Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Myanmar: Beijing‘s Dilemma

My article Myanmar: Beijing‘s Dilemma  appeared in NitiCentral.

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Beijing’s neighbours do not have it easy.
After months of conflicts with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others, clashes have flared up in northern Myanmar, neighboring China’s Yunnan province.
In hardly a month, the conflict between the Burmese government and the Kokang troops have left more than 100 people dead, while some 100,000 ethnic Chinese are said to have fled across the border into Yunnan.
Who are these Kokang rebels?
Known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), they are based in the northern Shan state. Inhabited by ethnic Han Chinese, the area is known as the Kokang Self-Administered Zone.
Today, the rebel group prides itself of an army of about 3,000 soldiers under an ethnic-Chinese commander, Peng Jiasheng.
The MNDAA, formerly the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a China-backed guerrilla group, signed a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the Burmese government in 1989.
The agreement collapsed in 2009 when the rebels were asked to join the paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar’s military; the MNDAA did not agree to the move. When government forces entered the self-administrated area, Peng escaped to China; at that time, a large number of refugees moved into Yunnan province. Peng’s return heralded fresh troubles: on February 9, serious fighting erupted in Laukkai, Kokang’s capital, between Burmese troops and the MNDAA rebel forces.
The successive US Administrations believed that Peng Jiasheng was involved in drug trafficking, first in opium and more recently in methamphetamines.
Radio Free Asia thus explains the present conflict: “While he claims to be fighting for ethnic rights, the current struggle appears to be part of a bid by the rebel leader to retake power of an area that supports lucrative trading and smuggling because of its location on the border with China,” adding “the MNDAA had been joined in the recent clashes by allies: the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakanese Army (AA).”
It was thus a serious issue for the Myanmar government which declared a state of emergency in the region; at the same time, it asked Beijing to prevent the rebels from using its territory to launch ‘terrorist activities’.
On February 18, quoting a Burmese official, Agence France Press reported: “Nearly 90,000 civilians in northeastern Myanmar are thought to have fled clashes …as sporadic violence hampered efforts to evacuate those still trapped in the conflict zone. …Whole towns and villages lie empty in the rugged, remote area as tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes – some on foot.”
Over half of the local population is said to be on the move.
In the meantime, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei asserted that China respects Myanmar's sovereignty, territorial integrity and affirmed that Beijing is opposed to any acts hurting bilateral ties. Hong called for self-restraint, a cessation of conflict …affirming that China was firmly opposed to any person or organization using Chinese territory to undermine the China-Myanmar relationship.
Peng Jiasheng came to Beijing’s rescue; he told The Global Times that since 2009, his alliance has strictly forbidden Chinese citizens from entering Kokang: “We will not accept Chinese citizens participating in armed actions, as this is only harmful to us”.
An interesting aspect of the conflict is that the military regime in Myanmar suddenly became popular in its own country; it even got kudos on social media platforms such as Facebook; as Reuters puts it: “Fighting between the Myanmar army and ethnic Chinese rebels has handed the long-feared military, a public relations coup, with an explosion of praise on social media and even former political prisoners expressing grudging support.”
Mid-February, Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, Myanmar's chief of military affairs security announced that the Kokang rebels were being supported ‘by former Chinese soldiers and allied minority rebel groups’.
Oo explained that his government had to defend its sovereignty; he also asserted that former Chinese officers were providing military training to the rebels.
The Associated Press also mentioned a strong Chinese ‘influence’: “China is a major political and economic supporter of Myanmar, but there is unease among many about the influence the Chinese exercise, especially in loosely controlled areas in the north.”
But Beijing sees the situation differently: the Beijing-based Sina Military believes that Myanmar has become a geopolitical battleground between China and the United States: “The ongoing strife in Myanmar, which has never really stopped in the last 60 years, is not merely an internal struggle …it has become a behind-the-scenes tussle between China and the US for greater influence in the region,” says a commentary.
Myanmar provides China with a crucial passage to the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean; it is an important component of Xi Jinping’s Two Silk Roads dream project (‘one Belt and one Road’).
Sina Military argues that Beijing is innocent as a conflict in the region is not in its interest: “Political stability in Myanmar is key to China's economic interests, which is why Beijing has repeatedly offered to assist in mediating peace talks.”
But the US are “keen to suppress China's rise and preventing its access to the Indian Ocean;” says Sina which quotes the new US ‘pivot’ Asian policy. To prove its point, the article says that the US strategy was to back opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the presidency and in order to be able to control better Myanmar; Sina particularly mentions the meetings between President Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, explaining that it became clear that when Aung san Suu Kyi would not be able to run for the presidency - because her two children are British citizens – Washington changed its policy and used ‘civil war’ to disrupt the border stability. This is of course far-fetched.
In an interview with Voice of America (VOA) Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center put forth a more plausible aspect: “The involvement might not be Chinese central government policy but of some of the local government officials, even business associates, some individuals who have business interests or political interests might be involved substantially.” Oo reasoned: “Otherwise these large amounts of weapons and the large number of people recruited in a very short time would not have materialized.”
Interestingly, Beijing takes the issue seriously
According to Duowei News, the Communist Party appointed the seasoned vice commander of the Beijing armed police headquarters, Major General Li Zhigang to take over the Yunnan’s police.
The South China Morning Post reported that on February 18, on the eve of the Chinese New Year “the Yunnan party committee and provincial government visited troops stationed in Yunnan and a military hospital in the province …Vice governor Zhang Zulin visited the 14th Group Army and the Yunnan armed police headquarters, where Li Zhigang was in attendance.”
The Hong Kong daily believes that “Li's return to Yunnan may be a direct response to the heightened tensions in northern Myanmar which has seen a flood of refugees flee into Yunnan, which is threatening social stability in the province.”
One morale of the story, if China wants, as per the words of President Xi Jinping, to be a ‘normal’ State, it can’t afford anymore to take ‘revolution’ to its neighbours, like Mao did.
In the coming months, China will have to match its words and actions. It is in Beijing’s own interest.

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