KOKANG CONFLICT: Infringement of sovereignty, a false excuse?

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Sai Wansai

The Kokang armed conflict, which started out on the 9 February, has developed into an all out war of words against the non-Burman, ethnic northern armed front, sometimes dubbed as Federal Union Army (FUA), by the Burma Army (BA), also known as Tatmadaw, if not yet the physical declaration of war in official sense.

It all started, as Peng Jiasheng’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an offensive, in a bid to reestablish his authority in Kokang self-administrative zone, from where he was expelled by his competitors from within the army. The then military government sided with his deputy Bai Xuoqian, Peng’s deputy, who is now the Naypyitaw’s point man there.

According to VOA, Burmese Section, and various media outlet, Burma’s Chief of Military Affairs Security, Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, talked to journalists during a press conference at the Defense Ministry Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Naypyitaw. He claimed that allied ethnic rebel groups and former Chinese soldiers recruited as mercenaries are supporting ethnic Kokang rebels in fighting against government troops.

Earlier, on the eve of the armed conflict, Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing had warned that any ethnic groups supporting the Kokang rebels would be held accountable for their actions, although no specific armed organization was named, at that time.

In a VOA, Burmese Section report, on 21 February, Burma’s Chief of Military Affairs Security, Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, buttressed Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hliang’s accusation and spelled out BA position quite clearly, with regards to MNDAA offensive in Kokang: “We consider the Loa Kai (Lao Gai) attack as the issue of sovereignty. Peng Jiasheng led insurgent group attacks and wants to seize power from the officially elected self-administrative government. His intention is to seize political power. As he is attacking part of the government structure, our Tatmadaw absolutely cannot accept it and will not give in. According to the evidences happening in Lao Kai, Mong La, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and SSA-Wanhai – also known as Shan State Army – North(SSA-N) are involved and would like to say that groups that are involved must take responsibility.”

According to Burmese military analogy, MNDAA uses foreign mercenaries and tries to dislodge the local administration propped up by Union Solidarity and Development Party-Military (USDP-Military) regime, which implies a breach of sovereignty from regime’s point of view.

Furthermore, the regime might like to portray Mong La, TNLA, KIA, UWSA, SSA-N fighting along with MNDAA as parties to infringing on Burma’s sovereignty. And thus these groups must be taken as enemies of the State, which must be eliminated.

The regime is whipping up this line of rhetoric, narrow nationalism to mobilize the Burmese mass and many uninformed sectors have been already misled. If this tendency is allowed to foster further, we would be only a few steps away from racial riots of the sixties.

The anti-Chinese riots broke out in Rangoon on 26 June 1967, resulted from Chinese students’ defiance of the Burmese government’s ban on wearing Mao badges in school. This in turn led to the deterioration of Sino–Burmese relations, symbolised by the cessation of ‘Pauk Phaw’ ties and the subsequent shift in China’s foreign policy, leading to the open intervention in Burma’s civil war.

This is, of course, not to say that the regime’s false move might trigger another Chinese intervention like in past. For the Chinese national interest is much wider and more sophisticated than just to blindly side with its kinship, within the border of Burma.

According to Yun Sun, a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, published by The Irrawaddy, on 18 February, she writes:

For China, the strategic importance of Burma significantly outweighs China’s interest in the border ethnic groups. Burma is a critical link in President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road strategy (that is, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road). China intends to build infrastructure and connectivity projects through Burma to Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean in order to boost Chinese economic growth and expand economic returns, political ties and strategic influence. Burma is key to the smooth operation of the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, a national strategic endeavor to diversify energy transportation routes and reduce trade vulnerability. In addition, in keeping with Xi’s stated emphasis on “periphery diplomacy”, Burma is a priority country where China strives to restore influence, repair ties and mend its damaged reputation.

SHAN editorial of 18 February is also of the same opinion. It writes:

No doubt many across the border sympathize with their ethnic cousin on this side in his crusade to reclaim his homeland, especially after his interview given to the Global Times a few months back, as confirmed by SHAN sources. But that doesn’t mean Beijing is ready to pull all its stakes out from Burma to aid a handful of its cousins there. If it were, then Kokang would now be firmly under Peng’s sway again.

And so if the lessons of anti-Chinese riots in the sixties is to be taken into account, or to be learned and avoided, the regime’s recent whipping up false nationalistic fevour would do more harm than benefit and should be avoided, at all cost.

The short term benefit for the regime might be that it could solicit Bama nationalism against foreign invasion, which is highly overstated, implicating the MNDAA, with an extention on UNFC members like KIA, SSA-N, TNLA and non-UNFC armed forces like UWSA and Mong La as abettors of the foreign scheme. Furthermore, speculations are also rife that the USDP-Military regime knows pretty well that it would lose out to the NLD and ethnic political parties in the forth-coming national election within this year and like to create a situation to avoid the election, so that it could hold on to power.

In short, the regime should refrain from giving out statement like that the BA troops “are protecting sovereignty and ensuring territorial integrity,” and “vowed not to lose an inch of Myanmar’s territory owned by the successive generations”, for this is an overstatement and illogical approach to the issue.
With the rejection of the government to consider MNDAA as a negotiation partner and continue calling for its total surrender, the ongoing armed conflict would likely escalate. It would be even worse, if the regime is to declare war on all ethnic armed resistance; for this would inevitably means the end of the peace process.

To this end, the regime might need to rethink its “piece-meal” short term solution of group survival and instead focus on a bigger picture based on “all-inclusive national reconciliation through peace process”, according to the desire of all ethnic nationalities, Bama included.

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor

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