Liu Yun looks at a new development in militia politics in northern Shan State.
The Kokang Militia Force (KMF), a Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces)-supported community militia, has been emerging in the conflict-torn Kokang Self-Administered Zone. This is a fresh and tricky security development in the China-Myanmar border areas, which have become more and more militarized as a result of the Tatmadaw’s offensives across the ethnic areas since 2009.
The Kokang region (782 square miles) is located in the northern part of Myanmar’s Shan State, with the Salween river to its west, and southwestern China’s Yunnan province to the east. This area is mostly populated by Kokang people, a Han Chinese group which belongs to the 135 taingyintha (national races) officially recognised by the Myanmar government. Since 2015, Kokang has been intermittently hit by deadly clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) which is led, if not directly, by Kokang’s former leader Peng Jiasheng, who was ousted by the junta in 2009.
On October 30th, the KMF was ceremonially issued weapons by Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Tun, the acting commander of the Laukai Regional Operation Command (ROC). He said, “The militias in this country have been fighting together with the Tatmadaw for several decades. Now the Kokang militia has been successfully rebuilt into four standard units, waiting for the final approval from our superiors.”
The community militias controlled directly by local Tatmadaw troops are part of a strategic arrangement that began in the 1960s, under the doctrine of people’s war: an emphasis on the participation of the population in combating both domestic insurgents and foreign threats . At that time, the “godfather of heroin”, Luo Xinghan (a.k.a. Lo Hsing Han) started his opium-trafficking career in Kokang as the chief of a Ka Kwe Ye (home guard) unit, a local militia set up to fight the communists.
The issue of militias has only received occasional attention in Myanmar scholarship. John Buchanan has taken a systematic look at militias and their roles in economy, politics, conflict as well as the communities in which they operate. In a research report, titled “Militias in Myanmar”, published by the Asia Foundation last year, Buchanan disaggregated the Tatmadaw-affiliated militias into three types, namely, Tatmadaw-integrated militias, Tatmadaw non-integrated militias and Tatmadaw-supported community militias. The KMF fits into the third group which is “ made up of civilians recruited from a community, trained and armed by the Tatmadaw.”
Buchanan also notes that the “Tatmadaw-supported community militias … are part of the Tatmadaw’s national defense strategy. When necessary, the Tatmadaw may mobilize this type of militia to fight against foreign and local threats.”
Undoubtedly, all the “foreign and local threats” to the KMF will be posed by the the MNDAA, which has fully taken advantage of the porous China-Myanmar border to attack selected targets inside the Kokang region, including hotels (November 27th, 2015), houses (September 15th, 2016) and casinos (March 6th, 2017) owned by rivals in the Kokang community who are loyal to the Myanmar government. These rivals strongly support the KMF, bearing the vast majority of the financial burden, while the local government provides monthly subsidies equivalent to $76 per person.
One of the KMF’s four authorized units, with approximately 200 well-trained cadres, is headed by Bai Yingcang, the second son of the Kokang self-administration’s former top leader (2009-2016) Bai Suocheng (a.k.a.Bai Xuoqian). Bai Suocheng boldly challenged his superior Peng Jiasheng’s rule and became loyal to the then-SPDC government in the historic “88 Incident”, a violent conflict that erupted 8 years ago, leading to Peng Jiasheng’s “eighth fall” and the Tatmadaw incumbent Commander-in-Chief senior general Min Aung Hlaing’s prominent rise.
The Tatmadaw’s master plan can be interpreted through national-level initiatives. In his widely-read book, Building the Tatmadaw, Maung Aung Myoe writes:
“Since the mid-1960s, the Tatmadaw introduced a three-phase counter-insurgency warfare plan. Phase one transforms a ‘black area’ into a ‘brown area’, that is, transforms an area controlled by insurgents, but where the Tatmadaw operates, to a Tatmadaw-controlled area where insurgent operates. The second phase is to transform from ‘brown area’ into ‘white area’. In this phase, the area will be cleared of any insurgent activities. The final phase is to transform it into a ‘hard-core area’…In phase three, the government forms pro-government militia units for both counter-insurgency and for overall national defence.”
From this deeply rooted perspective, the Kokang region has entered into a critical transitional process of becoming a “hard-core area”. In this scenario, possible clashes in the years to come will be less intense than the one in 2015, in which over a hundred government soldiers and police officers were killed and around 80,000 locals were displaced. However, constant assaults underscore that the MNDAA and its allies are still very active. Their leverage has been further enhanced by becoming a founding member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) , a political alliance led by the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA).
So why did the Tatmadaw, if that “three-phase theory” still valid, decide to expedite the regional military pattern towards a new stage? One logical explanation goes that it wants to change the stubborn position of the MNDAA and its allies, making room for the ceasefire agreement and political dialogue. Rumor has it that the Tatmadaw has already approached the MNDAA privately. After all, senior general Min Aung Hlaing once quoted Bismarck as saying “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable–the art of the next best.”