Chinese President’s Claim That Beijing Not Arming EAOs Met With Skepticism in Myanmar

By Htet Naing Zaw 20 January 2020

NAYPYITAW—Political observers in Myanmar have responded with skepticism to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s claim that Beijing does not provide arms to non-state armed groups in Myanmar. 

According to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services, in a meeting with Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on Saturday, the visiting Chinese president said he does not accept any organization taking advantage of China’s territory to harm Myanmar, and accusations that China provides arms and ammunition to armed organizations in Myanmar are false. 

However, the president reportedly said those organizations can get arms by other means, and promised to carefully probe and solve the problem.

Critics believe China is manipulating ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) based along the China-Myanmar border for political leverage over Myanmar. 

“I don’t think Myanmar people believe what he [Xi] said,” U Ye Htun, a former Lower House lawmaker for Hsipaw Township, told The Irrawaddy. 

“How can ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar possibly acquire advanced Chinese-made weapons including anti-aircraft weapons unless theyr’e provided by Beijing?” the former lawmaker asked.

China issued similar denials when it backed the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma, he said. 

“Why does China have influence over organizations in [Myanmar’s] peace process? This doesn’t happen without a reason. How can they have influence if they don’t give support?” he asked. 

Most of the arms and ammunition discovered in large caches of weapons seized from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) by the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) in November last year—including RPGs and FN6 anti-aircraft launchers—were Chinese-made.

According to the Tatmadaw’s statement and photos, among the seized weapons were 39 M-22 assault rifles, 29 medium machine guns, 69 M-21 assault rifles, nine M-16 assault rifles, 16 RPG-7s, five RPG-2s, two 12-volt spotlights and one FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, plus 77 bags of TNLA uniforms, flags and military equipment.

“All weapons seized from the TNLA were Chinese-made except nine M-16 rifles,” said political analyst U Than Soe Naing. 

EAOs are able to purchase arms from China, though the central Chinese government may not have a policy to directly sell arms to them, he said. U Than Soe Naing expressed doubts over President Xi’s ability to stamp out the apparent arms smuggling. 

“This is a not a national policy; regional authorities and parts of the Chinese military must be involved,” said U Than Soe Naing, suggesting that the arms are smuggled into the country. 

Among the EAOs in Myanmar, the United Wa State Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and National Democratic Alliance Army have very close ties to China, while the Kachin Independence Army also has ties. 

China has repeatedly spoken of providing assistance to Myanmar’s peace process, and also made financial contributions to aid peace in Myanmar.

“The Chinese government says it doesn’t support the EAOs, but in reality, armed organizations in Wa State, Kokang and Mongla self-administered zones are armed with Chinese-made weapons,” said U Sai Tun Aye, a Lower House lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. 

Thought it does not officially support supplying EAOs with arms, it is possible that the Chinese central government turns a blind eye to the practice, the lawmaker said. 

Director U Thein Tun Oo of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank formed by ex-military officers, said, “China will deny any support for the sake of diplomacy. The main question is why EAOs in northern Myanmar have surface-to-air missiles made in China.”

China might change its attitude toward the EAOs if the Myanmar government cooperates with it more closely in establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and other projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative, he said. 

“[The Chinese president] denied accusations of China providing arms to EAOs in Myanmar, and said he would investigate whether [weapons are supplied to EAOs] by other means,” said military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun.

According to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said no country can accept terrorist acts and riots that threaten the peace and stability of the state. Likewise, armed terrorist attacks against the government cannot be accepted, he said

There was barely any fighting between the Myanmar military and the EAOs during the Chinese President’s two-day visit to Myanmar on Friday and Saturday. 

“It is good that China provides help. But I don’t like dependency on China, or the fact that China is involved in Myanmar’s peace process more than is necessary. I want [the Myanmar military and EAOs] to build mutual trust, and settle it themselves,” U Than Soe Naing said.

You may also like these stories:

What Will Xi Jinping’s Visit Mean for Myanmar’s Future?

Facebook Apologizes After Vulgar Translation of Chinese Leader’s Name

Myanmar, China Sign Dozens of Deals on BRI Projects, Cooperation During Xi’s Visit