By He Jun
Since October 27, conflict has erupted in northern Myanmar, lasting for a month, and the scale of the conflict is continuously escalating. There is a risk of the conflict evolving from internal conflict to civil war. The epicenter of this is in the Kokang region, located along the China-Myanmar border, and the resulting influx of refugees has begun to impact China. Will the situation in northern Myanmar escalate into a large-scale civil war? What geopolitical conflicts might arise in its future trajectory? What impact could this turmoil have on China and the relations of the two countries? These questions deserve the utmost attention from all parties involved.
Although the current conflict in northern Myanmar has erupted, the historical roots of the conflict between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Myanmar government run deep. According to Hein Khaing, a scholar at Huaqiao University, over the past decade, the MNDAA has formed a military alliance with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, and the Kachin Independence Army, known as the “Northern Alliance”. This conflict, initiated jointly by these four entities, seems to be a meticulously planned endeavor with a longstanding strategy.
Analyzing the internal conflict in Myanmar requires a fundamental understanding of the local ethnic armed forces. These forces operate independently of the Union of Myanmar government, maintaining their own territories, thus existing in a somewhat adversarial relationship. The MNDAA, among others, operated in such a capacity, along with various other armed groups. In areas governed by these entities, a form of partial rule of law exists, fostering the persistence of gray industries, such as narcotics, gambling, and, in recent years, cyber fraud. Notably, cyber frauds along the China-Myanmar border do not involve Chinese defrauding Myanmar citizens or vice versa. Primarily, it involves the Chinese defrauding other Chinese citizens, with some criminal syndicates exploiting the relatively difficult-to-control nature of this special region in Myanmar for the development of gray industries.
The conflict in northern Myanmar reflects the tension between these local ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government, essentially serving as a window into the internal ethnic conflicts within the country. The underlying and deep-seated root cause is, in fact, the contradiction between the modern state-building of Myanmar and the ongoing struggle for ethnic identity. Myanmar regained independence from British colonial rule on January 4, 1948. However, since gaining independence, the construction of a national identity in Myanmar has not been successful to this day. Just three months after independence, ethnic armed conflicts erupted in Myanmar and have persisted for over 70 years without cessation. Consequently, the situation regarding the construction of national identity has been a primary task of any Myanmar government for the purpose of ethnic reconciliation.
In 2010, Myanmar held its election, marking the beginning of its democratic transition. In 2011, the then government under President Thein Sein initiated the national peace process. During his five-year term, a nationwide ceasefire agreement was eventually introduced through comprehensive peace talks. However, only eight ethnic armed groups signed this agreement. Subsequently, during Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, efforts continued to advance the nationwide ceasefire agreement and federal peace conference. Within Aung San Suu Kyi’s five-year term, two more armed groups joined in signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement. Despite some progress, conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the government persisted from Thein Sein’s government to Aung San Suu Kyi’s era.
In 2021, following the military coup in Myanmar, the issue of ethnic reconciliation has become even more intricate. Not only have peace talks stalled, but new conflicts have also erupted. Post the 2021 coup, new armed groups have emerged within the inland regions of Myanmar, particularly among the ethnic majority Bamar themselves. This implies that internal issues have arisen within the Bamar community, shifting from an ethnic matter to a conflict concerning democratization. Hence, the current complexity of internal conflicts in Myanmar lies in the overlay of the inherent ethnic issues with the challenges of democratic transition.
These changes have shifted the perspectives within Myanmar’s society regarding ethnic armed groups and conflicts. According to Hein Khaing, this shift can be analyzed on two levels. Firstly, from a macro and holistic perspective, since the 2021 coup, there has been a profound transformation in the overall perception of ethnic armed groups throughout Myanmar’s society. Previously, conflicts involving groups like the MNDAA or the Kachin Independence Army, when in conflict with the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), generally did not garner support from the mainstream society beyond ethnic minorities. The mindset of Myanmar society towards ethnic conflicts is intricate; on one hand, there is a desire for ethnic groups like the Kachin and Kokang to receive equal ethnic rights from the perspectives of democratization and ethnic equality. However, on the other hand, military conflicts have significant implications for national social stability and economic development, leading to opposition against armed conflicts. Thus, during that period, the mainstream society in Myanmar held a complex attitude toward the conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the government.
However, after the 2021 coup, in opposing the military takeover, the mainstream society in Myanmar, or the anti-military forces, began to recognize the legitimacy of ethnic armed groups initiating resistance. Consequently, there was a shift in support toward the wars between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw, including Operation 1027 in the Kokang region. Hein Khaing noted that historically, there has never been an occurrence where the mainstream society in Myanmar actively supports and celebrates actions by ethnic armed groups attacking and achieving certain successes against the national defense forces. This marks an unprecedented event in Myanmar since its independence. However, due to varying demands among different local armed groups and the existence of competitive relationships, forming a widespread and profound consensus remains challenging.
Where will the conflict in northern Myanmar lead? What impact will it have on the overall situation in Myanmar?
Due to the multitude of factors influencing the course of the war, at the moment it is difficult to have complete certainty in predicting the ultimate outcome of the entire conflict. However, a rough analysis and prediction can be made based on the power dynamics among the conflicting parties and the motives behind their actions. According to Hein Khaing, firstly, concerning the ethnic armed groups involved in this conflict, such as the MNDAA, the Kokang region covers an area of just over 2,000 square kilometers, with a population of over 300,000 and an army of 30,000. It is difficult to confront the 350,000-strong Myanmar national army, and the best possible outcome for them would be to recapture Kokang, but the Myanmar army could do little more than that. It is crucial to note that the actions of the MNDAA and the Northern Alliance in this operation have severely threatened the authority of the Tatmadaw and the territorial integrity of the country. Therefore, the Tatmadaw are likely to intensify their counterattacks. For example, in a recent meeting of the National Defense and Security Council, President Myint Swe emphasized that the actions in Kokang could potentially lead to the disintegration of the country and must be treated seriously.
Will the conflict in northern Myanmar escalate? If it does, the participation of other ethnic armed groups, the manner of their involvement, and the extent of their participation are unknown variables. Additionally, the People’s Defense Force within the Bamar community also introduces uncertainties regarding the level of impact and response. Consequently, in the short term, the situation in northern Myanmar remains elusive, and it would be difficult to ascertain a definitive outcome. For the Tatmadaw, the most severe short-term consequence might be the potential recapture of the Kokang region by MNDAA, essentially reverting to the situation before 2009. If MNDAA seeks more and collaborates with other ethnic armed groups to expand the conflict, the Myanmar junta government may intensify its military efforts, leading to a different outcome.
After the coup in 2021, because of the political and social upheaval, Myanmar’s economy and finances experienced profound instability and turmoil. In recent years, Myanmar scholars have been debating whether the country is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Most of them ultimately arrived at a somewhat less pessimistic conclusion, suggesting that Myanmar may not become a failed state but is possibly heading towards a state of ‘limited statehood’, which in any case signifies instability and extreme pessimism across various facets of the nation.
The turmoil in Myanmar will certainly have a significant impact on the situation along the China-Myanmar border and the relations between the two nations. Researchers at ANBOUND believe that the following areas are worthy of attention.
The first question is, will China intervene or get involved in the conflict in northern Myanmar?
Due to the conflict in northern Myanmar being considered an internal matter, the official stance of China adheres to the principle of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries’ and will not directly intervene. There have been rumors circulating on Chinese cyberspace that claim that the MNDAA found a significant amount of weapons and equipment in the forest, implying that China provided substantial support to the MNDAA. However, such rumors can be largely confirmed as false. Especially in the direct conflict between the MNDAA and the Myanmar junta, it is highly improbable that China would supply weapons. China does aim to combat cyber fraud organizations in northern Myanmar, and there is official cooperation between the two governments. After the Chinese police issued a wanted notice for the Mye Shout Hkyann family members, said to be powerful local figures responsible for the fraud and criminal activities, the Myanmar government cooperated by extraditing core members of the family to China. Under this context, it is unlikely for China to provide support to non-governmental armed groups. From China’s perspective, the cessation of hostilities and stability along the border align most with its national interests.
Next, how will China respond to the conflict in northern Myanmar?
In the diplomatic realm, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that China has been closely monitoring the situation in northern Myanmar, and that China actively encourages peace talks to cease hostilities.
Regarding the military aspect, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command has organized practical exercises along the China-Myanmar border starting from November 25. These exercises aim to test and enhance border control capabilities to effectively fulfil missions when called upon. According to the PLA Daily, the exercises are conducted on the Chinese side of the China-Myanmar border.
Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the Myanmar military government, mentioned that Myanmar had received notification about these exercises and stated that the purpose is to maintain “stability and peace” in the border areas, emphasizing that it does not violate China’s principle of non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
Thirdly, what kinds of impacts might be faced by China-Myanmar cooperation? The impacts on China-Myanmar cooperation are primarily manifested in three aspects:
1. Normal trade and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC): The ongoing conflict in northern Myanmar has significantly affected trade, rendering the major China-Myanmar trade route, the Mandalay-Lashio-Muse-Jiegao-Ruili corridor, unable to operate normally. Recently, at the Muse 105-mile border trade checkpoint in Myanmar, hundreds of trucks and goods were destroyed by unidentified artillery fire, resulting in substantial losses.
2. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects: During the five years of Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, Myanmar actively responded to the BRI, and some major projects progressed relatively steadily. However, under the military government, the progress of BRI projects has slowed down. With the intensification of the conflict in northern Myanmar, BRI projects may face delays or come to a halt. For example, the construction of the China-Myanmar railway and highway will likely be significantly affected.
3. Security threats to the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines: The China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, as the fourth-largest energy import route for China following pipelines from Central Asia, Russia, and maritime routes, are vital strategic assets within Myanmar’s territory. The crude oil pipeline has a designed capacity of 22 million tons per year, and the natural gas pipeline can transport 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to China. The pipelines, with a total length of 771 kilometers within Myanmar, are a key outcome of China-Myanmar cooperation. In the current situation, they may become leverage for Myanmar during conflicts. To date, the oil and gas pipelines have not faced realistic threats from government forces or non-state armed groups. Nevertheless, if the conflict escalates, the potential threats to the pipelines cannot be ignored by China.
Final analysis conclusion:
The conflict in northern Myanmar is currently ongoing, and the MNDAA has made certain progress. If the MNDAA achieves its goal of reclaiming Kokang, there is a possibility of a ceasefire and a new “balance” being reached between non-state armed groups and the Myanmar government. However, if the conflict continues to escalate, pushing Myanmar into a perilous state of division, the junta’s forces may fully engage against non-state armed groups, leading to a potentially uncontrollable situation. Faced with this uncertainty, China should encourage both warring parties to end the hostilities and reach a ceasefire.
He Jun is a researcher for ANBOUND