid.
China does not want instability along its border or more refugees coming into the country. The problem with intervening is that it would likely risk war with Myanmar and make the situation far worse than it is now.
China would lose access to investments in Myanmar, and become locked out of the country’s ports — essential for extending the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s presence into the Indian Ocean. Hard-nosed realism likely wins out over whatever sympathy there is in China for the Kokang.
The same goes for arming them.
Which leaves a solution in the hands of the Myanmar government — and a military that spends as much time exploiting the people of the region as it does trying to stop the rebels.