Chinese Hand in Burma's Civil War?

The current armed conflict in Burma's northern Kachin State has effectively ended nearly two decades of ceasefire between the country's second largest ethnic army, the Kachin Independence Army, and the newly sworn-in Naypyidaw government, bringing a strategic region near the Chinese border to the verge of a civil war.

The gunfire that was exchanged between the Kachins and the Burmese army over the past eight days has claimed only a few casualties on both sides. And despite concerns that the fighting would spread to other areas, no other clashes have been reported in the region since midday on Monday.

The past week's conflict is significant because for the first time it has reignited a civil war in northern Burma which has been in hibernation mode since a fragile "gentlemen's agreement" was reached in 1994. The clashes that broke out last Thursday present a new challenge in the armed struggle of Kachin rebels who initially demanded independence in 1961 but later called for a federal union.

The new and daunting challenge for the Kachin force today is its neighbor China. Across Kachin State, Chinese state-owned mega-corporations such as China Power Investment and China Datang are constructing a number of large-scale hydropower dams. And the electricity from those dams will be exported to China.

KIA spokesperson La Nan told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the immediate cause of the latest fighting stemmed from the Burmese army's aggressive attempts to control areas surrounding the hydropower dams, which are located near the Chinese border—areas which have long been under the control of KIA forces, and just a few kilometers away from China's strategic oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province which passes through central Burma.

La Nan said that these massive investments were implemented without the consent of the local public or stakeholders such as the KIA, and these economic interests have already pushed Beijing into becoming an ally of the Burmese army.

"When we approached the Chinese company officials working at these dams, their response is that they already have agreements with Naypyidaw," he said. "China wants to get resources from Burma. So it seems that their policy is to secure our country's resources by any means necessary and, in this case, with the connivance of the Burmese authorities."

According to the Burma Rivers Network, an independent environmental group, these dams have severe social, economic and environmental impacts. In addition, the majority of the power is to be exported to neighboring countries, necessitating the expansion of Burmese army control in the areas where these dams are being built.

The NGO said in a statement on Wednesday that the latest fighting near the Dapein and Shweli hydropower dams in northern Burma shows how the build-up of Burmese government troops in the region fuels the conflict and adds to the deep resentment against the widely unpopular dam projects.

Given China's huge investment in the region, it is interesting to question whether the Burmese armed forces tried to dispel the KIA battalions from the areas near these projects only after it received explicit approval from Beijing.

The ongoing armed clashes in Kachin State come just a few weeks after Burmese President Thein Sein visited Beijing and the two countries announced the establishment of a strategic relationship. During the visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo appealed to Thein Sein "for the smooth implementation of infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric power and transportation," according to state news agency Xinhua.

China has kept mum on the latest crisis near its border—unlike during the Burmese government's surprise offensive in 2009 against the small Kokang ethnic militia group in northeastern Shan State. At that time, China reprimanded Naypyidaw for creating "border instability."

On Thursday, only a week later after the fighting, China called for restraint on both parties and de-escalation of the tension. Despite repeated stress on the importance of border stability from both Chinese and Burmese governments, the KIA official said the words lacked sincerity, describing it as "stability forced on the ethnic people by military means."

Asked if China had possibly given a green light to the Burmese army to clear the KIA-controlled areas near the dam projects, Jim Della-Giacoma, the Southeast Asian Director of International Crisis Group, said, "We don't think Beijing would have been caught off-guard by this [the latest clashes] as they were by the Kokang fighting of August 2009, but their larger interests remain."

The ICG report last year said that the Kokang conflict and the rise in tensions along the border prompted Beijing to increasingly view Burma's ethnic groups as a liability rather than a means of strategic leverage. It also said that the ethnic groups' view China’s support for them as provisional and driven by its own economic and security interests.

According to Dr. Zarni, a Burmese research fellow at the London School of Economics, the Burmese generals' insensitivity to the survival needs of local communities has resulted in the rise in military tensions with respective armed organizations.

"The ruling military class in Naypyidaw has condemned the Burmese people to slavery, and has colonized the ethnic groups with their other hand," he said. "Now this ruling class is fulfilling the wishes of the Chinese government, and what they want in return is China's political protection on the international stage."

Della-Giacoma described the current break in hostilities in Kachin State as "the lull before the storm. We are not yet at a point of full resumption of conflict in Kachin, but if the Myanmar government doesn't move quickly to create space for a de-escalation, that's where this is headed."

Despite the presumed incentive of economic interests and the China factor, the core major cause of this conflict, the KIA official said, is the Burmese army's attempt to subjugate the KIA under central command—a move the KIA has rejected, just as many other armed ethnic groups have done.

Adding to the Kachins' resentment toward Naypyidaw is that three Kachin political parties that tried to run in the parliamentary elections last year were banned from doing so on the grounds that their leaders were linked with the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA's political wing.

La Nan said the KIA had lost trust in the Burmese government and will not accept any peace talks inside the country. He said that KIA wants a neighboring country to host a dialogue between it and the Burmese government, so that Naypyidaw can be held accountable.

"Our major goal is for a genuine federal union. We don't seek independence," he said.

Regarding the Chinese hydropower projects in Kachin State being included in any peace talks, the official said that although the KIA clearly rejects the Myitsone Dam project, which is not near KIA military bases, it is not in opposition to other dam projects in Kachin State.

"We wanted to have a say in these projects and make sure that the revenue from these dams benefits Kachin people too," he said, adding that the apparent immediate objective of the Burmese army attack is to completely control full and direct access to China.

He said he does not rule out a large-scale major offensive by the Burmese army in the coming days.

"It depends only on the Burmese government," La Nan said. "We have prepared a broad defensive military position, just in case.

"But we know that real victims of war will be the people of the region," he added. "That's why we are not conducting military attacks in any other area except to destroy bridges to deter the Burmese army tanks coming in."

This is reprinted from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.