Racial conflicts inside Myanmar, a bigger trial of great powers’ strengths

by Fangzhou Zhao, a Chinese student of BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

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A warplane from Myanmar (Burma) killed four Chinese farmers (latest update confirmed five deaths) and injured nine after dropping a bomb in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, China state news agency reported Saturday. According to the report from the Xinhua News Agency, China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin called in Myanmar’s ambassador to Beijing Friday night, demanding an investigation and punishment of those responsible. The bomb hit a sugarcane field in Lincang, which borders Myanmar, on Friday afternoon. Similar incidents had occurred in the past week, a stray shell from Myanmar flattened a house in Chinese territory on 8th March, and just a day, a warplane entered Chinese air space, and crashed (reason unknown, but was widely believed be shot down by Chinese anti-air system) after dropped two bombs. According to the local social media Chinese military has gathered along the border and according to Fan Changlong, who is a deputy head of the powerful Central Military Commission, said Myanmar air force aircraft had crossed the border “many times” recently, and China’s military will take “decisive” measures if there is another attack by Myanmar forces on Chinese territory.

(Chinese anti-air units near the border and fight jets J-10 in Baoshan Airport, about 173km airline distance away from the conflict zone, source: Chinese bloggers.)

Since January, Myanmar government forces have been battling minority “rebels” on the border with China. China has urged Myanmar to “lower the temperature”. The conflict risks undermining Myanmar’s ceasefire talks which are arguably the cornerstone for the first democratic general election in October, 2015. Few western journalists have been drawn to this regional conflict, likely to due to the current crisis in Ukraine. This incident is the first time Chinese civilians have died along the Chinese-Burma border, which brought this particular issue to my attention.

Who are the Myanmar government fighting with?

An ethnic minority named “Kokang”, The Kokang people are an ethnic group within Myanmar. They are Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, administered as Kokang Special Region.

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Most Kokang are descendants of Chinese speakers who migrated to what is now Shan State in the 18th century due to the political pressure from Qing Dynasty. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the area was ruled by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), after the dissolution of that party in 1989 it became a special region of Burma which enjoys high degree of autonomy that allows them to have local ethnic armed force. This region was originally controlled by Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by Pheung Kya-shin, who is known as the “King of Kokang”

In 1949 he studied military affairs under Sao Edward Yang Kyein Tsai, the saopha of Kokang at that time, and became the captain of Yang’s defense force, where he remained until Yang’s was deposed by the Myanmar Armed Forces (the military junta ruling Burma) in 1965. Later that year because of the discrimination caused by Bamar-nationality-chauvinism, he established the “Kokang People’s Revolutionary Army” and began leading a small group of youth in guerilla warfare against the Myanmar Armed Forces. In April 1969, Kokang province was established with Pheung as its leader. For 20 years he controlled Kokang as a member of the CPB and supports were provided by the Chinese government in terms of trainings and armaments. In 1980, however, Pheung left CPB and established his own army, the MNDAA in 1989. After this he signed a cease-fire with the military junta, which allowed the Kokang army to retain their weapons, and established an autonomous Kokang region as the “First Special Region” of Myanmar, Pheung himself became the first chairman of this district.

However, despite 20 years of cease-fire, in 2008, the military junta proposed that the ethnic armies (so-called “cease-fire groups”) would be assimilated into the government military and converted into “border guards”. Most of the ethnic armies opposed this. Some political analysts claim that the junta’s motivation for this proposal is to “disarm” and “neutralize” the cease-fire groups before the Burmese general election (scheduled to take place in 2010). Tensions came to a head on 8 August, 2009 when the junta military, acting on a tip-off from China, moved into the region for a raid on a gun factory suspected of being a drug front and on Pheung’s home, which triggered the confrontation. On 27 August, the MNDAA began to open fire on junta troops outside the city. However the force led by Pheung was defeated and the government issued a statement on 30 August claiming that the fighting had ended and later formed a new “Kokang Region Provisional Leading Committee” in Laukkai, which is the capital of the district. Pheung himself disappeared for 5 years since the incident and showed up again and interviewed by a Chinese media last December, declared the desire to retake the Kokang self-administered zone, which it had controlled until 2009, conflict started from 9 February once the MNDAA who are loyal to Pheung’s leadership attacked Junta army outposts near the town of Mawhtike on, which led to the further conflicts and incidents happened in China.

The History of Myanmar—Why is there a racial conflict occurring?

Racial conflict has always been a key issue for Burma, disrupting national stability. Myanmar, a country with a major population of Bamar people (68%), with a profound history of being ruled by Buddhism, is deeply cursed by the endless ethnic conflicts along the north region. To a large extent the prosperity of Bamar nationalism and the history of colonization are the main causes of these unnecessary sanguinary clashes. Starting in 1824, when the British overran the Konbaung Dynasty, which was the last feudal dynasty and established their colonies through 3 Anglo-Burmese Wars between 1824 and 1885.

According to Statistics, there are more than 130 different tribes inside Burma, there are also many influential minorities such as Shan people, Karen people, Kachin people, Wa people, t who each have their own armed militias .In order to tackled down the revolt against British governance, which was dominated by Bamar population, the British authorities began to recruit minorities, for example the Kachin to suppress the local population, transferred the resistance to British governance into the internal hatreds between the majority and the minority, also British posed “divide and rule” policies, divided Burma into seven regions and seven states, meanwhile started to let more minorities be in charge of some key roles in the military to deepen the mutual hatred, the distrust built during this period is the root of everything happened contemporarily.

During this period of time, western ideology also began to influence the religious belief local ethnics, many ethnics for instance the Kachin people were deeply affected by the western ideology and changed their beliefs into Christianity, and this change became the main cause of the further confrontation between Kachin state and Myanmar government (as they oppose the assimilation policies which force them to believe in Buddhism).

Furthermore, the unequal economic development during the colonization also brought problems, as most Bamar population lived in the middle or south region which most of these regions are geographically plains, which was good for the capital transportation and developments, so industrialization majorly underwent in regions populated by Bamar people whereas most of the ethnic groups live near the borders are inside mountainous areas, which the productivities were far fall behind the Bamar region, lack of education also led to the prevalence of feudal thoughts, which was the main resistance during the unity of the state, suffered from poverty and low living standards, drug deals, weapons smuggling, prostitution and all other kinds of illegal business gradually gained popularities amongst this area, which eventually facilitated the Golden Triangle region, notorious for drug crimes and brutal violence. The worsen life expectancies brought by horrible living conditions and violence force many of the local ethnic armed force to recruit child soldiers in order to fill in the gap of not having enough man power.

Unfortunately all these ethnical problems did not be solved but even worsen by the Bamar nationalism once Burma was liberated from British Control in 1948, a year before a historical agreement was signed, which was named “Panglong Agreement”, this agreement guaranteed the autonomy of ethnic groups in their territories within Burma, however the agreement did not really put into force as one of the main drafter—General Aung San was assassinated by extremist, which led to the divergence between ethnic minorities and the government in terms of unscrambling the clauses of “Panglong Agreement” and the way of constructing a new nation state, the uprising Bamar nationalism after the independence also forced the government to cease the agreement after 5 months.

During this period, the internal conflict, however, was still limited and to a large extent was affected by the Cold-War stand-off between the East-West ideology, as some ethnic groups were manipulated and fought for the CPB, backed up by other communist regime such as China, to against the government and tried to establish a communist party leadership, this ideological intervention, again, worsen and complicate the relationships amongst different ethnic groups.

What was seen as the remarkable turning point was the coup in 1962 by General Ne Wen and established his junta government, who totally abandoned the spirit of “Panglong Agreement”, and started his ruthless suppression to the minorities, imposing assimilation policies by forcing the ethnic groups to adapt Bamar language and Buddhism—which is the official religion of Burma, this was strongly opposed by the minorities such as Kachin whose major population is now Christians.

Moreover, the Bamar-nationality-chauvinism provoked by the junta dictatorship promoted more discrimination and prosecution to the minorities. Even nowadays most minorities do not enjoy all the citizenships of Myanmar and some basic rights are proscribed in terms of the right to votes, the right to get employed and even the right to enter the capital city, lack of opportunities leads to the stagnation inside poverty, potentially created more confrontation and keep this vicious cycle going.

Prosecution to the minority Rohingya Muslim population was extremely serious. As a minority migrated from India and Bangladesh, used to be manipulated by the British colonists, in 1942 before the Japanese military took over Burma, authorized by the British Rohingya people massacred another minority named Rakhine. Since then the Rohingya Muslims are isolated from the mainstream society, and never attain the nationality from Myanmar government. For years this ethnic group has been expelling from one place to another, some military operation even directly pointed at this group that during 1991-1992 estimates suggest that about 200,000 Rohingya people escaped from Myanmar due to the genocide.

Overall, tensions increased during colonization, poor economic conditions along the border, the cold-war ideological conflict, the nationalistic policies posed by the junta government. It cannot be simply solved by the foreign intervention but to lay down the hatred and distrust, especially for Bamar people, the nationality-chauvinism is the root of every tragedy happens every day in Myanmar, like a well-known quote from an ethnical leader: “Myanmar does not have problem with ethnic minorities, the problem comes from the majority.”

The Voice from China

This incident pressured the Chinese government in terms of the domestic popular wills are more in favor of direct militarily intervention, to prevent further damage and loss of life. Today, the Chinese media and many members of the public question the level of Chinese involvement in the region. Negative comments about Chinese government’s response towards the incident takes up majority, many people question the nonfeasance of Chinese government in terms of the regional stability led to the loss of civilians and doubt the effectiveness of diplomatic condemnation, which is satirized by most Chinese cyber citizens the “only offensive means to safeguard national interest”. Radical views also take upper hands, mostly provoked by the nationalism and propaganda from Kokang media, claims the fight “in the name of Chinese nation to fight for the national honor, get respect back from Bamar-nationality-chauvinists”. However, other scholars in China believe that the government’s approach is rational and diplomatic. This incident has proved to have impact on the credibility of the Chinese government, which is already running low in recent years in terms of the intensified social contradictions followed by the domestic economic development.

Why did Myanmar drop bombs inside China?

As the most discussed topic these days, amongst Chinese bloggers, the most popular analysis to the reason behind this accident can be concluded into 2 views as follows:

1. To testify the Chinese government’s attitude to the Kokang “rebels” and formulate the following operation plan according to Chinese response. Another statement that gains high popularity these days and involves more thinking in terms of strategy, nationalism and human rights issue, people believe it because of the close tie between Kokang people and Chinese people. As mentioned previously, to a large extent Kokang people has no difference from an ordinary Chinese—sharing the same language (mandarin), same culture, due to the years’ opposition to the assimilation policies posed by Myanmar government, Kokang is so similar to China that the official language is Chinese rather than Burmese, schools’ task books are all imported from China, the major circulated currency is Chinese Yuan and even the dialing code is the same as the Yunnan Province, which borders with this region. As China might response aggressively towards Myanmar’s military operation in this region to protect “Chinese citizens”, and that is something that the radical voices would like to see in China. However according to the Chinese Grand strategy making, China insists the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, especially one of the doctrine “Non-interference in the internal affairs of other states”, unless the internal conflict has extended to the Chinese territory, China will more likely to carry on the process of diplomatic negotiation to achieve the regional stability. This trend can be observed from Chinese deployment of troops along the borderline, that operations are limited to defensive purpose.

But this also brings a worry of the situation to the Kokang people inside Myanmar, as without the need to consider China’s reaction, Myanmar army might push back by all means. Myanmar army has an infamous reputation in South Asia for the racial discrimination and high corruption.

Report from many human rights organizations exposed the shocking crimes like rapes and genocides conducted by Myanmar military Junta, the report “license to rape” proposed by Women’s league of Burma, described the systematic sexualized violence near Kachin-China border of how government soldiers tortured, gang-raped the women in ethnic groups and some of them even kept as sex slaves. Recent report leaked from inside the war zone has proved the worrying sign of genocide to the Kokang population, as what the local civilians described, the government militants will “execute anyone who speak Chinese immediately”.

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Kokang civilian killed during the conflict; Source: Kokang Blog

2. The most interesting and surprising statement, made by several influential scholars that everything happening now in the north Myanmar is “premeditated conspiracy” that it is a geopolitical contest about Chinese national interest in the Southern Asia, and the “plotter” behind is the western power led by the US, by bombing the Chinese territory and create casualties to stimulate Chinese public views of interference and drag Chinese government into this conflict, thus undermines Chinese interest and influence in this region. This point of view will be discussed in more details by having a look at the geographical importance of Myanmar to China and what is Chinese national interest in South Asia?

A bigger picture – How much does Myanmar mean to China? How will China Respond to this incident?

This narrative does not come from nowhere but does have a nice logic behind it. As the World’s second largest economy, China has enormous amount of energy consumption and the economic engine highly relies on the energy imports. In 2013 China spent more than 300 billion dollars in terms of energy imports, notably the demand for crude oil and natural gas increases dramatically, this is due to the reformation policy that Chinese government proposed for the 13th five-year plan coming up in 2016, to tackle down the environmental issues and to speed up the pace of industrial reform—from high pollution, low technology to low pollution, high technology. And the energy structure is essential as China has to gradually give up the reliance on coal and turn into gas—a cleaner option. This is all written inside the announcement of China national energy strategy and policy 2020, issued by the General Office of the State Council.

In terms of the grand strategy aspect this paper emphasize the international cooperation and the project— 21st maritime Silk Road economic belt, which aims to deepen the economic relationships mainly with countries in Africa, Middle East and South Asia, followed by series of major infrastructure investments, and one of the most important project underwent in Myanmar, the Sino-Burma pipeline which is believed to have more strategic importance for China in the future development and energy security. China now has four strategic energy corridors and three are “land corridors”, which are the Sino-Russian oil pipeline in the North-East.

In terms of the reason why the new pipelines is so vital for China, it can be explained by the graph shown above. Currently, four fifths of China’s crude oil imports from the Middle East has to go through the sea route (blue line highlighted), which inevitably has to go across the Strait of Malacca, the most important strait and the most vulnerable spot of Chinese energy strategy. The danger of this Strait is not only the persecution from the pirates but also the danger of being cut off under critical moments of any possible confrontations in the future and this region is beyond the reach of Chinese navy so the risk would be catastrophic. This is what most Chinese think tank described as the “Malacca dilemma”.

Since 2012 the US “Back to Asia” strategy is doubtfully a challenge to the Chinese geopolitics and national interest. Therefore what is essential about the Sino-Burma pipeline is that China will no longer dependent on the sea-route transportation that will cross this strait but instead Chinese shipments could reach the ports in Kyaukphyu (red line highlighted), a city of Myanmar, which links with the pipeline and hence transport the crude oil and gas through the pipeline into China, the gas pipelines have been running for two years already, the oil pipeline has finished early this year,  and currently is under test run, and hopefully will in full function in the mid of this year.

By understanding the importance of Myanmar geographically and strategically, it is interesting to see why the unrest in the Northern Myanmar took place in this special period of time. By looking at the support behind the “King of Kokang”, after 5 years of disappearance, Pheung suddenly fought back rapidly, hugely supported by the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), Kachin ethnical armed force has always being the “trouble maker” to China, despite of the countless regional conflicts caused by Kachin army along the Chinese border, they also gave a lot pressure to Chinese infrastructure investments in the North, in 2012 a power station under construction in the Kachin state, authorized by Myanmar’s government, had to stop due to the constant armed harassment by Kachin minority, which the Chinese company had to pay additional 150 million to the local authority to settle down the unrest.

More mysteries are behind this power, as a regional armed force, it is backed up by the US government, clues can be found from the previous interactions with the west, KIA as the founder of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnical regional armed force alliance, was financial aided by the EU and US NGO in Thailand, two visits between the leadership of KIA and US officials in Washington, 14th April 2014 which the deputy commander-in-chief of KIA– Gen Gun Maw urged US to “play role in Myanmar’s peace process”.

The second visit took place early this year, on 11th January which a low-profiled human rights conference took place in the capital city of Myanmar and early that week the American visiting mission also went to the capital of Kachin state. However members included in this visiting mission drew attention that the involvement of high ranking US military officials such as the deputy commander of the United States Pacific Command, Lieutenant General Anthony G. Crutchfield, who is mainly in charge of the Pacific-Asia military strategy and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, Thomas (Todd) Harvey, who is in charge of the strategic conception. Which clearly both of their strategic interest are not solely “human rights” but more about the regional power that US gives grave concern about– China.

Just after a month US visiting mission finished the conference in Myanmar, the unrest started in Kokang again, after 5 years of peaceful time, the former leader of this district, Pheung, commanded 2000 loyal soldiers, in the name of “Chinese national honor” began to revolt and took the autonomy back from the Myanmar government.

Furthermore, the upcoming general election in Myanmar, which the first time out of the junta’s interference, the representative personage of democratic movement, such as Aung San Sou Kyi, who are more prone-west, and marked as the “power of national transition towards democracy” will no doubt draw the most attention in this year. By linking everything together, Chinese conspiracy theorists seems to come to a more frightening conclusion, something hides deeper under the superficial confrontation, which people are accustomed to it and regard it as Myanmar’s “political ecology”, is that it is a two-man act conducted by the US government, with two actors—the Myanmar government that is gradually adapting the west doctrine, and a man, Pheung, who is driving by the desire of regaining personal influence back in the district he used to govern, and US used his self-interest, provoked his aggression into action, brought the conflict back to this region and propagandized and sugar up his aggression and turned him into a national hero, fighting for the racial equality of Chinese people in Myanmar—a country that is accused for its biased and minorities-discriminated policies for half a century, which won dozens of advocators back in China, and the bombing, which killed 5 Chinese civilians, is likely to be a catalyzer, and all this, is to the purpose of pushing China to direct intervene this region and enlarge this issue to the international level.

Firstly it would help US to have excuses to intervene and foster the prone-west leadership more easily. Secondly, as China already have other intense territorial disputes with Vietnam and Philippine—who are the US alliances in the South Sea region, intervention of Chinese military means direct confrontation with Myanmar government military, which would dramatically have impact on the Chinese reputation in South Asia, which directly impact the effectiveness of Chinese maritime strategy in the South Sea, and worsen relationship with neighbor countries will add more uncertainties to the border stabilities. Thirdly, and most importantly, this would have effect on Chinese oil-gas pipeline project in Myanmar which has more strategic importance than any other pipelines built in the North, and the loss of this energy corridor caused by the stand-off of two countries’ relationship would lead to catastrophic strategic problems for Chinese government, it is something that shall be prevented from the very beginning as it is something China cannot afford to lose. This also explains the Western Medias’ selectively blindness to the antihuman crimes taking places in this region. Even though it is only a speculation but all the reasoning are based on the solid true facts, which makes it hard not to believe. Overall, as all concluded previously, China will have limited response to Myanmar in terms of the consideration of national interest, the same as many Chinese scholars suggest the government to keep a “cool head” and never consider the intervention as a “wise alternative”

Postscript: 

In the end, I have some personal feelings about this issue. Firstly there are few people who know about what is happening out there. Until the deaths on Saturday, I was the same. As someone who lives along the Chinese border, I still have a clear memories of the confrontations between Kachin and the Chinese government in 2011. That day thousands of refugees fled the region, passing through check posts with everything valuable they could carry, children were crying, aggression of war that were approaching towards them from everywhere, adults crying for the loss of their property, which could be seen across the border, only a mile away, that those houses their families have been living for generations after generations, those paddy lands which provided a source of living, were burnt into ashes, under the fire of mortars and bombs dropped from aircrafts. Only elders were doing nothing, just sitting there, starring at the infinite beyond, from their eyes, the emptiness was that obvious and that shocking, they had been through it all, but without any emotional fluctuation, they became walking dead, theirs souls were being tortured, being twisted by those pro-longed killings, deaths, they were not unfeeling, they just simply chose to adapt it, adapt the fact that no matter how hard they try, unless one day that the leaderships actually laid down the divergence, their selfish interest and truly recognized themselves as a unite nation state. However it did not happen, it does not happen and it might would never happen.

As Myanmar has become a chess board of the West-East contest of geopolitical interest, tragedy would not stop from happening, and would not be stopped by anyone, in the era of post-cold war international environment, hatred, violence, and greed of individual built up in the past, are no longer “problems” that need to be solved, but are gradually becoming the “tools” of great powers to undermine rivalries or make themselves take the upper hand in the political “chess game”. If Pheung was not manipulated by the US but sincerely fights for the racial equality? It does not make any difference in terms of my perspective to him, all I see is a greedy old man trying to retain, regain his reputation and his privilege as becoming the boss, what it resulted in is the countless deaths of innocent Kokang people, who still had a decent life when under the control of the government force but the outbreak of violence broke down everything. Violence did not solve anything, but only deepened the hatred, the government will suppress the minority even more ruthlessly.

When the violence is sugared up by the national value, and used by the leadership that has been blinded by their greed, and there is no way of negotiation, driven by the selfishness and desires a compromise is only a day dream. Is it a war we have ignored? No, the West, the Chinese government, the Myanmar government did not ignore, it is a problem that no one is willing to solve and because it is the interests of too few.

It is an irony of the western value “People were born equally”, when the major Medias could spend a few front pages discussing the refugees in Gaza Strip, the conflict in Ukraine but keep silence to the same worries happening every day in Myanmar, the life of people are waged differently simply because the West has no interest to it. It is an irony of those international organizations who glorifies all the good value of human being and dreams to build a better world that comes to the end of the day nothing actually changed, criminals are not being punished, casualties continue to rise. But what happened in Myanmar proved something, the fact of power politics never leaves away, in front of individual, national, international power, driven by our endless desires, human lives are expendable, life is the thing we truly ignore. Everyone who was involved in this shall be blamed, but who shall be punished? No one, because we are so powerless compared with the state power. Those lives were lost, those houses were burnt, those families were separated, those hopes were disillusioned, those futures were destroyed, and they are a reminder, to remind our sin of selfishness, to remind our loss on the path to power, to remind, our intentional ignorance.

Sources:

BBC

The Guardian

Genocide Watch

The Telegraph

Xinhua Net

The Rakyat Post

Wikipedia

Kokang.net

Reuters

Stimson

US Defense

International Crisis Group

The Economist

UN

China Institute of International Relations

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