By Fracis Wade
Chinese police have busted a ring of gun smugglers they claim have been running weapons into Tibet and the southwestern region from northern Burma for at least two years, sparking a renewal of fears about security along the shared border that Beijing has long eyed with concern.
The state-run People’s Daily in China said yesterday that 17 people had so far been arrested in a crackdown that began nine months ago. Their nationalities have not been disclosed, nor the precise destination of the weaponry, only that guns were sold “to several predominantly Tibetan regions”. Two men linked to the racket were arrested in March this year in Yunnan province, which borders northern Burma, and the remaining in Lhasa.
“Yunnan police said that, in recent years, people vying for big money have started trafficking firearms, taking advantage of loose gun control laws amid arm conflicts in northern Myanmar [Burma],” the paper said.
Little is known about the origins of the ring, which appears to have capitalised on the porous 1370 mile frontier between China and Burma and along which myriad armed conflicts have generated a surplus of weaponry.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst based on the China-Burma border, said the trade was “nothing new”, and claimed the guns may have originated from any of the various ethnic armies and militias operating in northern Burma. He cited the August 2009 fighting in which Burmese forces overran a Kokang rebel group in the north as helping to fuel the trade over the past two years, given the excess of arms that the retreating Kokang left in their wake.
Moreover, armed groups such as the Wa are known to produce their own weaponry, in addition to an historical supply line from China, and have vast stores of guns and heavy artillery. The somewhat lawless nature of Burma’s northern border regions, much of which are controlled by anti-Naypyidaw groups, means that monitoring of illegal cross-border trade is either difficult, or done with the acquiescence of border officials.
Beijing has warned Burma on several occasions that stability along its side of the shared border is of paramount importance, particularly given extensive Chinese business interests in the Kachin and Shan states. The Burmese military has ramped up a campaign to secure these areas, sparking heavy fighting with rebel groups that, in Kachin state at least, is reaching an intensity not seen since a raft of ceasefires were signed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Reports from local Kachin media claim that China has sent up to 2,000 troops to its border with Burma. Speaking with DVB today, La Nan, the spokesperson of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is battling Burmese forces along the frontier, said the deployment may be aimed a stemming a possible overspill of fighting into China. One Chinese battalion has been placed in the town of Jang Khawng, over the border from the KIA stronghold of Maijayang.
China has also noted with concern an attack last week on two cargo vessels travelling along a stretch of the Mekong River between Burma and Laos, which is officially controlled by Thailand but where Burmese militia groups are known to operate. Allegations that the attack, which left 12 Chinese nationals dead, was the work of the Wa were categorically denied in a statement released by the group earlier this week.