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Allies of the Kokang rebels have leapt to their defence in light of Burmese military allegations that Chinese mercenaries are fighting on the rebels’ side in the ongoing conflict in northeastern Shan State.
Spokesmen for the Arakan Army and Communist Party of Burma have both dismissed the allegations as false flags, and counter-accused Naypyidaw of whipping up nationalist sentiment among the Burmese public.
At a press conference in Naypyidaw on 21 February, Burmese military spokesmen claimed that former soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army are fighting alongside and providing logistical support to the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a faction of Kokang units loyal to former chairman Peng Jiasheng [also written Pheung Kya-shin], who has lived in exile in China for some five years. Peng Jiasheng is alleged to have returned to the fold by launching surprise attacks on Burmese army positions in and around Laogai [Laukkai] beginning on 9 February.
In Sunday’s press conference, Burmese military officials also claimed that they had identified the provenance of weapons seized from rebel troops, declaring that they were made in a factory owned by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Military spokespersons reported that in the ongoing hostilities in Laogai, the MNDAA was being supported by the UWSA, Kachin Independence Army, Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Shan State Army– North.
Of those groups, only the TNLA has confirmed its alliance with the MNDAA in the current conflict. The Arakan Army also openly supports the Kokang cause and has units fighting in its lines.
Tun Myat Naing, general chief-of-staff of the Arakan Army, told DVB this weekend that the Burmese military allegations of Chinese mercenary involvement are just a tactic to stir up nationalism among the populace.
“This is the same recurring issue in the armed ethnic revolution,” he said. “The Kokang wish to return to their territory and the Burmese army won’t let them. So the MNDAA and its allies, including the Arakan Army, are now fighting back.”
The Arakan Army military chief added: “The Kokang under the leadership of U Peng Jiasheng were an ethnic group recognised by the Burmese government, but now Naypyidaw is making it look like this is a war with foreign invaders who have infringed upon Burma’s sovereignty. If this were really the case, they could take up the matter through international channels. In reality, they are just whipping up nationalist sentiment among the [Burmese] public to gain its support.
“At the same time, they are afraid to directly accuse [China] of waging an invasion, so they are claiming that [Chinese] mercenaries are fighting for the Kokang.”
Pho Than Chaung, a spokesperson for the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), said that “there is no such thing as Chinese mercenaries”.
“There may by some Chinese citizens or former Chinese citizens serving among the ranks of some armed groups, but they may be no more than a dozen and they are not trained soldiers,” he told DVB from exile in China.
“Instead of making accusations against China, the Burmese government should reach out to an international tribunal or institution and make an official complaint. It is questionable why they aren’t doing this.”
He added: “It is a well-versed political trick by U Thein Sein’s government to cause unrest in the country – to create a tense situation that keeps people in duress; to whip up fear; declare martial law; instigate communal unrest – all in order to find a way out of a political hardship.
“I believe they know they are facing a dramatic loss in this year’s elections if the polls are free and fair, and so they may be trying to create a playing field whereby they can have the elections delayed.”
Meanwhile, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) called for recognition of the MNDAA as an armed ethnic group with the same rights to negotiate a ceasefire as other ethnic militias in Burma.
“We learned that local civilians are facing many hardships because of the fighting,” the 12-member ethnic alliance said in a statement on 21 February. “The deaths of elders, children and women, who are not a part of the fighting, according to facts and findings in news media, has tremendously affected and saddened us. We believe that the MNDAA would not commit such atrocities against those faultless civilians, since most of the local civilians are of the Kokang ethnicity.
“The armed crisis that has been going on in our country is politically based and priority should be given to resolve it politically. All concerned persons have understood well that the crisis cannot be resolved with military solutions as has been prioritised for 60 to 70 years. Therefore, we suggest and urge that the government recognises the MNDAA as it does the other ethnic armed organisations and immediately ends the armed crisis, and that a political solution be prioritised using the nationwide ceasefire negotiations between the Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT).”
Meanwhile, on Monday, the MNDAA denied any involvement in an attack on Saturday on a Red Cross convoy transporting displaced persons from Laogai to Lashio, the second such ambush in a week.
“The attack reported by Burmese media on a second Red Cross convoy on 21 February had nothing to do with the MNDAA,” the statement, written in Chinese and posted on the MNDAA website, read. “The area where the Red Cross-flagged truck was attacked is under tight control of the Burmese army … The MNDAA does not even have forces in that area, nor does it attack civilian vehicles.”