In early June 2015, China announced that it would hold military exercises along the Burmese border, to include firing artillery shells into certain jungle areas. Though not officially stated, these exercises were likely in response to fighting between Burmese troops and ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels, which is taking place within a few hundred meters of Chinese border settlements.
These clashes, which began in February of this year, have resulted in the unintended deaths of five Chinese civilians and the wounding of many more. An additional cost has been the involuntary relocation (mostly into China) of nearly 100,000 Burmese tribal civilians.
It must be said that China is by no means the victim in all of this confusion. The Chinese government has invested heavily in northern Burma, and the recent fighting has prompted them to put pressure on the Burmese government to enact measures to protect those investments. In turn, the Burmese have been quite unhappy with what they view as a lack of Chinese commitment in joint cooperation to curb the smuggling of Chinese arms into their country, which then move on to rebels in India.
Multi-national smuggling is another facet that complicates the situation in the region. Security forces in both nations are taking a harder look at the problem, and Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia have joined the effort. Adding to the death toll from cross-border skirmishes, smugglers often resist security force interdiction, and firefights have resulted.
The main cause of the mass exodus that has proven highly profitable for human smugglers has been linked to anti-Muslim violence in Burma, which began around 2012. As noted, most of the violence has been directed toward Rohingya muslims, with thousands ending up missing after boarding boats to be smuggled south. It is believed that upwards of 10,000 people a month are leaving the region, with 75 percent of them originating in Burma (Myanmar).
For her part, China continues to play a hand in the fighting that is driving people out, mostly in the form of presenting a major market for heroin and other drugs, as well as providing the main source of military equipment for the rebels. Despite efforts by the Kokang rebels to begin negotiations, fighting in the north continues. The Kokang have long been affiliated with the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which is comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese (much to the chagrin of the Chinese government).
The MDNAA were originally a politically communist organization, but that fell by the wayside as communism collapsed in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The government’s continued refusal to recognize the MNDAA as one of the rebel groups negotiating a ceasefire has hampered those efforts and is a major roadblock that does not appear to have a viable solution.
In response to continued tensions with China and escalating battles with rebels, the Burmese government has turned to another nation with whom it shares a border, and who also has its issues with rebels: India. On June 8, a team of about 20 Indian commandos from 21 Para SF of the Indian Army launched a pursuit raid into Myanmar to track and engage Naga insurgents of the NSCN(K) and KYKL militant groups.
Days earlier, the two groups had initiated an ambush that killed 18 Indian soldiers in the Chandel section of Manipur, and the commando team was out for payback. When it was over approximately 40 minutes later, 38 Naga insurgents were dead and seven were injured. According to Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh in an article on saharasamay.com, India conducted the operation in accordance with the “Doctrine of Hot Pursuit” as per international law, saying: “According to this, if something wrong has happened with you and if you cross the border to catch the person, then the international law allows it. Under the ‘Doctrine of Hot Pursuit’, we followed them and destroyed their camps at two places,” he said. He stressed that Myanmar was also kept in the loop. Myanmar seems to have found an ally willing to take the measures that its neighbors to the north won’t.
Despite these issues, Myanmar is an emerging power that deserves the full rights and recognition enjoyed by other nations. With economic reform processes taking shape and an elected government in place since 2010, Myanmar is now considered Asia’s new frontier, as prospects for investment and international trade increase.
Countries that once imposed sanctions are now willing to invest and do business with Myanmar, recognizing her abundant resources and an economy with enormous potential for growth. On the other hand, some nations, such as the United States, have taken a “wait and see” approach, opting to observe Myanmar’s supposed change of heart and deal with her piecemeal. Whatever approach governments—including China—adopt, they would all do well to take Myanmar’s potential, for better or worse, seriously.
Author’s note: I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank SOFREP member and military history guru YankeePapa for his outstanding idea for and major contribution to this series. Semper Fi!
(Featured image courtesy of lightgalleries.net)