East Asia's Bloodiest Border War

By Robert Beckhusen

On March 31, the government of Myanmar signed a major ceasefire agreement with 16 rebel groups. But the ceasefire didn’t include the Kokang.

Burma has several ongoing internal wars that have lasted on and off for decades. But the conflict with Kokang rebel groups is one of the most recent to deteriorate back into violence. There’s also a risk — albeit a small one — that it could blow up into a larger war.

The Kokang are an ethnic Han Chinese minority group who live in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state. Persecuted for decades, the Kokang speak Mandarin, have their own armed groups and live far removed from the country’s political elite.

Their homeland — the self-administered region of Kokang inside Shan state — was relatively calm throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But in 2009 and again in 2015, ceasefire agreements broke down between Myanmar and a coalition of rebels led by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

In February, the predominantly Kokang MNDAA rebels launched a series of attacks on the army. The Burmese army — also known as the Tatmadaw — took heavy losses. At least 47 troops died during three days of clashes.

Thousands of people fled across the border into China’s Yunnan province. These refugee camps are currently off-limits to United Nations observers.

Then a Myanmar air force jet bombed China.

On March 13, the jet dropped bombs on a sugarcane field near the Yunnan province city of Lincang. The blast killed four and wounded nine Chinese. The bombing was apparently a mistake — with the pilot attempting to attack MNDAA rebels on a mountain inside Myanmar.

That was a big deal. But there are a lot of reasons why China doesn’t want to go to war with its southern neighbor. At the same time, there’s little Beijing can do to stop the conflict — which is itself fueled by competition for resources.

Land Wars

Much of Myanmar’s problems can trace to the rotating cast of military generals who ruled the country for nearly half a century.

Multi-sided civil wars between the military juntas and ethnic minority rebel groups went on for decades. Ceasefire agreements came and collapsed. Rebels fought the regime and each other.

The country’s wars today are heavily economic in nature. The MNDAA has ties to the opium, tea and rubber trade. Control of the Kokang region by armed groups means control of resources — and the same is true for the military.

In 2011, the country transitioned to civilian rule headed by Pres. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. But elements of the old military regime remain in positions of prominent influence within the party and the country — particularly in controlling farmland.

For years, private companies linked to military officers and paramilitary groups have confiscated large amounts of land from farmers in Shan state — often without informing them or giving them any way to negotiate.

The stolen land is frequently converted into rubber plantations.

The situation isn’t exclusive to Shan state, but it’s a particularly bad situation. For one, the state is populated by ethnic minorities who fear standing up to the military, owing to years of brutality and civil war.

“Once the land had been confiscated, the army appears to have handed it over to private companies and political cronies,” a recent report from the human rights organization Global Witness stated. “Now villagers’ lands are under commercial rubber plantations which have destroyed their livelihoods, pushing them deeper into poverty.”

The roots of Shan state’s insurgent conflicts are far more complicated and go back decades. But the stealing villagers’ land makes the war worse, and the Burmese military encourages it by forcing their own soldiers “to pay their own wages by becoming farmers and businessmen,” the Global Witness report stated.

But the biggest beneficiaries are private companies, such as rubber Myanmar holding conglomerate Sein Wut Hmon. According to Global Witness, the firm works with the military through a revolving door of military officers-turned-plantation barons.

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This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Robert Beckhusen
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