THE big negative news in the Asean region is the effect on relations between China and Myanmar of what Agence France Press has described as the “bloody conflict in a remote corner of northern Myanmar [that]has spilled violently across the border with China, risking a rift with the mighty neighbor and threatening peace efforts with an array of rebels.”
Until now Myanmar and Burma have been the closest of friends. Myanmar has for decades been a dependency of China. It receives an inordinately large amount of aid from Communist Party-ruled China (which however does not rival what China spends on North Korea). In addition China pours billions of US dollars in investments into Myanmar.
Myanmar has about a dozen rebellious non-Burmese ethnic communities on its borders.
The government is engaged in peace negotiations with some of these communities but with the others it is engaged in something like war.
AFP’s report, the headline of our World section yesterday, narrates that “Myanmar’s army is battling ethnic-Chinese rebels in the Kokang region of Shan state, with aerial bombardments and close-quarter combat, just as the quasi-civilian government is grappling to end decades of border insurgencies in fresh ceasefire talks that began Tuesday.”
But “China mobilized fighter jets after a bomb apparently from a Myanmar warplane landed in a sugar plantation in Chinese territory on Friday, killing five Chinese farm workers.
“ ‘The incident marked an ‘astounding’ breach in relations between the two long-term allies,’ said Yun Sun from the Stimson Center’s East Asia Program.
“He said it was the ‘worst security incident’ since Beijing’s embassy in Myanmar was attacked in 1967 during an anti-Chinese riot, although he believes the border unrest will remain contained for now.
“Tens of thousands of refugees have fled into China’s Yunnan province since fighting in Kokang first flared up in early February.
“Mountainous Kokang is known for its strong bonds with China — local people speak a Chinese dialect and China’s yuan is the common currency and the conflict has tapped into long-standing nervousness in Myanmar about its giant northern neighbor.
“Kokang’s rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army is led by shadowy octogenarian commander Phone Kya Shin, and the group is accused by the government of being enmeshed in drug trafficking.
“Officials [of Myanmar]have also accused [China’s] Yunnan provincial authorities of helping the rebels, who were previously driven out of Kokang in a bloody push by the army in 2009.
“ ‘Anti-Chinese sentiment has re-emerged strongly’ in Myanmar, said Elliot Brennan, from the Institute for Security and Development Policy.
“He said this was of ‘grave concern’ to Beijing, which has to contend with public anger of its own over the deaths of the five Chinese.
“China acted as an economic and political shield for Myanmar for decades, when the country was under military rule and the junta isolated by the West.
“Its reward was a wealth of sometimes controversial investments — particularly in dams, mines and energy infrastructure.
“But as Myanmar has begun to reform and open up it has sought to reduce that dependence, sometimes to Beijing’s irritation — it called for the rights of Chinese companies to be protected after a huge dam project was suspended.
“China has vowed not to allow rebels to use its territory and scolded Myanmar over the escalation of border tensions.”
As far as Myanmar’s government is concerned it is only “waging a just war against rebels and renegades” who are challenging the country’s rule of law by their rebellion and their being engaged in the drug industry.
The Myanmar government is now a civilian one that has slowly introduced democratic ways reforms. AFP says this government “that replaced outright military rule in 2011 prioritized a nationwide ceasefire in its reforms, but talks have been slow-going amid lingering distrust of the army and continued clashes, particularly in northern Kachin.”
Some fear that nationalists will pressure Beijing into treating Myanmar the way Russia is treating the parts of Ukraine populated mainly by ethnic Russians—like the Kokang region of Shan state.
We don’t think President Xi Jinping will do what President Putin has done to its neighbor.