Peng Jiasheng: ‘A Larger Nationality Wants to Eliminate a Smaller One’

By The Irrawaddy 16 February 2015

In this interview from The Irrawaddy’s archives, originally published on Sept. 14, 2009, Peng Jiasheng discusses the collapse of a 20-year ceasefire with the Burmese government. The month before, the Kokang leader’s residence was raided by troops under the command of the former junta, triggering a regime offensive and ultimately leading to the takeover of the Kokang region by the Burma Army. Here, he discusses the reasons for the junta offensive, the role of China in the conflict, allegations of illegal drug trafficking and the future of ethnic minorities in Burma.
Question: How would you describe the current situation in the Kokang region?

Answer: The incident on Aug. 8 was the junta’s excuse. It wanted to do away with the local ethnic minority army a long time ago. A larger nationality wants to eliminate a smaller one. This is typical nationalistic chauvinism. This was a massacre.

In order to avoid further harm to the Kokang people, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) retreated. This is not what we wanted and also it is not what the people in the international community who support our people would like to see.

Now the situation in Kokang is even more complicated. Currently, the situation is very bad. The government troops took over the Kokang area for about 10 days, but there were many reported cases where their soldiers committed robbery, rape and killed civilians. Many people are still afraid to go back home. Most of the shops owned by Chinese businessmen were either destroyed or robbed. This is a calamity. The prosperous environment of Kokang of only a few months ago no longer exists. People are living in deep distress.

This conflict has brought great trauma to the Kokang people. The war will be long. It will be impossible to end soon.

Q: The ceasefire agreement you signed with the regime in 1989 has collapsed. What do you believe was the motive behind the offensive and the regime’s attempt to arrest you?

A: In March 1989, the Kokang people agreed to peace and development. In the same year, 17 other local ethnic armed forces also started peace talks with the junta. This brought to an end the large scale of armed conflict in the country.

The alliance army is also one of the legal ethnic armed forces that were recognized by the military government. Over the past 20 years of peace and development, the Kokang was the first group in the country to promise the international community that we would stop drug production. We enforced the ban on poppy cultivation in 2002 in our area. The anti-drug production effort and success were recognized by the UN and the international communities. With help from the World Food Programme, the Chinese government and other international aid agencies, we implemented a lot of poppy substitution projects, mainly to grow sugar cane, tea, walnuts and other crops. We achieved very good progress in the poppy substitution.

Step by step, the people in our area began to work their way up from poverty. This can be seen by everybody. However, as the military government wants to achieve their goal of controlling the whole country, it felt it needed to take action against the peace and the ceasefire groups.

Q: Soon after the government troops captured Laogai, the state-run-media repeatedly accused you of involvement in illegal arms factories and drugs. How do you respond to those allegations?

A: Burma is still a country without a real government. The army cannot represent the government. After the election in 1990, the junta usurped power in the country. Ever since then, there has been no proper government in our country. The international community has never officially acknowledged them as the government. Burma is currently a country managed by a temporary council that was set up by the junta. It was called the State Law and Order Restoration Council and was later changed to the State Peace and Development Council. The government army is also an ethnic armed force, so it cannot represent this country.

In 1989, for the sake of the peace and welfare of the country, the Kokang people took the initiative to approach the junta-controlled council. This was to protect peace in the country, and to let the people live in peace. Over the past 20 years, we trusted the junta and have been respectful of them. Our political proposition is always the same: support the central government, take the road to peace and development, maintain nationality unification, guard national unity and strive for the autonomous rights of the Kokang people. We never wanted to separate from the country; we only wanted a recognized position for the Kokang people among all of Burma’s nationalities.

Q: How many people were killed in the latest conflict?

A: In this conflict, the Kokang people suffered great loss. We had 14 alliance army soldiers killed in battle, but what we do not know is the number of civilians killed. For example, some naïve young people joined with the traitor Bai Suocheng and his army. In the battles, they were to be used by the government troops to fight against us. These young people refused because they were Kokang and could not kill their own people. The government troops took their weapons away and shot them with machine guns. On Aug. 27, 27 Kokang youth were killed together.

Q: Why did the junta decide to single out your group? Was there any reason other than the regime’s allegation of your involvement in opium and illegal drugs?

A: A lot of things happened over the past month that we never thought could happen. The Kokang alliance army is one of the legal armed forces in the country. All our weapons are old and the ammunition is left over from the days of the Burmese Communist Party. Many of these weapons are in need of repair. It is reasonable to have a factory to repair weapons. This factory is well known by all the SPDC officials in Kokang. They have visited it before. But now they used it as an excuse to take action against us.

The motivation behind this is obvious. They want to eliminate the Kokang and other ethnic armed forces and achieve their goal of a junta-managed “unified” country. It goes without saying that the junta will not stop with the Kokang. They will take the war to other groups with all kinds of excuses. If you want to condemn something, you can always find a charge. The government army is the strongest in the country. It can crack down on whichever ethnic groups it wishes. It can accuse any ceasefire group of drugs, or weapons…anything. The current situation on drugs, for example, in the four special regions in Shan State is that there is no poppy cultivation, according to investigations by the international agencies. However, in SPDC-controlled areas, there is more than 250,000 mu [167 square kilometers] of poppy cultivation. This is the work of the junta, and this is how it behaves.

Q: Several ethnic ceasefire groups including the MNDAA rejected the junta’s proposal for a Border Guard Force (BGF). Why did you reject the BGF plan?

A: We are not really against the idea of transferring the army to a BGF, but the terms and conditions were too rigorous. For example, all the officers above 50 would be forced to retire and find their own livelihood. The key leaders of the local government and the commanders of the army would also be appointed by the junta. These proposals are not acceptable to any of the ceasefire groups. It is also not acceptable to the local people. Our requirements were simple: we want to have a high level of national autonomy to protect the interests of the Kokang people.

Q: The Kokang and other ethnic groups are unhappy with the 2008 constitution. What do you see as its faults?

A: Regarding the constitution proposed by the junta in 2008, it is all about the power and interest of the junta. We do not believe that any rights and interests of the minorities are ensured in the constitution. How can we accept such a constitution that does not represent the people of the country? On the approval of this constitution, there are things that happened that few people know about. For example, in some of the Kokang villages, the junta sent people to vote in the referendum. The local people did not want to participate, so the junta officials themselves wrote [out] all the votes. There were villages where about 100 people voted No, but on their ballots it was reported that more than 3,000 people voted Yes. This is how it was approved.

Q: You merged with the CPB in the past and led the successful mutiny in 1989. You went to Beijing and you were closely associated with Chinese officials in the past. Today, China is the closest ally of the regime as well as a good friend of ethnic groups along the Sino-Burmese border. What was China’s role in the recent conflict in the Kokang region?

A: During the Aug. 8 incident planned by the junta and the armed conflict afterwards, the Chinese government did not give us assistance. We could not talk to the Chinese government about protection and asylum. However, as the Kokang are in fact Chinese, when the refugees fled to China the local authorities took very good care of them. That we really appreciate.

Q: What is your message to Chinese leaders who plan to build a gas pipeline through the Kokang region?

A: What I want to say here is no matter what happens in Burma, we are ethnic Chinese and our roots are in China. This we will never forget. For the sake of the rights and position of the Chinese in Burma, we will continue our struggle.

Q: How do you see the future of Burma and the ethnic minorities?

A: Regarding the future of the ethnic minorities in Burma, this is a complicated issue. If Burma does not set up a democratic government that is elected by the people and therefore really represents the people, the future of the minorities in Burma will get worse.

Q: Did you receive any political backing or military support from other ethnic groups along the border? Are they united in their goals?

A: All the minority ceasefire groups along the China-Burma border areas have good relations with each other and have supported each other over a long period of time. Our fate and experiences are the same. But due to certain difficulties, our alliance is not as strong as it should be. Therefore the junta had its opportunity, and now the Kokang area is under junta control.

Q: Are you worried about losing your personal property and your businesses in Burma and China?

A: Currently, all my personal property has been confiscated by the junta. My property in China was also taken away by the relevant department of the Chinese government. This is a problem that I cannot solve by worrying about it.

Q: Please describe the refugee situation. There were reports of government officials and soldiers attacking Chinese nationals? Was the recent attack designed to demonstrate that the government is not a puppet of China?

A: I think the reason why the junta attacked the Kokang is because of the following. First, the junta wanted to develop better relationships with America, India and some Western authorities, in particular with America. In order to improve the relationship with America, the junta is eager to prove that the junta is not a puppet government supported by the Chinese government. That is why the junta chose the Kokang to fight against.

They also wanted to test the response of the Chinese government. The Kokang and the Chinese have a blood relationship. The Kokang people are basically Chinese; they are part of the Chinese family. The Chinese in Burma were not officially recognized by the Burmese and therefore for centuries they lived in a very low economic and social position. Only after the meeting in Ninakan in 1947, after the national government’s recognition, were the Chinese living in these areas called Kokang. But as a matter of fact, the Kokang people are Chinese. We are the descendants of the Yellow emperor. The anti-Chinese movement in 1967 in Burma feels like yesterday.

Even today, many Chinese living in Burma still do not dare to declare that they are Chinese. In 1989, when the Kokang Alliance Army was established, all the Chinese in Burma looked at the Chinese armed forces as the “lighthouse.” Now the ‘”lighthouse” has gone off.

The second reason I think is that the SPDC forces were already in Kokang for more than 10 years, and they understood the situation in Kokang, including the relationships among the Kokang leaders.

They therefore bought off the traitors Bai Suocheng and Wei Chaoren. This resulted in an internal split in Kokang before the war broke out. Bai Suocheng and Wei Chaoren betrayed their people and surrendered to the junta.

Now the junta has taken over the Kokang area, and it is clear about the response of the Chinese government. So their next step will be to reinforce the policy of cracking down on other minority groups along the border. The junta will act recklessly and become more unbridled.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: For many years, I worked in Kokang. I never had a chance to travel to the big cities in Burma. Now that I have more time, I am travelling in the big cities in Burma. I really feel that my country is beautiful, and it deserves a government that can represent the people by building and developing the country. I currently have no plans to go back to Kokang.