September 1, 2009 / 11:24 AM / 10 years ago

Myanmar ethnic offensive tests vital China ties

BANGKOK/BEIJING (Reuters) - Myanmar’s assault on rebel militias on its remote border appears aimed at herding them into next year’s election process, even if it comes at the cost of vital ties with its powerful northern neighbor, China.

Myanmar’s military incursion into northeastern Shan State shattered a 20-year ceasefire with rebel armies on its border with China and could trigger the protracted instability that Beijing, the junta’s strongest friend, has long feared.

A prolonged conflict that forces more refugees to flee to China would show that the junta is intent on controlling the rebellious region, despite any fallout with China, analysts said.

“Seizing control is more important, because they will not accept private armies with their own local administration,” said Bertil Lintner, an author and specialist on Myanmar.

“They’re not as subservient to the Chinese as many people think. They’re certainly not their puppets. The generals are megalomaniacs and they know China won’t cut the trade ties.”

China has called on Myanmar to ensure stability in the region, and Myanmar has apologized to Beijing.

But Myanmar’s aim clearly is to establish power in the region ahead of next year’s election, said Mary Callahan, a Myanmar expert at the University of Washington.

“(Its) behavior in situations like this, which aggravate China, are first and foremost about its domestic agenda,” she said. “Eliminating perceived threats to its (democracy) road map is right at the top of that.”

The military’s successful offensive in Kokang against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the weakest of the local ethnic groups, was simply to test the waters before battling a more formidable force, analysts said.

The real target could be the heavily armed United Wa State Army, a 15,000-20,000-strong force led by drugs barons and warlords. The junta may use drugs suppression to justify an assault — and perhaps get more than it bargained for.

Ceasefire agreements in place since 1989 between the government and the militias had given the insurgents a great deal of autonomy in Shan state.

BIG CASUALTIES

“If they go all out against the Wa it will be very bloody, with big casualties on both sides,” said Lintner.

Further fighting could risk either spilling into China, or sending a renewed flood of refugees across the border. Many ethnic Chinese live in the rebel enclaves and Chinese businesses are involved in trading gems and timber across the border.

Anthony Davis, a security analyst at IHS-Jane’s, said the situation in Kokang was “extremely precarious” and may escalate, especially if Myanmar picked a fight with the Wa.

The stakes may be too high for Beijing to allow that.

Dealing with problems on a sensitive and strategic border is the last thing China wants after violent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang in the past two years.

Energy-hungry China is also one of the few powers willing to do business with Myanmar and has invested more than $1 billion there to get access to natural resources such as oil and gas.

“China’s not going to want to let things spiral out of control. On this one, they will probably get their way,” said Ian Holliday, a Myanmar expert at the University of Hong Kong.

“I think they will pull out all the stops and make it clear to the Burmese leadership that if they don’t start to minimize the disruption on the Chinese border, then there will be serious consequences.”

ELECTIONS UNDER THREAT?

The prospect of a lengthy conflict could delay next year’s long-awaited elections. No date for them has been announced, suggesting the junta is waiting for rebels to disarm and join an army-run border force before entering the political process.

The Kokang clashes might be an attempt to scare them into submission, but that could backfire and push back the polls.

But after holding a constitutional referendum in the immediate aftermath of last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis to pave the way for polls, the junta is unlikely to put up with any roadblocks to its “road map to democracy.”

The assault sparked speculation in Beijing as to what Myanmar’s ruling generals were thinking when they ordered an offensive they knew would push refugees into China.

Some people with close ties to China’s leadership wondered whether Myanmar was punishing Beijing’s efforts to stop it from strengthening military ties with nuclear-armed North Korea.

Regardless, some Chinese analysts played down the influence Beijing has over the generals.

“They’re not great friends. They don’t listen to what China says,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

“I think China will do everything it can to persuade Myanmar to peacefully resolve the problem but I fear that no country, not even China, can have much influence.”

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in BEIJING; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Bill Tarrant

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