More Questions than Answers in Kokang Dilemma

By The Irrawaddy 25 February 2015

After more than two weeks of intense fighting between Kokang rebels and the Burma Army around Laukkai, a number of questions remain unanswered.

The first is what bearing the conflict will have on the country’s peace process, with the government ostensibly still hoping to conclude a nationwide ceasefire agreement before the 2015 general election.

Renewed doubts have been expressed about the likelihood of a peace accord being reached—this time, from within the senior echelons of the Burma Army itself. Last week, Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin told Radio Free Asia that recent fighting in the Kokang Special Zone could “damage Myanmar’s democratic reform and peacemaking process.”

“As the nation has grown increasingly unstable [due to the fighting], the general election could be thrown into chaos,” he said.

The second question is whether the conflict will alter the public’s view of the Burma Army. Last week President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited wounded soldiers and vowed to continue to ensure Burma’s “territorial integrity”. Later the Burma Army held a ceremony in Lashio to honor and bury the soldiers killed in Laukkai earlier this month, generating an outpouring of public sympathy and support.

The fierce clashes near the Chinese border, according to some army commanders on the frontline, is going to be a long battle, and they have admitted that the Kokang troops are better equipped than during previous clashes in 2009.

The third question is how the Kokang fighters were able to catch the Burma Army off guard for long enough to press their claim in Laukkai. The National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) was well prepared for their Feb. 9 offensive, inconspicuously taking residence in town months before the conflict began, and according to on the ground reports, the recipients of ammunition and support from other rebel armies in the region.

Army officers on the frontline said that they were countering different kinds of guerrilla warfare in urban areas, with MNDAA troops attempting to draw the opposing side into rural areas, where the rebel forces have bases and a superior knowledge of the terrain. They also said that initial intelligence suggested the rebel forces had been planning to take over Lashio, before coming to the conclusion that they did not have the capacity to overrun a town of that size.

Throughout the conflict, there has been speculation that other ethnic armed groups have been supporting the MNDAA, raising the possibility that the recent attack is, in part, a retaliatory move against the Burma Army’s shelling of a Kachin Independence Army training camp last November.

A total of 23 cadets were killed during the artillery attack, drawn from groups as diverse as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Army, Chin National Front and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and four Kachin commanders were injured. Many of these groups are active around northern Shan State, and the Burma Army believes many are party to the recent offensive.

As infantry divisions were called in to contain the spread of the insurgency along the roads between Laukkai and Lashio, some editorials in Rangoon-based journals asked whether the Burma Army had underestimated the rebels, questioning whether it had the skills to successfully prosecute an urban counterinsurgency.

In 2009, the Burma Army faced little resistance when it drove MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng from Laukkai, shutting down his arms factory and drug business in the process. It was believed at the time that the move was retaliation for Peng—who had hitherto maintained two decades of cordial relations with the government—refusing to cede his troops to the government’s Border Guard Force.

Peng, who is now aged in his mid-80s, fled to Wa territory after the 2009 skirmish to regroup his army. It has been suggested by the government that the MNDAA received ammunition and support from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) during the recent attack, a claim the UWSA denies.

Whether or not this was the case, it certainly seems that the Kokang were well prepared for this offensive.

For instance, on the night of Feb. 15, rebels drove dozens of vehicles into Laukkai, managing to kill a number of Burma Army officers and soldiers in a surprise attack by utilizing sniper rifles and night vision goggles.

After the attack, rebels retreated quickly but a rear guard force remained embedded in the town, killing several more soldiers. Some refugees fleeing the conflict reported seeing rebel soldiers sneaking across the border with China.

Which leads to the final question: the extent to which China is implicated in the current conflict. Aung Min, the Burmese government’s chief negotiator, said that China was not responsible for the events of the last month, although Lt-Gen Myat Htun Oo also claimed that “Chinese mercenaries” had joined the ranks of the MNDAA.

Back in July 2013, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing received Gen. Fan Changlong of the People’s Liberation Army, with the pair holding a wide-ranging discussion on cooperation between the two armies, border stability and the eradication of narcotics in the region, according to contemporary reports in state-run newspapers. It is certain they canvassed the lingering issue of the Kokang rebels at the time, but it remains unknown what was discussed.

Since the beginning of peace talks between the Burmese government and rebel groups in the north of the country, China has sent officials from both Yunnan and Beijing to observe these meetings. What is certain is China’s continued determination to maintain its influence along the Burmese border, where the Burma Army has never been able to establish an uncontested presence.