Myanmar’s Generals Make a Show of Displeasure at China’s Arming of Rebels

By Aung Zaw 26 November 2019

The love-hate nature of Myanmar’s relationship with its giant neighbor China was on full display on Sunday with the army’s announcement that it seized a large cache of Chinese-made weapons from rebels in northern Myanmar last week.

Most of the weapons captured from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), including RPGs and FN6 anti-aircraft launchers, are Chinese made, according to a Myanmar army spokesman. The TNLA is one of the ethnic armed groups seeking greater autonomy and is active in northern Shan State near the Chinese border.

The military boasted about its seizure of FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in northern Shan State. The advanced surface-to-air missiles, which cost between US$70,000 (106 million kyats) and US$90,000 each, can hit low-flying targets and are available in the international market as well as on the black market. It is believed that the China-made missiles have been exported to Malaysia, Cambodia, Sudan and Pakistan. They are also used in the civil war in Syria.

The military is increasingly looking to cut off supplies to the rebels inside Myanmar and overseas.

The TNLA claims to have 7,000 well-armed soldiers. The recent seizure comes as a major blow to the rebels, who allegedly build up their army using the proceeds of local “taxes”, drugs, extortion and running their own businesses, and earn a substantial regular income from foreign and local companies—with Chinese companies being no exception.

The UWSA celebrates its 30th anniversary in April 2019. / Myo Min Soe

Given the cost of the weapons seized, the army even questioned the armed group’s financial sources.

“Where did they get the money to buy them? Do they have any businesses? It’s likely they get money from drugs or natural resource extraction,” said Major General Tun Tun Nyi during a press conference on Sunday in Naypyitaw.

Sources close to the rebels claimed the group bought the arms from the Wa and Kachin armies, who allegedly have their own arms manufacturing factories purchased from China. Chinese technicians have been hired to run these facilities.

In his recent meeting with Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang, Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reportedly told the envoy that rebels in the north are buying weapons from China.

Less than two weeks ago, in an exclusive interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said rebels in Myanmar received arms from China indirectly, but didn’t elaborate.

Unhappiness with China’s relationship with rebels along the China-Myanmar border resurfaced in April when the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) celebrated the 30th anniversary of its signing of a ceasefire with the government with a military parade on April 17 in Panghsang, showing off some of its military hardware including drones and anti-aircraft missiles.

The UWSA has 30,000 soldiers and 20,000 auxiliary troops, making it one of the strongest ethnic armies in Myanmar. The Wa army is now equipped with sophisticated weapons systems, for which the Chinese provide arms, ammunition and technical support. The Wa, meanwhile, continue to provide support to the TNLA and other smaller armies in the region including weapons, uniforms and logistical support.

TNLA troops in northern Shan State / Zaw Zaw

In June, the Myanmar army spokesman for the first time showed displeasure toward the UWSA’s grand parade held in April.

“The UWSA held a military parade with weapons. We can see that they acted like a parallel government and parallel army. I would say the Tatmadaw has shown the greatest possible tolerance in that regard,” Major-General Soe Naing Oo told reporters in Naypyitaw.

Under Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the army has diversified its resources and allies overseas. 

The army currently buys arms from Russia, India, Pakistan and Ukraine, as well as from China. Western nations have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s armed forces, but in the past, a number of them, including the US, UK, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden sold arms, heavy military equipment and jet fighters to Myanmar.

In the 1990s, China was a main supplier of arms to Myanmar but the heavy dependence on the country led to discontent among mid-ranking military officers who complained about the poor quality of Chinese equipment. A young officer at the time, Min Aung Hlaing was no exception.

These young officers saw China shower arms and weapons on rebels along the border, even as the Myanmar army continued to engage the rebels, and lives on both sides were lost. This generation of young officers in the 1990s is now in charge of the armed forces of Myanmar and looking elsewhere to procure weapons and military hardware overseas—without relying solely on China.

However, with the EU imposing sanctions against arms sales this year, that remains a distant dream. Even military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told the media in April that most of Myanmar’s weapons are from Russia and China, not the EU.

TNLA weapons seized by the Myanmar army / The Irrawaddy

The Myanmar government has made no statement yet on China’s connection to, or support for, the rebels and has not commented on the seizure—not yet. Army leaders have also observed the ups and downs of the Myanmar civilian government’s relations with Beijing, as a number of large Chinese projects in Myanmar have been scaled down. For instance, last year the US$7.5-billion (11.33-trillion-kyat) estimated price tag of the deep seaport in Rakhine State was reduced to $1.3 billion, for the first phase. It is clear that China isn’t happy with the decision to downsize the project.

It’s not the first time Myanmar has annoyed its powerful neighbor over a planned megaproject. In September 2011, the decision of the administration of then-President U Thein Sein to suspend the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State damaged relations with China. U Ye Htut, the information minister in U Thein Sein’s administration, writes in his recently published “Myanmar’s Political Transition and Lost Opportunities (2010-2016)” that “the West said it [the suspension] is a strategic foreign policy. The government didn’t attempt to clarify the situation. The Chinese began to feel that they were the only loser in Myanmar’s democratization process.”

The former information minister added that it was no coincidence that following the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project and improvements in relations with the West, new ethnic armed groups appeared in northern Myanmar and armed conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan states intensified.

“Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that none of the ethnic armed groups along the Chinese border agreed to join the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement three years later,” U Ye Htut writes. The TNLA is one of the armed groups, along with the Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, that have yet to sign the peace deal with the government.

It is alleged that the recent instability in northern Shan State and the growing military threat from rebel forces are the outcome of the Myanmar government’s decision to downsize China’s projects in the country. Is the Myanmar military in agreement with the government’s decision? Indeed, this internal dynamic is something political observers will continue to watch.

In any case, the Myanmar military’s public statement on the seizure of Chinese-made weapons from a rebel army is a signal to Beijing that it’s time to stop adding fuel to the fire.

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