A court in Myanmar has sentenced eight Chinese nationals to lengthy prison terms for transporting an arsenal of firearms and hand grenades while they lived in the country illegally.
The eight men were found guilty of unspecified charges, the Yangon-based publication Weekly Eleven said on its website on Wednesday.
Seven of the men were sentenced to 13 years of hard labour and one was sentenced to 10 years, the report said, citing the Crime Investigation Department, a special police department handling such crimes.
The eight Chinese carried eight pistols, 1,860 rounds of ammunition, 31 grenades, three military knives, bulletproof vests and a telescope, when they were arrested on April 25 in Tamu, near Myanmar’s border with India.
Insurgency groups from India have travelled through Tamu, The Irrawaddy magazine reported. Citing unnamed local government officials, it said this marked the first time armed Chinese had been arrested there.
The arrest of the Chinese nationals has shed light on the ongoing presence of rogue militiamen in Myanmar despite ceasefire agreements that have pacified most of the Southeast Asian nation.
The border line between the Myanmar and China is very porous and difficult for authorities to control and manage, with transnational crime groups smuggling both ways, said Jeremy Douglas, the Bangkok-based regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"We receive official reports that show a mix of drugs, precursor chemicals, arms and people are smuggled back and forth across the border between the two countries, and between Myanmar and other neighbouring states," he said.
The report also added fuel to allegations in the Indian press that militants active in its borderlands with Myanmar have been cooperating with guerilla forces in India.
A Chinese businessman with contact to rebel groups in Myanmar said the eight were on their way to India. "They want to sell their arms and munitions [to] Indian insurgents," he said.
A report in the state-run New Light of Myanmar however said the men had been on the run after committing a murder in Kokang, a largely autonomous area on Myanmar’s border with China predominately populated by ethnic Chinese.
On Wednesday, Myanmar’s largest guerilla force, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), said that the eight Chinese nationals had trained on its territory. The UWSA controls large swathes of territory in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State, which borders China, Laos and Thailand.
The UWSA leadership had been unaware of the eight men’s presence, spokesman Li Julie told the Shan Herald, a publication based in Thailand.
The eight men had crossed into Myanmar looking for work, where they had been hired as mercenaries, Li said.
“They then engaged in robberies and killings before they were caught in Western Burma,” said Li, using the former name of Myanmar. “We didn’t know anything about it until the regional commander told us,” he said.
The man who hired the men as mercenaries was Peng Jiasheng, the octogenarian leader of another militia group, according to Li.
Peng is known as one the last surviving members of a generation of notorious opium warlords. Peng ruled over Kokang until he was ousted in a Myanmese military offensive in 2009 and has since been hiding with a group of armed men in UWSA territory, where he has family ties to the leadership.
The Kokang-native has strong links to China. He spent a part of his youth in Beijing and has long fought for the armed wing of the Burmese Communist Party. Like his UWSA hosts, he has over the years attempted to replicate the ceremonial protocol used by the Chinese leadership. In videos shared online, he can be seen inspecting his troops in the style of Chinese presidents.
VIDEO: Archive footage of Peng Jiasheng inspecting his troops
The eight men have been held at a prison in Mandalay, Myanmar’s northern commercial hub, Weekly Eleven reported, adding that they would serve their sentences separately.
Weapons seizures are not uncommon in Myanmar’s border areas. On Monday, police in Shan State arrested two men with HK$15 million in opium, four machine guns, pistols and grenades, local media reported.