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Clarity Over North Myanmar Fighting Lost in Fog of Conflict

A soldier walks during Myanmar vice-president Sai Mauk Kham (not pictured) visit to a school to meet with government workers who fled from Laukkai, in Lashio, Feb. 20, 2015.
A soldier walks during Myanmar vice-president Sai Mauk Kham (not pictured) visit to a school to meet with government workers who fled from Laukkai, in Lashio, Feb. 20, 2015.

Since early February, ongoing fighting in northern Myanmar near the Chinese border has forced as many as 100,000 people to flee. Myanmar’s army is fighting ethnic Chinese rebels, led by 84-year-old outlaw leader Peng Jiasheng. But getting a clear picture of rebel motivations and developments on the ground remains difficult.

For decades, northern Myanmar has been the site of periodic clashes between rebels and government forces. In this recent round of fighting, Chinese rebel leader Peng Jiasheng is trying to reclaim control of the Kokang autonomous region, where he was in charge until 2009.

During the offensive, he has worked to win over Chinese public opinion, giving interviews to state-backed media in which he talks about how he had tried to end the region’s drug trade while in power and promote economic development.

Peng now says he is fighting for the rights and autonomy of the region and has argued that since he left, the drug trade has returned and that Kokang no longer belongs to ethnic Chinese.

Peng’s description of himself as a protector of ethnic Chinese and a responsible ruler of Kokang contrast with the U.S. government’s assessment of him.

A 2009 U.S. government cable, made public by the website Wikileaks, describes Peng and his family as known drug traffickers. The cable says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has listed him as a major drug trafficker since around the mid-1970s.

Liang Jinyun, a professor at Yunnan Police Officer Academy said that Peng also remains on a list of more than thirty known traffickers who are banned from entering China. But he says it also is true that Peng tried to restrict drugs from the area.

Liang said, “Peng had to advocate a drug free region because if he did not the Myanmar government, the United Nations and even China as well would want to start poking its nose into Kokang affairs.” He said that, “despite the ban, Peng was unable to completely rid the area of drugs.”

Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army

Liang said that Peng’s recent return to Kokang, leading a group of rebel fighters called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), appears to be more about reclaiming power than any explicit link to the drug trade.

The fighting in Kokang comes as Myanmar’s government is working aggressively to reach a peace settlement with all of its ethnic minority groups before this year’s elections.

Liang said “it is possible that before the elections, Peng is trying to get himself named as the head of the region once again and claim a seat in the government’s parliament.”

He adds, however, that he is skeptical Peng will be able to achieve that objective.

Peng has tried to drag Beijing into the conflict, playing up his personal connections to China as well as how Kokang was once part of China.

The Chinese government has made it clear that it will not tolerate any support for the fight from China. However, Peng’s calls for support from Chinese have resonated among nationalistic bloggers online. Some have even been calling for the Chinese government to reclaim the territory. Myanmar officials have complained there is evidence that he and his fighters are getting food, arms and medical care from sympathizers across the border.

Graphic images fuel Chinese anger

In recent weeks, Chinese social media sites have also been filled with graphic images from the fighting and of ethnic Chinese Kokang residents allegedly killed by the Myanmar military.

Earlier this week, more than a dozen photographs apparently taken in Kokang showed the corpses of young men, some of whom had ropes around their necks and hands tied behind their backs. Rebel sympathizers said they were executed by Myanmar’s military, but there was no way to verify the claim.

Photos of such casualties have helped fuel anger in China and calls for efforts to save what commentators online say are the country’s Chinese brothers.

“At this point, there is still a lot of rumors, there still is the fog of war,” said Min Zaw Oo, director of the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon, who has been closely following the conflict.

Another event that remains clouded in mystery was a recent attack on a Red Cross convoy that wounded five people. The Myanmar Red Cross says that rebel forces attacked it. The rebels say it was the army.

Min said the rebels appear to have failed in their initial effort to gain control of Kokang’s capital of Laogai and that ethnic Kokang rebels and perhaps other ethnic fighters are currently cornered in one position near the Chinese border.

“But in the southern part of the fight for Laogai, still their forces are in position and there is a lot of hit and run movement," said Min. "At night they come into the Laogai area in trucks loaded with heavy weapons and at morning or at night they shell into the targets in Laogai and then load them back into the car and go back.”

Min said the expectation is that fighting is likely to continue for a few weeks, but not months.

VOA’s Steve Herman contributed reporting from Yangon.