Opinion and Editorial

Anti-China tsunami 
alert in Myanmar

Suresh Pattali (Writing on the wall)
Filed on June 29, 2011

Foreign dignitaries make a beeline to Myanmar. Some meet Aung San Suu Kyi; some don’t, adhering to the democratic double standard they practise.

At the same time, a series of bomb blasts rattles the country, symptomatic of a civil war threatening to spill over to cities from ethnic conflicts. There are more political and diplomatic intricacies than meets the eye in the recent spurt of activity in Myanmar that makes international headlines.

On June 24 alone, four explosions rocked the capital city Naypyitaw; Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city after the former capital Yangon; and Pyin Oo Lwin, a city 72km north of Mandalay. That Pyin Oo Lwin is a garrison town which is home to four military institutes, including the elite Defence Services Academy, adds much more significance to the new round of violence. Urban war has been uncommon ever since the regime signed a ceasefire agreement with ethnic rebels in 1994.

There have also been about half-a-dozen bomb blasts in Myanmar cities, including Naypyitaw and the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, in the past few weeks.

Who to blame for the violence is anybody’s guess, but analysts point a finger at the serious fighting that broke out in the north of the country this month in Kachin state near the border with China. The government as usual blames rebels who have been fighting for autonomy since the country won independence in 1948.

Opposition sources tell me that so many loose ends in the regime’s accusations raise the suspicion of a grand political scheme. They say the explosions don’t bode well for the opposition and fear that the regime would not hesitate to use them as a pretext to unleash a wave of crackdown on democracy leaders. “The Burmese government could use any kind of excuse to unleash suppressive measures against the opposition,” says exiled opposition leader U Nyo Ohn Myint. “This new round of bomb attacks is controversial as the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has not claimed responsibility.”

The sources suspect the blasts were orchestrated and stage-managed, as there are evidences that government forces had sealed off the areas even before the bombs went off.

The government’s claim of launching an assault on KIA rebels to defend two hydropower plants — Lahsa and Tarpein — being built to provide power to China, seems to be nothing more than a pack of lies. “The only objective of the Tatmadaw (army) in launching attacks on the KIA is just to protect its members and an important hydropower project of the nation,” says a report in the government’s New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

But such claims fly in the face of the Kachin Independence Organisation’s (KIO) own memorandum of understanding with the Chinese on the latter’s business interest in the region. According to Kachin sources, the Chinese company building the Tarpein hydropower plant had agreed to pay 10 million yuan as road tax to the KIO, which maintains an extralegal bureaucracy in Kachin State and has exclusive control over pockets of territory along the Chinese border. The Chinese were to pay another 60 million yuan to build a new road.

“It’s true. Both the KIO and the Thein Sein regime have enjoyed these Chinese investments. The KIO has established some business understanding with the Chinese and have been receiving profits before the current crisis,” says Ohn Myint, quoting Kachin leaders who met him a couple of days ago. With such lucrative deals in force, it’s impossible to reason that the KIA would dare rub the Chinese the wrong way.

“I think the war turned ugly after government forces broke the prisoner of war exchange norms, by torturing to death the KIA’s lance corporal Chan Yein of Regiment 15 and delivering his mutilated body to the rebels,” says Ohn Myint.

China, faced with a surge in refugees, has urged both sides to resolve their differences through negotiations. From around 10,000 refugees massing on the border, they had reportedly let in women, elders and children.

But China did not set up temporary shelters for the war refugees as they did in August 2009 during the Kokang crisis. The Chinese are confronted with a major dilemma: While Beijing wants to please the Burmese regime; its Yunnan provincial authorities face the reality of a refugee crisis and want to see peace and stability on the border.

Strategically speaking, China, which is building oil and gas pipelines through its neighbour to improve energy security, would also want peace to prevail across the border. “I do not think China wanted the regime to crush the ethnic minorities as peace and stability would be more profitable for their national interest. Six major hydropower dams, jade mines, and timber and logging businesses are chiefly controlled by the Chinese and they will only think about their long-term economic interest,” says Ohn Myint.

Beijing, in fact, prefers “Bhutan-style” status for Myanmar’s major ethnic groups as it would be easier to do business with them than the regime which, according to sources, is widely divided on the issue of granting the big brother a free hand in internal wheeling and dealing.

Under such circumstances, the latest war on the Kachin rebels seems to be a smoke screen created by a conflict of business interests involving nationalist elements within the regime and the Chinese companies, as evidenced by the recent tirade by Dr Than Htut Aung, CEO of the Eleven Media Group, a staunch supporter of the regime, against huge Chinese investments in Myanmar.

To be concluded

Suresh Pattali is Khaleej Times Night Editor. He can be reached at suresh@khaleejtimes.com

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