Myanmar: Kokang conflict highlights Tatmadaw xenophobia


The Tatmadaw of Burma, one of the most nationalistic armies in the world, demonstrated its xenophobia during the past two weeks following its capture of Kokang-Chinese territory.

According to reports from the region on the northeastern frontier of Burma, following the seizure of Laogai, the Kokang capital, on Aug. 24, government soldiers questioned civilians about whether they were Burma-born Chinese or immigrants from China.

"After answering, Chinese from mainland China were beaten by soldiers," said a source in Laogai.

Refugees who fled to China told reporters that shops, stores and other properties owned by Chinese had been looted in various towns in the Kokang region where an estimate 90 percent of businesses are owned by Chinese businessmen.

Anti-Chinese elements among government soldiers are not new. In 1967, an anti-Chinese riot in Rangoon and other cities caused led to dozens of deaths. Observers said late dictator Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Programme Party used the Chinese as a scapegoat to deflect public anger at the government over a rice shortage in the country.

Anti-Chinese sentiment among Burmese has increased after the Chinese and Burmese governments signed border trading agreements in 1988, and the military junta signed ceasefire agreements with ethnic militias on the Sino-Burmese border in 1989.

After the opening of border trade and the ceasefire agreements, Chinese business interests and immigrants moved into Burma in large numbers, observers said. From the northern Shan State capital of Lashio to Madalay, the second largest city, to Rangoon, Chinese migrants and businesses along with the ethnic ceasefire groups, such as the Kokang and Wa, have taken on a higher profile among Burmese.

"They say they are Wa or Kokang, but we know they are actually Chinese," said a businessman in Mandalay, citing his experience.

During two decades, Chinese have taken over businesses owned by Burmese in northern Shan State and Mandalay. Signs on many department stores, restaurants and shops in Mandalay and Lashio are printed in the Chinese language.

Intentionally or unintentionally, the special favors granted ethnic groups by Gen Khin Nyunt, the former Burma spy chief, produced a backlash against Kokang-Chinese and other ceasefire groups among the Tatmadaw's soldiers.

From 1989 to 2004- before Khin Nyunt's downfall-the Kokang and Wa were allowed to take their weapons to Rangoon and Mandalay. Kokang and Wa soldiers were untouchable under Khin Nyunt's instructions even though they committed crimes.

When vehicles from Wa and Kokang groups passed army and police checkpoints, they were not searched.

In one incident in 1999, a member of the Wa army killed a businessman in downtown Rangoon after a business conflict. The police arrested the man but he was not charged, and later Wa officials took the man from police custody.

According to Mandalay residents, members of ceasefire groups such as the Wa and Kokang were known to use pistols in personal conflicts with local people in the early 2000s.

Chan Tun, a former Burmese ambassador to China, said that after ceasefire agreements were signed, the Wa and Kokang caused many problems in cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, and many officers and soldiers in the regime's army have developed a negative image of the two groups as a result.

The recent military conflict between the government and ethnic groups has divided public opinion in Rangoon and Mandalay, according to journalists.

"Some people here say it is the government bullying the Kokang-Chinese. But most people support the government," said an editor of a Rangoon-based private journal.