Rebels on a new offensive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2012, 12:00am


Talk to Kachin rebel leaders about their battle against Myanmar's army on the border with China and it becomes clear their struggle is a wider symbol for the challenges Beijing now faces from its neighbour.

While the ethnic Kachin's fight is against Myanmar's army and winning more 'autonomy, respect and equality' from the government after any new ceasefire, they also want respect - and greater direct contact - from Beijing.

And while Chinese border officials have attempted in vain to push the two sides together in talks in Yunnan during nearly a year of bloodshed across the border, the Kachin are seeking Beijing's direct involvement.

They want Beijing officials to lean on their long-term benefactors in Myanmar's army to forge a 'sustainable' peace.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Dr La Ja, general secretary of the Kachin Independence Organisation, spoke of the need for greater high-level contact and trust from Chinese officials. And he warned that his people want to be consulted when it comes to any large future projects in the highly strategic Kachin state.

Increasingly over the years, he says, he believes that China has found it easier to deal with its friends in Myanmar's once-omnipotent military than the many ethnic groups vying for autonomy near the border. But given Chinese infrastructure spending - as well as the sweeping political and social reforms unleashed in Myanmar in recent months - that equation is no longer so simple.

'I think China's view has always been that we can't be trusted because we are pro-Western, because we are Christian,' La Ja explains.

'Yes, we are Christian, but that doesn't mean we are pro-Western,' he says, adding that ultimately they were simply 'pro-Kachin' and therefore wanted closer political links with China.

'That means we want to be consulted about dams, and other projects, like pipelines and roads,' he says. 'We weren't before, but we should have been.'

Dams, as well as pipelines, of course, are just some of the key factors making Kachin areas so strategic.

Bordering both China and India in a mountainous rump of Myanmar's far northeast, the state holds gold, jade and forest reserves, and its rivers are considered particularly suitable for dams.

Chinese firms have invested in several dams in the area and Kachin opposition last year helped to force Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, to take the shock decision to halt work on the controversial dam at Myitsone.

The US$3 billion Chinese-invested project on the Irrawaddy would have been Myanmar's largest dam by far, flooding an area the size of Singapore to provide power mostly to cities in Yunnan.

The decision to halt work indefinitely amid widespread social and environmental concerns surprised many regional envoys and analysts, not least Chinese officials and businessmen. It was viewed a key, early sign that Myanmar's government was keen to broaden relations beyond the growing reliance on Beijing of recent decades.

Even more strategic are the US$2.5 billion oil and gas pipelines that carry Middle Eastern oil and Myanmese gas from a port on Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast to terminals in landlocked Yunnan.

A joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, the pipelines to Kunming will be flanked by rail and road links to Ruili, Yunnan's border trading post. They don't run into Kachin state proper, but through areas controlled by Kachin forces.

While Kachin fighters insist they have never attacked the pipelines, they have been fought by Myanmese soldiers trying to clear them out of the area.

Chinese and CNPC officials are monitoring tensions closely, but so far are insisting that the pipelines are proceeding on schedule.

The chief of the Yunnan provincial security department, Meng Sutie, told reporters on the fringes of the National People's Congress back in March that construction 'was running smoothly and had not experienced any outstanding problems'.

Meng also confirmed that Yunnan officials had been pushing the two sides to peace talks in the interests of 'unity, peace and border stability'.

'We have seen both sides make progress, but the Kachin problem is a long-standing one which requires deep understanding from both sides to resolve the problem through talks,' he said.

Representatives from the Kachin Independence Army - the KIO's military arm - and a re-formed Myanmar government peace committee took place last weekend in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. No firm progress was recorded, however.

The latest violence started following tensions over a Chinese-invested dam project in June last year.

Dragging on for months, it has shattered a fragile 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin and the former military government - part of a broad network of insurgencies that have rumbled across Myanmar since 1948.

Army troops are now within artillery range of the hills surrounding Laiza, the KIA's border stronghold. Some 75,000 villagers have been displaced, some spilling across in Yunnan, in a brutal campaign widely criticised by human rights groups.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have also expressed concern.

Tensions over dams, meanwhile, are also feeding into broader problems that impact China. Last week saw demonstrations erupt in Yangon, Mandalay and other provincial towns, fuelled by faltering electricity supplies and soaring hot season temperatures. Some protesters accused the Myanmar government of ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens in their haste to build projects to sell power to China.

The government is moving swiftly to negotiate deals for emergency generators with US and Japanese firms, as well as new power plant projects in the longer term. Such deals were unthinkable just a few months ago, given the sanctions against Myanmar - and a sign of Myanmar's broadening international contacts.

China, however, also reacted swiftly, with Beijing urging Chinese firms to help Myanmar upgrade its domestic power grid.

'The Chinese government has always decided that its companies conduct economic and trade co-operation with Myanmar in line with the principle of mutual benefit, so as to benefit the people of both countries,' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

Chinese envoys and scholars have acknowledged the need for Beijing to rapidly reach out to a broader range of political and social contacts within Myanmar as the country changes.

Some have described the Myitsone dam decision as a 'wake-up call', not just to pay more attention to social and environmental factors in local communities but also build a broader range of political contacts.

Just last week, officials from Myanmar's military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party travelled to Beijing to meet Vice-President Xi Jinping , who said the Communist Party was pushing for closer links.

Peking University scholar Zha Daojiong recently acknowledged perceptions that China was facing far greater competition in Myanmar, but said a stronger commercial frame-work would help mainland firms long-term.

No longer would they be left to do the 'dirty work' of an unpopular regime, he said, and it would also weed out mainland business activities that angered local populations.

'The one area China has failed, strategically speaking, is to have more orderly cross-border interactions,' he said.

Professor Zha said, from a distance, it seemed there may be room to boost ties with the Kachin and the army but, given all the changes under way in Myanmar, it was likely that Chinese officials were wary of moving too fast.

'A lot of things still have to be clarified, and that includes what the Kachin themselves are really after,' he said.

Two options could be hosting informal conferences in Yunnan to bring a variety of players together while, in future, large Chinese firms may have to consider three-way contracts that include agreement from Kachin groups and the military. 'Amid all the uncertainty, there are some pro-active steps that could be taken,' he said.

La Ja, meanwhile, is talking in Chiang Mai, another northern Thai city, that has long been a discreet hub of Myanmese exile activity and insurgent contact with the outside world.

Moving constantly between the embattled rebel stronghold of Laiza on the Yunnan border and northern Thailand, La Ja says he frequently meets Western and regional envoys in Chiang Mai, but not the Chinese consulate. The Chinese, he says, would prefer he deal with local officials near Laiza.

He says he warns other countries not to trust all the changes completely, that the military remains very powerful - as the current violence shows. But for Beijing, his message is different - build broader contacts and don't rely only the Myanmar military.

'I know they want a stable border above else ... but if that is what they want, they have to work with us to build a stable and sustainable peace. Only then will they get what they want.'

His outnumbered - and outgunned - insurgents trying to drive Myanmese army troops from the outskirts of their headquarters insist they will not be easily defeated. They have no weapons to match Myanmese artillery head-on, beyond cunning and a network of land mines.

'But I tell you,' he says with a chuckle. 'Guerilla warfare is no problem for the Kachin people.'


The amount, in US dollars, that China has invested across 72 separate industrial and financial projects in Myanmar