By Francis Wade
An image released this week from the Shan state town of Muse on the China border has triggered concern after rumours circulated that the horde of young men photographed standing outside an immigration office were plain-clothed Burmese soldiers crossing into China.
No independent identification of the 80 or so young men can be made, and speculation surrounding their presence at the busy checkpoint connecting Shan state with the southern Chinese province of Yunnan has varied.
Some rumours suggest the group is being deployed along the Chinese side of the border to attack the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA) from behind, but these carry little weight – the chances of China allowing Burma to launch assaults from its soil are highly unlikely, while there is no hard evidence that the men are active troops.
A more credible explanation comes from the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), which believes they may be linked to a delivery of around 100 military trucks sold to the Burmese army by a China-based Japanese firm. Why the men would be sent to the Chinese border town of Ruili to collect the vehicles however remains unclear.
“The arrival of both military trucks and troops has fuelled fear among the populace whether the war with the KIA may spread to the area, according to sources,” SHAN said in an article yesterday.
The Burmese army has been battling the KIA in several areas of Kachin state, which borders Shan state to the west. Troop deployments to the Bhamo district, home to several KIA bases, have increased over the past month, in particular close to lucrative China-backed hydropower sites that the Burmese army has been looking to secure.
China’s role in the conflict has attracted widespread interest, given that fighting began shortly after a top-level meeting between respective government officials. Some analysts have suggested that China may have urged the Burmese government to clear areas around these energy projects of insurgent activity.
A source in Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, told DVB that Kachin officials had questioned Yunnan authorities about the group of men. Intelligence agents in Yunnan responded that no known soldiers would be allowed to cross into China.
How far Beijing will go to see the shared border free of ethnic armies, who often capitalise on the widespread public resentment of major infrastructural projects, remains to be seen. It is known to be watching nervously the stability of the lengthy shared border, and is rumoured to have warned households not to shelter any Kachin fleeing the fighting, likely in order to scupper any chances of a pull-factor for more refugees.