Guest Column

Kokang: Caught Between Myanmar and China

By Bertil Lintner 18 January 2023

One of the most unexpected developments in the struggle against Myanmar’s latest military dictatorship is the support for the resistance that has come from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). An ethnic armed organization (EAO), the MNDAA is based in Kokang in the far northeastern corner of Shan State in eastern Myanmar.

More than 90 per cent of Kokang’s population of approximately 150,000 people are ethnic Chinese of Yunnan descent, and the region’s cultural, personal and even political ties with China have always been strong. Given Beijing’s support for the junta that was installed after the February 2021 coup, it may seem surprising that the MNDAA is getting away with supporting the resistance to the regime. But, as a long-time observer of Myanmar politics, put it: “It looks to me as if the Chinese are working, as they often do, to keep a foot of some sort in all camps.”

A January 2023 graduation ceremony for new MNDAA recruits. / The Kokong.

The MNDAA has trained several groups of fighters from the pro-democracy resistance, which are loosely-banded together and known as People’s Defense Forces (PDF). Arms for the resistance have also been provided through the MNDAA and its close ally the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a powerful EAO that is active in Palaung-inhabited areas of northern Shan State. The weapons, in turn, are Chinese-made and come from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which has had a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar military since 1989, and therefore cannot be directly involved in the fight.

The flow of guns and the fact that no Chinese-made FN-6 Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), of which the UWSA has many, have been provided seems to indicate that the China is giving its tacit approval to the arms supplies, but with certain limitations. The PDFs need MANPADS urgently to protect themselves against the increasingly frequent airstrikes that the military regime has unleashed against resistance strongholds. But it wouldn’t look good if any of the Chinese-made planes in service with the Myanmar Air Force were shot down by Chinese-made MANPADS.

In this rather complicated context, it should also be remembered that this is not the first time that the MNDAA has been engaged in a conflict with the Myanmar military. The group was one of four EAOs that emerged from a mutiny among the rank-and-file of the once powerful Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989. The others were the UWSA, the National Democratic Alliance Army in eastern Shan State, and the New Democratic Army in Kachin State. All four entered into, but did not sign, ceasefire agreements with the then junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), but fighting broke out between the MNDAA and the Myanmar military in 2009. The MNDAA lost most of its territory, and an estimated 30,000 Kokang people fled across the border to Yunnan.

MNDAA troops at a memorial parade for Pheung Kya-shin in Mongla in March 2022. / The Kokang

Most of them were able to return but, in February 2015, fighting resumed and between 40,000-50,000 refugees ended up in Yunnan. Massive airstrikes and artillery barrages were used. In a May 2015 article for Jane’s Defense Weekly, writer Anthony Davis described the offensive as “the largest war since Myanmar’s independence.” China cannot have been pleased with what happened in 2009 and 2015, and probably thought it wise to maintain good relations with the MNDAA. With its ethnic Chinese population, Kokang has always served as an unofficial buffer zone between China and Myanmar, as well as gateway for China’s influence in Shan State and beyond. Consequently, Kokang is of the utmost strategic importance to Beijing.

Kokang’s exact status has always been somewhat ambiguous. Prior to the arrival of the British in the then Burma, Kokang maintained a dual relationship between local chieftains and the Shan saohpa [sawbwa in Burmese] of Hsenwi to the west of the Salween River and with Chinese rulers to the east of the Salween. But under an 1894 agreement between Britain and China, Kokang was recognized as Chinese territory. However, a new agreement was reached in 1897 under which China had to cede Kokang to the British, who placed the region under the jurisdiction of North Hsenwi State and a local myosa, literally a ‘town eater’, or local tax collector, who also had other duties.

During World War II, Kokang’s status was changed again and, in 1951 it became a separate entity within the Shan States ruled by its own saohpa. His name was Yang Kyein-sai and he belonged to the Yang clan, the most powerful family in Kokang. His sister Yang Kyin-hsui, better known as Olive Yang, is perhaps the best-known of his siblings. She had her own armed militia and, in the 1950s, became involved in the opium trade, although her role in business and politics has been grossly exaggerated and even glamorized, perhaps because she was openly lesbian.

Olive Yang

Some contemporary writers have elevated her to the status of an early LGBT activist and, even more imaginatively, as a superspy connected with various foreign intelligence agencies. In fact, Olive Yang’s main and only real claim to fame was that she was the first person to send opium in truck convoys down to the Thai border, rather than by the usual mule caravans. She traded opium with the remnants of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces on the Thai-Shan State border, but had hardly any other significant connections with the outside world.

In 1960, Olive wanted to assume the title of saohpa of Kokang, a title still held by her brother, but she was detained by Myanmar’s central authorities from 1963 to 1968. She lived quietly in Yangon and Shan State after her release until 1989, when the then military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt appointed her, ex-opium warlord Lo Hsing-han and Aung Gyi, a Sino-Burmese former army officer, to negotiate with the CPB mutineers in Kokang. She died in 2017 in Muse in northern Shan State.

Another Yang sibling, Yang Kyein-sein, aka Jimmy Yang, was far more important than Olive. He was elected MP for Kokang in 1950, a position he held until General Ne Win’s coup in 1962 and the end of Myanmar democracy. Jimmy Yang also founded the Burma Bank and was a prominent personality in politics and business throughout the 1950s.

He went underground after the coup and formed the Kokang Revolutionary Force which, in 1964, merged with two Shan groups to form the Shan State Army, led by Sao Nang Hearn Hkam, the widow of Myanmar’s first president Sao Shwe Thaike. But Jimmy soon broke away and served for a while as a manager of the long-gone Rincome Hotel in Chiang Mai. He later allied himself with the KMT in the opium business and with ousted Prime Minister U Nu in exile politics. Jimmy Yang left for Paris in 1973, but returned to Myanmar during a general amnesty in 1980. He died in Yangon in 1985.

Meanwhile at home in Kokang, crucial events took place which became a turning point in the modern history of the territory. In 1967, two of Jimmy Yang’s officers, Pheung Kya-shin and Pheung Kya-fu, traveled to China to ask for help. The Chinese introduced them to CPB exiles, who for several years had been planning a major push into Myanmar. On January 1, 1968, heavily-armed CPB units crossed into Myanmar at Möng Ko in northern Shan State. Five days later, the Pheung brothers and the force they commanded crossed into Kokang, which was overrun within days. Kokang and large parts of northern Shan State soon came under CPB control.

A memorial to Pheung Kya-shin in Mongla in March 2022. / The Kokang

By the mid 1970s, the CPB had extended its ‘liberated area’ to encompass 20,000 square kilometers of land along Myanmar’s border with China. The problem, though, was that the CPB’s soldiers consisted almost exclusively of people from the mountains of northern and eastern Shan State, while orthodox, Maoist Bamar dominated the CPB’s political leadership. People like Pheung Kya-shin didn’t even join the CPB; he was content to be an army commander and local administrator in Kokang. Almost inevitably, this led to a mutiny, which began in Kokang in March 1989 and, in April, spread to the Wa Hills and other CPB-controlled areas.

At first it was believed that the CPB mutineers would link up with Myanmar’s other EAOs. But the SLORC was faster, and made the mutineers an offer they accepted without hesitation: keep your armies but don’t share your guns with the other EAOs, and you can also retain control over your respective areas and get involved in any kind of business. In the beginning that meant the trade in opium and its derivative heroin, but now commercial pursuits are more diversified and include tin and rare earth mining with China being the main market for exports.

Since the mutiny, Kokang has been transformed into a center for cross-border trade with China. Whereas during the CPB days there were only bamboo huts and a few bigger houses made of stone, high-rise buildings now loom over market places and shopping centers. There are even talks about building a high-speed railroad from China through the southern part of Kokang to Hsenwi, and then all the way to Mandalay and, eventually, Yangon and the port of Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State. Needless to say, Kokang’s recent development is more in tune with what the leaders in Beijing want, as China no longer exports communist revolution. Today it’s a question of trade, commerce and all kinds of influence over Myanmar’s internal affairs, be it the insurgencies and military affairs or mainstream politics and, most important, geopolitical concerns.

Representatives from Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, ethnic armed organizations, the military regime and officials from China’s government attend a memorial parade for Kokang rebel leader Pheung Kya-shin in Mongla in March 2022. / The Kokang

Pheung Kya-fu died in June 2017 at the age of 81 and Pheung Kya-shin on February 16, 2022. He was 94. With those old warlords gone, a new generation of Kokang leaders have taken over, but little is known about them. It is also not known how and when they invited PDF fighters to their area. But with Kokang commanders in charge it is certain that relations with China are bound to be strong. And will the PDFs be able to maintain their independence? Their main weakness is that the PDFs have no central command and no common strategy. They can easily end up being totally dependent on the stronger groups that train and equip them.

That means that the struggle for Myanmar’s future is as uncertain as it always has been: a never-ending civil war with more suffering for the people, who are now being bombarded by the Myanmar Air Force and ruled by an incompetent junta that has pushed the country close to an economic abyss. And much of it has to do with China’s desire to secure its control over the vital ‘Myanmar corridor’, which gives it access to the Indian Ocean and markets across the world.

As for Kokang, it will not be an easy task for anyone in power in Naypyitaw to establish some semblance of authority over that virtually autonomous territory. Like the Wa Hills to the south, it is a part of Myanmar that has never been under any effective, central governmental control — but which for a very long time has had much closer ties to China.