x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Thousands flee border clashes

Myanmarese military operations leads to thousands fleeing into China, increasing tensions between Naypyidaw and Beijing.

Refugees from Myanmar's Shan State fleeing the fighting arrive at Nansan in Yunnan province.
Refugees from Myanmar's Shan State fleeing the fighting arrive at Nansan in Yunnan province.

BANGKOK // Myanmarese military operations against armed ethnic minority groups along the country's north-eastern border with China have led to thousands fleeing into China and increased tensions between Naypyidaw and Beijing. Fears are growing that the operations could lead to full-blown armed conflict between Myanmar and these groups and the UN has advised its staff and other NGO workers to evacuate Kokang.

Beijing has sent extra troops to the area to quell potential violence and a senior Chinese envoy has been dispatched to Naypyidaw to convey the government's concerns, according to a senior Chinese government official said on condition of anonymity. More than 10,000 people have now fled across the border into China since tensions flared up between Myanmarese troops and armed minority groups nearly three weeks ago, a local Chinese government official in Kunming said on condition of anonymity.

Several thousand people a day are now streaming over the border into the southern Yunnan provincial town of Nansan from ethnic Kokang areas in Myanmar's north-eastern Shan state, witnesses say. Chinese authorities are alarmed by the development and furious they were not informed beforehand that Myanmar would take action against the groups, the senior government official said. A senior diplomat has already flown to the Myanmar junta's headquarters to convey Beijing's concerns.

Myanmar's government says the operations are aimed at capturing an arms factory in Kokang. But analysts are sceptical and believe this is merely a pretext to go after groups in the area that the government accuses of being violent separatists that fund themselves by producing and selling drugs. "The junta knows it must move to disarm these ethnic rebel groups, and the Kokang are the weakest militarily," said Win Min, a Myanmarese military specialist at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. "Before the military launched this attack the authorities have been trying to portray the Kokang leaders as drug dealers."

The Kokang are ethnically Chinese but have lived for decades in Myanmar. They have their own armed militia and had been fighting the Myanmarese army for decades demanding autonomy until agreeing to a truce 20 years ago. Until recently, they were heavily involved in the drugs trade and were a major producer of opium poppies. But since 2003, according to the UN anti-narcotics agency, UNODC, their area has been poppy free, largely a result of pressure from China to stop the trade, a former UNODC chief, Jean-Luc Lemahieu in Yangon, has said.

Tensions had been escalating in Myanmar's border areas for months, as the military junta pressured the ethnic rebel groups, particularly the Kachin, Kokang and Wa, to surrender their arms before the planned elections next year. The government wants to integrate them into a border police guard but they have been resisting the move as they do not trust the Myanmar government, which they accuse of a litany of rights abuses including executions, rape and stealing of food.

Thousands of Myanmarese troops have been taking positions in Kokang in recent weeks, including along the route to the headquarters of the Kokang at Laogai. Rice and food supplies were being prevented from coming into the area, according to one resident, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity. On August 8, the commander of the Myanmarese troops in the Kokang area sent soldiers in to investigate reports of Kokang forces operating an arms factory, and this week troops searched the home of the Kokang military leader, Peng Jiasheng, searching for drugs. He is reported to have fled into a neighbouring area to the east, controlled by the powerful United Wa State Army, whichis believed to still have about 15,000 troops. The Wa, like the Kokang, are ethnically Chinese and have close relations with China.

The 20-year-old ceasefire agreement between Myanmar and the Kokang seems to be effectively over, according to Myanmarese dissidents in the Chinese town of Ruili, not far from where the Kokang refugees are now based. "This does not augur well for the other ceasefire groups like the Kachin and Wa," said Prof Win of Chiang Mai University. "This may be a preview of what's to come." ljagan@thenational.ae