Danger of border skirmishes escalating

Burmese military action against Chinese-backed ethnic armies could explode into wider conflict on its northern border

It has always been said that China is Burma’s closest ally. Given the fact that the junta doesn’t have many friends, one like China will always stand out. But the not-so-honorific label of “closest ally” should be understood in its proper context. For the Burmese, Chinese friendship doesn’t mean the world.

Nonetheless, such a friend could very well come in handy, especially when the international community and the United Nations are constantly looking to clobber the generals with sanctions and criticism.

For the Burmese regime, survival is everything. Where it positions its troops and weapons, and the type of legislation and reconciliation process that it proposes, reinforce the very idea that it is here to stay whether the world likes it or not.

For as long as anybody can remember, China has been a factor whenever a Burma policy and strategy is drafted by the international community. Over a decade ago, when Rangoon’s membership of Asean was on the table, members of the regional grouping whispered among themselves about the Chinese factor. Keeping the Burmese out of the regional loop would push the junta further into the arms of the Chinese, they said.

But for the Burmese, Asean membership was not seen as a privilege but a right – simply because the country happens to be in the same geographical region. There was no “thank you” to Asean for letting the country become a member.

A handful of Thai diplomats thought a free ride for Burma in Asean would deny the regional grouping the only card it had to play against the junta. Their concerns were largely ignored by most of the other Asean members, who really didn’t give a hoot about the atrocities committed by the junta, or the political baggage that comes with Burma’s membership. And when Asean came under an unwanted spotlight or was at loggerheads with the international community, such as the European Union, over Burma’s participation, all the Burmese generals could do was shrug their shoulders. They just couldn’t care less. And so when the Burmese unleashed their troops against one of the minority cease-fire groups within the country, namely the Kokang, forcing tens of thousands people – including Yunnanese Chinese who have more or less seized northern Burma over the last few years – to flee for China, Beijing was jolted.

Thai military officials with direct experience of the Chinese often called them “masters of two-track diplomacy”. They pointed to China’s relations with the bloody Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, up until that regime’s dying days, and its historical ties with the ethnic armies that operate independently along Burma’s northern border.

Attacking the Kokang and turning their guns towards the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) afterwards was a rude awakening for the Chinese. If anything, the junta was telling its so-called “closest ally” that it is charting its own course. One could say that the Chinese finally got a taste of their own medicine.

For decades, Burma has given China access to its ample natural resources, and the Indian Ocean, in exchange for political support. Moreover, Chinese companies are set to start construction on a US$2.5 billion (Bt85.2billion) oil-and-natural- gas pipeline project that will run from the Indian Ocean to Yunnan’s capital of Kunming. But if one thinks that Burma is a Chinese lackey, think again.

It is clear that the two-decade-old ceasefire with the ethnic armies no longer serves Burmese purposes. From the generals’ perspective, a normal country shouldn’t have small armies operating independently on its soil, especially if those armies are proxies of a powerful neighbour.

Beijing expressed its concern back in June, and the ruling Burmese State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) said that it did not want to see disturbances along the Sino-Burmese border. But in the end, for the junta, domestic matters overtook any diplomatic concerns.

For too long Beijing turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed inside Burma, telling the world to stay out of Burma’s domestic matters. Self-serving interest has always been China’s political attitude towards Burma.

It’s different now, however, as China is directly affected by this so-called domestic matter.

If Beijing thinks it has a big headache with the 30,000 refugees fleeing the Burmese attack against the Kokang, then wait until the junta turns its guns on the UWSA. It could very well have a ripple effect, turning Burma’s entire northern border into a full-blown war zone if other cease-fire groups like the Chin, Kachin and Shan join the fight to keep their patches of real estate given to them two decades ago.

September 8, 2009 01:53 pm (Thai local time)

http://www.nationmu ltimedia. com/2009/ 09/08/opinion/ opinion_30111677 .php

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