Many things in Myanmar are changing – the economy, the government, infrastructure. Others, like violent ethnic conflict, seem destined to stay the same. For the past three months, the government of Myanmar has been fighting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic rebel army based on the country’s border with China. The MNDAA are predominantly made up of ethnic Kokang fighters. The Kokang are ethnically Han Chinese and the live in Kokang region, in Myanmar’s Shan state.
The MNDAA initiated the conflict by storming Kokang’s largest city, Laukkai, on 9 February 2015. Over the past four months, the government has aimed to reassert control over the region and its agriculture, as well as disarm the MNDAA. The government of Myanmar extended martial law over Kokang region on 15 May 2015.
The violence in Kokang has accompanied ongoing ceasefire talks between the government and 16 other ethnic armies, who agreed on a ceasefire draft on 31 March 2015. Previous agreements fell through because the language of the agreements weakened ethnic groups’ legal protection and the government had refused the other ethnic armies’ demands that the MNDAA be included in ceasefire talks, which began in 2013. Government forces continued operations in Kokang even after the MNDAA declared its own ceasefire on 11 June 2015, and on 24 June 2015 offered to begin discussing peace only if the MNDAA surrendered and gave up their weapons. This attitude suggests the government of Myanmar prioritizes undermining the MNDAA over negotiating peace. Moreover, history shows that a ceasefire or even a surrender may not end the violence.
CURRENT CONFLICT DISPLACES THOUSANDS
The MNDAA — along with two other ethnic armies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army, all of which are based in Shan state — positioned their forces in towns and outposts throughout Kokang months before they finally launched attacks on 9 February. MNDAA forces began their attack by shelling the targeted cities and outposts. The Myanmar Army (also known as the Tatmadaw) responded by moving its forces into the besieged cities, and used artillery and airstrikes to support their advance, outgunning the rebels. Nevertheless, Tatmadaw officials admitted MNDAA troops were better armed and seemed better organized on the battlefield than previous skirmishes.
More than 100,000 Kokang civilians fled to Yunnan province within the first few weeks of fighting. Tens of thousands of refugees settled in refugee camps along or across the border, but in early March, China began to evict refugees from camps near the border, either relocating them to other camps or forcing them to return to Myanmar.
The combat itself has also spilled over the border into Yunnan province. The Tatmadaw used artillery and airstrikes on MNDAA positions in which, Tatmadaw claimed, heavy forestation made acquiring accurate targets difficult. As a result their air force bombed Chinese territory twice. On 8 March, one bomb went off course and exploded in a field in Lincang, Yunnan, destroying property and causing a forest fire, but not directly killing or injuring anyone.
On 13 March, the Tatmadaw was not so lucky in avoiding collateral damage, bombing a sugarcane farm and killing four and injuring nine Chinese citizens. Beijing swiftly rebuked Myanmar for the deaths of innocent Chinese citizens, and demanded an investigation into the bombing operation. Myanmar apologized for the incident and promised it would never again allow for Chinese nationals to be killed. Beijing agreed to not intervene in Myanmar’s fighting with the MNDAA, but has stepped up its security along the border between Kokang and Yunnan with ground patrols and fighter jet sorties.
Both the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw warn civilians that the opposing side will abuse any civilians they come across, and the accusations are not unfounded. Neither army, however does much to prevent or punish soldiers who harass, rob, shoot, or rape civilians. There is also a long history of the Tatmadaw committing war crimes, and both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armies are accused of using child soldiers. On 17 February the MNDAA ambushed a Tatmadaw convoy of soldiers, Red Cross personnel, and at least two journalists, wounding two. The MNDAA denied the attack, but has continued to target humanitarian aid operations and even fleeing civilians. The attack mirrored an ambush in 10 December 2014 that resulted in seven dead and 20 wounded, for which MNDAA also denied responsibility.
EARLIER CONFLICT SET THE STAGE
The MNDAA launched its attack in 2015 to regain control of the Kokang region, which the Tatmadaw has occupied since a short but politically significant series of battles in 2009. While the most recent skirmish before 2015 was the ambush in 2014, the 2009 offensive lay more of the foundation for this year’s conflict. Tensions that led to the 2009 conflict began when the Myanmar government urged ethnic armies — which it refers to as “ceasefire groups” when negotiating — to assimilate into the Tatmadaw as border patrol divisions. Most ethnic armies vehemently opposed this because it would have completely undermined ethnic groups’ autonomy. Aside from losing political control of its soldiers, the MNDAA also did not want to allow the Myanmar government to expand its ownership of agricultural land in Kokang.
The 2009 conflict began to escalate on 8 August of that year, when Burmese forces raided a factory in Kokang suspected to be a drug lab and surrounded the residence of Peng Jiasheng, the leader of the MNDAA.
Thousands of Kokang residents fled the area as soon as MNDAA seized Laukkai, the capital city of the Kokang region, on 20 August. After the MNDAA advised residents to “prepare” as Tatmadaw forces closed in on the city, more refugees followed, to the point of Laukkai being virtually abandoned. The next few days saw an apparent schism within the MNDAA over whether to support the 2008 Myanmar constitution and assimilate into the Tatmadaw. The splinter group allowed Burmese forces to enter Laukkai unopposed, and then assisted them in fighting from then on.
The schism reveals that limited negotiations, as opposed to ending violence in lasting way, are the priority for some rebels. Each conflict is a way to potentially get better treatment or concessions, and this gambit has a long history. Kokang fighters and their fellow Burmese Communist Party (BCP) rebels — who later became part of MNDAA — were among the first to agree to the last major ceasefire between the Myanmar government and many ethnic armies in 1989. The 1989 ceasefire guaranteed ethnic groups could keep their weapons and land, as well as continue their illegal drug, weapons, and human trafficking operations.
Now, the violence has likely destroyed any progress the 1989 ceasefire created. The MNDAA has attempted to participate in the newest ceasefire negotiations by joining two inter-faction organizations, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), but the Myanmar government refuses to allow the MNDAA to sit at the negotiation table.
Even the recent agreements did not address many controversial issues, and was mostly an overture for future meetings. Moreover, a new national constitution drafted in 2008 caused severe discord between Myanmar and most ethnic groups because of the language concerning the degree of autonomy ethnic minorities will be afforded, and it has yet to be officially accepted by the MNDAA and other groups. If the Myanmar government refuses to allow ethnic armies military autonomy and affords them more freedom over land ownership while extending them development aid, there is a chance negotiations can move forward, but if it demands rebel groups accept the 2008 constitution, nothing will change.
BLOOD IS THICKER THAN BORDERS
The Kokang region has a long history of bridging the cultural gap between China and Myanmar. During the fall of Ming Dynasty, Ming loyalists fled to Yunnan and Kokang, which was almost beyond the reach of the ascendant Qing Dynasty during the 1600s. After the Communists took power in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang forces fled to Kokang to regroup and prepare to reclaim China from the Communists, which never happened. Before the current conflict, many Chinese conducted legal business in Kokang.
The fact that the Kokang are ethnic Han Chinese gives the MNDAA more opportunities to curry favor with Chinese nationals living nearby. Some Kokang refugees are even able to live with their Yunnanese relatives. The MNDAA leader, Peng Jiashaneg, is attempting to rally support from Beijing or at least nationalist Chinese by exploiting Chinese insecurities about Myanmar opening up to the rest of the international community. Peng claimed Myanmar’s violence against the Kokang and other ethnic groups are actions encouraged by the United States.
Peng may be ineffective at changing the course of official Burmese-Chinese relations, but his rhetoric is enough to maintain sympathy from Chinese citizens who voluntarily smuggle in money or supplies, and to attract mercenaries with promises of earning about 30,000 RMB a month, which is roughly five times the income of the average farmer in Yunnan and other nearby provinces. MNDAA denies the use of hiring Chinese nationals as mercenaries, but there is evidence of the practice. Myanmar also accuses the Yunnan government of assisting MNDAA forces with funds and supplies, but Beijing denies providing any official military support to the MNDAA. That doesn’t mean that all officials follow Beijing’s orders. One Chinese official named Huang Xing, former senior strategist for the People’s Liberation Army, faces charges of leaking state secrets and diverting funds to MNDAA in Myanmar since 2009.
Despite the outpouring of moral and financial support from individual Chinese citizens, Beijing does not consider the continued fighting to be a strategic benefit to China, nor the plight of the Kokang people to be worth expending resources on. On the contrary, instability in Myanmar presents an economic, and now human, cost to China and complicates Burmese-Chinese relations. Myanmar is meant to be a trade partner and a link between other countries along China’s proposed Silk Roads. Because China prefers to do business with governments, the ethnic groups cannot offer China anything that the Myanmar government isn’t already providing. But as much as China blames the rebels, not the government, for causing the strife, China is getting more frustrated with Myanmar’s apparent inability or unwillingness to end its conflicts and reach harmonious political resolutions.
Both the current conflict and the 2009 conflict took place mere months before general elections. The Myanmar government and the MNDAA both have reasons to fight so soon before the elections. If the Tatmadaw successfully quells the ongoing rebellion, it will reflect positively on the government in its path toward establishing a unified Myanmar that is under the control of one effective military. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party won the 2010 election, which most of the international community considered fraudulent, but the Myanmar government still considers maintaining an image of strength to be a top priority. If the MNDAA at least continues to put up a fight during and after the elections, it will earn more political sway and bargaining power in regards to ensuring that the implementation of ceasefires provide equitable rights to ethnic minorities. It is possible the MNDAA would sue for peace some time around voting day in hopes of getting MNDAA members into government positions and achieving representation for Kokang at the ceasefire negotiations. The MNDAA and most other ethnic armies, including the 16 groups included in the recent ceasefire agreement, all want Myanmar to be a politically unified state but want to exercise autonomy.
KING OF THE HILLS
Beyond political capital and bargaining chips, all factions desire the tangible source of power in Myanmar: land. Control of land and the production of opium, rubber, bananas, and timber is central to the power dynamic between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups. Kokang was declared opium-free after a ban was enacted in 2003, but the region continues to produce large amounts of opium because it is more lucrative and easier to transport than most other crops. Ethnic armies make most of their money from opium and methamphetamine production, prostitution and human trafficking, gun smuggling, illegal logging, gambling, and extorting locals.
After the Tatmadaw took control of Kokang, many military elites took ownership of vast plots of land and converted most of the fields to mass production of rubber. Myanmar supplies China with rubber, which is in high demand in China, as well as timber, which is in such great demand that an epidemic of illegal logging is spreading throughout Southeast Asian countries. The rubber Myanmar produces is of lower quality and efficiency than other rubber-producing countries, however, because their cultivation practices are less advanced. Moreover, the price of rubber crashed around the world because of the overproduction that followed so many countries prioritizing rubber cultivation
Myanmar’s rubber industry reveals how smoothly the revolving door swings for Tatmadaw officials who become government policy-makers or private land barons. In 2009, upon the Burmese army securing Kokang, the government confiscated many peasants’ land and gave insufficient compensation or none at all. This was a reversal of MNDAA’s gains in the 1989 ceasefire. Land was either given to companies to develop infrastructure or grow rubber, or owned by individual military elites. Myanmar is able to confiscate so much land because most peasants do not have formal titles to their land. The only documentation they might have are land tax receipts; but the slash-and-burn agriculture that most ethnic minority people in the hill regions practice is not considered a legitimate use of land, and so their receipts are not accepted by the Myanmar government when officials move in.
The glut of rubber production doesn’t seem to be dissipating in the near future; therefore, if Myanmar continues to dump a large portion of its money into mass-production of poor quality rubber, the country’s economy will suffer. However, one should not consider the MNDAA to be nobler stewards of the land. They continue to prioritize lucrative yet illegal business, particularly producing and trafficking opium and methamphetamine, which contributes to the region’s drug abuse epidemic and puts farmers at risk of losing everything if Tatmadaw troops come through and destroy or confiscate their illicit agriculture.
It is unlikely that the MNDAA will be able to wrest full control of Kokang away from the Burmese government purely through military force, but it could use political means to secure its autonomy. If the MNDAA continues to fend off Tatmadaw troops until it can win more political sympathy near election time, it stands a chance of cementing its interests in the discourse of Myanmar and the international community. Pressure from China will most likely make Myanmar nervous about further escalating the conflict, although they have been slow to retreat from the border with Yunnan. If another bomb accidentally kills Chinese citizens or if violence reaches refugee camps, China would increase its border security even more and strengthen its rhetoric against Myanmar, but it would not intervene on behalf of MNDAA. Beijing’s cares more for increasing cross-border trade and thus China’s interest in the conflict is only in its swift resolution . Individual Chinese citizens, especially in Yunnan, will continue to watch the conflict carefully. While Chinese citizens have no input in Beijing’s actions or priorities, Myanmar has an interest in not allowing the refugee crisis to worsen, lest it anger the Yunnanese provincial government and citizenry.
As the elections approach, Suu Kyi’s democratic rhetoric may help apply pressure to the Thein Sein administration to negotiate with rebels. While Suu Kyi herself does not champion all ethnic minority movements in Myanmar — she has been surprisingly tight-lipped about the Rohingya crisis for some time — having anyone challenge the ruling party could give MNDAA a better chance in gaining from the election process.
Any resolution to the conflict will involve the Myanmar government accepting ethnic groups’ demands to revise the 2008 constitution, but negotiations will most likely not affect the economic regime of Myanmar’s periphery. Moreover, the previous several decades have been a roller coaster of conflict and ceasefire in which the Burmese army seizes ethnic minority communities’ land and then returns it after bloody fighting and meager compromises. Such cyclical violence makes every ceasefire less valuable in contributing to substantial social and economic growth. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the MNDAA will accept the government’s offer to surrender as the only way to negotiating peace, as this would gravely reduce people’s ability to resist the Tatmadaw’s bullying in Kokang. The only solution to long-term problems like drug production and illegal logging is to include ethnic minorities in the post-conflict economic development of the country. If the international community wants to participate in Myanmar’s societal recovery, it should demand more equitable agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic minorities and more humane treatment of civilians, or else the cycle of unequal ceasefires, violence, and land confiscation will continue to disastrous effect.