POLITICS: China, Burma Bust Up Over Border Unrest

  • Analysis by Larry Jagan (bangkok)
  • Wednesday, September 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the two states, with Beijing even issuing some unusually forthright criticism of its South-east Asian neighbour.

Unrest on their common border led to a mass exodus of more than 30,000 Chinese refugees in late August, and fears of a renewed civil war in the area have alarmed Beijing. Its officials are also now worried by the Burmese military regime’s interest in developing closer ties with the U.S., which has strong sanctions in place against the junta.

'Beijing has been taken aback by the Burmese junta’s cavalier approach to their normally strong relationship,' said Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University. 'But it is likely to prove to be a hiccup rather than a major shift in relations.'

Last weekend a government-controlled provincial television channel, based in Kunming — the capital of Yunnan province which borders northern Burma - - broadcast a Chinese government announcement advising all Chinese citizens in eastern Burma to return home quickly.

This came on the heels of a formal complaint from China to Burma days earlier over the way Chinese citizens living in a border region had been treated during recent clashes between an ethnic militia and Burmese in August.

In statement issued last week, China's Foreign Ministry said the recent conflict with the Kokang, in a northeastern Burmese region bordering China, had 'harmed the rights and interests of Chinese citizens living there.' The Burmese government should make sure similar incidents do not happen again, the statement added.

Burma insists that peace has been restored to the area in question, and most of the refugees who fled to China had returned. But there are still thousands seeking refuge across the border, not just from the Kokang areas, according to residents living in China along the border with Burma.

Right along the border, from the Kachin areas in the east to the Shan areas in the west, people have fled into China for fear of renewed fighting between other ethnic rebel groups, especially the Kachin and the Wa, two of Burma’s larger armed groups, according to Indian entrepreneurs who travel along this area doing business.

'Everyone fears that the 20-year-old ceasefire agreements have been torn up by the Burmese generals, and a return to fighting is imminent,' said a Kachin student living in the Chinese border town of Ruili.

'At the moment, it does not look as though the Burmese army is about to attack any of the other ethnic rebel groups that have ceasefire agreements, though there is a lot of posturing going on,' said Win Min. 'There is no doubt that the regime means to have all the ethnic rebel armies disarm before next year’s elections and become part of the border guards under the control of the Burmese army.'

Earlier this year the junta sought the assistance of the former intelligence chief and prime minister, General Khin Nyunt — who was deposed in Oct. 2004 and is now under house arrest in Rangoon — to help negotiate with these rebels groups, especially the Wa.

Khin Nyunt had masterminded these ceasefire agreements some 20 years ago, and was still trusted by many of the ethnic leaders. He accepted the junta’s request on condition that his men — some 300 military intelligence officers who were jailed in the aftermath of Khin Nyunt’s fall — be freed. The government refused to accept his condition, and turned to the Chinese — who have extremely close relations with the key ethnic groups along the border — the Kachin, Kokang and the Wa. The Chinese reluctance to help angered the Burmese junta’s leaders.

It is now increasingly evident that a significant rift exists between the two countries that could have crucial implications for other countries in the region. It is also likely to impact any approach that the international community may take to encourage the Burmese military regime to introduce real political change.

The implications of this growing divergence could also have significant affects on the border region, as most of the ethnic groups — especially the Kachin, Kokang and Wa — in this area have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta. They also have traditionally close ties with the Chinese authorities. Economically and culturally, the area is certainly closer to China than the Burmese regime.

Thousands of Chinese businessmen and workers have migrated into northern Shan state over the last decade seeking employment and economic opportunities. Many of these ethnic leaders go to Chinese hospital across the border for medical treatment and send their children to school in China. The Chinese language and even the Chinese currency — the renminbi — is used throughout the Kokang and Wa areas in northern Shan state.

Anything which forces Beijing to choose between their ethnic brothers inside Burma — the Kokang are ethnically Chinese and the Wa, a Chinese ethnic minority — and the central government will cause the capital immense problems. In the end, it will bring into sharp focus the real nature of the Burma-China axis.

But Beijing is now more worried about Burma’s longer-term allegiance. The junta has been China’s key ally and strategic partner in South-east Asia in the past few years. So the current overtures between Washington and Burma have dismayed the Chinese leaders, who remain suspicious of the U.S. interest in re-engaging with the region and increasing its influence. Beijing sees the region as its backyard, and any competition for influence is far from welcome.

Recently Cambodia and Thailand have moved closer to the US, increasing China’s strategic concerns. Now its rock-solid ally, evidently hoping for better relations with the West, has begun to flirt with Washington.

'China will react with measured nervousness to this unwelcome encroachment into Burma,' Justin Wintle, a British expert on Burma and biographer of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told IPS.

Beijing’s current concerns stem from the unstable basis of their bilateral relationship. 'We are not ‘real’ friends — as (we are) with Thailand, for example,' said a senior Chinese government official who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. 'It’s a Machiavellian relationship: we are in it for what we can get out of it, and they are also in it, for what they can get out of it,' he said.

Thus, it is a relationship that could shift easily, said Chinese diplomats who spoke with IPS. 'But it is not likely to become antagonistic anytime soon,' said Win Min. 'Burma is far too economically dependent on China for the government to really consider ditching Beijing as its main ally.'

More than 90 percent of direct foreign investment in Burma last year was Chinese. While the western-led sanctions remain in place, that is unlikely to change for some time. The sanctions, of course, now more than ever have rankled with the regime.

'Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar (as Burma is official called), and we consider them unjust,' the Burmese prime minister, General Thein Sein, told the U.N. General Assembly in New York late this month.

Undoubtedly Burma’s interest in a dialogue with the U.S. is motivated by the regime’s main concerns — to have sanctions lifted, for international humanitarian and development assistance to flow into the country, and to attract foreign investment.

'Though generals are certainly unhappy about being too dependent on one supporter, and will be trying to balance Chinese influence with better relations with the U.S. as well as other countries — like ASEAN (member states) and India, they will not be looking to cut the umbilical cord with China in the near future,' said Win Min.

China will now watch with growing concern any further U.S. overtures to Burma. But in the end it is Burma that may hold the upper hand. China’s economic, trade and military involvement in Burma gives the junta the upper hand rather than making them more subservient to Beijing. The issue now is how far the junta leaders will go in flexing their muscles.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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