Tuesday, July 25, 2017

President warns China and rebels over Kokang


President U Thein Sein has warned China not to encroach on Myanmar’s sovereignty, as the two sides discuss the crisis on their border following three weeks of fighting with ethnic Chinese rebels in the Kokang area.

(Zarni Phyo/The Myanmar Times)(Zarni Phyo/The Myanmar Times)

“I stress here that I will not tolerate any country or group infringing on the sovereignty of Myanmar,” the former general said in his monthly radio address on March 1, referring to clashes in the Kokang self-administered area.

Both the Tatmadaw and the rebels have sustained heavy casualties since fighting broke out on February 9, and tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese have fled across the border into Yunnan province.

U Thein Sein said the two countries had discussed the conflict, although he did not disclose at what level the talks had taken place. Myanmar and China would cooperate according to the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”, including the understanding that neither would “allow the use of its territory” to damage the interests of the other.

Statements from both sides indicated they had reaffirmed the general principles underpinning their close relationship, but had not reached concrete agreements over the Kokang conflict.

Responding to reports and accusations from the Tatmadaw that the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is getting support from inside China, a senior Chinese official denied “rumours” that local authorities in Yunnan were involved in the conflict.

“No organisation or person using Chinese territory would be allowed to undermine the China-Myanmar relationship and stability in border areas,” Kong Xuanyu, head of the foreign ministry’s Asia department, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency on the evening of March 1.

The conflict has had an impact on China's border control and social security, Mr Kong said, referring to the influx of refugees estimated by unofficial sources to number up to 100,000.

Mr Kong said China has called on “relevant parties to achieve a nationwide ceasefire through peace talks”.

President U Thein Sein has declared martial law and a state of emergency in Kokang while the government has rejected calls by the rebels for a ceasefire.

Declaring that the government is “truly committed” to a negotiated end to decades of conflict with various minority groups, U Thein Sein confirmed that the government’s Union Peace-making Work Committee and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team would resume talks in mid-March.

However, the Myanmar Peace Center, which is facilitating the talks, said the government would probably bar the MNDAA from taking part, even though the Kokang issue was expected to be discussed.

A member of the NCCT confirmed to The Myanmar Times that the March 12-16 meeting would discuss the fighting in Kokang but that the three armed groups involved – the MNDAA, Arakan Army (AA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – would not be allowed to attend. The three rebel groups have criticised the government for refusing to open talks. In a joint statement released on March 1 they said they supported talks aimed at reaching a nationwide ceasefire agreement but that the government had resorted to force instead of dialogue.

They also accused the military of committing war crimes and human rights abuses in the area of Laukkai.

The government has accused the MNDAA of provoking the latest conflict by launching attacks against the military on February 9 in an attempt to wrest control of Laukkai. The director of the President’s Office last week dismissed allegations of atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw against civilians as rebel propaganda.

The MNDAA is led by Pheung Kyar-shin, an 85-year-old warlord who was ousted from the region in a Tatmadaw offensive in 2009 and is reported to have spent some of the last six years in China regrouping his forces.

Official Myanmar media are painting a picture of normality returning to parts of Kokang, including the main town of Laukkai, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting. The reports appear aimed at encouraging people to return to their homes despite accounts by human rights groups of looting and killing of civilians by Tatmadaw forces. The government denies the allegations.

Laukkai “is said to have returned to normal as the army is making endeavours to secure the area.

Currently, local military personnel have taken a leading role in cleaning up the mess, joining hands with local people, social organisations and departmental staff in a bid to improve the appearance of the town,” the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported, quoting army newspaper Myawady.

One volunteer organisation last week released pictures said to be of its workers in Laukkai collecting the bodies of 11 civilians and cremating them on pyres of wood and tyres. Some had their hands tied behind their backs.

The MNDAA has warned refugees on the border that it is too dangerous to return, while China is not publicly urging them to go back.

While the bulk of Kokang’s ethnic Chinese inhabitants appear to have fled east to China, more than 10,000 local government employees, such as teachers, as well as sugar plantation workers – mostly non-Chinese – have sought safety deeper inside Myanmar.

Despite reports of people returning, an official at a centre for displaced people at Mansu Shan monastery in Lashio told The Myanmar Times that the 500 inhabitants there did not feel it was safe to return. “If the government is making life return to normal and the army is endeavouring to secure the area, then why are the people fleeing? This is funny news,” Ma Mee said.

Additional reporting by Ye Mon