Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is China Two-timing the Generals?

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s military junta has to compete with ethnic groups such as the Wa, the Kokang and the Shan to win Beijing’s favor

China is the Burmese military junta’s most influential partner—economically, politically and militarily. But despite the close relationship, Beijing has long enjoyed a discreet affair—a private relationship with the ethnic groups along Burma’s northeastern frontier.

As far back as the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary government armed and funded several Shan, Kachin, Kokang and Wa ethnic armies, drawing them into the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and backing their struggle against the socialist government of Gen Ne Win.

The United Wa State Army is among the strong ethnic armies in northern Burma that Chinese officials are courting.
However, the anticipated opening in 2012 of a gas pipeline from Burma to China, which will traverse many of the ethnic areas, and the regime’s need to consolidate its power over unruly factions before next year’s election, might force the generals in Naypyidaw to confront the superpower about its relations with the ethnic insurgents.

Many Chinese businessmen, for their part, would rather continue to enjoy the profits they are able to generate from the mostly illegal trade—such as narcotics, jade, exotic animals and timber—from Shan and Kachin states.

And Beijing has shown recently that it is willing to exert a subtle—and not so subtle—influence on behalf of the ethnic groups.

On August 8, about 10,000 villagers fled to the Sino-Burmese border to escape a possible skirmish between the Burmese army and the Kokang troops of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Tensions had been brought to a head when a unit of Burmese government soldiers attempted to raid a warehouse—probably thought to be an arms cache—belonging to Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng.

When Chinese and Burmese officials met the following day to discuss the issue of the fleeing villagers, the Chinese delegation reportedly scolded their Burmese counterparts and told them it was their responsibility to resolve the matter peacefully.

It was a slap in the face for the Burmese generals who, more than ever, needed their friends in Beijing to stand on their side.

In the last few months, Burmese military commanders have been busy traveling to the mountainous jungle terrain of Kachin and Shan states to meet the leaders of the ethnic armies deemed least likely to conform to the junta’s plans to transform their soldiers into “border guard forces”— the MNDAA, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Shan State Army-North.

Although the five ethnic armies are among 17 groups that have signed ceasefire deals with the junta, they have refused to accept the border guard role, which would include placing their troops under the control of Burmese regional commanders.

A deadline for the ceasefire groups to respond to the regime’s border guard plan went unanswered at the end of June.

“On July 29, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut and his deputy, Brig-Gen Hla Myint Aung of the Northeast Command went to the Kokang region [home of the MNDAA] and two days later, traveled to Wa territory,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst on the Sino-Burmese border. “However, they failed to convince the ethnic leaders to join them.”

In an attempt to intimidate the ethnic armies, the junta sent three additional battalions to areas near the Wa and Kokang territories in late July.

However, with an estimated 20,000 armed men, the UWSA is a force to be reckoned with. As a standoff continued into August, the matter of Chinese favoritism came significantly into play.

In December 2008, Wa and Kachin leaders wrote a joint letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao requesting their support in the struggle for autonomous rights for ethnic groups on the Sino-Burmese border.

“We solemnly ask the Chinese government to relay our request to the Myanmar [Burmese] government: first, we support the constitutional reform. When the new government forms in 2010, the leadership based on national public elections should promise to leaders of the autonomous states that they will be part of the high leadership of the new government… and build upon the method of management of China’s autonomous regions,” they wrote.

The Burmese junta, in turn, also reportedly asked Beijing to help resolve the tension with the ethnic groups. Chinese negotiators sat in the privileged position of being able to hold separate meetings with representatives of both camps.

One ethnic leader who asked not to be identified said Beijing had assured him that his group will not have to disarm.

However, China well understands that the generals in Naypyidaw are their highly valued and consistent business partners, and they hold the key to strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand, many of the commanders of the armed ethnic groups, in particular the Wa, the Kokang and the NDAA, have long been allies of the Chinese Communist Party and, in some cases, fought alongside the Chinese People’s Liberation Army decades ago.

When the Wa, Kokang, the NDAA and other ethnic troops split from the CPB in 1989, Communist insurgency came to an abrupt end in Burma.

The UWSA, the MNDAA and the NDAA signed ceasefire agreements later that year with the Burmese regime, which was fronted by former spy chief Gen Khin Nyunt.

Then, in 1994, another major armed faction, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese generals.

In hindsight, the Burmese leaders may feel that their ceasefire agreements with the Wa and Kokang in particular were too focused on temporary strategies rather than being based on political agreements aimed at long-term stability.

However, it seemed at the time that the traditionally pro-Chinese ethnic insurgents were being lured into Rangoon’s sphere of influence.

The Burmese regime has often turned a blind eye to the trafficking of heroin and opium from the northern states. With the freedom to conduct a trade in narcotics, many warlords in Shan state modernized their operations by shifting production to amphetamines and methamphetamines, the drugs of choice for the younger generation.

The proliferation of the drugs trade has forced Beijing to rethink its drugs policy along the Yunnanese border because drug addiction has exploded in the past decade in its southwestern province.

Beijing introduced its Green Drug Prevention Plan to encourage opium farmers in the Golden Triangle area of Burma, Laos and Thailand to grow alternative crops. In 2006, the Chinese State Council approved 250 million yuan (US $36.5 million) for a plan that widened its support for opium farmers in Laos and Burma.

In response to Beijing’s anti-narcotics policy, the Kokang followed suit by suppressing poppy farming in 2003 while the Wa declared their state an opium-free zone in 2005.

China proudly declared that—thanks to its initiatives—poppy farms had been reduced in the Golden Triangle region from 36,000 hectares in 2004 to 13,000 hectares in 2006.

However, according to an official report from Yunnan Province, between 2005 and 2008, Chinese police seized 12.9 tons of heroin, 4.5 tons of opium and 9.3 tons of crystal methamphetamine (known on the street as “ice”), which had been smuggled from Burma.

Chinese officials and experts recognize that the Sino-Burmese border issues have wider implications.

Although Chinese diplomats had steadfastly repeated at the United Nations Security Council that the Burma issue was an internal affair, they began criticizing the junta leadership privately during bilateral talks in 2007.

“Decades of turmoil in Myanmar have shown that the problems the country have today are not only political, but also economic, and above all, ethnic,” said Xiaolin Guo, the author of “Towards Resolution: China in the Myanmar Issue.”

“The Chinese government, which itself completed the necessary steps of state-building within half a decade after the founding of the PRC [People’s Republic of China], now sees the imperative of national reconciliation in Myanmar as a necessary step in achieving political integration,” she said.

According to an official statement, China’s current policy on Burma is specifically oriented toward three goals—stability, development and national reconciliation.

What Beijing’s strategists are undoubtedly weighing up at the moment is whether their traditional allegiance to the ethnic groups along their Burmese border is worth jeopardizing the relationship with their fickle mistress in Naypyidaw.

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