Junta Renews ‘Divide-and-Rule’ Tactic in Shan State

Two decades of ceasefire agreements between the Burmese junta and northern ethnic armies have collapsed as armed clashes broke out on Thursday when the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and its ethnic allies opened fire on Burmese troops around the Kokang capital of Laogai.

Government troops took over Laogai on Monday without firing a single shot.

According to informed border sources, skirmishes continued from Thursday morning into Friday. Government troops fired artillery rounds into MNDAA positions, reportedly killing one Chinese civilian. One government policeman also has died, sources said.

Border guards and the regime’s constitution

Tension between the regime and ethnic ceasefire groups in northern Shan state increased steadily over the past few months as the junta began pressuring cease-fire groups to disarm and transform into a border guard force in April, in accordance with the new 2008 constitution which calls for all ethnic armies to be under the control of the regime.

Cease-fire groups such as the Wa, Kachin, Shan State Army [North] and Kokang have all rejected the guard force proposal. Wa and Kokang delegates who attended the military-sponsored National Convention in Rangoon spoke out against the clause in the draft constitution, saying it limited the autonomy of ethnic minorities.

Aung Moe Zaw, a secretary with the exiled umbrella opposition National Council of Union of Burma, said the recent conflict clearly grows out of the flawed approval process of the constitution in 2008.

The ethnic minorities also are uphappy about the junta’s so-called “7-steps to democracy” process leading up to the 2010 national election.

Why the Kokang?

Why did the junta’s generals choose to confront the Kokang leaders first?

The Kokang army, with about 800 troops, is weaker than other ethnic armies, and its leaders clearly opposed placing their troops under government control. The Kokang are widely known to be heavily involved in the illicit drug trade.

Compared to the 20,000 Wa soldiers in the UWSA and the 4,000 Kachin soldiers with the KIA, the Kokang army presents an easy target.

The regime first launched a public relations offensive, linking Peng Jiasheng to the illicit drug trade. Bertil Linter, a Swedish journalist, noted the irony of the charge, considering that until recently Peng Jiasheng was always wheeled out to meet foreigner visitors including UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and presented as “a leader of the local nationals.”

The regime was also well aware of internal conflict among the Kokang leaders, and when Peng Jiasheng abandoned his headquarters in Laogai, it quickly put together a pro-regime Kokang faction to challenge the leadership of the MNDAA. It is a proven regime divide-and-rule tactic that was used successfully on Karen rebels in 1995.

“They [the junta] will replay the old game—create a proxy group then say two things: it’s a dispute over drugs and other criminal acts and it has nothing to do with the Tatamadaw [the armed forces],” said Min Zin, a US-based contributor to The Irrawaddy.

China’s role

China has repeatedly called for political stability on the northern border and for national reconciliation, and it is worried about a migration of refugees into Chinese territory.

It is difficult to gauge how China will deal with the armed clashes, but it has offered political support in the past to ethnic Wa, Kachin and Kokang along the border, while also supporting the junta.

On Thursday, the Secretary 1 of the junta, Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, met with the visiting Chinese Deputy Commerce Minister Chen Jian in Naypyidaw.

Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, the information minister and an important member of the junta, met with the Chinese Cultural Counselor Charge d’ Affairs, Gao Hua, in the capital on Wednesday. Chinese officials were expected to raise the issue about the conflict along the northern border opposite Yunnan Province.

It is believed that senior Chinese and Burmese officials continue to hold meetings in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, according to sources on the border.

During the meetings, Chinese officials reportedly have warned their Burmese counterparts, charging that Burmese soldiers crossed into Chinese territory this week.

According to the state-run China Daily, Song Qingrun, a senior researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that the situation on the border will have no impact on China-Burma relations.

Song, however, added it will hurt local businesses and border trade as more than 10,000 Chinese businessmen and workers live in Kokang-controlled territory where up to 90 percent of the businesses are owned by Chinese.

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