In this week Dateline Irrawaddy show—first aired on DVB on Feb 18— The Irrawaddy Magazine editor Aung Zaw is joined by Yan Pai and Kyaw Kha to discuss the history of conflict in the Kokang borderlands.
Aung Zaw: Hello and welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll be discussing the fighting in Laukkai. I am Irrawaddy Magazine Editor Aung Zaw, and joining me in the discussion will be reporters Yan Pai and Kyaw Kha.
Let’s discuss the latest from the fighting in Laukkai, a town located on the Chinese border in northern Shan State, and the Kokang rebels. What is the current situation, Ko Kyaw Kha?
Kyaw Kha: There have been sporadic fights. In the aftermath of urban fighting, Laukkai was in a state of fear, and now it looks like a ghost town.
AZ: Has the Burma army occupied the town?
KK: The Burma Army has taken complete control of the town now. It is hard for the rebels to enter the town.
AZ: By rebels you mean the Kokang armed group?
KK: There is still some fighting as some of the rebels remain in the town as guerrillas. The government has officially announced that the Burma Army suffered over 50 casualties, with the Kokang group suffering over 20 casualties since the outbreak of the conflict on Feb. 9. Locals who dare not remain in the town have fled. Those who are close to China have fled there and those who are close to Burma have fled to Lashio and Mandalay.
AZ: Among them are Shan, Chinese Shan and Kokang—the Kokang are Burmese nationals who speak Mandarin. It is said that Mandarin-speaking Laukkai locals have fled into China. How many refugees have fled there?
KK: More than 30,000 refugees have fled to China. In Burma, thousands of people are taking shelter at the home of their relatives, monasteries, schools and relief camps. I don’t know the exact number, but there are thousands of refugees at present.
YP: I hear that some war refugees have gone back to Kokang to find work.
KK: They are migrant workers. The number of war refugees has been on the increase. The town [Laukkai] is almost like a ghost town now.
AZ: So, a guerrilla war is still taking place in the town. Are there still Kokang rebels in the town?
KK: There are some guerrillas hiding in the town and they are shooting at government troops from the roofs of houses.
AZ: The Burma Army’s efforts to restore control over the region have yet to achieve success. Who is Peng Jiasheng? In fact, it is not an unfamiliar name to Myanmar people. It has been a familiar name to the people of Burma, ethnic armed groups, drug cartels and local and foreign media since the time of military regime. Ko Yan Pai, would you mind talking about Peng Jiasheng and his Kokang group?
YP: Peng Jiasheng has hit the headlines three times. The first was after the Burmese government made peace with the Kokang in 1989. Peng Jiasheng split from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) during the military regime, at a time when Gen. Khin Nyunt was very powerful.
AZ: Peng Jiasheng led the internal rebellion within the CPB in 1989.
YP: Peng Jiasheng and his group were in the spotlight at that time. He got on well with the military regime until he was attacked by the Burma Army because of the border guard dispute in 2009. He made headlines then and now this is the third time.
He is particularly notorious for drug trafficking. But at that time, he was on friendly terms with the military regime. The military regime permitted him to do business and launder money. We learned that he established businesses in Rangoon, Mandalay and Lashio. He was on the US government sanctions list because of his drug trafficking.
AZ: In the 1990s, Peng Jiasheng was associated with the Mandarin-speaking Wei Xiao Kham and Lo Hsing Han. Who are they?
YP: As most people know, Lo Hsing Han is the father of Tun Myint Naing (also known as Steven Law), the owner of Asia World. He is a descendant of the Han Chinese. The Burma Socialist Program Party had Lo Hsing Han raise Kokang troops to counter the threat of CPB. Meanwhile, the CPB used Peng Jiasheng to attack the government. The two were warlords and both had troops. After the Kunlong fighting, the Burma Socialist Program Party allowed Lo Hsing Han to grow opium poppy and turned a blind eye to it. But then, Lo Hsing Han challenged the government authority’s and the government arrested him on charges of high treason. He was granted amnesty in 1980. After that, he disappeared from public attention. Then he emerged again in 1989.
AZ: My understanding is that Lo Hsing Han brokered the negotiations between Peng Jiasheng and Gen. Khin Nyunt, the chief of military intelligence, who had started to rise to prominence at that time. Among the personalities at the negotiating table were Kokang chieftain Olive Yang and Brig-Gen Aung Gyi.
YP: I hear that Lo Hsing Han’s son Ko Aung Naing has passed away. He served as a coordinator for negotiations.
AZ: All the groups in northern Shan State had previously worked hand in glove with the military regime. It is fair to say that it was the generals of the previous military regime who allowed the drug barons to launder their black money. It is the previous military regime that allowed Peng Jiasheng and other drug barons to attend the National Convention as ethnic representatives. This should be included in our discussion.
The fight took place before Union Day. While the fighting was going on in Laukkai, some ethnic armed groups signed a pledge to work for peace. The Kokang are represented at the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). Would you care to discuss this?
KK: The government really wanted to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Union Day and the president said that he was very desirous of it. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing had also talked about signing it. Ethnic groups believe that they would have no role left to play if they signed the truce without firm guarantees by the government. So, a real dialogue is still needed for them to meet their demands.
They had said before Union Day that they would not sign the agreement before discussing their demands. Fighting took place just a few days before they went to Naypyidaw. Four armed groups, namely the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Kachin Independence Army, the Kokang and the Shan State Progressive Party/ Shan State Army-North have been active in northern Shan State and the government already knows that. But why does it target the Kokang now? It is an interesting question.
AZ: Let’s discuss the role of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. He went to Lashio and met with war refugees. People become more aware of the important role of the army and the army could highlight its important role. The Laukkai fighting has come to the fore, overtaking student demonstrations against the National Education Law and protests against the Letpadaung copper mining project.
YP: Following the conflict, public attitude toward the military has changed. Their dislike for the army has lessened.
AZ: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing mentioned the concept of ‘just war’ as he met with war refugees. He said the sovereignty of the country is threatened. What is meant by just war?
YP: The army’s fight against the Kuomintang in the past could be called a just war. But it is an open question if the fight against own national brethren is a just war. I notice that the army increases its support amongst the public when it tries to explain and promote its role.
KK: The phrase ‘just war’ has confused people, because the Kokang is also one of the groups sitting at the negotiating table with the government. It also joined the talks in Rangoon. The Kokang group of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is also a member of the UNFC and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which is an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups engaging in peace talks with the government. The Kokang is also one of the 135 ethnic groups in Burma. So, the choice of the phrase ‘just war’ has confused people.
YP: Some Facebook users described the fight as an invasion.
AZ: Let’s talk about the position of China. While the fight was going on, The Global Times, which is the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, said that northern Burma is not unlike the recent case of Crimea. Before that, the Chinese foreign affairs envoy paid a call on Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlang and discussed matters related to the peaceful settlement of border issues. In the past, the Snr-Gen had serious discussions with the Chinese Vice-President during a visit to Beijing. Haven’t the Burma army, the generals and the Burmese government known that there would be clashes and tensions?
YP: In meeting with Chinese envoy, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing talked about the way Chinese local authorities handle the situation at the border. He said that the peace process initiated by Burma government has been impeded by clashes at the border. At that time, the fight had not yet taken place. But then, fighting suddenly broke out after the envoy went back to China. So, I assume the military expected that a war was likely.
If it did not sense that fighting was on the horizon, it must have been the result of shortcomings in army intelligence, isn’t that true? Suppose they already smelled the fighting, why didn’t they prepare for it? What do they want to do? This has become an important question for us.
AZ: China was a constant and big supporter of the Burmese military regime and is a neighboring country. It is Chinese government that provided oxygen to Burmese military regime to survive militarily and politically over 20 years of international sanctions. So, I don’t think the Burmese government or military regime would dare to declare war on China. I think the government army fought a limited war in order to reignite nationalism and promote the role of the military. What do you think?
YP: China has many interests in Burma, including the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, the Myitsone Dam and teak logging. But we can do something to those interests if we happened to fight with China. At the moment, it seems the government is trying to create the public perception that the army is trying to protect its people from Chinese invaders.
AZ: If the current Burmese government and the generals who have now amassed substantial fortunes could handle these issues prudently, the Burmese people would regard them as protectors of national sovereignty. We will conclude our program here. Thank you all.