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The Politics of Money
As they face the possibility of renewed conflict, leaders of some of the ethnic militias aren't just looking out for their downtrodden populaces. They're also protecting their own interests in a region that, after all, extends into the infamous Golden Triangle. Starved of other economic means, some rebel armies have resorted to dubious funding schemes, like selling opium, illegal timber and methamphetamines. During the ceasefire period, the junta largely turned a blind eye to such businesses, which financed spacious villas and golf courses for some ethnic commanders.
When U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma in 2007, one of the people he met was Kokang honcho Peng, who was trotted out to represent the junta's amity with ethnic groups. But this summer, Peng publicly rejected the idea of turning his army into a border force. By early August, the junta was accusing Peng of being behind an illegal arms-and-drugs factory. The illicit activity, claimed the regime, compelled it to invade Kokang turf, even though the warlord's business proclivities had been an open secret for years. Indeed, both the Eastern Shan and Wa are also believed to have financed themselves through such shady means; the latter's southern commander, Wei Hsueh-kang, has been singled out by the U.S. Treasury Department as a major drug trafficker. Indeed, one battle-avoiding option for the junta is luring corrupt ethnic elders to its side. "Divide-and-conquer tactics are the SPDC's best friend," says KIA Brigadier General Gun Maw.
The complicated ethnic landscape puts Burma's giant neighbor, China, in a bind. Over the past few years, tens of thousands of Chinese businesspeople have fanned across Burma, setting up trading companies and filling downtowns with signs in Chinese characters. Much of the recent Chinese influx is in ethnic areas, where rebel groups have also come to rely on Chinese-made arms to continue their struggle against the junta. (The Chinese, however, are an equal-opportunity weapons dealer, supplying the junta with much of its military hardware.)
With the possibility of war breaking out along its long border with Burma, China is finding that its presumption of easy political influence down south may have been misplaced. High-level Chinese emissaries, say Burmese analysts, recently visited Burma to warn the junta to avoid any border instability in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1. The Kokang attack, which reportedly came as a surprise to Beijing, was seen as a direct defiance of that admonition. Since the Kokang clash, Chinese troop levels have doubled along sections of the usually porous border, and China's Defense Minister embarked on an emergency trip to Chengdu, whose regional army command covers the Burma border region.
Clash of Titans
It's perhaps no surprise that the junta is wary of Chinese influence, notwithstanding the two nations' growing economic ties. For decades, Beijing financially supported communist rebels in northern Burma, even at one point sending People's Liberation Army troops to reinforce their Burmese brothers in arms. For the fervently anticommunist junta, memories of this Chinese patronage are still fresh. It also doesn't help Burmese nationalism that large parts of Mandalay, the country's second largest city and historic royal capital, have turned into a giant Chinatown. "The SPDC wants to remake its image as the new great kings of Burma," says Aung Kyaw Zaw, the former communist rebel who now lives in Yunnan. "So even if they take advantage of China for business reasons, they don't want any foreigners interfering in their kingdom."
That notion of a Burmese kingdom has already been threatened by the country's ethnic minorities. In the 1990 elections that the military disregarded, its proxy party was trounced by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. But what's often forgotten about those polls is that the parties that finished second and third in terms of parliamentary seats were ethnic ones from Shan and Arakan states, respectively. (The military party came in fourth.) Burma's generals surely want to avoid a repeat of that ethnic electoral success.
Back in the hills of Laiza, as mosquitoes began to swarm in the late afternoon, I met Lieutenant Colonel Hkam Sa, who runs a training course for KIA officers. He has been with the rebel army since 1963, just two years after it was formed. For the first time since the KIA signed its cease-fire with the junta 15 years ago, he canceled classes and sent his battalion commanders back to active duty. "When I joined the KIA, I was 17 years old and I thought that Burma would end in the flames of civil war," he told me. "Today, if you ask me the same question, I will give you the same answer: Burma will end up in civil war." If he's right, the hills of northern Burma will crackle with gunfire once again, and Felix will be heading off to battle.