The recent turmoil in Myanmar’s Kokang province on its northeastern border with China, while minor in scale compared to past ethnic conflict in the country, nonetheless has ominous implications for prospects of achieving a national peace agreement in the near future and for Myanmar’s relations with China.
Fighting in Kokang broke out on February 9, after the leader of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army returned to Kokang from five years of exile somewhere nearby. Seeking to regain control of its lost territory in the Kokang autonomous region and recognition by the Myanmar government, the group’s leader has found wide coverage in Chinese media but has received a cold shoulder in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital. The conflict quickly escalated into a fierce battle for control of the Kokang state capital of Laukkai. Following the deaths of dozens of fighters on both sides, President Thein Sein placed the region under martial law for a three-month period.
The stakes in the conflict are high, and they go well beyond Kokang’s borders. Officials in Naypyitaw and the leader of the Kokang group have both asserted that more powerful armed ethnic groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), joined the battle in support of the Kokang. (The KIA has been training some of these other groups at their cadet facility in Kachin state, which was bombed recently by the Myanmar Army.) If this is the case, it raises new problems for the Myanmar government, because it suggests a determination by certain ethnic armed groups to form a united front against the Myanmar Army, taking their case for a federal army from the negotiating table to the battlefield. Preventing military cooperation among ethnic rebel groups has long been a priority for Myanmar’s military leaders in the past and undoubtedly rings loud alarm bells now.
The fighting in Kokang could also set back the negotiations for a universal ceasefire by widening divisions among the ethnic groups that are negotiating with the government. The Karen, an ethnic minority group concentrated in southeast Myanmar, have been critical of the Kachin for bringing the negotiations to an impasse by pressing their own concept of a federal army and then making it operational in battle. Following the lead of the Chin armed group on Myanmar’s western front, the Karen, who occupy Myanmar’s eastern border, are now talking of moving ahead with monitoring arrangements for a separate ceasefire, so that they can focus on economic development in their region.
The Kokang battle, occurring against the background of intensified fighting farther north between the KIA and the Burma Army, also complicates relations between Myanmar and China. Both the Kokang and the Kachin, as well as other armed groups along Myanmar’s border with China, have strong sources of support in China’s Yunnan province. Furthermore, the Kokang, unlike the other groups on the border, are ethnic Han Chinese and considered brethren by many in China. Thousands of refugees have fled into China from Laukkai since fighting broke out there in February, much as they did in 2009.
It is clear that officials in Naypyitaw suspect some in China of encouraging the armed groups along its border. Many believe that the Kokang rebels may have found refuge in China for the past six years and now question why and how they were able to burst onto the scene with such force. (Rumor has it that the Kokang were able to reactivate when their Chinese bank accounts were unfrozen, making it possible to pay their forces.) Other officials in Naypyitaw have asked that Beijing prevent local officials in Yunnan from aiding the Kokang rebels. It is perhaps telling that President Thein Sein, in announcing the imposition of martial law in Kokang, also vowed “not to lose an inch of Myanmar’s territory,” as if the battle in Kokang posed a serious threat to the country’s sovereignty.
Beijing has issued official statements urging a return to peace negotiations, which are consistent with China’s posture toward Myanmar. Having been dismayed initially by President Thein Sein’s reform program in 2011, Beijing has adjusted to the new reality on its border and made efforts to strengthen the relationship, such as significantly retooling its business model in Myanmar to accommodate environmental and social concerns. President Xi Jinping of China has also made the development of a modern “silk road” through Myanmar a centerpiece of the bilateral relationship and a major objective of his foreign policy agenda.
Since China has put a great deal at stake in backing Myanmar’s modernization and development, it would make little sense for Beijing to support the forces of instability and create the impression that China is setting the stage to reassert historical territorial claims on its southwestern border. But if the Kokang rebels can press their cause effectively enough, they could begin to erode Beijing’s confidence in the Myanmar government.
Priscilla Clapp is a retired Minister-Counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service and a senior advisor to Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace.