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Myanmar's democratic transition is making China uneasy. It is now heavily arming rebels to fight the Myanmar army.
Big power alignments appear to be dramatically changing in Myanmar as it enters a crucial phase of transition to democracy from military rule. China, so long confident about its influence on the military junta, now appears to be uneasy with President Thein Sein's courting of the West. The Myanmar army's offensive against ethnic rebel armies up north on the Sino-Myanmar border has worried China not merely because it sends thousands of refugees running into China (many of them ethnic Chinese who have settled down in north Myanmar) but also because it jeopardises China's crucial economic interests. The US also seems to be pushing for influence after decades of staying away from the Pagoda Nation that, Myanmar watcher Bertil Lintner says, is emerging as the main playground of the "Great Game East".
The Chinese have huge economic interests to protect in Myanmar, especially the Arakan-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline and the road-rail networks it has built to boost connectivity aimed at economic integration of frontier regions of China with neighbouring countries of south-east Asia, especially Myanmar. At stake are also many hydel projects, including the $3. 6 billion Myitsone dam, that Thein Sein's government stopped.
Myanmar army's offensive up north has reignited the civil war, while escalating tensions between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas tend to spill over from Rakhine (former Arakan state) into other regions with substantial Muslim populations. The Chinese fear this may impact their projects, especially the sea port at Kyaukpyu and the Arakan-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline. Beijing is worried and so offered to negotiate a peace deal between the Kachin rebels and the Thein Sein government. A few rounds of talks between the two have been held in the Chinese border town of Ruili with active Chinese mediation. The message that Beijing has sent out is clear - it cannot be overlooked by any government in Myanmar because it is an immediate and powerful neighbour and can, as it has done in the past, interfere in the country.
China is worried about growing Western, especially US, influence in Myanmar. The US is trying to develop a military relationship with Myanmar. The Myanmar army was invited to send observers to a USsponsored military exercise, Cobra Gold, in Thailand. On April 25, acting US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Joseph Yun told the Congress that the administration is even "looking at ways to support nascent military engagement" with Myanmar as a way of encouraging "further political reforms". The Myanmarese military leaders and those in the pro-democracy movement are intense nationalists who resent China's growing dominance in the country during the past three decades. So they are seeking to patch up with the West in a race to balance the Chinese influence.
In order to prevent the Thein Sein government from getting too close to the US, the Chinese have started arming, for the first time in 30 years, a powerful ethnic rebel army in northern Myanmar. In 2012, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) received a huge consignment of assault rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers and the HN-5 series man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS. Later in the year, the UWSA also received PTL-02 6x6 wheeled "tank destroyers" and another armoured combat vehicle identified as the Chinese 4x4 ZFB-05 s. Now, Jane's Defence Weekly says in its April-end issue that China has supplied the UWSA with several Mi-17 medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-toair missiles. If that is true, the UWSA will be the first rebel army in Asia to have airpower.
The UWSA originated from the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party, in which the one-time headhunting Wa tribespeople formed the bulk of the fighting force. In 1989 they revolted against their Burman commissars and threw them out to form their own ethnic rebel army. The UWSA have been producing and trading in narcotics, especially methamphetamine or 'speed', to the extent of being described as the "Speed Tribe" for their growing domination on the narcotics trade out of Myanmar's notorious 'Golden Triangle'. Some reports even suggest that the UWSA have set up facilities to assemble light weapons like rifles and light machine-guns on informal franchise from Chinese weapon manufacturing companies.
The UWSA seems to be preparing for what seems to be an inevitable outbreak of hostilities with Myanmar's Tatmadaw (land army) which is steadily moving northwards to gain control of the mountain bases of the ethnic Shan rebel force, Shan State Army-North (SSA-N ) on the western bank of the Salween river. Some Western analysts suggest Beijing's decision to arm the UWSA so heavily makes it "an extension of the Chinese PLA in Myanmar territory". Beijing backed the BCP and other rebel armies in Myanmar for three decades until it changed course in the 1980s and forged strong bonds with the military junta which was smarting under isolation from the West.
The Chinese see Myanmar as crucial to their 'go out' strategy in Southeast Asia, which Beijing started in 2009 under erstwhile President Hu Jintao's personal stewardship. Most of its rail, road and waterways connecting to other ASEAN countries start in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan and end up elsewhere in Southeast Asia through Myanmar. If Myanmar swings away decisively from Chinese influence, Beijing's plan for expanding influence in Southeast Asia suffers a body blow.
So Beijing is sending out a stern message to Nayphidaw - we can interfere in your country by backing insurgents like the UWSA. There is a message in it for India. If relations deteriorate over the contentious border issue, Beijing may resume arming insurgents in India's northeast - a hope which ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua seems to be hanging on to in the border town of Ruili for well over two years.
The writer is a former BBC correspondent and author of 'Insurgent Crossfire' and 'Troubled Periphery'.
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