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The Shadow of Chinese War: Ethnic Tensions, Geopolitics, and Online Scams in the Kokang Conflict on the China-Myanmar Borderland

Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) fighters in Kokang, Myanmar. – Photo credit: The Kokang

By Xu Peng | 05 December 2023

The ongoing conflicts in the China-Myanmar borderland, reignited since 27th October, have drawn international attention, especially due to the involvement of the Kokang’s army, also called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a predominantly Han Chinese ethnic armed group. The operation, framed as a crackdown on online scams, hints at winning potential support from China, considering the Chinese central government’s growing concerns over the burgeoning online scam industry. This commentary offers an overview of the ongoing conflicts at the intersection of Han Chinese identity, organized crime, and cross-border dynamics.

 

My first encounter with the Kokang issue was through Peng Jiasheng‘s (Pheung Kya-shin) 2015 letter on the internet, titled “Calling All Chinese Compatriots Worldwide”. In it, Peng emphasized Kokang’s Han Chinese identity and appealed for global Chinese support. This call to action was my introduction to the complex realities of the Kokang region, a predominantly Han Chinese community within Myanmar. My subsequent visit (figure 1) to the region in 2018 revealed a community indistinguishable from mainland China, with ubiquitous Chinese signage and language. Locals, mistaking me for a journalist, implored me to highlight their plight and seek Chinese government intervention, echoing their strong sense of Chinese identity.

Shopping centre in Kokang with Chinese elements in 2018 – Photo was taken by the author

Research into Kokang’s history reveals a long-standing Han Chinese presence, dating back to the Ming dynasty. Officially ceded to British Burma in 1897, Kokang’s self-identification and governance remained distinctly Chinese. Even under British symbolic rule, Kokang was effectively governed by local chieftains, preserving its Chinese character. This identity was further reinforced during World War II, when Kokang leaders sought Chinese support against Japanese invasion, leading to the establishment of the Kokang (Anti-Japanese) Defence Force in collaboration with the Chinese Expeditionary Army.

 

Post-Myanmar’s independence in 1948, Kokang initially integrated into the nascent nation’s parliamentary system. However, the 1962 military coup and subsequent dissolution of parliament marked a turning point, ending Kokang’s parliamentary representation and autonomy. This shift prompted Kokang to refocus on defence against the Myanmar government, transitioning from hereditary leadership to a more capability-driven governance mode, which ensued decades and saw fluctuating alliances and conflicts. At the end of 1960s, Peng Jiasheng led the Kokang people’s defence force to join the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), while at the same time the CPB received official Chinese aid as a result of Chinese revolution diplomacy. This period is widely recognised for illustrating Peng’s close ties with China, as he leveraged the CPB’s support in his struggle against the Myanmar government.

 

The close ties between Kokang and China, fostered historically through the CPB, continued to evolve in the post-CPB era. Kokang’s geographical proximity to Yunnan transformed it into a significant economic gateway, facilitating vital border trade that became a lifeline for its economy. This economic relationship was particularly crucial as Kokang’s economy expanded, with industries such as gambling emerging since the early 2000s. Despite these developments, China maintained a non-interventionist stance towards Kokang’s internal affairs, allowing its economy to flourish without direct interference.

 

However, the 2009 Kokang incident marked a pivotal turning point in the region. That year, a raid by the Myanmar government on a factory in Kokang ignited hostilities with the MNDAA, exemplifying the fragile nature of the existing ceasefire with the state. This escalation of conflict led to a considerable refugee crisis, with thousands fleeing to the Yunnan border in China, highlighting the precarious and volatile situation in the area. This crisis brought the issue of border security to the forefront of China’s policy considerations. It underscored a new paradigm in the bilateral relationship: irrespective of who controls Kokang, maintaining stability at the border emerged as a non-negotiable priority for China.

 

Simultaneously, these developments highlighted a crucial aspect of Kokang’s political narrative. While the region’s fate has been inextricably linked to its historical ties with China, it has been more profoundly shaped by Myanmar’s own nation-building challenges. The strategic location of Kokang along the China-Myanmar border has not only facilitated economic interactions but also placed it at the centre of complex geopolitical dynamics. The 2009 conflict and its aftermath were not just a reflection of Kokang’s internal tensions but also a manifestation of broader regional issues affecting border stability and governance.

 

In October 2023, the MNDAA renewed offensives in northern Shan State, ostensibly aimed at combating online scams, which brought to the fore complex questions regarding the nature of the conflict. This operation, occurring in the wake of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, not only appealed for support from other Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in the fight against the Myanmar government but also intersected with broader bilateral discussions between China and Myanmar. These discussions focused on tackling the burgeoning online scam industry in northern Myanmar, inadvertently casting doubt on China’s role in the conflict and leading to speculations about its involvement.

 

The ‘1027 Operation’, as it came to be known, therefore, cannot be viewed in isolation. It raises critical inquiries: Is it a reflection of underlying Han Chinese ethnic tensions, a strategic alignment with the Chinese government’s objectives, or simply a territorial struggle by an ethnic armed group inside Kokang? The framing of this operation is vital for understanding the underlying dynamics of the conflict. It not only encapsulates the immediate military and political strategies but also ties into the larger narrative of Myanmar’s ongoing political turmoil and China’s role in regional security.

 

To comprehend the full scope of the Kokang issue, it is crucial to transcend a Sino-centric viewpoint. Such a perspective risks oversimplifying the situation by ignoring the intricate power dynamics within Kokang itself and the complex relationships among ethnic armed organizations, the Myanmar government, and Border Guard Forces. A nuanced understanding must take into account Kokang’s distinctive historical and cultural backdrop, its integration into Myanmar’s broader political narrative, and the subtle intricacies of regional geopolitics.

Xu Peng is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London. Her research primarily explores the interactions between ethnic armed groups in borderlands and their engagement with incumbent governments and neighbouring states. While her expertise centers on the China-Myanmar borderland, she also possesses a keen interest in China’s broader foreign policy strategies concerning border regions across Asia.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.

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