Heavy fighting continues in Myanmar's Kokang region despite the ongoing peace talks between the Myanmar government and the Kokang ethnic rebels. The fighting near the China-Myanmar border has at times spilled into Chinese territory, as was seen on March 13 when a bomb killed five Chinese nationals.
Such conflicts have plagued Myanmar ever since it became independent 67 years ago and have their roots in the political and economic differences between the Myanmar central government and regional minorities.
Because of the limited success in its pursuit of unification and stability, Myanmar has gradually slid into recession and become the last option for foreign investors. Worse, the intensifying conflicts between government forces and ethnic rebels have dealt a deadly blow to the country's global image, which is vital for the success of Myanmar's national election at the end of this year and eventual democratic transformation.
The international community, for instance, has criticised Myanmar for the deaths of more than 200 people in the Kokang conflict and serious human rights issues. In fact, Western powers have made human rights protection an important criterion for engaging with Myanmar and providing it aid. The legality of the national election too faces risk, because the conflict-ridden northern part of Myanmar is unlikely to fully participate in the process.
The conflict in northern Myanmar has become a seesaw battle - neither the government forces nor the ethnic outfit, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, can emerge victorious within a short time. The undeveloped mountains and forests in the north, which serve as natural barriers for local armed groups, make a large-scale mechanized military engagement impossible. On the other hand, the rebels lack the necessary financial and military power to defeat the government forces, though they know that resistance could earn them more rights and interests.
The increasing violence in Myanmar, however, poses a threat to China's national interests. It also is a test for Sino-Myanmarese ties. Just north of the 2,000-kilometer China-Myanmar border, Yunnan province has suffered more than once the consequences of the armed conflict in Myanmar. The five Chinese nationals killed on March 13 were residents of Yunnan, which has also been facing border security and trade problems. Also, humanitarian missions in Yunnan are facing challenges in accommodating refugees from Myanmar and relocating local residents.
Moreover, the mutual strategic trust between the two countries could fall prey to the conflict and resultant instability in Myanmar, and the Beijing-proposed China-Myanmar-India-Bangladesh economic corridor would be difficult to complete because it has to pass through the conflict zone. Confounding these problems are rumours unleashed by some media outlets that some Chinese military veterans are backing the Kokang rebel forces.
The truth, however, is that China has never intervened in Myanmar's internal affairs, let alone support any side at the expense of its own people's well-being. Instead, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has urged the conflicting parties in Myanmar to "take China's concerns seriously" and exercise restraint in order to restore peace and order along the border.
To end the violence along the border, the governments of China and Myanmar, along with the latter's rebel forces, have to negotiate a truce that would require all forces to retreat from the front to re-accommodate the refugees. Besides, the results of the joint investigation into the bombing that killed the five Chinese nationals should be made public so that measures can be taken to prevent similar tragedies. The most urgent task, therefore, is for the Myanmar government and rebels to end the conflict by resolving their differences.
The author is an associate professor at the Institute of South Asia, affiliated to China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.