BEIJING — When rumors spread around the sugar-cane farms in northern Myanmar that the army was advancing, Li Jiapeng and his family packed some clothes, grabbed some cash and joined a long line of people fleeing in cars and on foot. Everyone was heading for safety on the other side of the border in China, just six miles away.
The next day, he could hear the sounds of battle. “We came to the Chinese side early in the morning, and we began to hear gunshots that afternoon from Laogai, our hometown,” Mr. Li, 23, a university student whose family grows walnuts, tea and sugar cane, said by phone from Yunnan Province in southern China.
In the last six weeks, the Myanmar Army has been fighting rebels of the Kokang, a Chinese ethnic group that has lived in the mountains of northern Myanmar for more than 400 years, and keeps strong linguistic, education and trading ties to China.
Myanmar has been afflicted with fighting between its various ethnic groups and the army for decades, but the current battle, fueled by rebels armed with weapons bought with the proceeds of a flourishing drug trade, is potentially more serious because it touches on the country’s sensitive relationship with China.
Lt. Gen. Mya Tun Oo, the head of Myanmar’s military intelligence, said last month that “well-trained Chinese soldiers” were fighting alongside the Kokang guerrillas, known as the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, who are led by an octogenarian, Peng Jiasheng. General Mya Tun Oo tried to soften his accusation by saying the local Chinese authorities, rather than the central government, were responsible for the deployment of the Chinese soldiers. But still, his statement infuriated China, which strongly denied the charge and demanded that senior Myanmar officials come to Beijing for talks.
Also of concern to China is the Myanmar military’s tactic of stoking widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. China, the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, has major oil and gas interests there, and is trying to consolidate its economic position amid intense rivalry with the United States. During the rule of the junta, China was an unflinching supporter of the military, and the resentment, now based on China’s power and wealth, still permeates society.
Myanmar has called the war against the guerrillas a righteous cause against an “external threat,” a clear reference to China. The army has publicized the fact that its forces have suffered casualties at the hands of the guerrillas and has welcomed donations from ordinary citizens to pay the families of soldiers killed in the fighting.
The Myanmar military has also used Facebook accounts in a campaign to build opposition to Mr. Peng by linking him to China. Until 1989, the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party, provided Mr. Peng his main support. Now, the Kokang are fighting back to protect mineral and forestry resources and the profitable drug trade that has kept them alive and somewhat autonomous from the center.
The nationalist appeal by the Myanmar military has a specific political purpose. It appears intended to gain support from the population before important national elections at the end of 2015, when the dominant political party aligned with the military will go head-to-head with the opposition party led by the democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Another aggravating factor for China is the presence of as many as 60,000 Kokang refugees in Yunnan Province, particularly around the town of Nansan.
China has always declined assistance from the United Nations refugee agency on the grounds it does not want outside interference in its internal affairs. Beijing has hewed to that policy with the Kokang, and has refused to allow United Nations refugee officials to travel to see the conditions of the refugees in Nansan, United Nations officials said.
In the days after the fighting started on Feb. 9, Nansan was filled with cars with Myanmar license plates, trucks packed with people cradling a few belongings, and even cattle that farmers brought over the porous border, refugees reached by phone said.
The local government has provided free food, blankets, and running water, said Lin Sen, a businessman in Nansan, who has been raising money for the newcomers. There are several government centers for the refugees, and many have squeezed into small hotels or rented houses, or are staying with relatives, he said.
“The refugees have rice, and three kinds of dishes for each meal,” he said. “It’s not that delicious, but good enough for refugees.”
By the middle of this month, the war had spilled into Chinese territory. Five Chinese workers were killed in a sugar-cane field near the city of Lincang by a bomb from a Myanmar Air Force jet. The aircraft was apparently targeting rebels in the Myanmar mountains but misfired, the Chinese news media reported.
In an unusually strong statement, Prime Minister Li Keqiang said China had delivered “stern” warnings to Myanmar. To reassure Chinese citizens that the government was protecting the border, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who rarely travels inside China, visited Yunnan Province last week to consult with the authorities there.
China has also sent aircraft to patrol the border, and People’s Liberation Army forces equipped with surface-to-air missile systems and radar have been sent too, according to Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
“Since the Chinese military has stepped up its border presence, there is now a real possibility of direct military engagement between the People’s Liberation Army and the Myanmar military,” according to an assessment last week by Stratfor Global Intelligence.
Between bursts of fighting, some Kokang refugees have ventured back to their homes to rescue relatives left behind or to check on their property. Yang Jiacai, 25, a sugar-cane farmer, said that a week after the fighting started, he drove back to Laogai.
The bodies of nine Kokang lay on the outskirts of the town, he said. “I saw people lying on the side of the road,” he said in a telephone interview after returning to Nansan. “I was wondering why they were sleeping there. But when I got closer I realized they had been shot dead. I remember a woman in her 50s, face upward, eyes open. Their luggage — rice bags stuffed with clothes and food — was scattered on the road.”
Mr. Yang said he believed that Myanmar government forces had shot them.
A businessmen who gave his name only as Mr. Zhou said he drove back to Laogai a few days ago to inspect his hotel and three video-game parlors.
“The town was empty,” he said. “No one is on the street. I saw some pickup trucks filled with TVs, electric fans and refrigerators for sale.” A house that had been burned down was still smoldering, he said. But he said his hotel was still intact, and he had hired two guards to protect it.
Others were not so lucky. When Mr. Li, the 23-year-old student, left last month, the family freed several hundred chickens and more than a dozen pigs from their pens so the animals could find food.
His extended family of 20 is now renting a small house, and when he went home several weeks ago, all his animals had disappeared. Myanmar soldiers had taken them, he said. “We have no income, we have lost our walnut trees, our tea trees and everything we grew and raised.”
Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar. Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.
De THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/03/2015
De THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/03/2015