Min Aung Hlaing’s Putsch

By Aung Zaw 17 February 2015

Was it an intelligence failure? That’s what many Burmese were asking when they heard the news that 47 Burmese soldiers had been killed in recent clashes with ethnic minority insurgents near the border with China. And many thought that it was. The conflict erupted just as the country was celebrating Union Day, causing serious setbacks to a tenuous and ongoing peace process that was geared toward achieving a nationwide ceasefire agreement between the government and an array of armed insurgent groups.

According to the government’s narrative, the Burma Army mobilized troops and employed air power to quell an offensive led by ethnic Kokang rebels in an autonomous zone in Shan State, forcing civilians to flee into China and to other parts of the state. Last week, China urged the Burmese government and the Kokang rebels to resolve the dispute peacefully so that refugees who had fled across their borders could return home. In fact, trouble had been brewing for weeks, and ethnic leaders had already forewarned that tensions were on the rise and fighting could break out at any time.

Despite the complaints from Chinese authorities, it is unlikely that the two sides will sit down and resolve the conflict by peaceful means; the Burma Army received both support and sympathy when news of heavy casualties spread across Burma and throughout social media.

When Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing paid a visit to displaced persons in Lashio, Shan State, on Sunday, he was warmly welcomed. Social media, however, revealed some mixed reactions to his appearance and the message he sent along the way: The commander-in-chief made a point of telling people that the army will not give in and is prepared to fight. He behaved almost as though he was gearing up for an election campaign!

Some even interpreted his remarks to mean that Burma would defend its sovereignty by driving out foreign ethnic nationals, specifically the ethnic Kokang Chinese. The Kokang are a Han Chinese group, and generally speak the local Mandarin language. They maintain a force of armed soldiers known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by 85-year-old Peng Jiasheng, who is believed to be hiding in Chinese or nearby Wa territory. MNDAA is part of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnic alliance group engaged in ceasefire talks with Burmese government.

Many speculate that the aging leader has been waiting to take revenge on the Burma Army for a devastating blow in 2009, when Min Aung Hlaing led an offensive in the zone’s principal city, Laukkai, in search of illegal arms and drugs. Peng Jiasheng has since been a fugitive, hiding from the military. State media declared that he could not outrun “the rule of law,” recommending his immediate surrender. He clearly wasn’t listening.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

In any case, the Burmese generals and the government did not believe that the Kokang acted alone in this month’s incident, suspecting that the powerful Wa Army and other ethnic groups were assisting them with ammunition and logistical support. Some ethnic armed groups have admitted their support, while several others have distanced themselves from the conflict.

On Union Day, Feb. 12, Min Aung Hlaing met with several ethnic representatives in Naypyidaw, imploring them as citizens to maintain their Myanmar identity. It was as if he were suggesting that some other ethnic groups were foreigners. Some observers interpreted the message as being directed at the Wa, one of the groups represented at the meeting.

Min Aung Hlaing is no stranger to conflict along the Burma-China border. In the early 2000’s, he served as head of the Triangle Command, overseeing relations between the Burma Army and two armed ethnic groups: the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). He has known them well since then.

Later on in that same decade, Min Aung Hlaing was chief of Special Operations 2, overseeing Shan and Karenni states. In 2009 he led an offensive against the Kokang army, forcing some 37,000 civilians to flee to China. The surprise offensive undoubtedly strained relations between the two countries, particularly as the Kokang are ethnically Chinese. Beijing warned the junta at the time that it had better “properly handle domestic problems and maintain stability on the China-Myanmar border.” A headline in The New York Times boldly bore the message: “Myanmar Army Routs Ethnic Chinese Rebels in the North.”

While international views on the incident were, for the most part, cohesive, at home there were other views. Min Aung Hlaing rose to prominence in 2009, subsequently rising to the become commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

After Burma’s political opening began, Min Aung Hlaing made his first visit to Vietnam, a country engaged in an increasingly acrimonious territorial dispute with China. The visit was premised on the signing of a memorandum of understanding related to bilateral defense. The fact that he made this his first international visit since replacing Snr-Gen Than Shwe as head of the armed forces was viewed by many as a slap in the face to Beijing.

A subsequent series of meetings with US officials did little to help their relationship, as well. For the first time since the United States began limited re-engagement with the Burma Army, a high-ranking US military official—Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield—addressed his Burmese counterparts at the Myanmar National Defense College in Naypyidaw, where colonels and other high-ranking officials are trained. Crutchfield, deputy commander of the US Pacific Command, spoke at length of human rights and the need for civilian control of the military.

While Burma’s new friendships may not have been intended to provoke China, it seems that Min Aung Hlaing is making an effort to gain Beijing’s cooperation. When he finally did visit his neighbor to meet with then-Vice President Xi Jinping, it was widely believed that the Burma Army was seeking a particular kind of cooperation: handling armed rebels near the Burma-China border. The relationship continued, shrouded as ever in mystery, when Min Aung Hlaing received China’s Special Envoy Wang Ying Fan in Naypyidaw on Feb. 5, days before violence erupted.

The clashes that occurred over the past week hardly seem like a coincidence. More likely, it seems, the general had long seen it coming.