Sunday, September 6, 2009

Burmese juta issues a warning to China

The recent attack on a ethinc Chinese rebel force raises tensions in the Golden Triangle

When it comes to the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle, it is difficult to say who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. This is partly because they are all equally bad. As long as anybody can recall, the triangle has never been for the faint of heart. Wa headhunters, communist insurgents, opium warlords, heroin traffickers, Chinese crime syndicates and the Burmese military government - one of the most condemned regimes in the world - all play for keeps.

And so when fighting broke out last week between the Burmese junta and one of the ceasefire groups, namely the Kokang outfit - who two decades ago gave themselves the fancy but misleading name of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) - unwanted attention was placed on China, a quiet stakeholder in this rugged region. China, of course, prefers to stay out of the spotlight when it comes to such matters.

It was not so much because tens of thousands of Kokang Chinese and others fled into China; it was because China's influence in this highly contested region is being weakened. This is not to mention the possibility of further exposing the hush-hush relations between the communist giant and the ethnic armies who were once, and to some extent continue to be, their proxies. During the height of the communist insurgency, the Communist Party of China funded and armed many of the insurgent groups in Burma. Red Guards crossed the border to preach Marxism and succeeded in getting groups like the Wa to give up headhunting in exchange for Kalashnikovs and military fatigues. Burmese and Shan leftists also joined forces to be part of a movement that promised to bring equality and justice to a land where the ideas of law and order and the Western notion of the nation-state are still very much alien concepts.

For various reasons, the movement didn't last. And in 1989 the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) splintered along ethnic lines. Factions like the Wa transformed, quickly becoming a new force for the Burmese government to reckon with. Why not? They had enough weapons from the Chinese to last for another decade or so.

Among the remnants of the CPB were the Kokang, the Yunnanese Chinese whose territory fell on the Burmese side when the official Sino-Burma political border was drawn. To neutralise the remnants of the CPB, Rangoon had to move quickly. The then-security chief, Lt-General Khin Nyunt, was dispatched to the Wa capital of Panghsang to sign a ceasefire deal with the newly established United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Similar agreements were signed with other groups, including the Shan State Army-North and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), a Mong La-based outfit that even had Thai ladyboys performing for Chinese day-trippers to the border casinos.

Part of the 1989 ceasefire deal was that these newly created ethnic armies were permitted to administer their so-called Special Regions and were free to carry out any business activities of their choice. Besides casinos there were clandestine heroin factories.

Just a decade ago, methamphetamines came into the picture. The market for these drugs is no longer just streets in Europe and the United States but also Bangkok and other cities in Southeast Asia. China is not immune to the drug problem, however. In terms of damage, one can argue that the Chinese in Yunnan were the most affected when one takes into consideration the number of heroin addicts and HIV-infected drug users, largely due to the use of unclean needles.

But unlike leaders in Southeast Asia, Chinese leaders don't demonise these drug armies that operate freely on the Burmese side of the border. This is partly because of historical ties. Thai and foreign security analysts think the Chinese are using these ethnic armies as pawns for a later day, and a possible entry point into Burma. Why just court the Burmese junta when you can court them all?

Beside the cost of having to look after the Kokang and other refugees fleeing from the Burmese assault, China is also concerned that an unwanted spotlight will be focused on cross-border activities that they would rather keep off everyone's radar screen. These activities include the laundering of drug money in businesses and real estate in China by the leaders of these ethnic armies, many of whom rank high on the US's wanted list, mainly for heroin trafficking.

The shooting in Kokang's Special Region 1 has now stopped and the 1,000-strong MNDAA force appears to be a thing of the past. The 20,000-strong UWSA could very well be next on the Burmese junta's hit list.

Taking on the Kokang was a stern warning to the UWSA by the Burmese. It was also a stern warning to the Chinese, and a blow to the long-standing illusion that Beijing has the Burmese junta in the palm of its hand. The Nation EDITORIAL

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