As Shan State burns, Myanmar’s dictator frets over China ties

While the situation on the ground in Shan State looks bad for Min Aung Hlaing, what it says about his regime’s relations with its most important ally is even worse

As the situation in northern Shan State continues to worsen for Myanmar’s military, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has made it clear that he regards this as an existential crisis that could lead to the country’s disintegration. Almost as importantly, however, he also sees it as a major challenge to relations with China.

Since the launch of Operation 1027 by anti-regime forces two weeks ago, the junta has faced unprecedented challenges on the battlefield. The alliance of ethnic armed groups that led the charge on October 27 has put the military on the defensive, creating an opening that resistance forces operating elsewhere in the country have been quick to exploit. But even as towns and outposts continue to fall in Sagaing and other resistance strongholds, it is along Myanmar’s border with China that the junta’s position looks most dire.

At an emergency meeting of the National Defence and Security Council on Wednesday, Min Aung Hlaing framed the crisis in northern Shan State partly as an attack on friendly relations with  Myanmar’s most powerful neighbour—which has also historically been the closest international ally of successive military regimes in the country.

Noting that the members of the Brotherhood Alliance—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army—are based along the China-Myanmar border or have a strong presence there, Min Aung Hlaing accused them of timing their offensive to coincide with the planned opening of a bridge in Shan State’s Kunlong Township, which was among the first areas to see fighting. The bridge, which spans the Salween (Thanlwin) River and was partly financed by China, was built to facilitate trade between the two countries.

Min Aung Hlaing also pointed to China’s protests over casualties among its own citizens—reportedly caused by junta shelling that strayed over the border—as further evidence of the risk to bilateral ties caused by the ongoing conflict.

But even as he warned of the danger of “misunderstandings” arising from this volatile situation, he also suggested that China was not entirely free of responsibility. He noted, for instance, that many of the longstanding tensions along the border—specifically, those related to criminal activity such as the operation of scam call centres—were fuelled by “investment” by Chinese nationals.

When they launched their offensive, the Brotherhood Alliance vowed to tackle online fraud as one of their priorities—something that Beijing had been pressing Min Aung Hlaing’s regime to do for months. So to make his case that the junta has been doing its best to address the issue, Myanmar’s dictator cited recent arrest figures. Of the nearly 7,800 suspects who have been detained by his regime, he said, the vast majority—7,395, to be exact—were Chinese citizens.

Resistance forces occupy a junta base in Khampat, Sagaing Region, on November 7 (NUG)

When Qin Gang, Beijing’s new minister for foreign affairs, visited Naypyitaw in May, it was widely seen as a sign of support for the regime that had staged a coup more than two years earlier. Even then, however, there were signs of dissatisfaction on the Chinese side. Junta-controlled state media reported on discussions about collaboration in infrastructure projects as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but made no mention of the online fraud issue—something that was highlighted in reports on the visit by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. The next month, however, the junta made its first fraud-related arrests and handed over six suspects to the Chinese authorities.

But the regime has not been alone in being on the defensive about this problem, which has become a major headache for Beijing. In September, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group, repatriated more than 1,200 Chinese nationals accused of committing cybercrimes from its territory. The UWSA, like the members of the Brotherhood Alliance, maintains close ties to China.

Clearly, then, relations with China are important to all parties concerned in the ongoing conflict in northern Shan State. The real question, however, is whether China’s longstanding policy of balancing relations among these groups has begun to shift in ways that are not to Min Aung Hlaing’s advantage.

There was some evidence that this might be the case in the weeks and months before the launch of Operation 1027. In late September, when the Chinese embassy in Yangon hosted a ceremony commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was attended by junta deputy prime minister Win Shein and other senior regime officials, but the highest-ranking Chinese representative on hand was the embassy’s interim chargé d’affaires, standing in for ambassador Chen Hai, who had largely dropped out of sight following a flurry of visits to Naypyitaw and consultations with his counterparts from Thailand and Laos in the preceding months.

In mid-October, when China invited many world leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, to its third BRI Forum in Beijing, there was some speculation that Min Aung Hlaing, a fellow international pariah, might also be asked to attend. In the end, however, General Mya Tun Oo, the junta’s minister of transport and communications, made the trip.

It wasn’t until October 26—the day before the launch of Operation 1027—that Chen Hai, the Chinese ambassador, made his first public appearance in nearly two months. Since then, the junta has come under even greater pressure, not only from its avowed enemies, but also from its long-time ally.

On October 30, Beijing sent its minister of public security, Wang Xiaohong, to Naypyitaw, not only to reiterate its demands for action on stemming online crime, but also to discuss “peace and tranquillity in border areas of the two countries.” The regime has since duly deflected criticism of its handling of the situation, blaming it entirely on its opponents’ use of “excessive force.” And on Wednesday, Min Aung Hlaing said that the military had “everything under control”—a claim belied by the fact that it has yet to retake any of the territory it has lost, and continues to lose more with each passing day.

But Min Aung Hlaing, who is looking increasingly isolated nearly three years after his bid to restore military rule, was not alone on Wednesday. Also speaking at the security council meeting was Myint Swe, the former military-appointed vice president chosen by the junta to replace Myanmar’s ousted civilian president, Win Myint.

According to state media reports, Myint Swe warned that the situation in northern Shan State threatens to tear the country apart. He also appealed to the public to support the military to prevent this from happening.

Such appeals will certainly fall on deaf ears, however, given the vehement opposition that the regime has faced from people from all walks of life and every corner of Myanmar since it usurped power in February 2021. Min Aung Hlaing’s only real hope, then, is that China doesn’t also decide that it has had more than enough of his misrule and finally comes to his rescue.

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