TNLA soldiers on patrol in northern Shan State (Niels Larsen).
A reclusive insurgent leader’s re-appearance has triggered fierce fighting in Myanmar’s ethnic-Chinese-majority Kokang region
After five years off the radar, Peng Jiasheng, an ageing insurgent who for four decades ruled the breakaway Kokang region in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State, is back with a vengeance.
His return from obscurity has catalysed some of the most intense fighting Myanmar has seen in years. Over the past three weeks, tens of thousands of refugees have streamed either over the Kokang region’s eastern border with China into Yunnan Province or south to Lashio, the nearest major city under firm Myanmar government control.
Peace remains elusive in the north of Shan State. A handful of armed groups operating there have resisted halting attempts at a nationwide ceasefire, and the region remains mired in violence spurred by deep-rooted political and economic problems.
Kokang is majority ethnic Chinese and an outlier in Myanmar, the product of geopolitical brokering between Britain and China during the opium wars that resulted in the enclave being incorporated into colonial Burma. It’s remained a hotbed of lawlessness and drug production ever since.
Peng, now in his mid-80s, first ruled Kokang when it was made a province in 1969, as a member of the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma. When the Communists’ decades-long insurgency ended in 1989, he formed the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) from its ashes and cemented his grip on Kokang as his own personal fiefdom by signing a ceasefire deal with Myanmar’s then military junta that created the Kokang Special Region.
In 2009, Peng was violently ousted from power by the Myanmar military, ostensibly for spurning a proposal that would have forced him to bring the region – and its armed forces – under greater military oversight.
In a surprise move last December, MNDAA troops suddenly resurfaced in Muse district, north of Kokang, clashing with the Myanmar military in a joint operation with two allied ethnic armed groups – the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Until the MNDAA’s re-emergence, the TNLA and AA, along with the allied Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that operates in the same region, were the only armed groups in the country without active ceasefire arrangements with Naypyidaw. Its neighbour and ally, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is Southeast Asia’s most powerful narcotics syndicate, and controls a statelet of its own south of Kokang.
The assault in December served as a grand announcement that Peng, now in his mid-80s, was back. In a subsequent interview with Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, he was unrepentant in his desire to take on the military, saying he had already gathered 1,000 armed troops. “We can confront the Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] until we reclaim Kokang,” he said.
Information trickling out of the conflict zone is hard to verify, as it has become all but impossible for journalists to enter the area from either Myanmar or China. Armed groups in the region are hesitant to give away information that would threaten their operational security, including troop numbers.
Last month, two Red Cross aid convoys carrying journalists in the conflict zone came under attack by unknown assailants. Despite the attacks, the Red Cross has managed to maintain limited, volunteer-driven operations despite hostilities intensifying.
Although the UWSA and the Chinese government have denied providing the MNDAA with troops, the TNLA and AA are currently fighting in Kokang. The TNLA’s chief of foreign relations, Maing Paing La, confirmed that his army had sent three battalions in to fight alongside the MNDAA but refused to say how many TNLA troops were involved.
“The Kokang region is the homeland of the Kokang people,” Maing Paing La said. “The Kokang army, the MNDAA, was forced out by the government in 2009. Now, they want to go back to their homes. We are aligned with them and we try to help each other.”
The Ta’ang ethnic group, who live in northern Shan State as well in China and in neighbouring Kachin State, are the most sizeable ethnic minority in Kokang.
The KIA, which has a long history of joint operations with the TNLA in northern Shan State, has officially denied providing the MNDAA with operational support. On Tuesday, however, MNDAA commander Peng Daren, Peng Jiasheng’s son, told Voice of America that the KIA had sent troops to support its efforts. KIA leaders have not responded to requests for verification.
Myanmar’s military – the country’s most powerful institution but also one of its most reviled – has won a rare public relations coup, with social media users praising its efforts and celebrities heading fundraisers for soldiers’ families.
Although Kokang’s Han Chinese inhabitants are recognised as “indigenous” ethnic people in Myanmar, their close ties to China and the circumstances under which this current flare-up started have conspired to steer public opinion towards the military’s position.
“On social media, [the military is] trying to write the propaganda so that the people [believe] that it’s another country trying to intervene in Myanmar’s affairs and trying to take Kokang,” complained the TNLA’s Maing Paing La. “People need to know that it isn’t real information.”