On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, the panel discusses live-fire military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army, held earlier this week near Kokang territory on the China-Burma border.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to this week’s Dateline Irrawaddy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China commenced military drills today, June 2, at the China-Myanmar border. We’ll be discussing why the PLA is conducting military exercises and whether it will affect the foreign policies of or relations between the two countries. U Thaing Soe Naing, who has a comprehensive knowledge of both Myanmar and China, and Ko Khet Htan, editor of The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition, will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
The PLA began military drills at the border today. As far as I know, the exercise is the first of its kind. According to PLA, aviation, artillery, air defense, infantry, missile and radar units are participating in the drill and infantry units are also involved. Over the last few months, bombs fired from Myanmar fell on China and some Chinese citizens were killed and injured. So we can accordingly conclude that the drill is being performed in response to these incidents. How serious is this exercise? Will it be a threat to the Myanmar government?
Thaing Soe Naing: In my opinion, China is not happy with the fact that shells fired from Myanmar fell on its territory and is not also satisfied with the way the Myanmar government and military handled it. After the first incident, Myanmar apologized for it and provided compensation for Chinese victims. But then shells fell on China again. China is fundamentally very sensitive about its sovereignty and territory.
KZM: So is Myanmar and so is almost every nation.
TSN: Yes, they are. But China thinks diplomatic means alone are not enough to handle this. The PLA understands that these incidents may continue to happen as long as the war goes on between the Kokang rebels and the Myanmar Army. So, this is the reason they are conducting the military exercise. But then, they are not conducting the exercise on a large scale along a border that stretches over 1,200 miles in total. They are mainly operating around Lincang city, which is close to Wa State and Kokang Region. The military exercise is a limited one and I don’t think it is a threat, but it is a comprehensive preparation for deterrence operations.
KZM: But at the same time, looking back to Myanmar’s politics of the recent past, especially after U Thein Sein government came into power, Myanmar has become closer to western countries, including the US. Will this have an enduring impact on China’s policy towards Myanmar?
TSN: With regard to China’s overall strategic relationship, China is very careful or cautious about its relationship with US. Myanmar has undergone a democratic transition and it wants to accelerate cooperation with Western countries, including the US. Myanmar politicians refer to it as the government ‘switching bosom’. This transition period is very delicate and there are things we need to handle with extra caution.
KZM: As you have said, the government has switched to another bosom. Before 2010, the country was ruled by the military and then the quasi-civilian government came into power. So, Ko Khet Htan, what is your assessment of the government’s switch? How much has it progressed?
Khet Htan: Previously, US and western countries imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. China was a benefactor of the Myanmar government and military as well as their protector in the international arena. Then, Myanmar underwent a transition when U Thein Sein government came into power. As Myanmar lies beside a powerful country, U Thein Sein government had to open communication channels to deal with China. Then, US adopted an engagement policy to persuade the military to change its mindset and organizational structure. I think China will take all this into serious consideration. Myanmar has had to change its position, as it needs to engage with all countries. There was give and take between two countries as China stood as protector of the Myanmar government. Myanmar is a part of China’s energy sufficiency strategic plan as the country gives China oil and gas resources. There have been many factors at play before the Kokang war broke out, leading to these live-fire military exercises.
KZM: But from the point of view of the Myanmar government, I don’t think it would risk that much with regard to China. In the past, especially after 1988, China was the only country that protected Myanmar like a shield. As Ko Khet Htan has said, China tried to protect Myanmar against international sanctions and continuously called for lifting sanctions. It is a neighbor of Myanmar. So, I doubt Myanmar will break off its relations with China. I think it would try to get on well with any country.
TNS: Yes, it needs to try to maintain cordial relations with all. But the military itself, as reported by Bertil Lintner, thinks that they need to stop their dependence on China. As Myanmar is undergoing a democratic transition, it seems that the Myanmar government wants to stop its dependence on China through military cooperation with the US, who will provide training to some Myanmar army officers. Also the military was invited to observe Thai-US joint military drills. These things deserve due consideration from China. Considering these things, China may be concerned that the Myanmar military will cooperate with armies of the US and Europe.
KZM: China may also view its relationship with the Myanmar military and government separately. It seems that China gives more attention to its relationship with the military. Recently, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited Pakistan and Serbia. The heads of foreign armies also occasionally pay a call on him. What is you view Ko Khet Htan?
KH: Before the PLA started military drills, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army was on a visit to Myanmar and met Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing on June 1. This is the visit of high-level military delegation from a powerful country. This should be taken into account. We are a small country and we get stuck in superpower contests.
KZM: Of Myanmar’s military-to-military relations with western countries, China may be more concerned with the relationship between Myanmar and the US. So, how are military-to-military relations between the two developing? The US may have been providing training on human rights issues. How much impact will this relationship have on the ties between China and Myanmar?
TNS: I think the US is not politically ready to establish a military-to-military relationship with Myanmar. It will not unless Myanmar carries out true democratic reforms. So far, the US’s proposal for developing military-to-military relationship with Myanmar is limited to giving training on human rights and invitations to observe military drills. The US and EU still have an arms embargo on Myanmar. Unless and until civil war comes to an end in Myanmar, the US would not establish a military-to-military relationship.
KZM: Today the Global Times, the mouthpiece of Chinese government presented a news story in which a retired colonel of PLA said the Myanmar military’s transgressions had gone beyond China’s tolerance level. Do you hear anything about the military’s view of it? Or what is you view on it, Ko Khet Htan?
KH: The fight occurred at the Chinese border. China is in close proximity to the Kokang army and the military is finding it difficult to fight the rebels. It may be unavoidable that shells fired by the military fall onto China. Although China says they cannot tolerate this any more, the Myanmar Army has to continue the fight because it suffered heavy casualties, which it would view as a loss of dignity. So, I don’t think they will stop halfway after they have lost that much. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has also said that the military would annihilate the Kokang rebels. They said they are not responsible for latest incident of shells falling on China and that it was done by Kokang rebels to mislead China. Although the army might be careful about its artillery attacks in the future, it would continue fighting the Kokang, I think.
KZM: But then, the military says it has taken control of most of the places there. It is unlikely that there will be many clashes.
TNS: The military can take control of the region, but according to the last 60 years of history, I don’t think the military can handle all the people fighting in the Kokang rebellion. So, I would like to suggest that the army doe not use airplanes, artillery and the like near the Chinese border. What is more important is it needs to bring the Kokang group as a member of United Nationalities Federal Council for peace negotiations. If the problem with the Kokang rebels is solved, then problem with China will also be solved, I think.
KZM: Saya U Than Soe Naing, Ko Khet Htan, thank you for your discussion.