On his travels to Europe, NIAS Press author Bertil Lintner paid a visit to Copenhagen and we got the chance to meet him. Bertil published his book ‘The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance’ with us in March 2021. Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Van Tran joined our conversation at lunch and discussed the role of ethnic groups, China’s influence and future projects.
Read the detailed interview below.
Julia (NIAS Press): Ethnic armed groups in Myanmar seem to have responded differently to the coup as well as to subsequent popular anti-coup resistance. The history and evolution of many of these groups, especially the ones on the Myanmar-China border have been the focus of your long-term research & writing. Can you share some thoughts on important factors shaping their current stance?
Bertil: Yes, certainly. In the beginning, the ethnic groups didn’t interact much at all, and there was even a certain degree of hostility there. And some Kachin friends told me that “why should we support the Burmese now? They never supported us when we were under fire in 2012/ 2013.” But that slightly arrogant attitude changed when people were actually being killed in the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and other major cities. There was an exodus to the border, but nothing compared to what happened after 1988. During the 1988 uprising more than 10,000 urban activists (mostly young people but some not so young) fled to areas controlled by the various ethnic groups. This time, they are not that many. And one of the explanations could be that, for the first time, there have been dissidents (or whatever you want to call them) in central Myanmar. They are organizing their own armies. This is an entirely new development. There has been no fighting in [central] Myanmar since the 1970s. Now, it’s a different situation. It’s the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, that has to face it.] Some students and urban activists and journalists and others have arrived in areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU is officially part of the ceasefire agreement with the government that was concluded in October 2015 before the election that year. KNU is split on the issue. There are certain brigades, the 5th brigade mainly, that has sheltered the students or urban activists giving them guns, training and so on. But in the top leadership of the KNU, you can see that there is no clear-cut policy on the pro-democracy activists.
The Kachins in the far north have also trained, armed and equipped some of these people’s defence forces. Mainly those there are active in northern Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway region thus creating a buffer between a buffer between the central parts of the country and their own territory in the far north. So, from a military point of view, it makes perfect sense.
But then you have the Shan armies there too, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Shan State Progress Party and its Shan State Army, that’s the original Shan State Army. The RCSS changed their name to SSA as well. That can lead to some confusion here, I think. So usually you just talk about SSA-South and SSA-North. Those names are used not by these two armies, but the journalists are right to use them. Rather than align themselves with the various pro-democracy forces, they have started fighting each other about control of northern Shan state. And that was an interesting issue because the RCSS was normally based on the Thai border only. But, after they signed the National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015, that enabled them to move troops by truck up into northern Shan state. And this China was not happy with at all. Because they saw the RCSS as pro-Western, a Thai ally and maybe they even suspected Americans were involved in this force.
The army that has been very silent and said nothing so far – the United Wa State Army, the most powerful army as well – they just stepped in and supported the Palaung and joined the fight against the RCSS because that’s what the Chinese wanted them to do. So they are going to fight between various ethnic groups rather than between ethnic groups allied with the forces against the Central Army, so it’s actually a very complex picture with a lot of contradictions, really. The United Wa State Army is far the strongest, best equipped ethnic army in the country. Nobody knows exactly how many troops they have. When I met their leaders and asked them they said, “Oh, this a secret.” So I said: “Okay, but roughly how many?” They didn’t know what to say, but my estimate is that there could be a standing army anywhere between twenty or thirty thousand (20,000 or 30,000) plus reserves. They are equipped with modern Chinese weapons, surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery, their own armoured personnel carriers (APCs, light tanks) and trucks. And you have to remember, this is not the kind of stuff that falls off the back of the truck, and it’s nothing that local government in Yunnan can decide to give them. It’s not possible. I mean, when they celebrated the 30th anniversary of the mutiny within the Communist Party of Burma from which United Wa State Army emerged, they put on display a drone, and that kind of drone costs tens of millions of dollars and can carry bombs. This definitely did not fall off the back of a truck, and no one even sold it to them. They came from the factories of Shanghai. So it is the Chinese policy to arm the Wa, not necessarily in order to fight, but to be strong enough to make sure that the Myanmar Army doesn’t attack them.
“A rare, close-up look of this little-known people. He was the only foreign journalist to visit the Wa areas when controlled by communist insurgents and has returned there since. In a book relevant to current debates about geopolitics in Asia, the illicit drug trade, Myanmar’s decades-long civil wars and ongoing efforts to negotiate a settlement, Lintner traces the history of the Wa Hills and the struggles of its people.”
Julia (NIAS Press): Very interesting phenomena, Bertil. Can you tell us more about the background, what long-term interests does China have in supporting the United Wa State Army, and how might it use its influence in the future?
Bertil: There is, of course, what they call the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. If you look at the map, China is actually a huge inland empire with a relatively short coastline. And China’s economy is export oriented, it’s been like that since they introduced economic reforms back in the late 70s and 1980s. This led to the coastal provinces developing very quickly and the land-locked inland provinces were lagging behind. The income and income disparity, the difference in income between the coastal provinces and the land-locked provinces, was becoming a problem. It could even affect national security. So China started already in the 1980s to look for outlets for exports for the landlocked inland provinces to other countries. They could not depend on China’s own ports – they were too far away, the communication lines were not that good and the warehouses in the coastal provinces were full of goods already. There was no place for self-producing provinces like Yunnan and Sichuan or Guizhou. So they came up with this idea of finding an outlet through Myanmar as early as 1985. And that was explained in an article in the Beijing Review, published on 2 September 1985, called “Opening to the Southwest”. When I saw that article at the time, I thought, this is a plan. It’s not just a random article, so I kept it. And what was outlined in that article is exactly what happened.
If you look at a map, there are three countries that border China where there would be an option to access the Indian Ocean, bypassing the contested waters of the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. These are, of course, Myanmar, India and Pakistan. India, just forget about that. The Indians are not really interested in letting the Chinese use their territory for exports or anything. As for Pakistan, yes, there is the Karakoram Highway that goes from Xinjiang over the mountains down to Pakistan, but it’s one of the most dangerous highways in the world. In winter it is blocked by snow and ice, accidents are very common and once it reaches the Pakistan lowlands, it’s politically very insecure. I would say it is also too far west from any industrial regions in China. Whereas Myanmar is perfect. There is the long border to Yunnan and it’s not that far really down to the Indian Ocean, to the Bay of Bengal. In order to maintain this kind of influence, in order to make sure that they get control of this trade route, the Chinese are playing many different cards. They are not putting all their eggs in one basket and they don’t support only one player. And China, as you probably know, has a very peculiar foreign policy. They differentiate between ‘government to government’ and ‘party to party’ relations. It’s completely artificial because the party controls the government. It’s a one-party state, but it gives the possibility under the ‘government to government’ level to sustain relations with whoever is in power in Myanmar on the governmental level, and at the same time continue relationships with various ethnic groups in the countries on the ‘party to party’ level.
They have ‘party to party’ relations with the United Wa State Party and also with the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, and Shan, Palaung (Ta’ang), Arakan (Rakhine) and Karen organizations as well as other ethnic groups, even with the National League for Democracy until it was ousted from power in a coup last year. China’s long-term interest is to secure that corridor. They would probably like to have the military in power, but if the military is not in power, it’ll be another government with whom China would do everything they could to have good relations with. Remember that when Aung San Suu Kyi won the election and the NLD party won the election in 2015, the Chinese were the first to call and congratulate her on the election victory. So, if you look at China’s Myanmar policy, towards the minorities and towards the government you have to look at this much broader picture of the long-term geostrategic interests China has in Myanmar. Myanmar is China’s gateway to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, really. So there is a reason why they support everyone. And why they maintain good relations with almost everyone.
Often people would tell me: “Yeah, but you know, the Chinese, they want stability, don’t they?” Of course, they do want stability because even if, say, there was a war in the Wa Hills, that would mean hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing into Yunnan. China doesn’t want that. But now, I don’t think they’re interested in what we call stability and the solution to Burma’s ethnic conflicts, either. Because let’s say, for argument’s sake, all ethnic groups in Burma sit down tomorrow and agree to have a democratic federal union.
All the armed groups would put down their arms and become politicians, and the civil war would be over. China will be the first to lose because they will lose that foothold inside the country, which they have through their contacts with the United Wa State Army and other ethnic groups. They’re not interested in that. They are interested in maintaining the status quo now and they are also interested in having a certain degree of instability, but only the kind of instability which they can control. If you remember some years ago there were demonstrations in a place called Letpadaung north of Mandalay. There was a Chinese-run copper mine there and local people didn’t like it at all. There were all sorts of demonstrations and protests. And then a minister called Aung Min went up there and he said it’s a bit too much, he said don’t create so much noise here. If you do that, then the Chinese would get angry and the communists. But with “the communists”, of course, he meant the Wa. And of course, he was absolutely right. That’s what they did. And that’s why they’re using the United Wa State Army as leverage inside the country, the foothold which they can use when they want to get other concessions from whomever is in power in Naypyidaw. So China’s interests can look to separate it from the ethnic struggle in the country. At the same time, we have to understand that China is probably the only country that has this kind of long-term geostrategic interest in Myanmar. The West is interested in human rights and democracy, but also as much as keeping China out of the mess as much as they can. But for China, it’s of vital importance to maintain this kind of control and influence in Myanmar and they don’t intend to let it go.
Julia (NIAS Press): I see, so we should make sure to take away your key point, that “Myanmar is China’s gateway to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world”. As we’re coming towards the end, can you share with us what are you’re currently working on and what upcoming projects lie in the pipeline?
Bertil: Well, I’m working on a book about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But I don’t want to look at it from a global perspective, more to investigate how the BRI will affect local communities in China’s border areas. And that it’s going to be very important now after the war in Ukraine, because the old trade routes or whatever they were planning at that time are gone. China will have to then pay a lot more attention to its immediate neighbours. Here, I am talking about Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and local communities along the border and China is trying to influence that. And of course, you have many interesting things to consider. Take Bhutan, for instance. This really very important land is the only neighbouring country with which China does not maintain diplomatic relations. That’s because India doesn’t want it. And the Indian influence in Bhutan is very strong; in Wa State they call Bhutan the Indian protectorate. But the Chinese are doing all sorts of things in order to establish some kind of relations with Bhutan. They are not accepted. That said, the Chinese are not looking for long-term solutions. They want a situation which they can control and use to their advantage. For instance, in Bhutan, the way they maintain relations with the government of Bhutan is through endless border talks to demarcate the border. The issue isn’t that difficult but I think they have had about 16 or 17 (maybe even 18) rounds of talks about the border. The point is they wanted to meet the Bhutanese and, you know, discuss a number of things. And they are also sending football teams to Bhutan, circus performers and Kung Fu sportsman. And I said it as a joke, when I was in Bhutan, the last time that there would be no surprise if they started putting a panda in the plane and sending one to Bhutan, just to maintain and get this kind of image of being a friendly neighbour. And they are also trying to give scholarships to Bhutanese students allowing them to study in China to learn Chinese and be more familiar with China, that sort of thing. So this is how this small country of Bhutan is being affected by this. Nepal is totally a chaotic situation. You know, all the Nepalese parties are communists and they are all rivals, the Communist Party in power, the Communist Party in opposition and another one on the side. And they still haven’t agreed on what kind of country Nepal should be after the overthrow of the monarchy because China is playing a very important role in that. And again, this kind of disorder, you know, the instability that kind of disorder brings is something that China can use to its advantage. And that’s exactly what they’re doing in Myanmar as well. So my work is going to be exactly on that and to look at China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and what impact, what kind of effect, it will have on communities in the countries bordering China.
Julia (NIAS Press): Thank you, Bertil. We’re excited for your upcoming project and are looking forward to reading more on the impacts of the BRI. Thanks for the interview and pleasure to meet you today.