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Why Kokang Rebels Are Giving Fits to Burma’s Military

The Kokang rebels are stubbornly hanging on near the Chinese border. Despite fierce fighting, Burma's military can't dislodge them -- and China is watching.

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This week Burma’s armed forces issued an ominous warning to the media: Watch what you say about the Kokang rebels.

For the past three months the military has been conducting a ferocious undeclared war against ethnic Kokang guerrillas in a remote region in northeast Burma, along the border with China. The fighting has been going on since the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Kokang separatist group, launched attacks on Feb. 9 to take back land it lost to the Burmese military in 2009.

Now military officials have declared the MNDAA to be an “unlawful association,” which makes it illegal, under current regulations, for any media organizations to report statements issued by the group. Any journalists who violate the ban could be punished with up to three years in prison.

So what are the generals so worried about? Surely the MNDAA isn’t inherently different from any of the other ethnic armed groups that are meeting this week for peace talks with Burmese officials — and no one is banning reporters from relaying statements by the representatives of those groups, who are participating in a process that is tacitly approved by the government. But there are two factors that make the Kokang issue especially sensitive.

First, there’s the uncomfortable fact that the Burmese armed forces have notably failed to make much headway against the MNDAA and its allies. Last month, the military intensified its push against the Kokang in an attempt to regain strategically crucial territory before the approaching monsoon season. Burmese commanders have sent tens of thousands of troops into the mountainous region, supported by aircraft and artillery. Yet despite all this, the Burmese army — whose half a million soldiers make it the second largest in Southeast Asia — has been struggling to defeat the Kokang forces, which number only around 2,000.

The Kokang appear to have been inflicting some significant casualties. Though the Burmese side has so far refrained from making any official announcements about its losses, information circulating on social media doesn’t look encouraging. A Kokang website claims that at least seven Burmese officers were killed during clashes last week. Other Kokang and Chinese sites have posted photos of corpses and captured government troops as well as images of rifles and Swedish-made anti-tank weapons captured from the Burmese.

The Burmese state media have tried to make up for the embarrassing losses by reporting that the military has succeeded in capturing “key hills” in the region. But most independent observers in Burma see little reason to take the claim at face value. “Over the past two months the army sacrificed hundreds of soldiers just to capture two or three hill posts,” says U Than Soe Naing, a political writer and former communist fighter. “But the rebels have been using guerrilla warfare to inflict high casualties on the Burmese side at relatively little cost to themselves.”

The second factor that complicates the military’s attitude toward the Kokang is the role of China. The Kokang are ethnic Chinese, and even though Beijing firmly disavows any ties with the group, it clearly has close ties with people on the Chinese side of the border. And even though Burma and China love to tout their “strategic partnership,” the Kokang issue is once again becoming an irritant to their relations.

Beijing was already upset by the previous flare-up of fighting in the area back in 2009, when a surprise offensive by the Burmese military pushed the MNDAA back toward the border, driving tens of thousands of refugees into China. After that incident, Beijing sent a team of Chinese scholars to the Sino-Burmese border to take a closer look at the situation in the region. Before this the Chinese government had left the handling of problems with Burma’s ethnic Chinese minorities to the local authorities in Yunnan province. But since then Beijing has taken them under its direct supervision.

Ultimately Beijing and Naypyidaw managed to paper over the problems. But this time around matters are turning out to be more complicated. Now the Burmese military appears to be putting significantly more resources and firepower into its offensive, which has also, evidently, increased the risk of things going wrong. In March, Burmese planes mistakenly dropped a bomb on the Chinese side of the border, killing five Chinese farmers working in a sugar-cane field. Beijing was not happy.

After the bomb incident, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, made an emergency call to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the Burmese armed forces. The Chinese general warned Burma to exert “serious control” over its troops, saying that Beijing will be forced to respond if anything like that happens again. The Burmese got the message. President Thein Sein immediately dispatched his foreign minister to Beijing with an apology, where he was received by his stone-faced Chinese counterpart.

“The situation is still very complicated,” says U Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese political observer in China’s Yunnan province. “Neither side [in the Kokang fight] can win; neither side can get a decisive result. So China wants the Burmese military to talk with the Kokang. The Burmese army has no choice. Their key ally wants them to end the war.”

The tension between the Burmese and their Chinese friends could have interesting repercussions for the domestic political situation in Burma. The Chinese have sent a clear signal that they aren’t happy with Thein Sein’s handling of the crisis. Beijing sees the Burmese president as an essentially pro-Western figure, an assessment dating back to the moment in 2011 when he suspended a high-profile dam project agreed upon with the Chinese. That decision, which signaled a fundamental realignment in Burma’s foreign-policy priorities, earned Thein Sein praise in the West — but his reputation in Beijing never really recovered.

Now, as a result of the Kokang mess, Beijing has apparently decided to make an open show of where its sympathies lie. On April 27, the powerful speaker of the lower house of the Burmese parliament, Shwe Mann, met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Xi told Shwe Mann — who is also the head of Burma’s ruling party — that China and Burma should take a long-term view of their relationship, work to maintain peace and stability on the border, and carry out policies that will benefit the people and development of the two nations.

Interestingly, back at home Shwe Mann is widely regarded as close to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has also been presenting Beijing’s Burma policy with some tricky choices over the past few years. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly regard her status as Burma’s leading pro-democracy activist with a certain degree of caution. Yet her welcoming stance toward Chinese investment in Burma has done much to allay Beijing’s reservations.

Over the short term, though, the Kokang issue isn’t going to go away — and the fact that Naypyidaw continues to exclude the MNDAA from the peace process with other armed ethnic groups certainly doesn’t help. And senior government officials have recently confirmed that they don’t have any interest in opening talks with the Kokang. In an interview with the Burmese-language service of the Voice of America, U Zaw Htay, deputy director of the office of the president, cited one main reason for the reluctance to open a dialogue: “the many casualties suffered by the Burmese armed forces in the Kokang conflict.”

In the photo, Burmese soldiers patrol in Laukkai, the main city in the Kokang region.
Photo credit: -/AFP/Getty Images

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