Tag Archives: Myanmar

Thousands of Kachin Refugees Said Still To Be In Yunnan

As many as 15,000 refugees from the fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin province may still be taking shelter in Yunnan province, even though China doesn’t want them there and has denied their presence. The number comes from
Wunpawng Ninghtoi (the People’s Light), a Kachin refugee support group, quoted by the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma web site.

Yunnan provincial and local officials have been pressing the refugees they say they aren’t aware of to return to Myanmar. The aid group says those still in China, spread across 19 camps, are relying on aid from locals and religious groups. On the Myanmar side of the remote, hilly border, there are an estimated 70,000 displaced persons living in camps. International aid agencies have been given only limited access to the area by the Myanmar government. They appear to have been denied any access from the Chinese side, despite reports of a fatal cholera outbreak spreading into Ruili, the Yunnan border town that is a hub for Sino-Myanmar trade.

Fighting between Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Army broke out last June, ending a 17-years truce. Beijing has been brokering peace talks between the two sides. The most recent meeting was held last month in Ruili. However, the Myanmar government has not been able to reach a peace agreement with the Kachins as it has with nine of the eleven armed ethnic groups in the country that also seek greater autonomy.

Beijing, already unsettled by ethnic unrest of its own on its western reaches, does not want a repeat of 2009 when a Myanmar offensive against an ethnic Kokang militia in Shan state forced more than 30,000 refugees to flee into China. It has told Naypyidaw to stem this latest flow of Kachin refugees. “Maintaining the peace and stability of the Chinese-Myanmar frontier region concerns the common interests of both countries,” chief government adviser Jia Qinglin told visiting Myanmar lower house speaker and former third-ranking general in the junta, Thura Shwe Mann (via Reuters).

Beijing also wants the considerable infrastructure projects it is building and bankrolling in Myanmar  to proceed smoothly. Relations between the two countries have got testier over the past year following President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government replacing the long-ruling junta that counted only Beijing and Pyongyang as fast friends. Since then, Thein Sein has started opening up more to the rest of the world and, as he put it in a speech marking the first anniversary of his government, aims to “maintain amity with both East and West”. Myanmar, like Sudan, Syria and the South China Sea, has become yet another place where Beijing is finding its foreign relations to be becoming more complex, and its national interests rubbing up against those of others.

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Yunnan Denies Knowledge Of Influx Of Kachin Refugees

Thousands of Kachin refugees, mostly women and children fleeing the fighting in northern Myanmar, have reportedly spilled across the border into Yunnan, a situation Chinese authorities have for months being trying to prevent. The reports come via the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand, which puts the numbers at between 6,000 and 10,000 refugees, and ChinaAid, a U.S.-based Christian organization, which puts the numbers as high at 25,000 and says they are sheltering in several camps in Yunnan.

Reuters news agency reports Yunnanese authorities denying any knowledge of an influx of refugees. There has been no independent confirmation to date. Kachin refugee aid organizations have previously said that there are 19 refugee camps in China, though China does not acknowledge their presence.

The conflict between Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Army has already spawned makeshift refugee camps housing upwards of 40,000 along the Myanmar side of the border. Large international relief agencies have not been allowed access to the area by the Myanmar government. Local aid groups say food is in short supply in the camps with the onset of winter weather and that outbreaks of dysentery and cholera are being seen. One child is reported to have died from cholera. One report says cholera has also been seen in the Yunnanese border town of Ruili, reinforcing fears of a potential humanitarian disaster in the region.

The fighting broke out after a 17-year old ceasefire broke down last June. It has continued despite last December’s order by Myanmar President Thein Sein to his military to end operations.

Meanwhile, Chinese-brokered peace talks are making slow progress. Two rounds of talks have been held over the past two months in Ruili. But no agreement has been reached between the Myanmar government and the Kachins similar to the preliminary peace deals struck between Naypyidaw and eight of the 11 ethnic groups in Myanmar seeking greater autonomy. A third round of talks due to have taken place last weekend didn’t happen because of disagreement between the two sides over where to meet.

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Little Imminent Prospect Of Peace Along China’s Myanmar Border

Slow progress is being made at the truce talks China is hosting between the Myanmar government and the autonomy-seeking Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Two more days of talks were held last week in Ruili, a border crossing town on the Yunnan side. Naypyidaw’s chief negotiator said afterwards that a lasting truce would not be quickly achieved. Aung Thaung, a former general who is also Myanmar’s industry minister, said the process could take more than three years.

That would not please Beijing, which wants stability along its western reaches and control over what is thought to be an arms smuggling route to Tibetean dissidents in western China, seemingly newly active. Nor would it satisfy Naypyidaw, which needs political settlements with its ethnic minorities to bolster its case for a lifting of international sanctions against the country.

Some 60,000 Kachin have fled their homes in the remote and mountainous region over the past seven months following the breakdown of a 17-years long ceasefire. A few made it into China to seek refuge with relatives, but Beijing has discouraged mass cross-border migration, fearing a large influx of refuges. Instead they are gathering in ever larger numbers in makeshift camps along the border.

Meanwhile, armed skirmishes continue along the Myanmar side of the border with Yunnan between government forces and the KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army, despite two orders by Myanmar President Thein Sein to his military to end its operations in Kachin. One (unconfirmed) report suggested fighting had spilled at one point across the border into the Chinese province. Further talks between the Naypyidaw government and the KIO are be held, probably in February.

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Dai The Diplomat

China’s top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, has been busy in troublesome places for China’s foreign policy just beyond the country’s outer marches, first visiting Myanmar, now Pakistan: two outlets for China’s overland energy routes to the oil of the Middle East, and forming a pincer around India.

The two countries provide mirror image challenges for Beijing’s foreign policy. In Myanmar’s case, a fast ally turning towards Washington; in Pakistan’s case, an ally of Washington, if never a fast one, falling out with its erstwhile friend and turning toward Beijing. In both places, there is unrest: ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy in northern Myanmar along the border with Yunnan; the overspill of the Afghanistan conflict in the other, along the border with Xinjiang, Beijing also believes that its own rebellious Uighurs take shelter in exile in northwestern Pakistan.

Beijing’s interest lies neither in turning allies nor picking sides, however. It is in stability, so it’s strategic commercial interests, such as CNPC’s new oil exploration deal in Afghanistan, can thrive and its hydropower stations, oil terminals, pipelines, and the coaling stations for its blue water fleet — its string of pearls around the Indian Ocean — can be constructed without disruption.

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Beijing’s Helping Hand For Naypyidaw

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.

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Naypyidaw Orders Halt To Fighting Along Sino-Myanmar Border

Myanmar President Thein Sein has reportedly ordered a halt to the government’s military offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) along the border with Yunnan. Fighting has intensified since a 17-year old truce broke down in June. Tens of thousands of ethnic Kachins have been displaced, sending up to a reported 7,500 unwanted refugees across the border in to Yunnan and threatening a humanitarian disaster on China’s southwestern doorstep. Chinese authorities in border towns have started encouraging Kachin refugees to return home. Naypyidaw allowed a small U.N. relief convoy through to the border town of Laiza on Monday, the first international aid to get through to the region in a couple of months.

Naypyidaw similarly stopped its offensive against ethnic Shan further south last month. With sporadic fighting continuing in Kachin despite the order to cease fire except in self-defense, one question now is how far the writ of the civilian government in Naypyidaw runs over the military’s commanders on the ground. Another is whether Naypyidaw will be prepared to drop its refusal to put greater autonomy for the region on the agenda of its formal ceasefire talks with the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization.

With several Chinese-backed hydropower dams being built in Kachin, including the controversial and now halted Myitsone Dam on the headwaters of the Mekong, Beijing badly needs an outbreak of peace in this gateway to Southeast Asia.

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Humanitarian Disaster Looms Ever Nearer On Sino-Myanmar Border

Sang Gang internally displaced persons camp, Kachin State, Myanmar

We are getting new reports of intensified fighting between Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) just over the border from Yunnan. With it, a growing number of displaced locals are threatening a humanitarian disaster on China’s southwestern doorstep.

The number of refugees housed in makeshift camps along the border, such as the one at Sang Gang shown in the picture above from Human Rights Watch, is said now to approach 35,000, with international aid agencies having little or no access to the area. It is two months since Naypyidaw last let the World Food Program and Oxfam deliver supplies to the refugee camps. The same month Beijing beefed up its own forces on the Yunnan side of the border to prevent the trickle fleeing into China turning into a flood.

Last month, the Myanmar government held a round of Chinese-brokered talks with the political wing of the KIA in Ruili, the railhead on the Yunnan side of the border. These appear to have achieved little more than promises of a political dialogue on behalf of a civilian government in Naypyidaw. For all its putative signs of engagement with the outside world and steps towards democratic reform at home, the government appears to have little control over the army commanders conducting the fighting on the ground in Kachin province. Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster that Beijing fears on its doorstep gets ever closer, while the peace necessary to restore China’s commercial activities in northern Myanmar recedes.

Update: Mizzima News, a Burmese exiles’ newspaper based in Delhi, reports that Chinese officials today told 2,000 refugees who crossed the border from Kachin province to stay with relatives in Yunnan to return home. The newspaper also puts the number of refugees in the camps on the Myanmar side of the border at 45,000. Meanwhile, Burma News International says that there are 16 temporary camps on the Yunnan side of the border, housing 7,000 refugees.

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Beijing’s Common Cause With Washington In Myanmar

Myanmar stands as a good example of the cooperation and competition that characterizes the relationship between Beijing and Washington. Much of the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in half a century, has concentrated on how Washington wants to detach Beijing’s hold on Naypyidaw. This is seen as part of a grander plan on the part of the Obama administration to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Yet, to this Bystander, it seems that not only can the U.S. do no more than loosen Beijing’s grip, from tight to firm, but also that is now, on balance, in Beijing’s interest that Myanmar emerges from its international isolation.

That isolation has left China as Myanmar’s largest trade and investment partner. Construction of the Myitsone dam may have been suspended but work on six other Chinese-built dams continues. The road, rail and energy pipeline connections across between Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast are being developed by the day. Chinese companies have a first mover advantage that could be readily exploited if international sanctions on Myanmar are lifted and its population of 60 million is provided with an opportunity to catch up with the economic progress of the rest of Southeast Asia.

Neither U.S. nor Indian firms are in any position to leapfrog Chinese ones in Myanmar, any more than Washington or New Delhi will leap ahead of Beijing politically. The security risk to China’s southwestern reaches is marginal compared to the potential economic and political gains.

Beijing certainly does not want a full-fledged democracy that is in Washington’s pocket on its doorstep. Yet it would not be adverse to a more broad-based government in Naypyidaw that could bring to an end Myanmar’s minority ethnic conflicts. These insurgencies are primarily being fought along the length of the border with Yunnan. China’s commercial interests in extracting Myanmar’s natural resources and sending cheap manufactures in the opposite direction are far better served by peace than strife. As we have noted before, Beijing does not want another flood of refugees from the fighting.

Nor would China be too sorry to see North Korea lose a fast friend and export trans-shipment point in Burma. That would only make Pyongyang more reliant on Beijing, and reduce by one the potential ranks of nuclear armed neighbors.  Meanwhile, Beijing and Naypyidaw are strengthening their military ties. Min Aung Hlaing, the new commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, may have pointedly made his first foreign visit to Vietnam, but he was in Beijing earlier this week to sign a memorandum of understanding with Chen Bingde, his PLA counterpart, to deepen military cooperation. He also met President-Assumptive Xi Jinping. Closer military ties will help China’s naval reach into the strategically important waters of the Indian Ocean.

State media has stuck an uncommonly neutral tone in its coverage of Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, highlighting her promotion of economic reforms and the need for ethnic conflicts to be resolved. Beijing has more common cause with Washington on both those fronts than those looking for a grander geopolitical game imagine.

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Patrolling The Speed Trade Along The Mekong

Joint armed police patrols along the upper reaches of the Mekong where it passes between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are to start in mid-December. Agreement between the four countries to patrol the waters was reached at the end of October following the execution-like killing of 13 Chinese seamen earlier that month in attacks on their two freighters for which nine Thai soldiers were eventually arrested. (They have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, though earlier reports quoted Thai authorities as saying the soldiers had admitted the killings.)

While the area is part of the Golden Triangle, long notorious as the stronghold of the Shan and Wu drug lords who control the opium trade, it is now a center for amphetamine production, a more marketable drug that is both cheaper and easier to produce than opium and heroin. Thailand is the region’s largest market for amphetamines, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a view reflected in the fast rising volumes of seizures of the drug in China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, 133 million pills last year up from 32 million in 2008.

For some time there have been reports of vessels on the river that refuse to pay protection money being seized by gangs and used to ship amphetamines and other drugs. The two vessels attacked in October were found with large supplies of pills on board. Units of the Thai army are reported to be complicit in these protections of the amphetamine trade, to which, as the UNODC map shows, the Mekong provides a backbone.

Greater Mekong Subregion: Primary Metaampthetamine Trafficking Routes

Chinese vessels have frequently been the subject of these attacks as they dominate shipping on the river, an important trade conduit between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. According to Xinhua, 116 of the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are operated by Chinese companies. All maritime trade along the river has been suspended since the early October attacks.

However, the illicit drugs trade operates on both sides of the river, with UNODC saying that the greatest number of illicit amphetamine manufacturing labs discovered and shut down in the region, 458 in 2009, were in China. Along with Myanmar, China is the largest producer of illicit amphetamines in the region. In 2010, UNODC says, 378 illicit labs were detected in China, compared to 391 in 2009 and 244 in 2008. Manufacturing of amphetamines appears to have shifted to Yunnan from Guangdong and Fujian, following the crackdown there since 2006. That crackdown is now moving west.

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More Bad Burmese Days For Beijing

This Bystander noted last month that Beijing had moved additional troops and armed police to Yunnan on its side of the border with Myanmar’s Kachin state as Myanmar government forces pushed their new offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Latest reports say the fighting has again flared up, sending a trickle of refugees into China, unwanted as they may be. Most of those displaced by the fighting, estimated to number 30,000, are in makeshift refugee camps on the Myanmar side of the border. Part of the purpose of Beijing beefing up its armed presence was to deter the trickle turning into a flow.

Beijing’s sympathies lie with Naypyidaw not the KIA, which has led the campaign to disrupt the expansion of China’s commercial interests in Kachin. The 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and the government had allowed Chinese companies to start logging, mining and hydropower projects in the region, such as the controversial and now suspended construction of the Myitsone Hydoelectric Dam on the Irrawaddy river. These interests are now at considerable risk.

Yet, Beijing’s close relationship with Naypyidaw that carried Myanmar’s military rulers through years of international isolation is now in flux following the installation of a civilian government, albeit one backed by the Army. The new government has been making reformist noises, for which it has been rewarded with the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, suggesting it is looking south and west as well as northeast. The country’s new Army chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, chose to make his first overseas trip to Vietnam this week, not to China like his predecessors, a decision that will readily be seen as a snub to Beijing, especially as Hanoi is embroiled in a maritime dispute with China over the South China Sea.

Update: Beijing will not have been too pleased, either, to read the plea by U Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar’s information minister, for Washington to lift U.S. sanctions against his country, which he said was making it more reliant on Chinese companies. The minister’s comment came during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. We don’t think lifting of the sanctions is imminent, regardless of the Obama administration’s decision to send Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to visit the country. That fits more with the series of moves by Washington to deepen its engagement with China’s neighbors.

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