Vicious fighting between ethnic insurgents and government forces erupted once again in northern Myanmar on Sunday, leaving two Burmese civilians dead and over 25 wounded, including two residents of a Chinese border town who were hit by stray shells from the conflict.
Violence broke out early on November 20th near the settlements of Muse and Kutkai, located in Myanmar’s Shan state, with hostilities lasting throughout the morning and involving members of the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. As the conflict escalated, authorities in the neighboring Yunnan frontier town of Wanding issued an emergency response and sent more armed police to reinforce the border, which was quickly flooded with refugees fleeing the bloodshed. A local hospital also reported treating a Burmese man with a leg injury and a Chinese resident who suffered an arm wound.
So far the Chinese government has asked all relevant parties in the conflict to restrain from using force and cease all military operations immediately, according to the state-run People’s Daily.
As one of the most demographically diverse countries in Southeast Asia, ethnic competition over control of resources and political power has a long and ugly history in Myanmar. Today’s civil strife originates from the end of British rule after World War II, when the colonial government ceded power to the Burmese majority at the expense of the rural ethnic population. During the war, the Burmans supported the Japanese while the minorities sided with Great Britain and the US, creating an atmosphere of tension that was exacerbated by the new regime change. Angered by their disenfranchisement, the ethnic population rose against the government, which was subsequently protected by India who handed over power to Burmese military authorities. Refusing to admit defeat, minority groups retreated to the jungle-filled hinterlands of the country, forming a continued insurgency that’s been dubbed as the world’s longest-running civil war.
The tendency for Myanmar’s internal strife to spill over into Chinese territory is a source of contention for the PRC, whose foreign policy platform of non-intervention and indifference towards its authoritarian counterparts is showing signs of change. Last March, a Myanmese Air Force fighter mistakenly bombed a village in Yunnan, killing four civilians and prompting the Chinese government to dispatch fighters and conduct military exercises along the border. Kowtowing to Beijing’s anger, Myanmar took full responsibility for the incident, pledging to work with China to “ensure stability” across their shared 2,000km border.
What differentiates Sunday’s border spat from prior incidences is its potential to derail Myanmese Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s push for peace between the country’s new government and rebel groups. China has already promised to help mediate the talks, presenting Suu Kyi in August with a letter signed by three insurgent groups who did not agree to the nationwide ceasefire agreement brokered in 2015.
If China was to withdraw their support now, the chances for a resolution will diminish from a possible outcome to a fleeting hope.
By Avery Davenport
[Images via People’s Daily]