The Northern Alliance: Fight For a Fault
By Liu Yun 18 January 2017
In the quiet and cool early morning of November 20, 2016, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), allied with three other relatively small Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) which branded themselves as the “Northern Alliance-Burma” (NAB), waged unprecedented cooperative attacks on Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) strongholds and police stations along the Sino-Myanmar border, in response to Tatmadaw offensives launched across the ethnic areas.
Within less than 24 hours, the Chinese foreign mission in Yangon responded actively by releasing a brief and forceful statement: “The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has been watching the situation closely, urging all parties in the conflicts to exercise restraint by taking concrete and effective measures for an immediate ceasefire so as to resume peace in the China-Myanmar border area as soon as possible.” it said.
Understandably, some pundits would rather despise this kind of “full-throated” diplomatic jargon since they have long been overwhelmed by a more easy-to-remember narrative, the “carrot-and-stick game” played by Beijing, allegedly aimed at “safeguarding and extending its considerable economic, commercial and strategic interests, while at the same time deterring any encroachment by Western or Japanese interests along its southwestern border.”
Even more explicitly, the likely brains behind the scheme has been designated to be Chinese military intelligence who have established long-standing links with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
The EAOs’ territories bordering Southwest China’s Yunnan province are, without question, self-proclaimed autonomous regions inside the so-called “Sinosphere”. But the conjecture that China had tacitly called the shots is beyond the pale, even though the NAB had repeatedly called on interference by the Chinese side.
A Fire in the City Gates
China’s after-the-event shock and genuine desire to end the conflict have been best illustrated by the first ever Myanmar-China (2+2) High Level Consultation, held five days after the conflict outbreak. The consultation brought high-ranking Chinese military officials together with senior diplomats to the negotiating table. Gen. Xu Fenlin, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department, as quoted by the press, expressed that the Chinese military will not let anyone to destroy the peace and stability in the border region or harm the lives and property of the Chinese people in border areas.
Gen. Xu’s words have been widely read as an unambiguous and serious warning to the NAB. This brings to mind an old Chinese saying, that a fire in the city gates is also a calamity for the fish in the moat. The attacks by the NAB and the subsequent chaos in the border region are undoubtedly dangerous to China’s interests and security. At least 3,000 locals were forced to flee into China, pushing the Chinese government and Army towards high alert. Bilateral trade has also been brought to a standstill, and Chinese citizens were wounded by stray bullets.
Narrow Political Space
There is no chance that the NAB could overpower the Tatmadaw going toe-to-toe. Then why did they still choose a highly risky way of military offensives? Obviously their political space has significantly shrank since Aung San Suu Kyi’s stances on the peace process have converged with those of the Tatmadaw. Civil-military relations in Myanmar have evolved into a form of patronage in that the Lady tries to strategically pull the military into her orbit around the democratic transition, while the Tatmadaw urgently needs her peerless legitimacy to fulfill the military’s self-claimed missions. Recently, in his message for the 69th anniversary celebration of the Independence Day, President U Htin Kyaw announced four national objectives, of which Tatmadaw’s long-held doctrine “Three National Causes”——to safeguard non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national unity, and perpetuation of sovereignty——was listed in the second place.
Consequently, the NAB believed that they had no choice remaining other than combining together almost all the leverages at hand——the porous Sino-Myanmar border, the joint armed operations, the sensitive bilateral trade hubs, and of course the most weighty “Chinese cards.” The 2015 Kokang conflict saw fighting that spilled over across the border, invoking ethno-nationalism in China, and some hardliners posting on social media that Beijing should support the MNDAA against Myanmar troops.
China will not abandon its sway over border issues. The NAB was definitely correct about that. But neither will Beijing tolerate any damage to the Sino-Myanmar relationship, and the NAB unfortunately could not grasp that. On August 20, 2016, during a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to promote the China-Myanmar comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership and to bring more tangible benefits to the people of both countries. Failing to appreciate the simple principles of interstate relations, the NAB has not only retreated from the battlefield, but has gotten lost in the path towards the Myanmar peace process.
Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly. He can be reached at: [email protected].
This article was originally published on the website of Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.