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Myanmar: Another Gesture by Junta to US?

The Kokang and Wa regions of the Shan State of Myanmar predominantly consist of non-Han tribals of Yunnanese origin, who are to be found on both sides of the Sino-Myanmar border like the Lishus and the Kachins in the Kachin State of Myanmar. This is also the area into which a large number of KMT troops—-consisting of Han Chinese as well as non-Han ethnic recruits from Yunnan— had crossed over after the communists captured power in China. While a large number of them were evacuated to Taiwan in the 1970s, many settled down in the Kokang and Wa areas, married locally and raised families.

2. The inhabitants of the Kokang and Wa areas were largely Christians like the non-Han tribals of the Yunnan province of China unlike the Shans of Myanmar who were largely Buddhists. Before 1949, many American Baptist missionaries used to work among the non-Han ethnic groups in Yunnan—-like the family of Rev.Joseph Morse. After the Communists captured power, these missionaries and their Lishu and other supporters crossed over into the Kachin State, while the KMT remnants crossed over into the Kokang and Wa areas of the Shan State.

3. Before they were evacuated to Taiwan, the KMT stragglers, as they were called, actively collaborated with the US intelligence in destabilisation activities in Yunnan. The US intelligence also used the native inhabitants of the Kokang and Wa regions for its destabilisation operations in Yunnan. Many recruits from these areas trained and armed by the KMT stragglers used to indulge in hit and run raids on Chinese border posts in the Yunnan province.

4. Their harassing attacks were countered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by raising a force called the North-East Command headed by Capt.Naw Sang, a Kachin ex-serviceman of the Myanmar Army, who had deserted and took political asylum in Yunnan. This force, which had not only non-Han ethnic recruits from Yunnan, but also Han ex-servicemen from the PLA, infiltrated into the Kokang area and occupied it in 1968-69. A large number of PLA troops entered the Kokang area after the so-called North-east Command had occupied it and started confronting the KMT stragglers in the Kokang and Wa regions.

5. There were also many clashes between the PLA and the Myanmar Army when the latter tried to eject the North-east Command from the areas occupied by it. After the US established relations with China in the wake of Henry Kissinger’s famous visit to Beijing when Richard Nixon was the President, the US agencies discontinued their destabilisation operations in Yunnan and pressured the KMT stragglers, who were no longer of use to the US agencies, to opt for resettlement in Taiwan. Once the majority of the KMT stragglers chose to be repatriated to Taiwan, China discontinued its support to the North-East Command of Naw Sang and the PLA troops which had entered the Kokang and Wa regions withdrew into Yunnan.

6. Some KMT stragglers, who had refused to shift to Taiwan and settled down in the Shan State, became the hard-core of the narcotics and jade smugglimg groups operating from the Golden Triangle area. Opium used to be grown in the Kokang and Wa areas, converted into heroin and smuggled to other countries via Thailand. The withdrawal of the PLA troops and the members of the North-East Command did not lead to the re-establishment of the writ of the Myanmar Army in these areas, which became almost semi-independent under the control of heroin and jade smuggling mafia groups. In recent years, these groups have also become producers and smugglers of synthetic drugs, which are causing havoc on public health in many countries of the world, including in the Manipur State in India’s North-East.

7. The US has been greatly concerned since the 1980s over the extent of the drug production and smuggling from these areas. A lot of these drugs manages to find its way into the US streets.Even though the US continues to maintain a diplomatic presence in Myanmar, bilateral interactions are practically non-existent for nearly 20 years because of the various sanctions imposed by the West against the military junta in a futile attempt to make it stop the suppression of political dissidents and release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

8. Despite this, the US authorities in charge of action against narcotics production and smuggling continue to maintain a discreet, but vigorous interaction with their Myanmar counterparts. US funding is also available—-despite the economic sanctions—- for the eradication of narcotics production and smuggling from the Kokang and Wa areas. Though some action was taken by the Junta in this regard, Washington has not been totally satisfied. The US suspects that many Myanmar Army officers have been in receipt of money from the narcotics lords of the Kokang and Wa regions and, in return, have been closing their eyes to narcotics production and smuggling.

9. In recent weeks, the junta, which is keen to take advantage of the opening provided by reported re-thinking in the Barack Obama Administration about the wisdom of continuing to keep the junta in the dog house, has been paying greater attention to the US concerns over narcotics production and smuggling from the Kokang and Wa areas. It is reported by sources in this region that it is this which led to military action by the Myanmar Army against narcotics production in the Kokang area in the last week of August,2009, which led to the exodus of nearly 40,000 tribals and Han Chinese from this region into Yunnan. The fighting between the Myanmar Army and Kokang militia units, which reportedly lasted about three days, has since stopped and the refugees have started coming back into the area from the camps in Yunnan, where they had been accommodated by the Yunnanese authorities.

10. The Chinese, who continue to be as active as before in Myanmar and are busy constructing oil and gas pipelines from the Arakan area of Myanmar to Yunnan and reportedly also a port to which Chinese oil and gas tankers could come, will have reasons to be concerned over reports of a likely thaw in the relations between the US and the junta. A resumption of US assistance to Myanmar and a consequent increase in the US presence in Myanmar—- particularly in the areas bordering Yunnan— will worry the Chinese authorities. The Chinese, who make no secret of their concerns over what they perceive as increasing Indo-US naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, will be monitoring closely the developments in the US relations with Myanmar. An additional fear for them will be that if there is a normalisation of the US-Junta relations, that could contribute to a convergence of Indo-US strategic objectives in Myanmar.

11. This may please be read in continuation of my earlier article of August 15,2009, titled MYANMAR: ANOTHER INSTANCE OF OBAMA’S REALPOLITIK at ( 4-9-09)

( The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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