Kokang, situated in the strategic area of Shan State- China Frontier was inhabited mostly by the ethnic Chinese. In the Shan (Tai) Language, there is one definition that Kokang means the head of nine villages, and in another definition, the term means nine Guardians. Before the Yang clans migrated there, Malipa mules-merchants were there, and; the majority of Han people, very few of Shan, Wa, and Jingpho (Kachin) too. It can’t omit Yang Clans (successive rulers of the Kokang region) roles, to study about past and present in the context of Kokang’s movement. In the early British occupation, Kokang was a vassal territory of Baoshan (Yong Chang) in Yunnan and maintained their independence by paying annual tribute.
After the British administration was founded in the Shan States, the Kokang became the rank of Duke under the Hsenwi state of Shan States.
(1) Second World War and Kokang patriotism
1897 to 1942 was the most peaceful and stable in Kokang’s history. During the Fascist Japan invasion era, most of the Shan States Sao Fahs (princes) accepted Japanese rule__ but Kokang principal Sao Yang Wen Pin denied that might have had an easier life under Japanese rule like other his counterparts Shan Sao Fahs. Instead, he took up an even tougher battle. He ran through to Kunming of Yunnan and then, was asking for help to fight back against Fascists. At that time, the Koumintang’s administration was there. In inception, local authorities had denied and temporary detained him in suspected of connection with Fascists. But later on, he was released and pledged support by the reason of bailing out him by British Indian governors to Chaing Kai Shek’s government.
The idea is based on Japanese forces not infiltrating into Yunnan province through the Kokang area. So, Sao Yang Wen Pin became the first commander of the Kokang self-defense force and he proceeded and founded the first Kokang Levies Forces with 2,000 people of locals Kokang. For the Kokang locals that was emerging their patriotism for the first time.
Their duties were to co-attach with the No. 39 regiment of the Chinese army to fight back against Japanese Fascists. When the World War two was over, he was bestowed OBE (Order of the British Empire).
1945-1948 was a crucial milestone for the Kokang because their territory was recognized as independent of North Hsenwi, and thereafter assumed the hereditary title of Sao Fah in 1951.
(2) 1959-1962 (Failed of Hopes era)
“The beginning was bad and the end was uncertain”
Chao Tzang Yawnghwe
During the 14 years, including 12 years of the parliamentary era and almost two years of General Ne Win led the caretaker Government, the failure of Nation Building and State building patterns had led to the Kokang’s dreams, to get egalitarian, prosperous, and democratic rules based on the Kokang people, got lost. It was the great ramifications two of key incidents that had the entire region shaken, the first one was the forcibly abdicated power of Shan States’ Sao Fahs in 1959 and the second was the 1962 coup led by the military that abolished all autonomous status in Shan States and democracy too.
The last Sao Fah of Kokang, Sao Edward Yang Kyein Tsai, tried as best he could build up Kokang with devotion, but the Koumintang invasion and the resulting military domination spreading throughout the Shan States by the Burmese military (in fact, the establishment of regional commands of the army in Shan State is only the pretext for the occupation), the division of resources, and the interference in the local and regional affairs of the Shan States—his efforts were pious.
Likewise, in other Shan states’ Sao Fahs, the Kokang Sao Fah smoothly relinquished power even though it was not timely for the people of Kokang due to his nurture of development, and institutions, and the democracy of Kokang wasn’t good enough.
In 1961, he returned to Kokang and was greeted by thousands of locals who warmly welcomed him, underscoring how much they longed for him and worried about their uncertain future. After the 1962 coup, he was arrested.
(3) Fluctuating Resistance Era (1961-1989)
The centralization of administration, great purges, and persecution of ethnic people in Burma; following the coup had greatly affected the self-administration status of Kokang. The prominent figures of Kokang denied the new administrative setup and formed the national liberation front for armed resistance against the military government. One of the Kokang ruling families- Yang ZhenShen (Jimmy Yang) together with some Kokang levies also joined the National Liberation Forces. Early in the liberation period, he turned to China for support for the armed movement, to no avail. The Myanmar Army blocked access to Kokang from Shan State in 1963, especially access to rice. Lacking raw materials, food, and utensils, they had to search for it and sent a young officer, Peng Jiasheng, to China.
When Peng Jiasheng returned from there, hundreds of her troops, led by Jimmy Yang, departed for the region to seek support on the Thai border, where remnants of the KMT had settled. They, too, were part of the Shan State Army (SSA), formed in 1964, but it would not be enough to stand alone in the Kokang area.
The remaining force about 1,400 men was reorganized into homeland security militias (Kakweye) under Lo Hsing Han, who also played a prominent role in combating the insurgency in Shan State and the growing influence of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Soon, Peng Jiasheng’s commander Peng Zik Khun changed his mind and surrendered to the Myanmar Army in 1965. But he was dissatisfied with this and decided to take up arms again. Peng Jiasheng resumed his revolution with 30 young men in Kokang.
From 1966 to 1968, the situation in the Kokang region was quite chaotic as Lo Hsing Han and his allies, the Myanmar military, attacked and ravaged the region. The resistance forces led by Peng Jiasheng put up stubborn resistance, but eventually, he and his troops submitted and fled to China. As luck would have it, his offer was accepted by the People’s Republic of China and he was accepted into the Communist Party of Burma. On the Thai border, the Kokang movement led by Yang ZhenShen gradually disintegrated. He later became the commander-in-chief of the CPB and a member of the Central Military Commission. Since he came to the Kokang area with the CPB, most of the Kokang area was under his control for several decades.
In 1984, He quit the Central Committee and Central Military Commission because he felt that CPB was controlled by the Burmese members and ethnic nationalities had no voice in the Central Commission. The CPB central committee also disagreed with him because of his thriving opium business.
Quitting CPB in 1989, he formed the “Myanmar Nationalities Democracy Alliance” MNDAA, and soon after they revolted against the CPB.
(4) Ideological out, but economy matter
Since the mutiny, Kokang has become a center for cross-border trade with China. Whereas in the days of the CPB there were only bamboo huts and a few larger houses made of stone, now high-rise buildings rise above marketplaces and shopping malls. But the Kokang region has been shaped by the policies of the two central governments- either Naypyidaw or Beijing of which have sought life. The Myanmar government’s policies have gradually allowed militias or border guards to flourish, and they have made these groups important allies of the central government.
In 2009, the expulsion of Peng Jiasheng incident, intrigued politics and cooperation is these two powers, and a divided factions of MNDAA, which later became the Border Guard Force and Kokang autonomous zone of the rulers under the Myanmar government were on the same side.
Within a few years, Kokang has again become an unpleasant task for any power in Nyapyidaw to establish proper authority. Since Beijing no longer exports communist revolution, trade, commerce, and various kinds of influence are more important to them. Several armed ethnic groups living on the border with China need to expand China’s policies and strengthen their struggle to counterbalance their long-time enemy, especially Myanmar’s military dictators.
(5) Post-coup movement and Its direction
Post-coup of 2021, the picture in Kokang is similar to that in the country as a whole: discontent and resentment against the military junta and its allies, the autonomous rulers of Kokang, is growing. The people of Kokang detest the current Kokang autonomous ruler blocs and their BGF (Border Guard Forces under the control of the SAC regime).
The strict controls on the main roads after the coup make the situation even more difficult for the Kokangs and the native Chinese of the northern Shan, most of whom do not have national identity cards.
(For example, those who do not have national ID cards have to pay a lot of money (several lakhs) for each trip.) Their living conditions are very similar to those of the Rohingya. Most of the Chinese villages became a fertile ground for the Kokang MNDAA rebels.
The worsened socioeconomic situation, the torture and brutality of the army against the population, and the resurgence of Kokang nationalism contributed to the strengthening of the MNDAA-Kokang rebels.
The main point is that the MNDAA continues to uphold the good legacy of Kokang resistance groups that have formed alliances. From the Kokang Defense Forces under the leadership of Jimmy Yang to the MNDAA in the era of Peng Jiasheng, they have been friends with allies. And they have never shied away from facing the light of Burma’s turnaround movement from the anti-fascist movement era to the post-coup movement in 2021.
But some questions are waiting for them. Are the People’s Defense Forces (which are Burmese guerrillas) able to maintain their independence? This question arises from the fact that there are certain relations with China between the new leader of the MNDAA Kokang rebels and the authorities of the People’s Republic of China.
In the historical context, after World War 2, when the British withdrew and there was no longer a center of power for their survival and defense, the Kokang, the people of the land that was landlocked, looked to their neighbor and relative, China.
Most Kokangs believe that after their long odyssey, they are much closer to their goal than ever before.
Note* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.