Mon, Mar 23, 2015 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Myanmar’s fight with rebels creates refugees, ill will

NY Times News Service, BEIJING

When rumors spread around the sugarcane farms in northern Myanmar that the army was advancing, 23-year-old Li Jiapeng and his family packed some clothes, grabbed some cash and joined a long line of people fleeing in cars and on foot. Everyone was heading for safety on the other side of the border in China, less than 10km away.

The next day, he could hear the sound of battle.

“We came to the Chinese side early in the morning, and we began to hear gunshots that afternoon from Laogai, our hometown,” Li, a university student whose family grows walnuts, tea and sugarcane, said by phone from Yunnan Province in southern China.

In the past six weeks, the Burmese army has been fighting rebels of the Kokang, a Chinese ethnic group that has lived in the mountains of northern Myanmar for more than 400 years, and keeps strong linguistic, education and trading ties with China.

Myanmar has been afflicted with fighting between its various ethnic groups and the army for decades, but the current battle, fueled by rebels armed with weapons bought with the proceeds of a flourishing drug trade, is potentially more serious because it touches on the nation’s sensitive relationship with China.

Burmese Chief of Military Affairs Security Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo last month said that “well-trained Chinese soldiers” were fighting alongside the Kokang guerrillas, known as the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, who are led by octogenarian Peng Jiasheng (彭家聲). Mya Tun Oo tried to soften his accusation by saying the local Chinese authorities, rather than the central government, were responsible for the deployment of the Chinese soldiers. However, his statement infuriated China, which strongly denied the charge and demanded that senior Burmese officials go to Beijing for talks.

Also of concern to China is the Burmese military’s tactic of stoking widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. China, the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, has major oil and gas interests there, and is trying to consolidate its economic position amid intense rivalry with the US. During the rule of the junta, China was an unflinching supporter of the military, and the resentment, now based on China’s power and wealth, still permeates society.

Myanmar has called the war against the guerrillas a righteous cause against an “external threat,” a clear reference to China. The army has publicized that its forces have suffered casualties at the hands of the guerrillas and has welcomed donations from ordinary citizens to pay the families of soldiers killed in the fighting.

The Burmese military has also used Facebook accounts in a campaign to build opposition to Peng by linking him to China. Until 1989, the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party, provided Peng his main support. Now, the Kokang are fighting back to protect mineral and forestry resources, and the profitable drug trade that has kept them alive and somewhat autonomous from the center.

The nationalist appeal by the Burmese military has a specific political purpose. It appears intended to gain support from the population before important national elections at the end of this year, when the dominant political party aligned with the military will go head-to-head with the opposition party led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

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