Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Borderline Battle

UPDATED: March 9, 2015 NO. 11 MARCH 12, 2015
By Shi Yongming
Clashes break out near China's border as unresolved ethnic conflict threatens Myanmar reform
STATE OF EMERGENCY: Residents who fled from conflict areas near the Myanmar and Chinese border wait for trucks to transport them to refugee camps in Mandalay on February 18 (CFP)
This spring season has not brought hopeful renewal to the people of northern Myanmar, as clashes between government forces and Kokang ethnic insurgents raged in the country's northern Kokang region. The conflict has caused numerous casualties and forced many people in the region to flee their homes. After three years of democratic reform, a new election was scheduled to take place this year and negotiation between the national army and the ethnic forces was also expected to be completed early this year. However, the newly volatile situation has put a damper on their optimistic wishes.

Myanmar's ethnic dilemma

The problems associated with Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups are deep-rooted and complex, dating back to the origins of the establishment of modern Myanmar. Although it was a unified kingdom prior to British colonization, the country has always been composed of many different ethnic groups. Modern-day Myanmar was founded on the basis of fighting against the British with the concerted efforts and cooperation of all ethnic groups, at which point a federation was established based on national self-determination. However, Myanmar abandoned this system to prevent national secession, resulting in decades of military conflict between government army and ethnic forces.

The new constitution drafted in 2008 reaffirmed the country's status as a multiethnic federation. Myanmar also restored the House of Nationalities to guarantee the autonomy of the ethnic groups. Though the new constitution is imperfect, it was accepted by most ethnic groups and a new federation was established based on the 2010 general election. However, due to historical grievances as well as the difficulty of identity transition of some political leaders of the ethnic military forces, the ethnic groups are not likely to lay down their arms just yet.

The focus of the dispute centers on the future role of the ethnic armed forces. The Myanmar Government proposed reorganizing them into local police or the national army. The ethnic forces refused, proposing instead to build a federal army, which the Myanmar Government in turn rejected. Some ethnic insurgents responded with force to push their proposal, sparking the current round of fighting as well as negotiations between the two sides. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the strongest of the ethnic armed forces, became the prime target of the government army. However, the situation has become further complicated as most of the ethnic armed forces in northern Myanmar have effectively formed a loose coalition, leading to the resurgence of the almost vanquished Kokang ethnic army. The heavy fighting has caused large numbers of casualties, pressuring the Myanmar Government to either expand the war or return to the negotiating table.

Hidden concerns

Myanmar harbors two covert concerns regarding the current military conflict: The first has to do with its ongoing reform prospects; and the second regards its international status.

Myanmar's democratic reform must begin with a two-part reconciliation process--both between the government and pro-democracy parties as well as between the government and the ethnic armed forces. Only when these two issues are settled can the country advance its political and economic reform and realize harmony and prosperity. Though some progress has been made on these issues, the current situation threatens to push the country backward.

Ahead of the upcoming general election and parliamentary election, differences between the government and the pro-democracy parties regarding the constitutional system have reemerged. Due to political and procedural obstacles, the pro-democracy side cannot amend the constitution, and the ensuing political stalemate has affected Myanmar's reform process. Some in the media have even claimed that the Myanmar Government-led reform is degenerating. In the meantime, the military conflict between government army and ethnic armed forces may bring additional problems to the national political reform as well as the reconciliation efforts. With these challenges standing in the way, it is unclear how much progress Myanmar's reform can make.

The current situation also concerns Myanmar's future international strategy. If the Myanmar Government chooses to rely on the use of force to address the ethnic insurgents, it could trigger a humanitarian disaster, potentially spoiling the progress made in relations with the West over the past two years.

Amid the unpredictable conflict in northern Myanmar, the United States has played a curious role. The U.S.-Myanmar relationship has greatly improved in the past two years as Myanmar takes on new geopolitical significance. The United States has sought to use Myanmar in its wider campaign to contain China. Coincidentally, just before the outbreak of the Myanmar conflict at the beginning of the year, the U.S. Government sent Tom Malinowski, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, to Myanmar as head of a human rights delegation. U.S. principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Harvey and Anthony Crutchfield, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, were also included in the delegation, and they paid a special visit to Myitkyina, capital of the Kachin State in north Myanmar. Although it is uncertain what the U.S. defense officials did and said in Kachin, the situation in north Myanmar intensified soon after the United States began paying special attention to the region.

The China perspective

China is on high alert over the conflict taking place in its neighboring country--not only because it concerns China's own border stability but also because outside parties may try to take advantage of the situation. China and Myanmar are close neighbors, sharing both a 2,200 km long border as well as genetic connections between the peoples living across the borderline. Thus, some have accused China of involvement in the military conflict in Myanmar, comparing what has taken place in the Kokang ethnic region with the recent events in Crimea.

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, some media commentators have likened the Crimea issue to China's territorial issues in the South China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands and even Taiwan. These far-fetched comparisons seek to create an image of China as an aggressive country.

It is true that Kokang ethnic people have Chinese Han blood. However, their roots run deep in the country's long history even though they are not native Burmese. They have actively participated in the independent process of modern-day Myanmar and become responsible members of the society. Though the current conflict in the north does not pose a threat to its relations with China, it is in the interest of China to see a stable and prosperous Myanmar. China could not afford a volatile situation in its neighboring country--especially when the conflict could eventually spread to its own soil.

The author is an associate research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies