Burma is back in the international newspapers, albeit tucked away in the middle pages. Forces of the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel organisation based in the Kokang Special Region, have attacked government outposts in a bid to win back the region for the ethnic Han people who reside there. Nearly 100 have died, with thousands of refugees trying to flee across the Chinese border.
Kokang is a self-administering region within the unstable Shan state in Northeast Burma, whose population is almost entirely Han in make-up. Chinese settlers reached the region after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, establishing an enclave neither part of China nor Burma.
Incorporated into the frontier of British Burma in the 19th century, the Kokang people fought against the Japanese invasion during WWII. As a thank you, the British gave Kokang special status after the war under the rule of a Saopha, a traditional title given to a king in the pre-modern Mueang city-states in the Shan region.
Kokang was vulnerable after the British left, however, and in 1965 the Burmese army overthrew the Saopha. This, in turn, sparked a guerrilla campaign led by Pheung Kya-shin and with the backing of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The CPB had close links to China and was, therefore, a natural ally of the Han Kokang. By 1969 Pheung had won control of Kokang and the government in Yangon was unable to reassert its authority.
Periodic conflict broke out between the Tatmadaw (Burma’s Army) and the Kokang-CPB. Pheung, meanwhile, helped establish a prolific opium trade in Kokang, along with affiliated gambling and prostitution operations which constantly drew the attention of Yangon. In 1989, the CPB splintered and Pheung established the MMNA to prevent a government takeover of his fiefdom.
Eventually, as a result of Pheung’s apparent willingness to help end the narcotics trade, Burma’s ruling junta signed a ceasefire with him, once more designating Kokang as a ‘Special Region’. This peace lasted for two decades until, in 2009, the junta attempted to coerce the MMNA into becoming one of its subsidiary border forces and replace the influential Pheung with someone more compliant with government desires.
It is the consequences of this ‘Kokang Incident’ that the MMNA (reputedly with the involvement of the returning Pheung) are seeking to reverse now. At a time when Burma’s apparent democratic awakening – precipitated by the replacement of the junta by a civilian government in 2011 – is coming under close scrutiny, ethnic rebellion is bad timing for Naypyidaw. Shan, in addition to the adjacent state of Kachin, is already the location of ethnic rebellion, whose people believe that the government freely discriminates against them.
Despite denials by Beijing, it is possible that China has a hand in the latest unrest, which is occurring in territory that borders Yunnan Province. With the presence of the ethnic Han majority in northeast Burma – a region of considerable unexploited natural resources – it may be the case that Beijing is using the rebels as proxy fighters in a bid for influence.
Burma’s civilian government is now faced with its biggest challenge yet. How to quell unrest amongst its ethnic minorities without resorting to the violence typical of the era of the junta. Working with China would surely be beneficial yet Naypyidaw is nothing if not belligerent.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the promising Burmese political development that began four years ago is foundering. It will take monumental diplomatic efforts, in addition to significant government compromise, to get the process back on track.