- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

LINCANG, China | A few thousand Myanmar refugees have returned home this week during a lull in fighting between government troops and an ethnic militia that has roiled relations between Myanmar and its closest foreign ally — China.

(Corrected paragraph:) U Aung Kyaw Zaw, an expert on the military situation in northeastern Myanmar who lives in the Chinese province of Yunnan, said Wednesday that the situation has stabilized somewhat but that many of the estimated 37,000 Burmese who fled here last week are still afraid to go home to their country, also known as Burma.

“The Chinese want to show the world that they are treating the refugees well and have control of the situation,” he said.

The recent fighting suggests that the ruling junta in Myanmar seeks to extend control over rebel-held territory in advance of 2010 elections.

The violence has pitted the junta against the Kokang — ethnic Chinese who have lived in Myanmar for generations. The offensive, launched last month against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) militia in a section of the largely autonomous Shan state along the border of China’s Yunnan province, broke a 20-year-long cease-fire.

On Tuesday, state-run Chinese media reported that about 2,800 of the refugees had returned to Myanmar.

According to the Burmese-exile newspaper Irrawaddy, the Myanmar junta is using the lull in the fighting to reinforce its forces in Shan state in what could be a prelude to action against other ethnic militias in the region.

The United Wa State Army is the strongest ethnic militia in the area and also among the biggest drug producers there. It has about 20,000 troops under its command and could be the next target.

However, further fighting could send more refugees into China and risk relations in the run-up to the 60th-anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.

Irrawaddy said Myanmar officials traveled to the Chinese city of Kunming on Monday for a meeting with Chinese officials. On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said officials from the junta had assured China it would “restore peace and stability along the border.” The ministry also said China was providing “necessary humanitarian assistance.”

Song Jing, an official with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, said that office had not received a response to a request for access to the refugees, who are concentrated around the border town of Nansan.

According to Chinese government figures released earlier this week, about 13,000 refugees are staying in tents and shelters provided by Yunnan provincial authorities and are being fed and receiving medical care.

The Myanmar junta is under U.S. and European Union sanctions — the latter intensified after the Aug. 11 sentencing of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months of house arrest.

China, however, has been a close ally, providing the junta’s ruling generals with military hardware.

China also is a major consumer of the country’s natural resources, which include oil, gas, hardwoods, hydropower and gems.

China will soon commence building a major port and pipeline linking Myanmar’s coast with Yunnan to ease Beijing’s reliance on the congested Straits of Malacca for transshipment of African and Middle Eastern oil imports.

It is thought that Myanmar is key to China’s “string of pearls” plan to build bases and project military and naval power into the Indian Ocean.

This does not make the Myanmar junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a client of Beijing, analysts say.

In fact, “to this day, it is Burma that has successfully manipulated China, not the other way round,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.

“China has relied on Burma too much, through its needs of the Burmese natural resources and access to the ocean.”

India, South Korea and many Southeast Asian countries are eager to invest in Myanmar, and the junta is adept at playing suitors against each other.

The U.S. State Department has condemned the recent fighting, but a recent visit by Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, has added to speculation that the United States will alter its Myanmar policy in favor of more engagement.

The junta, ebullient after receiving minimal international punishment for returning chief dissident Mrs. Suu Kyi to house arrest, may be subtly telling China that it has other options.

However, domestic concerns may be the main driver of recent developments. Mary Callahan, a Myanmar specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told The Washington Times that although the junta’s intentions are sometimes murky to outsiders, it usually prioritizes its domestic agenda.

A controversial new constitution was approved in a referendum held just after the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Despite 135,000 deaths in the disaster, which left 3 million homeless, the junta pressed ahead with the vote, which was marred by intimidation and ballot-stuffing.

The junta hopes to rubber-stamp continued military rule under a civilian veneer. According to the constitution, the new president “shall be well-acquainted with military affairs,” while a new army commander in chief will be able to supersede the president in a number of areas.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last elections, in 1990, and the military overturned the result. She is barred from running, and many other opposition figures are also in jail or in exile.

The NLD has threatened to boycott the elections unless prisoners are released and international observers are permitted, demands the junta has ignored.

The other aspect of the junta’s pre-election consolidation strategy is to demand that all militias disarm and become part of the state security system.

Most ethnic militias in non-Burmese areas have signed cease-fires over the past two decades, slowly ending a myriad of insurgencies against central rule.

“The army has been in control in Burma since 1962, and its fears that ethnic groups could cause the country to disintegrate have been continually used to justify long-term military rule,” said Win Min, a former pro-democracy student activist who is an author exiled in Thailand.

He added that “the junta probably took on the relatively weak Kokang militia, knowing they would score an easy win, and send a message of intimidation to the other groups.”

However, defeating some of the larger groups, which have access to lucrative narcotic and smuggling income close to the Golden Triangle, would not be easy.

Monique Skidmore, author of “Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear” (2004), speculates that the regime may want the option of scuttling the elections next year by stoking conflict with ethnic groups. “Picking a fight with the Wa would give the regime a pretext to delay elections if they were getting cold feet about their ability to conclusively control the outcome,” she said.

• Simon Roughneen wrote from Bangkok.

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