Burma’s push to control border sends China into a spin
by Larry Jagan
Tuesday, 01 September 2009 21:55
Bangkok (Mizzima) – An uneasy calm has returned to the Chinese border with Burma after a series of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries.
A Burmese delegation led by Deputy Home Minister Brig-Gen Phone Swe met the Chinese Minister for Public Security Meng Jian at a high level meeting in China on Monday.
“Myanmar [Burma] has promised to restore peace and stability along the border as soon as possible,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu told reporters at a regular press conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
The two countries’ diplomats have been on an over-drive in the past week after the Burmese Army launched a surprise offensive to crush the Kokang ethnic rebel group along the border with China.
More than 30,000 refugees crossed the border late last week, fleeing the fighting, according to the Chinese authorities in Yunnan where they took shelter.
The attack on the Kokang, or the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) as they call themselves shocked Beijing and rocked its normally very close relations with the junta.
Since the fighting started there has been a flurry of urgent diplomatic activity by Beijing, as the Chinese government tried to stabilise the situation before it could really get out of hand. Bilateral meetings were held in Beijing and in the Burmese capital Naypitdaw. Alarmed and surprised, Beijing also sent hundreds of extra troops and armed policemen to the area to quell any potential violence.
The Chinese central authorities were extremely upset by the effect of the Burmese military actions along the border, and were furious they were not informed before-hand, according to a senior Chinese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. A senior diplomat flew last week to Naypyidaw to convey Beijing’s displeasure. Burma has now apologised for the instability caused across the Chinese border, according to Burmese Foreign Ministry officials.
The border is no longer a flash-point, a local Chinese official in Kunming, told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.
“Currently refugees are going back to Myanmar and we hope the situation on the China-Myanmar border can be restored quickly,” said Ms Jiang. “China and Myanmar are friendly neighbours and we hope to see Myanmar keep peace and stability,” she said.
But the whole affair has cast a long shadow over what has been believed by many to be a rock-hard relationship. It is now increasingly evident that a significant rift exits between the two countries that could have crucial implications for other countries in the region, and any approach the international community may take to encourage the Burmese military regime to introduce real political change.
This growing divergence between the two capitals could also still significantly affect the border region, as most of the ethnic groups – especially the Kachin, Kokang and the Wa – in this area have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta, but also have traditionally close ties with the Chinese authorities.
Economically and culturally the area is certainly closer to China than the Burmese regime. Thousands of Chinese businessmen and workers have migrated into northern Shan state over the last decade seeking employment and economic opportunities.
Many of these ethnic leaders go to Chinese hospital across the border for medical treatment and send their children to school in China. The Chinese language and even the Chinese currency the Renminbi are used throughout the Kokang and Wa areas in northern Shan state.
Anything, which forces Beijing to choose between their ethnic brothers inside Burma —the Kokang and the Wa — and the central government, will cause Beijing immense problems. And in the end will bring into sharp focus the real nature of the Burma-China axis.
The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and speak a Mandarin dialect, but have lived for many decades inside Burma. They have their own armed militia, and had been fighting the Burmese Army for several decades demanding autonomy until they agreed to a truce with the Burmese military regime in 1989.
Tensions have been mounting in border areas for months, as the Burmese military junta pressured the ethnic rebel cease-fire groups – particularly the Kachin, Kokang and Wa – to surrender their arms before the planned elections next year. The junta wants to integrate them into a Border Guard Force but these key ethnic groups along the Chinese border have been resisting the move.
“More confrontation and military encounters are expected in the following days and thousands of villagers are fleeing to the China-Burma border to avoid the war, and subsequent human rights abuses,” said a statement from the Kokang group, sent to Mizzima earlier this week.
The 20-year-old ceasefire agreement between the Burmese junta and the Kokang seems to have effectively ended, according to Burmese dissidents based in the Chinese town of Ruili not far from where the Kokang refugees crossed the border.
While fighting near the Chinese border may have ceased for the moment at least, the situation south of the Kokang capital and border town Lougai remains very tense. The road to Lashio is effectively closed because of continuing military operations against the Kokang guerrillas, according to UN sources in the area.
Now the fear is the government troops may try to move against the Wa, who would certainly fight back. Unlike the small Kokang guerrilla army, the Wa has more than 15,000 armed soldiers at their disposal.
There is a very strong risk of a return to armed conflict along the Chinese-Burmese border, according to a Chinese government official who closely follows events in Burma. “The problem is that the Wa are very close to the Chinese government, and it would be very hard for them to desert them at this crucial point in time,” he added.
Beijing is now in a major quandary. This move by the Burmese only strengthens suggestions recently that there has been a growing disenchantment within the Burmese regime towards China.
In the last few months, the Burmese junta has become disillusioned with Beijing, largely because of their failure to enthusiastically back the Burmese authorities’ attempts to disarm the rebel groups, especially those that enjoy a special relationship with China.
The enthusiastic reception for the US senator Jim Webb last week – usually only reserved for Heads of State, and only the most important at that – was a clear sign of the winds of change in Naypitdaw. In another indication of the Burmese rift with Beijing, this week’s Myanmar Times, a local weekly ran a short story on Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama visiting Taiwan, after it was approved by the censors, according to diplomats in Rangoon.
This is the first time the media in Burma has mentioned his name in more than 20 years – anything to do with the Tibetan leader makes Beijing bristle.
So China is currently wondering what to do. Their greatest fear is that Burma will suddenly ditch them and turn towards the West, especially the US.
“We could lose everything overnight,” one Chinese diplomat complained. Beijing has been anxiously watching the US’s renewed interest in Southeast Asia under the Obama administration and its attempts to re-invigorate its presence in the region. China sees this as a potential threat to its growing influence in the region – which it sees as its backyard.
The Chinese government understands that it cannot openly criticise Burma nor put too much pressure on the regime as this would be counter-productive.
“The Burmese leaders are very sensitive, so China cannot open its mouth for fear it will loose what ever influence it has with the military regime,” a Chinese government official told Mizzima recently.
So for the time being at least the Chinese are likely to take a softly-softly approach, but the crucial question remains can Beijing and Naypitdaw agree on how to handle the Wa. There may be a lot more brinkmanship between the two countries in the coming months, but the economic stakes are so high, both sides will want to find a peaceful solution to any future problems. But Burma may now feel it’s the mouse with a potentially big roar.