Feb 27, 2014 | 11:30 GMT

12 mins read

Myanmar Pushes for Control Over its Restive Borderlands

Vehicles crossing the gate from the Myanmar border town of Muse to the Chinese town of Ruili.
(Photo by Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a four-part series on Myanmar's struggle to become a modern nation-state.

With the end of the British colonial period, the political entity now known as Myanmar had clearly defined borders in its north and northeast bordering China for the first time in its history — at least on a map. In reality, an ill-defined border region arced between the Irrawaddy lowlands, at the heart of modern-day Myanmar, and Indochina, China and the Indian subcontinent. The dense jungles and mountainous terrain of this region are home to an array of peoples from diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds, few of whom are given to acknowledging formal borders. Generations of conflict and their own general isolation have shaped these groups.

This border region became a haven for ethnic resistance movements, powerful warlords and drug trafficking armies. Competing interests frequently stirred this volatile mix. These interests included the military regime, which sought a strong Bamar-dominated central state, and neighboring China, which saw in the region a buffer zone and possible pathway to the Indian Ocean. As Myanmar pursues a new policy of strategic opening, consolidating central control over its peripheral regions — currently through a national reconciliation process — has become a top priority. Naypyidaw fears ongoing ethnic conflict will sap central government resources and continue to limit any coordinated economic development and investment plans it pursues along the resource-rich border, undermining the very reasons the military is facilitating a slow transition to civilian leadership. Strong cross-border links among the region's various ethnic groups and suspicions about Chinese intentions heighten central government concerns about these groups. The drive to consolidate border control has unfolded through a 2009 military offensive and, more recently, through a push for peace agreements with various border insurgent groups as part of a national cease-fire. 

At the same time that Naypyidaw is seeking to strengthen its control over the border region, Beijing is finding its own interests growing and its influence potentially slipping. Myanmar plays an important role in China's energy imports and trade corridor diversification plans. Moreover, the changes in Myanmar's international relations, particularly Naypyidaw's evolving ties with the United States, are adding to concerns in Beijing that Washington is seeking to push back the Chinese sphere of influence. Border stability and Myanmar's integrity fit with Beijing's long-term interests in the country. But long-standing relations with ethnic militants also provide Beijing with ammunition to balance the Myanmar government should Naypyidaw's move to tighten its control and further expand its relations go beyond Beijing's agenda.

    The dense jungles and mountainous terrain of this region are home to an array of peoples from diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds, few of whom are given to acknowledging formal borders.

    The 2,185-kilometer (1,360-mile) Myanmar-China border stretches from the Hengduan Mountains on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau down to the northeastern Shan Plateau, across from China's Yunnan province. For most of the region's history, the central kingdoms of China and Burma, and to a lesser extent the northeastern Thai kingdom, were content to leave the poorly defined borderland as a buffer zone between their respective states, since the cost and difficulty of conquest into the hills far exceeded the benefit gained from quelling periodic conflicts there.

    With the British annexation of Upper Burma by the end of the 19th century, the borders became more formally defined — giving modern-day Myanmar at least nominal control over its northern and northeastern territories. A relatively weak Myanmar government emerged after British rule, and ethnic border groups proved desperate enough, powerful enough or both to resist a strong centralization of power and authority under Bamar majorities. Given the history of the border region, both China and Burma contended with each other and with border forces for influence, driving the development of the border region, and broader Myanmar, for the past century.

    The border can be divided into two physiographic regions. The jagged ridges along the northernmost border section provide a formidable barrier between China and Myanmar, protecting the Irrawaddy heartland. With an average height of some 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet), these ridges are also the source of some of the most significant rivers in Southeast Asia, including the Irrawaddy, the Mekong and the Salween. As the border heads southeast alongside the Shan Plateau, it decreases in elevation. This allows a narrow geographic gap that serves as a supply corridor between the Indian subcontinent and southern China. In ancient times, this became part of the Southern Silk Road. During World War II, it became part of the Ledo Road and the Burma Road.

    Infrastructure and Supply Lines Along the China-Myanmar Border

    Infrastructure and Supply Lines Along the China-Myanmar Border

    This northern highland area is inhabited by a number of cross-border ethnic tribes, most prominent among them the Kachin (known as the Jingpo in China). The region's difficult topography, abundant water and mineral resources allowed the Kachin population a greater ability to resist both Burmese and Chinese influence. In the early 1960s, the Ne Win-led military government, then based in Yangon (Rangoon), abrogated the Union of Burma Constitution, and with it the ethnic autonomy demanded by the Kachin. In response, the Kachin formed an armed militia, the Kachin Independence Army, which emerged as one of the strongest anti-government ethnic militias in the country — a distinction it retains.

    The southeast section of the border is far different geographically than the north. The lower elevations of the Salween River Valley provide a more permeable borderland between the Shan Plateau and Yunnan Plateau and across to northern Thailand and Laos. The region is primarily inhabited by ethnic Shan, who have strong ties to the Thai. But it also hosts numerous other groups, including the Wa, Kachin, Akha and a remnant of a Han Chinese community now called the Kokang, who settled in the area during the late Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century.

    The Shan Plateau gave birth to several powerful kingdoms in Indochina in the distant past, but around the 16th century the northern part of the region fragmented into competing states. Power then oscillated among the Burmese and Chinese kingdoms, as well as the northern Thai kingdoms. In the early 20th century, the Shan Plateau fell to the Japanese and was then caught up in the Chinese Civil War from 1946 to 1949. Shortly after Burmese independence, the region slipped into a fairly lawless state, hosting numerous ethnic and political insurgencies and powerful warlords. Most notable among these were the Shan State Army, the Communist Party of Burma and the forces loyal to drug lords Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa, among others, whose actions helped define the infamous Golden Triangle. These competing forces have exploited (and been exploited by) patrons in China and Thailand for decades while struggling among themselves and against the central authorities of Myanmar and seeking to expand their territory, particularly along the eastern banks of the Salween River.

    China's Involvement in Ethnic Insurgencies

    China views the Myanmar borderlands as both a strategic buffer and an important supply corridor to the Indian Ocean and beyond. The area protects China's distant Yunnan province and provides the Chinese with critical trade links. For centuries, various Chinese kingdoms have sought to expand their influence southward through modern-day Myanmar whenever possible, either through direct military action or through the extension of China's tributary system. During the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, China once again prepared to expand its reach southward only to find its ambitions thwarted by British advances in Upper Burma. With the collapse of the Qing and Japan's expansion through the Pacific region, the significance of Myanmar as a vital supply route was reinforced for future Chinese leaders.

    Northern Myanmar

    Northern Myanmar

    The Nationalist Chinese government twice attempted to directly control northern Myanmar. It first dispatched troops in the late 1930s to counter a Japanese blockade. Later, retreating nationalist forces entered Myanmar from the mainland in the early 1950s after losing the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese Communists followed the nationalists, strengthening Beijing's ties with ethnic guerrilla forces seeking autonomy or independence. The defeat of the Nationalists by the Communists in 1949 and the establishment of a border settlement with Burma in the 1960s ended any direct move by Beijing to dominate the border region. Instead, the Chinese Communist government adapted its strategy to balance support for ethnic forces and ties with the central government, adjusting its support for each as needed.

    Although China maintained ties with, and some support for, Burmese Communist forces and ethnic insurgencies during the early days of Myanmar's civil war, Beijing was content with the general status of the border region and sought good neighborly relations with the Myanmar government. This faded as the Burmese government gathered strength and adopted policies perceived as hostile toward Beijing. By the mid-1960s, Beijing was openly supporting Burmese Communist forces in an effort to leverage its influence over the country's development. Until the late 1970s, Beijing supplied the Burmese Communists with political guidance and financial support, training and sending its own fighters and arming ethnic rebels along the border to fight against the government's armed force in the north and northeast. At one point, these Chinese-backed forces controlled most of the Sino-Myanmar border region. Strong links between ethnic forces and China, as well as the establishment in Myanmar of separate quasi-military regions along the border (Kokang, Wa, Mongla and a splinter group of Kachin), shaped the current situation on the border in which strong, effectively autonomous ethnic militant armies wield power — and retain at least nominal ties with China.

    With the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in the late 1980s, Beijing maintained quiet ties in the border areas while shifting toward overt efforts to strengthen relations with the central government. This allowed Beijing to maximize its economic and resource development in Myanmar while the latter was under Western sanctions. But along with the localized benefits of economic links to China, the border regions also enjoyed considerable autonomy. China was not overtly hostile to the Myanmar regime, but its tacit support gave the border groups' considerable power and leeway with the Myanmar central government. In this environment, the United Wa State Army emerged as one of the most powerful ethnic armies, boasting more than 30,000 troops and nearly dominating the east bank of the Salween.

    China continues to maintain fairly robust, though unofficial, ties with these special regions. It supplies most of the electricity and trade in northern Shan state, having considerable influence over financial sources in the region and maintaining liaisons with the northern Shan leadership. Expanding arms smuggling from China also helped border ethnic forces resist Myanmar. Since Myanmar began its recent period of major political and economic reform, some speculate that China has accelerated its arms deals to the United Wa State Army and other groups, providing newer field artillery and anti-aircraft weaponry and reportedly selling armed transport helicopters. The arms and economic connections ensure that the United Wa State Army remains the most powerful ethnic military force inside Myanmar and guarantee its loyalty to China.

      Shortly after Burmese independence, the region slipped into a fairly lawless state, hosting numerous ethnic and political insurgencies and powerful warlords.

      This has proved a mixed blessing for Beijing. While China has retained influence in the region, it has also become subject to the ills common to lawless border regions — namely, drug trafficking and other illegal cross-border trade. Moreover, the stronger the ethnic border armies, the greater the risk to Beijing that at some point they may attempt to press their interests across the border into contiguous ethnic areas inside China. Relations between local Chinese officials and the border militants have also developed more closely, and at times in a different direction, than Beijing would like to see. Beijing faces another difficulty: As Myanmar began its economic and political opening, it became imperative for Naypyidaw to assert its authority over the border regions. With the border forces stronger and entrenched, the potential for a major military conflict on China's borders grew.

      The Border in a New Landscape

      Naypyidaw's desire to consolidate its northern borderland became obvious as it escalated its military offensive against ethnic forces, first through the Kokang-Shan State Special Region-1 in 2009 and then in the long war against the Kachin that began in 2011. The skirmishes along the border reminded Beijing that Naypyidaw's appetite for ethnic unity could pose serious challenges to China's border security policies and to its influence with ethnic forces and the central government. Moreover, as Naypyidaw gained gradual support from the West, Beijing increasingly found itself dealing with a more confident Myanmar regime, one willing to work against Chinese interests. For Beijing, Myanmar's newfound confidence and aggressive campaign to defeat or absorb the ethnic border regions poses a threat to Chinese strategic concerns regarding border security and regional trade and energy corridors.

      Of course, Myanmar is not seeking to break ties with China, but merely to reshape the environment to reduce Beijing's ability to set the terms of economic and security relations in the region. As Naypyidaw pursues its national unity plan, it is finding that its new foreign relations are not expanding quickly enough to offset some of the strains in its relations with China. As the Myanmar government continues its process of emerging from international isolation, it is keeping a close eye on the border region and China's moves there. The interests of the two may not coincide as Naypyidaw works to change a status quo that China is largely comfortable preserving.

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