Sunday, September 6, 2009

Burma’s Attack against Ethnics Poses China Dilemma

BEIJING – Preoccupied with ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing was caught off guard when Burma’s military regime decided in late August to use force against armed ethnic groups in the country’s north, resulting in military strife that forced thousands of refugees to flee into China.
While the armed conflict has calmed down, Beijing now faces the possibility of having to cope with two intransigent neighbors on its doorstep—North Korea in the northeast and Burma in the southwest.
For years, Beijing has supplied Burma’s military junta with all means for political survival—security guarantees at the United Nations, arms, investment and trade links, as well as development assistance. In exchange, it has gained access to Burma’s considerable mineral wealth and been allowed to become heavily involved in the country’s economic development. Chinese companies now operate across the board in industries from mining and timber to power generation.
So when the Burmese generals decided to ignore China’s wishes and launch a surprise offensive to crush the Kokang ethnic rebel group in the border area, it was perceived here as a breach of trust. Chinese diplomats have been involved in quiet negotiations with Naypyidaw, Burma’s administrative capital, urging the Burmese junta to resolve the ethnic issue in a peaceful way. The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and speak a Mandarin dialect but have lived for many decades inside Burma.

After the fighting broke out, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a muted rebuke of the regime, saying that “both sides were responsible for maintaining stability along the border.” Beijing quickly imposed a blackout on news about the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border, fearing it might be seen as having failed to help them. Along with Burmese-born Chinese refugees, there are hundreds of Chinese businessmen living in the area, involved in gems, timber and other industries.
“It looks like the junta is becoming a bit uncomfortable at being in Beijing’s pocket, and is trying to rebalance its global ties,” said Ian Holliday, a Burma expert at the University of Hong Kong.. “The generals are extremely nationalistic and would prefer to listen to no one. But they have no choice but to take some account of what China wants.”
The problem is that Beijing appears to be at a loss as to how to handle the dilemma of choosing between defending the interests of ethnic Chinese inside Burma, and continuing its strategic alliance with the military junta.
Historically, Beijing has supported the armed ethnic rebels. Under Mao Zedong, China aspired to be the leader of the world’s communist revolution and financed and trained long-running insurgencies over the whole of Southeast Asia. In Burma, it supported the now defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which several times came close to winning power. The Wa and Chinese from the Kokang region were former members of the CPB.
While Beijing has emerged as the junta’s staunchest backer over the last 20 years, some Burmese military leaders remain distrustful of Beijing’s true intentions. The military, which seized power in 1962, has not forgotten the costly struggle it waged against the Chinese-backed CPB insurgency or the full-scale invasion mounted in 1968 by some 30,000 Chinese troops.
Beijing’s attempt to negotiate a political solution to the ethnic issue at the border has been seen as a tepid embrace of the Burmese junta’s efforts to pressure the rebels to surrender their arms before key elections planned for next year. The junta wants to integrate the ethnic ceasefire rebel groups, particularly the Kachin, Kokang and Wa, into a border guard force.
But Chinese experts say Beijing has done enough in providing political cover for the Burmese generals and ensuring their success in the upcoming elections. A multiethnic state itself, China would be loathe to see a democratic change on its border that might ignite simmering tensions between Burma’s ethnic majority Burmans and other ethnic groups that have been clamoring for secession since Burma regained its independence from British rule.
In early August, Chinese foreign ministry officials backed the regime’s decision to sentence detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi—the junta’s main challenge to power—to a further 18 months under house arrest, saying that the international community must respect Burma’s judicial sovereignty.
There are many other countries interested in exploiting Burma’s natural wealth, but democratic countries like India did not dare stand behind the junta on that one, said Tan Leshui, an independent observer who has visited Burma many times.

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