The Wild East

03.19.15 5:53 PM ET

Burma’s Nasty Little War on China’s Border: The View from the Front

The Burmese army is fighting a drug lord's troops. Burmese refugees are fleeing into China. The Chinese government isn't sure what to do about it.

NANSAN, China — Nearly every night, just across the frontier in Burma’s Shan State, the hills of Kokang are on fire. It stains the fog of Yunnan's mountains, and the border villages see eight hours of twilight. Yet the mood is oddly serene. Locals don't seem too worried about conflict brewing at their doorstep. On the roof of one hotel, the staff has set up a television set so they can keep up with their favorite late-night programs, and they glance only occasionally toward the orange glow, usually as an afterthought to something they hear from that direction. They simply trust that the Burmese will keep the killing to their own side of the border, but recent events suggest otherwise.

For more than a month, the Burmese military, also known as Tatmadaw, has been locked in a fight with an ethnic armed group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The center of those battles is in Kokang, a stone’s throw from the border with China. Tatmadaw has conducted air strikes against the MNDAA, but some of those bombs have landed on Chinese soil. Chinese state media have reported that four Chinese nationals have been killed in those strikes, and at least nine have been injured. Until those numbers became public knowledge, Chinese news media had been nearly silent about the conflict. Official news channels rarely mentioned the Kokang battles. When they did, it was a mere blip.

On the Burmese side of the border, over 120 fighters have died.

The faction of the MNDAA that is battling the Burmese army is nominally led by Peng Jiasheng, also known as Pheung Kya Shin, an octogenarian and ethnically Chinese commander who maintains about 1,000 troops (although his faction claims to be 5,000-strong). They were formerly part of the Communist Party of Burma, which was supported by Beijing. Even though the MNDAA once maintained a ceasefire agreement with the central government based in the capital Naypyidaw, fighting flared up in 2009. The center of the 2009 battles, Laukkai, was only 10 miles from China’s Nansan. Peng’s faction of the MNDAA was defeated and scattered, and he allegedly went into exile in China. Another faction within the MNDAA that was friendly with Burma’s junta government took charge of what’s called Special Region 1 and Kokang had been relatively peaceful until last month, when Peng returned and inspired younger officers under his banner to rally for an offensive. The mission was to retake Kokang.

The first strike took place on February 9 and a steady flow of Kokang residents, many of whom are ethnic Chinese, has been trickling into China since then. Some found rooms in hotels or hostels, even though hoteliers hiked up their rates to take advantage of captive consumers. Those with less cash to spare found temporary lodging in any space available: empty lots by Nansan’s not-yet-operational industrial park, an empty convention center, makeshift refugee camps. Laundry hung from clotheslines tied between trees in parking lots. Everyone hoped that it was temporary, but no one knew when they could return home.

Burma’s Minister of Information, Ye Htut, alleged that Peng’s forces are receiving arms, food, and medical aid from China. There are rumors of Chinese mercenaries entering Kokang to assist the MNDAA. Beijing and Peng's officers deny this.

Chinese officials have asked both sides to cool off and prevent the fighting from escalating. Those calls haven’t been working. At least two Red Cross convoys have been attacked. Tens of thousands from Kokang have been displaced in China and internally in Burma.

Father Mario Mardu, a Catholic priest based in Mong La, said that Peng’s trusted officers are currently located in Mong La, a vice-riden town in Shan State’s Special Region 4, south of Kokang. Presumably, it is from Mong La that they issue commands to the MNDAA fighters in Kokang. He also mentioned that the leader of Special Region 4’s governing body, the National Democratic Alliance Army-East Shan State (NDAA-ESS), is Peng Jiasheng’s son-in-law.

The firefights in Kokang are loudest at night. In the morning, refugees in China’s Yunnan Province find spent bullets that have landed beside their lodgings. Since reliable reports are scant, they stay up to date by checking WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, for news from home. Many men—fathers and older brothers—chose to remain in Kokang to defend their homes from looting, and send daily messages to their loved ones primarily as proof that they’re still alive.

Yunnan Province is a gateway into China for heroin and methamphetamine produced in Burma, and there are murals in various towns depicting the capture of drug mules by Chinese border police. To manage the influx of refugees from Kokang, the Chinese border police have set up an unprecedented number of checkpoints in Yunnan near the border with Shan State. At one, the red banner over the border police checkpoint said, “Be serious in the execution of our duty, strike down illegal narcotics.” Chinese security forces are trying to prevent drug mules from entering their country, but they are also looking for suspected MNDAA fighters who may be seeking to set up underground command posts in China.

At one stop, a Chinese border police officer boarded our bus and checked everyone’s IDs. Half of the passengers were from Kokang, heading to various Chinese towns, mostly to stay with friends or family. Many didn’t have time to retrieve their passports or ID cards before fleeing their homes. Routine checks to record who comes and goes have been rendered futile, and the frustration showed as the officer wasn’t sure how to proceed.

The narcotics division was also out in force, their black “POL CE” vans forming temporary checkpoints with their officers conducting full body checks on suspects. They were hunting for drug mules who could have blended in with the refugees.

After many rounds of questioning, and failed attempts to record the identities of the refugees, we were sent on our way. After boarding the bus, one Chinese man received a call from a friend in Meng Ding, a Chinese village conjoined to Burma’s Chinshwehaw. The bus went silent as he relayed the news: the Burmese Air Force had conducted a strike that had landed bombs in Meng Ding, and killed several Chinese nationals. Two days prior, on March 11, bombs released by a Burmese warplane landed three kilometers past the border, on Chinese territory. It damaged Chinese civilian property but there were no injuries or fatalities.

When the man hung up, he muttered, “The Burmese military can only do this because they have American support. They’re killing Chinese, no matter which side of the border they’re bombing.”

The first part of his statement might be a misconception, but the rest reflects the general attitude in Yunnan. The border between China and Burma is porous. Many ethnic Han-Chinese families have members on both sides of the border, and cross-border trade is common. Chinese influence can be seen everywhere in Burmese border towns, and it’s not uncommon to find produce sellers crossing from one country to another without using the official portals. Those who do use immigration and customs are usually tour groups and delivery trucks. When the first shots were fired in Kokang, it wasn’t difficult for many to seek refuge in China. After all, many had experience from 2009.

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But why is the MNDAA fighting the Burmese army? Refugees in Nansan say that Peng’s faction is trying to regain control of the region. Peng is an opium and methamphetamine kingpin. The paths into Yunnan also make for easy smuggling routes, which would be convenient for a drug lord's product to flow out and cash to flow in.

The people of Shan State’s Special Regions want self-governance, not independence. Under their own governing bodies, like the NDAA-ESS, the right to self-administration is guaranteed. But they also want to maintain their own armed forces (even if they are commanded by drug lords), which is in conflict with Burma’s constitution. The constitution states that the nation will only have one standing army: Tatmadaw. While things have been mostly peaceful under ceasefire agreements, flare-ups like those in Kokang—fueled by territorial greed but masked by ethnic pride—see civilians taking the hardest blows.

Despite bright-eyed optimism in the West for democratic reforms in Burma, the Kokang refugees in China are not confident about the upcoming Burmese presidential election, scheduled for October or November this year. One teenager, who only wanted to be known as Li, mused, “People are being shot by snipers on the street where I live. What good is a new president in Naypyidaw if my friends are dying in their homes?”