By Barun Das Gupta
The Sino-Myanmar border, south of China’s Yunnan Province, has suddenly come alive. Beijing alleged on March 14 that a fighter aircraft of the Myanmar Air Force had ‘bombed’ a village in Yunnan, killing five and injuring eight. Myanmar emphatically denied the allegation. Its military said that no warplanes had carried out any strike in Chinese territory. But this had no effect on the Chinese. A spokesperson of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) announced that ‘a large contingent’ of fighter planes had been sent to the region.
This sudden development is a sequel to the equally sudden outbreak of rebellion by the Kokang ethnic Chinese rebels and Myanmar government forces in the Shan State of Northern Myanmar on the 9th of last month. Calm was prevailing in the area for the last five years when it suddenly broke. The fighting has been going on for more than a month now. Meanwhile, the Myanmar social media is hinting at China’s complicity in the recent developments. A typical tweet says: “Is there possibility that the Chinese gov’t are supporting the Kokang rebels? Where does Kokang get their weapons from? The rebels flee to Chinese border whenever the Myanmar gov’t chase them. Is that the reason why Myanmar war plane flew into China and bomb?”
Myanmar, of course, has denied that it sent any war planes to China. Zaw Htay, a senior official in the office of Myanmar’s Preisdent told a Japanese news agency that after analysing the data provided by the Chinese side, the Myanmar military “concluded that its warplanes did not carry out the strike”, stopping short of blaming the bombing on the rebels. But Myanmar’s chief of military affairs and security, Lt. Gen. Mya Htun Oo, according to foreign media, had gone on record saying that the rebels were recruiting former Chinese soldiers as mercenaries. Myanmar’s information minister, U Ye Htut, has urged the Chinese side to rein in their local Yunnan officials who ‘might be offering support’ (to the rebels).
Might be, might not be. But what is doubtless is that the total strength of the three allied rebel groups’ ranks has suddenly swelled to about five thousand fighters. They are using Chinese-made AK-47s, rocket-propelled mortars and grenades. Gen. Oo, at least, does not rule out the possibility that other rebel groups might also be getting weapons from the same sources.
The rebels claim that they want a federation-type arrangement with the government and a high degree of autonomy for the Kokangs. Meanwhile, what is happening on the ground is that the octogenarian rebel leader Peng Jiasheng, who went into hiding after 2009, has recently re-emerged. His forces were in the shambles then but suddenly have got fresh access to huge funding, so much so that Peng’s forces have reportedly ‘multiplied ten-fold in two years.’
Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections later this year. A fresh inflow of Chinese-made arms and ammunition in the country now may derail the ongoing peace talks with the rebels and create a situation of instability. China claims that in the wake of the renewed fighting with the Kokangs, more than sixty thousand people have fled from Myanmar and crossed into China and nearly fourteen thousand of them are fed and provided with shelter, mainly by the Chinese Red Cross. They are being urged to go back to their homes in Myanmar.
The question that naturally arises in India is, whether the Chinese are clandestinely helping the ethnic Chinese rebels in North Myanmar in the same way that they once helped the tribal rebel groups of North-East India, especially those operating in Nagaland and Manipur, with arms and training. Even Paresh Barua, the so-called ‘leader’ of the anti-talks faction of the ULFA, is reportedly living near the Sino-Myanmar border and frequently visiting China. His so-called armed wing now exists only in name, but he is still left with the strength to organize sneak attacks here and there in Assam once in a while.
It may be recalled that China had drawn up an ambitious project to lay a 1214 km long railway line from Yunnan cutting through the entire length of Myanmar right up to the Bay of Bengal, at a cost of some twenty billion dollars. It would have connected Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to Kyaukphyu in Myanmar. It worried India no end because China’s access to the Bay of Bengal and through it to the Indian Ocean had great and ominous military implications. India heaved a sigh of relief, when the Myanmar Government cancelled the project after people objected to the project for its adverse environmental impact. The high cost was also a factor that changed the Myanmar Government’s mind.
The bonhomie that once existed in Sino-Myanmar relations is over now. Myanmar has greater contact with the outside world now and there is greater scope of developing fruitful relations of mutual cooperation with other nations. The democratization process is in progress. India has also long ceased to treat the junta-ruled Myanmar as a pariah. India needs to make greater efforts to forge closer relationship with her eastern neighbour. (IPA Service)