Ethnic conflict gnaws at Myanmar’s future

By Xing Yun Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-16 20:03:01

Unrest has been flaring in northern Myanmar's Kokang region of Shan state since February. Violent clashes have shattered the nearly six years of calm since the last conflict broke out in August 2009. Tens of thousands of residents have fled across border into China to seek refuge. A Myanmar warplane dropped a bomb in Chinese soil on March 13, killing five Chinese civilians and injuring eight others.

The incident not only angered Chinese but also drew attention of the international community. What's the root cause for the conflicts in northern Myanmar and what damage have they caused to Myanmar, China and their bilateral relations?

Since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, its government has been engaged in alternatively negotiating and fighting with numerous ethnic armed groups but has yet to achieve genuine peace and national reconciliation. The fundamental reason is that the Myanmar government and the ethnic groups in the northern part have fierce collisions of interests in politics, economy, science, education, culture, healthcare, reorganization of local armed forces and allocation of local resources.

To put it simple, minorities or ethnic armed forces wish for a high degree of regional autonomy, they want to control local resources and manage regional affairs while the central government hopes to achieve complete control over the contended regions and reshuffle local armed groups into frontier forces under the control of the government army.

Northern Myanmar is home to varied ethnic armed forces including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, with nearly 50,000 fighters in total.

Over six decades of warfare has ruined northern Myanmar and compelled the government to invest a considerable part of state revenue in military expenditure instead of local development, leaving the people destitute. The recent conflicts have also bogged down the national ceasefire negotiations.

Both Myanmar's democratic transformation and the general elections slated for the end of this year call for domestic stability and a good international image, which, however, are threatened by the escalated tensions. The continuing skirmishes have led to a whopping number of casualties and refugees. The international community puts constant pressure on the Myanmar government. The US and Europe take the issue of human rights as a key indicator as to whether to improve relations with the country and provide aid.

The conflict between Myanmar's government troops and ethnic armed forces will last for some time in the future, inevitably leading the country into a vicious circle of warfare. The rugged and thickly forested terrain is not conducive for mechanized military operation and therefore quelling the ethnic militias remains an arduous task. The use of force means more casualties and will cause more pressure from both home and abroad, blighting the general elections as well as the democratic transformation process.

Conflicts in northern Myanmar are not only a catastrophe for the country and its people, but also harm Sino-Myanmese friendship. The two countries share a border of over 2,000 kilometers and Yunnan Province inevitably suffers from the fighting in northern Myanmar.

It's reported that some 60,000 Myanmar residents have fled across the border following the Kokang conflicts and more than 10,000 of them have been temporarily resettled in the city of Lincang.

The clashes are fuelling mutual misunderstandings between Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw, damaging their strategic mutual trust, delaying the construction of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the Silk Road economic belt and the 21st century maritime Silk Road.

After the Kokang clashes broke out, there have been some Myanmar media outlets claiming that the MNDAA are backed by some forces in China and some Western media outlets claiming Kokang is "China's Crimea." As a matter of fact, China never supports any conflict between Myanmar ethnic armed forces and the government, since it seriously hurts China's interests.

China has strongly condemned the incident that killed and injured Chinese civilians and demanded a thorough investigation into the case. If the fighting in northern Myanmar drags on, both ordinary people in Myanmar and Beijing-Nay Pyi Taw ties will definitely suffer.

As a responsible nation, China must be concerned with these developments. The Chinese government should urge the Myanmar government and the ethnic armed forces to put an end to the skirmishes and prompt all parties to carry out bilateral or multilateral peaceful talks with the aim of accelerating the process of the nationwide ceasefire negotiations.

The author is a Myanmar affairs commentator based in Beijing.

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