By Phuong Nguyen
The fighting between government troops and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance, or Kokang, in northern Myanmar has caused as much intrigue as confusion. Following an offensive started by Kokang rebels on February 9, the military on February 10 launched airstrikes on more than a dozen sites of the Kokang army and its allied forces in the area, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Kachin Independence Army, and the Arakan Army. While these developments are not favorable to the ongoing nationwide peace talks and the political environment during an election year, they appear to have offered opportunities that the military has shrewdly exploited to tilt the balance to its favor.
The Kokang leader behind the fighting is Peng Jiasheng, who was toppled during an offensive by the Myanmar army into Kokang territory in 2009 and subsequently went into exile, allegedly in China. The Kokang, who are ethnic Chinese, have longstanding cultural and business links with China, and Peng himself was a former leader of the erstwhile Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma. He likely calculated that by timing an offensive on the eve of Chinese New Year, he could prompt the Chinese government to pressure the Myanmar military to back down, allowing him to reclaim the lost territory.
But the military did not retreat. In fact, it may have seen Peng’s plan coming all along. Peng warned in an interview last December in the Global Times, a government-backed Chinese newspaper, that he was planning to retake the Kokang Special Region with help from his allies. The interview did not go unnoticed in official circles as well as ethnic groups in Myanmar.
But by letting Peng’s attack go ahead, the military was able to tap into widespread nationalist sentiment and renew its image as the only actor that can prevent the disintegration of Myanmar. This is in part because the Kokang and other groups in northern Shan state –especially the Wa, who possess the most potent military among ethnic armed groups and have allegedly provided support to Peng’s offensive, have long been depicted and seen as foreign by the Myanmar population.
The government unabashedly used injuries encountered by its soldiers as a publicity tool. Reporting that at least 47 government troops were killed defending national sovereignty while fighting off ethnic rebels with little Myanmar identity has been received with sympathy in many parts of Myanmar society, as seen through feedback on social media to the influential presidential spokesman Ye Htut.
On February 12, which is Union Day in Myanmar, Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing visited soldiers who were wounded as well as civilians displaced by the Kokang fighting, images of which were later widely disseminated on social media. In his Union Day speech, the general starkly warned that any groups that support the Kokang will have to pay for their actions. Even President Thein Sein, whose government has doggedly worked to build confidence with ethnic groups, went on the record saying Myanmar will not cede even an inch of territory to ethnic insurgents.
And the Chinese government did not voice any support for the Kokang cause. The Chinese foreign ministry instead reaffirmed that China will never allow organizations or individuals using its territory to undermine China-Myanmar relations, and called on actors inside China who may feel sympathetic toward Peng to remain calm.
China’s reaction to the situation in Kokang speaks to the importance Beijing places on its ties with Naypyidaw, despite frustrations it may have felt toward the actions of Myanmar authorities from time to time, such as the January detention of over 100 Chinese nationals involved in the logging and mining industries in Kachin state.
On February 5, a few days before fighting in the Kokang region erupted, China’s de facto special envoy for Myanmar Wang Yingfan called on the military commander in Naypyidaw, and the two discussed at length the role Myanmar’s military plays in bilateral China-Myanmar relations. One of Min Aung Hlaing’s messages to Wang was concern that some low-level defense personnel and other actors on the Chinese side of the border had been allowed to make unilateral decisions with regard to Myanmar. In other words, the military commander was calling on Beijing to rein in these elements.
Beijing’s official response following the first clashes deftly echoed Min Aung Hlaing’s request. For China, regardless of its past linkages with the Kokang and Wa, keeping things cordial with Myanmar’s armed forces helps prevent what it fears could be the internationalization of security issues along its frontier.
These latest events helped the military send the message to ethnic armed groups in northern Shan state that it has the backing of the Chinese government on border security matters, and it may no longer serve them to play Beijing and Naypyidaw against each other in the future.
While the Kokang are not among groups that have been in talks with the government on a nationwide ceasefire, the latest troubles in northern Myanmar have further delayed the endgame of the peace process. The Kokang situation also does not augur well for the Thein Sein government, which is seen as running into one setback after another in its national reconciliation agenda. Meanwhile, the military has once again asserted itself as the only institution capable of guarding the unity of Myanmar.
Thumbnail image source: TZA’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.