China’s dirty secret: Funding Myanmar’s “other” border war

Twenty thousand people are living in tented communities on the border of Myanmar. They are not the famous Rohingya refugees, but a forgotten group of ethnic Han Chinese. Rebel violence fuelled by Chinese cash has forced them from their homes.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

The western media is blind. Twenty thousand people or more are eking out their lives beneath nylon tarpaulin sheets on the Chinese border with Shan State. Many families are forced to live off 20 US cents a day. The region is at war, say members of the rebel groups which have left these people running in fear.

Reporters regularly howl with indignation about the Rohingya fleeing Rakhine, but what about Myanmar’s other great refugee problem? Where is the outrage about the scandal of the Chinese money fuelling a refugee crisis in Kokang?

Near-perpetual violence has plagued Myanmar’s border with China

This tented community in China’s Yunnan Province houses families that have fled from renewed fighting in the Kokang border region. Things had been quiet there since the last round of violence in 2015, but skirmishes at the beginning of March have left at least thirty people dead.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) has claimed responsibility for these attacks. This violent group has raised more than US$500,000 in donations deposited in one of China’s largest banks over the last two years. Accusations that China is influencing the conflict are rife – despite the Chinese government’s diplomatic insistence that they are not involved. This is the first time there is proof.

Chinese authorities immediately moved to close the account. “We appreciated this action. Stability and peace in [the] border area is [a] common interest for both sides,” Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay, told Reuters, adding, “[It was a] very positive move from China.” A positive move; but is it enough?

There were already allegations of Chinese involvement

Lt-Gen Myat Htun Oo of Myanmar’s army is one of the increasing numbers of citizens that believe China has already subversively interfered in the conflict. He claimed that “Chinese mercenaries” are operating in the region. Richard Horsey, a former United Nations diplomat based in Myanmar, believes China uses ethnically Chinese insurgent groups such as the MNDAA as a means of leverage over the government.

There is certainly a history of China interfering in Myanmar’s ethnic politics. The MNDAA openly raised money from Chinese citizens in 2016 and advertised their propaganda on social media sites across the country. The strict censorship laws in the country mean this was only possible with government approval.

The rebels may be trying to disrupt Myanmar’s relations with China

Government officials adamantly deny this allegation. Minister Aung Min, the head of Myanmar’s Union Peace Working Committee, said, “It is impossible that China is involved in the fighting,” adding “It does not need to be involved in this fighting.”

This is not accurate. Chinese money for military supplies is stoking ethnic fires and perpetuating violence. The rebels are brandishing Chinese-made weapons. Refugees are flooding into Chinese provinces. China is already involved.

The MNDAA is launching these attacks to try and damage China-Myanmar relations and create a political and military crisis, Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence said in a report. The timing could not be worse.  Aung San Suu Kyi needs Chinese cooperation and support as she looks for ways to meet her ambitious growth targets.

China and Myanmar are coming closer together

“We cannot damage their relationship. We, too, care about having a better relationship with China, as we also have to deal with China,” said Brigadier-General Tar Phone Kyaw. Money is more important than morals in Myanmar under Suu Kyi.

Relations between the two countries are currently good. Beijing just blocked a statement from the United Nations Security Council that expressed concern over the situation in Rakhine. A new $1.5-billion oil pipeline between Beijing and Naypyidaw is expected to come online shortly. Does this mean that China’s, direct or indirect, warmongering on the borders will be ignored?

Myanmar’s economy relies heavily on exports of timber, gemstones, fruit and nuts to China. Aung San Suu Kyi’s infrastructure development plan needs the economy to remain strong. This means the Chinese could use her weakness to push their own economic interests. The lady leader will need to ensure that economic cooperation does not come at the expense of peace.

Cross-border cooperation has brought peace to the Thailand-Myanmar border

There is no evidence that it is officials in Beijing that are pumping money into the rebel forces plaguing the border areas. The donations may come from private individuals based in China that support the rebel cause. But regardless of the source, it is in Beijing’s interest to curb the flow of money.

If Myanmar’s border regions were stable, the Chinese government and Chinese companies could access a wealth of opportunities. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative to develop a route that connects the west of China to the Indian Ocean continues to gather pace. Myanmar would have an enormous economic advantage if this path crossed through its territory.

The time has come for economics to trump fractured politics

The road might be long. The gargantuan task of returning refugees to their homes in Kachin and Shan states will be problematic as unexploded landmines litter the Burmese countryside. There is also the question of how they will earn a living after years away from their land and farms.

China, Thailand and Myanmar have long struggled over their shared borders, but today the power of economics may knock decades of tortured politics to the ground. If the conflicts continue and instability reigns then nobody wins, nobody makes any money, and the road to shared prosperity remains out of reach. China, and her citizens, should choose their path wisely.