Almost two years after a surge in violence in Myanmar’s restive Kokang region prompted 50,000 locals to flee across the border into China, and led the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) to fire shells into China’s Yunnan province, a fresh resurgence in violence has prompted over 20,000 locals from Laukkai, the capital of Kokang, to flee into China, with a separate group of over 2,000 internally displaced refugees arriving in Mandalay after fleeing to the neighboring town of Lashio. There have also been reports of Myanmar troops firing shells across the border into China, causing at least one Chinese fatality (Lim, 2015; Nan, 2017; Qiao, 2017; Kan and Wai, 2017).
The current violence was close enough to the border for Chinese residents across the border in Yunnan to hear “heavy gunfire,” feel “tremors during the night and … see bright flames” (Wang, 2017). These residents have also worked with their local government officials to deliver humanitarian aid to the Myanmar refugees:
“Tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees have been placed in several open squares in the town of Nansan, and the local government has set up refugee camps to accommodate them ... Some local residents who had vacant houses provided them with temporary accommodation. In addition, several local volunteer organisations and a Chinese insurance company also provided free food to refugees for several days, including instant noodles, rice pudding and mineral water” (Wang, 2017).
The concern from the Yunnan locals for the refugees from Kokang partly stems from their being co-ethnic peoples. Historically, the Kokang people are “descendants of Han Chinese Ming dynasty loyalists who arrived from China in the 17th century to escape from Qing rule, and later, Kuomintang fighters and party members who settled in Burma after the 1949 Communist revolution in China.” In addition, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Kokang ethnic militia that is involved in the current violence as well as the violence in 2015, was itself “once part of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB),” a communist insurgent group that had been sponsored by the Communist Party of China. As a result, “many Myanmar locals … regard the ethnic Kokang as outlaws supported by China, and … support the Tatmadaw’s fight against the MNDAA” (Lim, 2015).
Officially, the Chinese government sees the Kokang crisis as one meriting its “humanitarian concern,” and has recommended that “the parties involved … resolve their differences in a peaceful manner through dialogue and deliberation” (Wai and Ives, 2017). In terms of bilateral trade, trade passing through the Chin Shwe Haw border trade camp has suffered a decline due to military movements and tensions following the attack on Laukkai. In the past year, “Myanmar earned US$454.8 million from its exports at Chin Shwe Haw and the import volume was US$48.5 million.” For China, the violence at Laukkai underscores the political risks of its economic engagement with Myanmar. This is especially important since the Chin Shwe Haw border crossing is a key node in the Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor initiative which Beijing supports (“China moving fast,” 2016; “Laukkai clashes,” 2017).
As with the 2015 violence, the 2017 resurgence in violence was connected to infighting within the Kokang leadership. In 2009, the Tatmadaw sponsored a mutiny with the MNDAA, leading to the ouster of its leader Peng Jiasheng. The violence at the time led 37,000 refugees from Kokang to flee into Yunnan, a precursor to the events in 2015 and 2017. The violence in 2015 was prompted by Peng’s attempt to retake Kokang with the help of loyalists within the MNDAA. In the 2017 violence, the MNDAA attacked police and army posts, as well as a hotel and casinos in Laukkai which observers note were “controlled by rivals in the Kokang community who are loyal to the Myanmar government.” At least 36 people were killed in the attacks (Lim 2015; Wang, 2017; “Clashes empty,” 2017).
As with the 2015 violence, the MNDAA was reportedly supported in the 2017 attack by its fellows in the Northern Alliance of ethnic rebel militias, which includes the MNDAA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and elements of the Kachin Independence Army. Notably, just a week before the attack on Laukkai, the Tatmadaw reasserted its refusal to hold peace talks with the MNDAA, TNLA, and AA, on the grounds that “they came to existence only after emergence of a democratic government, in contrast to other long-established ethnic armed groups.” A different explanation is that the MNDAA, TNLA, and AA had failed to sign bilateral ceasefires with the government between 2011-13, when the Thein Sein government had launched the national peace process (Htet, 2017; International Crisis Group, 2016). While the 2017 Laukkai attack was agreed upon by the Northern Alliance “in retaliation for a recent government attack on the Moi Taik region,” in broader context it shows the potential for these groups to sabotage the national peace process between the government and Myanmar’s ethnic rebel militias (Moe, 2017; Nan, 2017; Weng, 2017; Wai and Ives, 2017; International Crisis Group, 2015). The Tatmadaw has offered the Northern Alliance militias the opportunity to participate in the peace process on condition that they “immediately disarm,” however Solomon (2017) notes that “their leadership is disinclined to do so,” as they have experienced “previous cease-fires with the Myanmar army that later disintegrated.”
The resurgent conflict in Kokang is one of the issues in Sino-Myanmar relations that the current government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has inherited from the previous military-backed government of retired general Thein Sein. The NLD-led government, elected in the November 2015 general elections, is presently deciding on the Chinese request to lift the suspension — imposed by Thein Sein in 2011 — of the construction of the controversial Myitsone Dam, as well as a proposal for a high-speed rail line connecting Thailand with Yunnan through Myanmar (Lim, 2015; Lim, 2016; Khin, 2016). The ongoing border crisis will further complicate these discussions.
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