This past February, Peng Jiasheng came home — but he didn't come alone. The former leader of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) brought with him fighters who'd fled with him six years ago when he was forced into exile in China from the Kokang region of Myanmar. Peng and his men came home armed and looking for a fight.
They got one almost immediately, as the Kokang region quickly erupted into bloody conflict. This upswing in violence got the MNDAA excluded from the ongoing peace talks between the country's various rebels groups and the Myanmar government, but there's reason to suspect that Peng's motivation has far more to do with local politics and revenge than it does with the central government. Bai Suogian switched sides during the last round of fighting in Kokang back in 2009, which led to Peng's ouster. It is likely not a coincidence that Peng and the MNDAA shelled Bai's house in Laogai shortly after they returned from China.
The history of the Kokang region, a relatively small part of the Shan State in eastern Myanmar, is messy. (Kokang can refer both to the territory and the people who live there.) The Kokang people are themselves considered ethnic Chinese by the Burmese government. They speak Chinese rather than Burmese, use the Chinese phone network, and pay for goods with Chinese currency. Over the border, the Kokang aren't considered authentic Han Chinese — they're considered their own regional sub-set. But that distinction has done little to calm fears in Myanmar that the Chinese may wish to emulate Russia's annexation of the Crimea: In addition to the Kokang region, the Wa and Mong La regions of the Shan State host predominantly Chinese speaking people.
Many of the problems in Kokang can be traced back at least as far as the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, which had controlled the area in defiance of the Burmese government since the 1960s. Stepping into the power vacuum, Peng created the MNDAA and almost immediately signed a cease fire agreement with the Tatmadaw (the name for the Myanmar Armed Forces). That agreement legitimized the MNDAA's rule over the Kokang in exchange for an end to armed opposition. Accusations that the MNDAA was funding itself through drugs and arms dealing were common in the years to come, especially after Peng legalized the planting of poppies in the region in 1990. Peng reversed himself and claimed he was purging the area of opium in 1999, and subsequently declared the area drug-free in 2003. The national government and, more importantly, the Tatmadaw do not appear to have believed his claims.
In 2009, that disbelief came to a head and led to violence. The year before, the government had demanded that the various local militias, including the MNDAA, officially become branches of the Tatmadaw. Like most of his fellow regional military leaders, Peng refused. Bai Suoqian, however, supported the scheme. In August of 2009, the Tatmadaw struck, launching a "drug raid" into the Kokang region and targeting a suspected heroin factory in Laogai. When the shooting stopped a month later, Peng and the parts of the MNDAA still loyal to him had fled into China, while Bai Suoqian and his part of the MNDAA integrated into the Tatmadaw. That was how things stood until February, when Peng led the MNDAA back across the border and started shooting.
VICE News spoke with Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization — another rebel group active in the Shan State — who explained the situation this way: "The government's approach to the Kokang people wasn't that fair. Constitutionally the Kokang is recognized as an autonomous region, but the government took that away. The area became autonomous only in name, and all authoritative powers came under control of the central government and the military. The Kokang people were feeling marginalized and unfairly treated. So Mr. Peng returned to help regain their pride and original autonomous status…. They, like us, are fighting for their national survival, freedom, and political liberty."
The peace process that Dau Hka referred to has been going on for… well, years. One could say since about 2008, but one could also say since 1947. On March 31, a draft cease fire agreement was signed between the government and rebel negotiators, but it hasn't been enacted, and the next rounds of talks aren't scheduled until May. In the interim, the Tatmadaw has launched a full-scale assault against the MNDAA in an apparent attempt to break the group before any further progress is made on a cease fire. And since Peng and his fighters returned to Myanmar, the government has refused to recognize the MNDAA as a legitimate voice for the Kokang and sought to exclude them from the peace process. That said, it may be hard for the Tatmadaw to keep up their assault in the region if a general cease fire is imposed on the rest of the nation, which explains their eagerness to get in their licks now while they still can.
That eagerness, however, has come with risks of its own. Four farmers in China were recently killed in a bombing raid near the border with Kokang. Though the Tatmadaw has tried to claim that the MNDAA was responsible, the fact that the MNDAA has no planes makes that somewhat hard to believe. The upshot is that if the Chinese were inclined to use Vladimir Putin's logic, they would be able to justify invasion. A Chinese-speaking population is theoretically in danger in Kokang — and, after the bombing, even in China. Plus, Kokang was actually part of China for a few years in the late 1890s, and memories tend to be long in the region.
There has been a recent build-up of Chinese troops along the border. Whether the troubled and resource-poor Kokang region is worth all the bother of an invasion is, of course, up for debate. But the fact that it might be has to give Burmese military and civilian leadership reason to wonder.