East Asia's Bloodiest Border War

By Robert Beckhusen
‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 |

In some cases, the human rights group stated, soldiers have confiscated land in the presence of Sein Wut Hmon employees. In other cases, villagers have encountered soldiers who told them they worked for the company.

“The fact that the majority of confiscations in [northeastern Shan state] tend to be conducted either directly by the Tatmadaw or by companies and other actors with strong military ties exacerbates this situation,” the Global Witness report stated.

But there are two larger reasons explaining why the military is taking people’s land.

For one, it feeds a growing Chinese appetite for raw materials. Much of Shan state’s crude rubber production heads to markets to China — and Chinese companies have heavily invested in Myanmar plantations.

The other reason has to do with Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule and state privatization program of the mid-2000s. In short, while the military lost its formal hegemony over the country’s political system, it wouldn’t give up its economic hegemony so easily.

Plus, the military leaders knew their time ruling the country was running out. Beginning in 2006, the Tatmadaw used the privatization process to accelerate its land confiscations.

“They did this in order to ensure that the economic power ceded by the military institution passed to the hands of the military elite and their associates before the country opened up to the world in 2011,” Global Witness stated.

Then there’s the sheer military presence in Shan state.

Because of the decades of war and its proximity to the Chinese border, it’s one of the most heavily militarized areas of the country — with 13 Burmese army battalions based there. These troops own their own plantations, farms and forests — and come into direct conflict with rebel competitors.

China’s Role

What makes the situation potentially explosive is the proximity to China. The Burmese military has accused China of aiding the Kokang, a charge which Beijing adamantly denies.

These allegations are likely part of a political strategy by Myanmar’s military elite, and aimed at stoking anti-Chinese sentiment. That could help the Union Solidarity and Development Party in elections this year, according to the New York Times.

The ruling party — while formally controlled by civilians — includes former military officers in senior posts. This includes the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation — which has helped “retroactively ‘legalize’ these [land] confiscations which had taken place years earlier,” Global Witness stated in its report.

Retired Lt. Gen. U Myint Hlaing is Myanmar’s current agriculture and irrigation minister — and he’s the former commander of Burmese military forces in Shan state.

“He is one of the most powerful and controversial ministers in the current government and reported in national media to be ruthless in his dealing with ethnic minority groups,” the human rights group added.

To be sure, the Chinese military has responded to the bombing of Yunnan province — but not with violence. Beijing deployed fighter jets and air defense systems to the province, and has stepped up border patrols.

But it’s hard to see how — or why — China will go any further. Beijing is being pulled in different directions. The MNDAA issues Mandarin-language appeals to the Chinese population, and commenters in the Chinese press have insisted that Beijing support the rebel group with military aid.

China does not want instability along its border or more refugees coming into the country. The problem with intervening is that it would likely risk war with Myanmar and make the situation far worse than it is now.

China would lose access to investments in Myanmar, and become locked out of the country’s ports — essential for extending the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s presence into the Indian Ocean. Hard-nosed realism likely wins out over whatever sympathy there is in China for the Kokang.

The same goes for arming them.

Which leaves a solution in the hands of the Myanmar government — and a military that spends as much time exploiting the people of the region as it does trying to stop the rebels.

‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 |

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Robert Beckhusen
Author Archive