How China Prolongs Myanmar’s Endless Internal Conflicts
Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 5
Since 1949, Myanmar has experienced the world’s longest ongoing armed conflict. Following the February 2021 coup, which overthrew the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, fighting has intensified, with nearly 3,000 people killed (Reliefweb, January 30). In addition, roughly 1.5 million people have been internally displaced Around 90,000 people have fled Myanmar and are now residing in refugee centers in Thailand (UNHCR, October 10, 2022). One such refugee, Sun Ti Mar gave up his business, farm and home in Shan State, fleeing with his wife and two children to a refugee camp in Thailand. “Living under military rule was not safe,” he says.  “People who have education, speak English or have contact with foreigners were suspected. Some got arrested and killed. The local authorities called me in for questioning about coordinating with foreign NGOs. Luckily, I answered correctly, and they let me go. But this made me leave Burma.” While he is no longer in immediate danger, life is hard for the 135 families in the camp. Refugees are not allowed to work, and there is no international support, so they lack food. “Life in a refugee camp isn’t easy. I feel like an animal in the zoo. There is no future, no hope, no work, no income,” he says.
Providing an update via satellite phone from inside the war zone, David Eubank, director of Free Burma Rangers—a Christian relief organization active in the area for over 20 years—says that in recent months, airstrikes have deliberately targeted churches and schools. “We’re right near the site of an airstrike attack that happened a few days ago. In Shan State, there were bombs dropped, and multiple strafing runs against a Catholic prayer chapel. And before that, two schools were destroyed. In January, the government dropped eight bombs on two churches and a school. The kids fled to the jungle, but bombs killed a nine-month-old baby and the mother, as well as a Catholic deacon and a Baptist pastor.” 
While the people of Myanmar continue to suffer, China has exploited the situation for its economic benefit. Trade and investment with China undermine Western sanctions, help fund the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army), and prolong the war (Myanmar Now, December 10, 2021; Irrawaddy, July 15, 2022). China has ignored international arms embargoes in order to provide arms to the Tatmadaw, including a submarine (Nikkei, February 16, 2022). At the same time, Myanmar is helping Russia to bypass international sanctions in order to purchase fighter jets, armored personnel carriers, and truck-mounted rocket launchers from Moscow (Myanmar Now, November 29, 2021; Eubank, 2023). 
Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, has seen the Tatmadaw use Chinese and Russian weapons. The jet that destroyed a church and killed two religious leaders was a Russian-made Yakovlev Yak-130 fighter. “My teammate was killed, and I was wounded,” said Eubank. Since the beginning of the coup, eighteen members of his NGO have been killed, including three already this year. Other aircraft he has seen deployed by the Tatmadaw are the Chinese Karakorum-8 and the Russian Hind attack helicopter. “Last year, the Hinds attacked us a number of times.” While China is still the primary financier of the war, Eubank says the weapons used by the Tatmadaw are increasingly Russian rather than Chinese, including truck-mounted, multiple-launch rocket systems. “Serbia, Ukraine, and Russia all have them, and all have sold weapons to Burma before, so I don’t know which country these were actually from. I only saw them shooting at me, and I’ve seen photos, but they are Russian-type weapons.” Eubank also observed armored vehicles and light tanks “from different manufacturers, Eastern Bloc, Ukrainian or Russian, even some Brazilian [vehicles].”
Chinese construction projects in Myanmar were largely put on hold for around six months following the coup. However, once Beijing effectively recognized the military government’s State Administration Council, work on infrastructure projects restarted (Nikkei, February 16, 2022). Although much of the world refuses to engage with the military junta, communicating instead with the pro-democracy government in exile—the National Unity Government (NUG) — Beijing denies the legitimacy of the NUG, but did call on it to protect Chinese investments in rebel-controlled areas (Nikkei, February 16, 2022). The NUG loosely coordinates with many of the rebel ethnic armed organizations.
Myanmar is home to 135 ethnic groups, many of which have formed their own small armies or military wings. These ethnic armed organizations have their own unique, often conflicting, interests, sometimes finding commonality only in their distrust and hatred for the government. As a result, alliances have shifted over the years. China has also backed various groups, in order to help secure minerals or energy resources.
Regarding the Chinese presence in Shan State, Sun Ti Mar says: “they do business: Drugs, teak, hydropower, gas, and rare earth.” Eubank reports that in Kachin state, “We’re seeing timber, maybe five hundred trucks a day, crossing into China,” then adds, “The gas pipeline comes down from the ocean, crossing Arakan and Shan State into China. There are also rubies and jade, timber, minerals, and oil and natural gas. And all of that, China is trying to profit from.”
Over the years, ethnic armies have shifted their positions, at times fighting against the government, or agreeing to ceasefires with the government, supporting China, supporting each other or warring with one another. Many of these changes in the alliance are motivated by financial incentives and proximity to natural resources. Rare earth mineral deposits, for example, are located in parts of Kachin State. When exports to China resumed in December 2021, it was assumed that elements within the Kachin military were receiving some type of revenue share from China (Myanmar Now, December 10, 2021). When such deals are reached, observers on the ground usually report seeing an influx of Chinese workers, as they did in Kachin State last year (Irrawaddy, July 15, 2022).
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is among the largest non-state militaries in the world and constitutes the largest ethnic armed organization in Myanmar, with roughly 30,000 soldiers (Irrawaddy, August 31, 2022). Many UWSA officers speak Mandarin in addition to their own language and Burmese, and some have Chinese names. The UWSA commander-in-chief is Bao Youxiang. His deputy is Zhao Zhongtang. The Wa refers to the area they control as Wa State, even though it is officially located in Shan State. Under Myanmar’s new military constitution, this area is designated as the Wa Self-Administered Region (Irrawaddy, August 31, 2022).
Eubank says that while the Wa see themselves as independent of Beijing, “they must listen to China. One of the UWSA leaders told me, ‘we are sticking to the hand of China. They cannot control us, but they do manipulate us and move us around. And we are to keep the dictators under control.’” Nevertheless, Eubank thinks the relationship between the Wa and China is uneasy. Other armies are in similar situations, receiving funding from China but still attempting to remain independent in their decision making. “The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, including the Mong La Army and Kokang Army, work with China, but are now allied with the Kachin Army, fighting the Tatmadaw, against China’s wishes.”
The Wa have a ceasefire with the government. “They’re staying out of the fight against the Tatmadaw, but are providing weapons and ammunition, at low cost, to ethnic resistance armies.” Eubank says. The Wa have factories where they make weapons and ammunition, he says, “so they’re quietly helping the resistance groups against the government.”
Another large ethnic armed organization is the Shan State Army, whose territory borders Thailand. While Thai is spoken and the Thai Baht is used as currency in the Shan State Army’s strongholds, the Wa use the Chinese Yuan. The products sold in the Shan State’s enclaves are imported from Thailand, while those sold in Wa-controlled areas are from China. Both groups are active in Shan State and do not get along. Meanwhile, groups that have splintered off from the Shan State Army fight on one side or the other, or both.
Eubank lists various defections. “A lot of Burmese soldiers switch sides and join the rebels. It would be more, but their families are being held hostage. Many of the proxy armies have switched to the rebel side. At least three of the Karenni factions were officially aligned with the Burmese government but have effectively switched sides,” he says. Even if they are not actively fighting the government, they are “turning a blind eye and letting rebels attack the Burmese army.”
Sun Ti Mar explains how the situation in Shan State deteriorated when the UWSA arrived, accompanied by the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP). “In remote areas, there are a lot of human rights abuses, such as gang-raping children, both boys and girls. And at the age of twelve, they force boys to join the armed groups.” According to Sun Ti Mar, the UWSA works with the SSPP to fight against the Restoration Council of the Shan State, which is fighting against the Tatmadaw. Further complicating things, some suspect that China has soldiers in the field. Sun Ti Mar claims to have seen Chinese in SSPP uniforms.
How to End the Conflict
Eubank says the West could help to resolve the Myanmar situation. “What’s needed is outside help: Political pressure, military aid, and until that happens, humanitarian aid,” he argues. Indeed, the National Unity Government has asked why the West gives billions in military aid to Ukraine, while refusing to help the people of Myanmar defeat the Tatmadaw (South China Morning Post [SCMP], February 13; Irrawaddy, July 29, 2022). Eubank says that villagers constantly tell him: “We don’t need donations of food and medical and clothes and shelter. If you stop the Burma army, we can take care of ourselves.” He clarifies that “this is not a natural disaster like an earthquake. This is a manmade disaster.” Moreover, Eubank quotes villagers who urge, “Someone please give us weapons, so we can fight, or please intervene militarily against the regime.” Speaking for himself, he adds, “Until that happens, they need humanitarian aid like pipes and trucks to bring water to the villagers.”
According to Eubank, 50,000 people are displaced in Kayah State alone, “the entire population has been displaced at least once.” He went on to say that countrywide, there are currently three million internally displaced people who need to be fed and cared for. “We are supporting two field hospitals, which have both been bombed.”
In Eubank’s estimation, the current fighting is the fiercest combat that he has ever witnessed in this war. “The Tatmadaw is coming with a force I’ve not seen in 30 years of this war, but the resistance is also strong. The Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) did not exist until after the coup began. It grew from one battalion to 22 battalions of 400 men each.” He added, that they “only have about 100 serviceable weapons per battalion. A separate organization, the Karenni Army went from one understrength battalion to five full battalions now. In the two years since the coup, there has been no major outside support and not much modern weaponry or big weapons coming in, but the ethnic resistance armies are rapidly expanding. They are being supported from all over, from outside, the diaspora sending money, buying weapons, rifles, shotguns, anything they can.”
Holding up his phone so this reporter could hear Christian Karenni children singing in the background, Eubank translates the lyrics, “Goliath, Goliath, you were so huge, but with God’s help, little David beat you.” Noting how the Karenni can identify with David, he concludes: “I don’t see the Tatmadaw winning. They’re stronger than any ethnic armies, but the resistance groups are slowly chipping away at the Burma army. My prayer is that the Burma army falls or changes its heart.”
Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA is an American economist and university professor who works as a China economic analyst. He spent 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China and 3 in Mongolia, publishing over 10 books, including three about the Chinese economy. He has also published numerous articles and papers on the Chinese economy, as well as the Mongolian economy.
 Sun Ti Mar, from the refugee camp in Thailand, February 13, 2023, by phone, in English.
 David Eubank, head of Free Burma Rangers, Southern Shan State Burma, February 13, 2023, by phone, in English.
 David Eubank, head of Free Burma Rangers, Southern Shan State Burma, February 13, 2023, by phone, in English.
Sun Ti Mar, from the refugee camp in Thailand, February 13, 2023, by phone, in English
David Eubank, head of Free Burma Rangers Southern Shan State Burma, February 13, 2023, by phone, in English