Clashes between Myanmar’s army and armed rebels in the northern border region is endangering the lives of civilians in the area and causing an influx of refugees into China. The current round of fighting, which has been ongoing for nearly 10 days, has displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom have fled across the border into China. Local Chinese governments estimate that some 30,000 refugees have poured into China. Other estimates put the number at closer to 50,000.
The fighting involves Myanmar’s army and a rebel group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which controlled much of the Kokang region until 2009. Fighting flared up on February 9 when MNDAA attacked army troops. The clashes have since spread to include at least three additional rebel groups. That effectively destroyed hope for a nationwide peace deal that had been under negotiations between the Myanmar government and various ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy.
On Tuesday, Myanmar President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the Kokang region. He also declared martial law, giving the military executive and judicial authority in the area. According to Myanmar’s government, at least 50 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, with another 73 wounded. The Myanmar government has also reported 26 deaths the Kokang rebels.
Such a precarious situation just across the border naturally has China worried. China’s primary concern is the security of its border and the stability of Yunnan province, where the refugees are gathering. On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying repeated China’s previous calls for all sides in the Myanmar conflict to “exercise restraint and prevent the situation from escalating and affecting the stability of China-Myanmar border area and the security on the Chinese side.” Hua added that “China is ready to continue with its constructive role in the peace process within Myanmar in accordance with the wish of the Myanmar side.”
As of Monday, officials in Yunnan said that the border situation was “stable.” Yunnan has also stepped up its border patrols since the fighting in Myanmar began. Given its base policy of non-interference in other’s affairs, there’s little China can do to stop the violence occurring across the border, forcing Beijing to adopt a reactive stance instead.
This particular conflict is a particularly tricky situation for Beijing, however. The Kokang people are ethnically Chinese, and are demanding autonomy because they claim they are discriminated against in Myanmar. Htun Myat Lin, the general secretary of the Kokang rebel group, told the Associated Press that ethnic Chinese in Myanmar are treated as second-class citizens. “We want to have a high degree of autonomy where we can manage our own affairs, but we do not wish to split the country of Myanmar,” he said. Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng even published an open letter asking the Chinese people to support the Kokang people, seeking to drum up sympathy among Chinese citizens.
China has even been accused of supplying the Kokang rebels with weapons and supplies, perhaps as a way of countering what is perceived as growing U.S. influence in Myanmar. These charges are roundly denied by Beijing. FM spokesperson Hua Chunying emphasized that the Chinese government respects Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and will not allow any organization to use Chinese territory to destabilize the border region. The Kokang rebels themselves also denied that they had received any weapons from China.
Yun Sun, a fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, writes that some Chinese analysts “still call for the country to provide support to the border ethnic groups in order to gain more ‘strategic leverage'” in Myanmar, but overall this viewpoint “has been clearly rejected by policymakers and mainstream scholars in China.” China wants to see a peaceful resolution, Sun writes, but will not step in to solve the problem for Myanmar.
An editorial in the Global Times also recommended a hands-off approach for China. The editorial approved of China’s “efforts to urge the peace process” but added that “at no time should China get involved in Myanmar’s domestic conflicts.” The piece also predicted that China would not seek to adopt a new approach. “Speculation that China will alter its policy toward Myanmar is a misinterpretation… The intimacy and sympathy that Chinese society holds toward the Kokang people are not decisive elements determining Beijing’s policy,” Global Times argued.