A new sign of how tight relations have been between Beijing and Naypyidaw: Five months ago, China deported one of the main ethnic Karen rebel leaders to Myanmar after he had been returned to China by Thai authorities following a visa problem when he was trying to return to Bangkok on a flight from Kunming. Mahn Nyein Maung of the Karen National Union (KNU), and who is famous for escaping from Myanmar’s penal colony on Coco Island in 1970 by floating across the Indian Ocean on driftwood, has now reportedly been sentenced to 17 years imprisonment by Myanmar authorities after a secret trial.
The KNU is one of several ethnic groups fighting for autonomy in northern Myanmar, which Naypyidaw has been exploring peace talks while at the same time continuing to wage military offensives against them. China is also taking a hard-line against refugees from another rebellious ethnic group in northern Myanmar, the Kachin, whose province borders Yunnan. Reports from a UN humanitarian aid convoy allowed into the area by Naypyidaw say that Chinese authorities told some 2,000 Kachin taking shelter from the fighting at a temporary camp in Laying in Yunnan that if they didn’t go back to Myanmar they would be returned by force. Food and medical supplies from the UN were seemingly not allowed across the border.
Beijing does not want a repeat of the flood of refugees it got when fighting flared up in Kachin in 2009, and some 30,000 fled into Yunnan. This time the feared humanitarian disaster is again starting, but on the Myanmar side of the border. Health conditions are deteriorating and at least one child is reported to have died in the makeshift refugee camps.
Myanmar’s president recently ordered government forces to cease attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, fighting has not stopped along the Sino-Myanmar border. New reports talk for the first time of villages being bombed by the Myanmar air force. We can’t imagine Beijing would allow warplanes to be flying along its borders without its consent, however tacit.
Meanwhile, Beijing is stepping up its diplomatic engagement with Myanmar, including with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who earlier this week had her first meeting with a Chinese ambassador to Myanmar for two decades (shades of lessons learned from Libya perhaps, where Beijing was tardy in establishing contacts with opposition groups). Beijing is also sending its top diplomat, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, to the two-day meeting of Mekong River countries that starts on Monday, though prime minister Wen Jiabao was originally scheduled to attend.