The future of Myanmar’s borderlands cannot be easily predicted, and it will remain highly contested among factions with intersected interests, writes Abellia Anggi Wardani and Danny Widiatmo
As Myanmar and China share an extensive land border, cross-border settlements of ethnic minorities are common in the region. Minorities such as the Kachin, Shan, Wa, and Ta’ang all reside in the border settlement areas making it a diverse community. These ethnic groups had anticipated a high level of autonomy even before the Panglong Agreement was signed in February 1947. After General Aung San, who signed on behalf of the Myanmar government, and was later assassinated in July 1947, the agreement was never put into effect. It consequently became the primary cause of the multitude of violent conflicts we currently witness. One of the major ethnic minorities that has struggled with these border conflicts is the Kokang Chinese. They inhabit the Upper Shan State, particularly the Muse and Laukkaing Township, bordering the Yunnan province of China. In an agreement made in 1897, China first handed the area over to British India. After gaining its independence in 1948, Kokang was designated as one of Myanmar’s Self-Administered Zone. However, Kokang was not covered by the January 1960 China-Myanmar Border Agreement, which resolved sovereignty over some contentious areas. Kokang has experienced conflict between the local ethnic Chinese armed group and the national government, which is a concern throughout northern Myanmar.
This article aims to assess the unique position of the Kokang Chinese and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in relation to China. This article will use a narrative approach to analyse the data through desk research of various articles and reports. We argue that the MNDAA approach to China could be seen as pragmatic behaviour to gain support for their own political-economic interest rather than solely ethno-nationalistic. This argument is supported by MNDAA’s opposition to Tatmadaw, who have strong relations with China, while simultaneously supporting other EROs that oppose China.
The Contested Control of Upper Shan State
The Upper Shan State, particularly the Muse Township, where there is a border crossing between Myanmar and China, is one of the most important trade corridors in the region. More than half of Myanmar’s total border commerce, costing close to US$4.8 billion between October 2019 and October 2020, was transacted in this area. It is also important for the transnational opium and heroin trade for the MNDAA, the largest faction in Kokang. The MNDAA was founded by Peng Daxun in 1989 as a split from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and had a vocal interest in maintaining its autonomy in the region.
With the significant importance of the area, control of Upper Shan State has always been a valuable target for many factions. As said before, the Kokang region was granted special status as an ethnic autonomous region. However, as Kokang was not covered by the January 1960 China-Myanmar Border Agreement, the control of the area was highly contested, by the MNDAA and the ruling government of Myanmar, including the Tatmadaw (Burmese for armed forces). In the 2009 conflict, the Tatmadaw finally captured the area and took control of the border, putting pressure on the group to become a border patrol unit. Under U Thein Sein’s Administration, the MNDAA participated in the peace process with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). However, the government still did not recognize the MNDAA as an ERO.
A fight between the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw continued until 10th June 2015, when the group unilaterally proclaimed an end to the fighting. Conflict between the group and the Tatmadaw broke out again in Kunlong Township during the second week of February 2019, and the recent military attack on a Muse Township base of the MNDAA ended in a retreat by the junta’s forces in December 2022.
Ties with China
In 2020, MNDAA joined other anti-Tatmadaw EROs in the Three Brotherhood Alliance, along with the Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). However, while many of these EROs have negative views of China as an ally to the Tatmadaw, the MNDAA has friendly relations with China. In the 2015 conflict, Peng Daxun even requested assistance in the name of “Chinese solidarity” through the internet and media in China. This sparked great sympathy among Chinese audiences towards the MNDAA and the Kokang Chinese. This remarkably close tie between the two factions made the mainstream media and most of the population in Myanmar accuse the Chinese government of supporting the MNDAA by supplying weapons to reclaim their region.
The MNDAA’s ties with China can be traced back to the independence of Myanmar. The Kokang Chinese have a long history of holding onto power under Chinese patronage. Some of them are former Kuomintang who had escaped communist China from 1951 and settled in the Upper Shan State (Than & Kyi, 1997). Due to the open-door policy in the 1990s, Kokang has functioned as a trade corridor to China, connecting interaction between Kokang Chinese and China (Than & Kyi, 1997). Despite its pragmatic nature, this could, in turn, shape the identity construction of the Kokang Chinese, who might identify themselves as Chinese nationals.
Despite MNDAA’s close relations with China, which could also be seen as “sympathy” or even “nationalistic,” China has a more ambivalent attitude. The incidents in Kokang do not represent Beijing’s favoured course of action or planned outcome. It might jeopardise the stable situation necessary for China to achieve its economic and trade interest. In addition, the fighting may strain ties between China and Myanmar. The Chinese Government has so far monitored the situation and tried to stop the broader conflict from reaching China’s borders. The conflict also puts Myanmar’s adoption of the “Belt and Road Initiatives” in jeopardy – which was signed in May 2017 and involved Myanmar in two immense economic projects with China, namely the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) and the China-Indochina-Peninsula Economic Corridor (CIPEC).
Between Economic Interest and Ethno-nationalism
The relations between the MNDAA and the other conflicting factions in the area could be seen as unique and exceptional. The MNDAA has a strong alliance with the other EROs in opposing the Tatmadaw while maintaining good relations with China, which has close ties with the Tatmadaw. The MNDAA’s position could be seen as pragmatic to achieve their own political-economic interests. In opposing the Tatmadaw within Myanmar, the MNDAA could see that allying with the local EROs is the best strategy since they share a similar interest in gaining autonomy in their own land.
Meanwhile, the MNDAA are aware that their historical and cultural connections to China could benefit them. The successful discourse of “Chinese solidarity” promoted by their leader, Peng Daxun, is evidence of this strategy. According to the Reuters report in 2017, the MNDAA had posted a “crowdfunding” appeal on its website and raised more than $500,000 through donations channelled through some of China’s largest state and private financial organisations. Some experts also believe that Chinese military forces have contributed to sending arms supplies to the MNDAA, specifically after losing their territory to the Tatmadaw in 2009.
The Future of Kokang Chinese
The future of Myanmar’s borderlands cannot be easily predicted, and it will remain highly contested among factions with intersected interests. The Ethnic Wa in Eastern Shan State share a similar relationship dynamic with Myanmar and China, as the Kokang Chinese. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has been battling to maintain control over their territory and demand their status as EROs to the central government. The United States Institute of Peace claims in 2018 that the UWSA maintains close ties with China, which supplies it with armaments to keep its autonomy from the Tatmadaw. That being said, China took advantage of the conflict occurring in its “uncontrolled” borderlands to advance its own economic interests while also assisting in the peace process to keep the conflict from reaching its territory. In the end, establishing some form of authority over that fundamentally autonomous zone in the borderland will not be a simple task for anyone in power in Myanmar. Kokang is a region of Myanmar that has never been effectively controlled by the central government but has had a much stronger connection to China for decades. Considering the current situation in Myanmar, where the Kokang Chinese are trapped between Chinese interests, pro-democracy forces, and their own objectives, their future will be far more complicated and challenging.
Than, M., Kyi, K.M. (1997). The Ethnic Chinese in Myanmar and their Identity. In: Suryadinata, L. (eds) Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-07635-9_4
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.