Far from the glare of the global media, which keeps its focus resolutely on the barbaric assaults of the Islamic State, India’s northeastern neighbour Myanmar is witnessing a violent churn. The Myanmarese army is waging a grim battle on its northern frontier bordering China against a powerful local militia, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. Several hundreds have lost their lives, thousands have been injured and more than a hundred thousand people have taken refuge in China following the outbreak of hostilities.
The Kokang Special Region is a semi-autonomous territory of Myanmar. Nearly 90 per cent of the local population in Kokang identify ethnically as Han Chinese. From 1969, the region was ruled by a local strongman Pheung Kya-shin, in his capacity as the chief of Communist Party of Burma. In 1989, the CPB split, but Pheung managed to retain control over the territory by setting up his private militia, the MNDAA. The central leadership soon reached an agreement with him, leaving Pheung the undisputed leader of Kokang. The truce held for nearly two decades.
The tenuous peace was broken in 2009 when the central government ordered the disbanding all private militias and making its members join the border guard forces. There are a number of autonomous regions in Myanmar and most of them have their own independent militia groups. The situation worsened after the army raided a drug factory, which was believed to be owned by Pheung. In the past he had legalised the sale of heroin in Kokang and permitted the cultivation of opium, although he reversed the decision later. However, there have been doubts about his links to drug trade.
Pheung also faced challenge from his number two in MNDAA, Bai Suoqian, who toed the army line. The army, therefore, threw its weight behind Bai, and after a fight which went on for a few months, Pheung was defeated and was forced to flee. For nearly six years, there was no news about him till an interview with him appeared in the English language Chinese daily Global Times. Almost immediately after the interview, guerilla ambushes increased in Kokang, and in December, six soldiers were killed.
On February 9, MNDAA rebels launched a major attack on army positions near Laukai, Kokang’s administrative capital. Coming just three days before the Myanmar’s Union Day, which was the government’s deadline for a nation-wide ceasefire with ethnic armed forces. “Launching offensives against a self-administered zone to oust the mandated Kokang autonomous body is an offence to the sovereignty of the zone. We can’t let this happen. We have no plans to negotiate a ceasefire,” said U. Zaw Htay, an official with the president’s office.
Myanmarese officials alleged that the rebels were receiving support from China, at least from local-level officials. They said many of the MNDAA fighters were mercenary soldiers from China, demobilised from the People’s Liberation Army. An MNDAA spokesperson, however, said they were not permitted to enter China. “If we enter, they arrest us. We are not allowed to get into China.” He denied government claims that many of the rebel fighters were PLA soldiers. “We are all ethnic Kokang,” he said. The Chinese government, too, has denied reports that it was behind the rebel forces, even while giving nearly a lakh refugees entry into China.
Observers, meanwhile, point out that China is unlikely to support the rebels since Chinese companies have invested massively in Myanmar and any instability in the country could lead to huge losses. According to recent estimates, Chinese investments in Myanmar are worth $14.25 billion. Moreover, China sources nearly 12 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually from Myanmar and has also set up an oil pipeline, which has begun testing early this year. Myanmar, in fact, forms a vital cog in China’s strategy to reduce its dependence on Middle East oil and its stability is of paramount importance to China.
The Myanmarese government is also worried about the lucrative border, trade routes in Kokang. Most of these are illegal routes and are used for trafficking drugs, jade, illegally-felled timber and rare animals. If the rebels reassert control over the region and the routes, it will be a massive blow for the central government and could also lead to the secession of the Kokang Special Region.
Another headache for the government is the newly-forged alliance between various rebel groups across the country. After hostilities broke out between MNDAA guerillas and government forces, other rebel groups like the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and Shan State Army-North have reportedly joined hands with their MNDAA brethren. If the government loses the battle, it could lead to a surge in rebel movements all across the country, seriously threatening the future of Myanmar.