Myanmar’s Spring Revolution Aided by Ethnic Kokang Armed Group

By Ko Oo 8 March 2023

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Kokang armed group based in northern Shan State’s Kokang region, is playing an increasing part in training and arming resistance groups.

That is quite a turnaround from 2009, when the MNDAA was widely believed to have been destroyed in a Myanmar military offensive. But by the end of 2013, small bands of MNDAA troops were active again to the west of the Salween River that marks the boundary with Kokang.

In early 2015, China’s Global Times reported about the return of MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng to Kokang. According to locals, the news of his return had already been circulating for nearly a year. So it appears that the MNDAA had been soliciting support in Kokang throughout 2014.

Fresh clashes broke out on February 9, 2015 when an estimated 1,200 to 1,600 MNDAA troops fought their way back into Kokang. Combined with MNDAA administrative, medical, logistical and communications teams, there could have between 1,500 and 2,000 troops entering Kokang.

Kokang’s location in Shan State. / SCMP

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) reportedly fought alongside the MNDAA in these battles. The Myanmar military brought in large reinforcements over time, with heavy fighting raging in Laukkai, Konkyan and in the hills along the Myanmar-China border.

China made a number of diplomatic protests after Myanmar military artillery shells and bombs repeatedly landed inside China. In one incident, five Chinese villagers were killed and nine others injured in the border city of Lincang in March 2015. In May that year, China imposed a ban on flying along the border and announced that it would organize military drills involving live ammunition for an indefinite period, which effectively de-escalated the fighting between the Myanmar military and the MNDAA.

Neither side disclosed their casualties, but sources estimated that hundreds were killed or wounded. Over 60,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting and fled to Lashio or China. At least 100 civilians were killed in the clashes and many houses were destroyed.

Although the MNDAA was unable to take back control of Laukkai and Konkyan, it was able to establish bases in the hills along the border and in the forest west of the Salween River. The MNDAA also won the sympathy of China’s military and some Chinese people.

New policies after 2015 fighting

MNDAA leaders adopted new political and military perspectives after the 2015 fighting. Peng Jiasheng’s brother Peng Jiafu acknowledged that the MNDAA couldn’t liberate Kokang on its own and needed to forge alliances with other ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and political groups.

Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng’s funeral in 2021. / The Kokang

The MNDAA joined the United Nationalities Federal Council and the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Council. It also allied with the TNLA and AA, conducting joint military operations with them and supplying arms to the two groups. The MNDAA has also promoted brotherly ties with the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army in Mong La. Like the MNDAA, both those groups formed after splitting from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB).

Expanding its areas of military operations, the MNDAA became active to the west of the Salween River, territory once controlled by the CPB.

Since then, the MNDAA has formed political and supply departments, as well as command and control and artillery battalions. Its political wing is the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party (MNTJP).

Peng Daxun, a son of Peng Jiasheng, has consolidated his control as the general secretary of the MNTJP, and military chief of the MNDAA. Today, the EAO is estimated to have at least 5,000 well-equipped troops.

The Struggle for Kokang

During talks in 2015, then President Thein Sein told Peng Jiasheng that he could take a rest anywhere in the country. The underlying message was that the Myanmar military wanted him to become a full-time businessman like Lo Hsing Han, a Kokang drug lord, and that the military would support his business endeavors.

As far back as 2009, the then Myanmar military regime wanted Peng Jiasheng to transform the MNDAA into a pro-junta militia or border guard force similar to ones in other parts of Shan and Kachin states. The military twice offered Peng Jiasheng the chance to trade the MNDAA’s weapons for business licenses, but Peng Jiasheng rejected the offers.

While some of Kokang rebels have sided with the Myanmar military, Peng Jiasheng and his supporters chose to fight for the freedom of Kokang. Their resistance was astonishing because Kokang is small and mountainous with a population of less than 100,000 people. Yet while the MNDAA is small, it is a dangerous enemy for the Myanmar military.

Current junta chief Min Aung Hlaing’s destiny is linked to the MNDAA. Min Aung Hlaing commanded the 2009 offensive that drove Peng Jiasheng and the MNDAA out of Kokang. And in 2015, it was again Min Aung Hlaing who led the Myanmar military operation against the MNDAA.

Many Kokang residents fled to China during the 2009 fighting. The 2015 clashes resulted in over 60,000 people – over half the Kokang population – being displaced. Migrant workers fled to Lashio, and ethnic Kokang fled to China. At least 100 civilians died and many houses were destroyed, while 40,000 acres of sugarcane fields were torched, prompting China’s foreign minister to issue a statement asking the Myanmar government to protect the interests of Chinese people in Myanmar. However, the military punished only one Brigadier General.

From 2011 to the end of 2018, the Myanmar military insisted that MNDAA surrender or be excluded from peace talks. Along with the devastation caused by the 2009 and 2015 fighting, that is perhaps the reason why the MNDAA is now opposing the Myanmar military again.

MNDAA and the Spring Revolution

The MNDAA, TNLA and AA have shown support for the resistance since the Spring Revolution began in 2021. But the three EAOs rarely talk about their actions.

The leader of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which is fighting the regime, attended the 2022 funeral of Peng Jiasheng. And the Bamar People’s Liberation Army (BPLA) has said that it receives assistance from the MNDAA and its allies, although the group undergoes military training in an area controlled by the Karen National Union’s Brigade 5.

People’s Defense Forces (PDF) in northern Shan State, which are under the command of the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), said last year that they are operating with the MNDAA. But neither the NUG nor the MNDAA have discussed that in public.

But their relationship came under the spotlight when the MNDAA’s new brigade, Brigade 611, graduated and was armed on January 1 this year at its headquarters in northern Shan State. MNDAA deputy military chief Yang Guanhua was present at the ceremony, where 1,228 cadets graduated. A ‘federal’ flag was hoisted and Brigade 611 was referred to as a multi-ethnic brigade. It appears that the brigade was originally intended to be based in Kutkai District, but the plan was later changed as other Spring Revolution forces emerged.

The graduation and arming ceremony of the MNDAA’s new brigade, Brigade 611, in January 2023. / The Kokang

The majority of Brigade 611 fighters are not ethnic Kokang or from northern Shan State, but are young people from other parts of the country who decided to take up arms against the regime after the 2021 coup.

Besides the KNDF, BPLA, and PDFs from northern Shan State, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also working with the MNDAA. The PLA is said to be the successor of the now defunct CPB, and mainly consists of members of student unions in Sagaing Region’s Shwebo District. So the MNDAA is now helping the younger generation of communists whom it once rebelled against.

The MNDAA is preparing or already providing military training for some 700 members of the PLA, BPLA, and the Sagaing-based Myanmar Royal Dragon Army led by Bo Nagar, one of the leading resistance figures, and two other PDFs. Over 1,000 troops trained by the MNDAA are already fighting the regime.

The fact that the MNDAA is training and arming resistance fighters reflects the group’s financial power and its ability to procure weapons. It also reflects the MNDAA’s growing political ambitions. Along with the Kachin Independence Army, the MNDAA is the EAO that is cooperating the most with the resistance in northern Myanmar. This will create mutual benefits for Kokang and Spring Revolution forces.

Of the forces cooperating with the MNDAA, only a few hundred PDF fighters are under the command of the NUG. Over 1,000 more from the KNDF, BPLA and the Myanmar Royal Dragon Army have no direct engagement with the NUG.

And there are at least six revolutionary groups operating in the territories of the MNDAA’s allies, the AA and TNLA. Those groups are not under the command of the NUG. Separately, they are small groups but when combined they make a strong force. So the MNDAA’s military coalition, which was mainly formed with people from central Myanmar, may take different forms in the future.

The MNDAA can’t distance itself from China. Meanwhile, the NUG, Spring Revolution forces, and EAOs in southern Myanmar have ties to the United States and western countries. China will definitely not want to see western assistance and influence so close to the Myanmar-China border. Some might say that China is involved in the MNDAA’s training and arming of new troops. But there is no proof that China has a policy to arm Spring Revolution forces via the MNDAA.

The MNDAA is fighting for the identity and self-determination of Kokang people. At the same time, it has close ties with China and is involved in the illegal drug trade in the borderlands. But it has also established political and military alliances with other EAOs in northern Myanmar, as well as some Spring Revolution forces. The MNDAA could be a serious threat to the regime. It will be interesting to see what it does for Myanmar’s Spring Revolution in the future.