A prominent ethnic Chinese businessman with family ties to the leader of a rebel group fighting government troops in northern Myanmar’s Shan state has died while in custody of local authorities, prompting speculation he was tortured to death, sources said Monday.
Yangon-based Li Guoquan, 60, was secretly arrested by Myanmar’s military intelligence agency on Feb. 23, sources in the city told RFA’s Mandarin Service on the condition of anonymity, adding that it was unclear why he had been taken into custody.
Li died after being admitted to the Yangon Military Hospital on March 5 and was buried by his family at a nearby cemetery a day later, they said.
Miandian Zaixian (Myanmar Online), a Chinese language news website, claims to have obtained the deceased businessman’s autopsy report, which it said indicated Li’s death was caused by “internal injuries” and “serious damage to internal organs.”
Witnesses who were in the hospital with Li also told Myanmar Online that the right side of his face and stomach exhibited severe wounds at the time of his death, prompting the website to question whether he had been tortured to death by intelligence agents while in custody.
Sources said Li’s death may have been linked to his ties to ethnic Chinese brother-in-law Peng Deren—the military commander in charge of operations for the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which is fighting to retake the Kokang self-administered zone of Shan state it had controlled until 2009.
Shan State shares a long rugged border with China’s Yunnan province and a significant segment of people in Kokang are ethnic Chinese.
Peng Deren’s father, Peng Jiasheng, leads the MNDAA, but the younger Peng is in charge of the group’s combat operations.
The conflict in Kokang flared up on Feb. 9 and has killed more than 100 people and displaced tens of thousands of people.
The military may also have suspected Li, who was born in the Kokang region, of financing the Kokang rebels with the wealth he accumulated as a successful businessman, the sources said.
The death of the former vice president of both the Yangon Kokang Ethnic Culture Association and the Chinese Business Chamber of Myanmar, has shocked the country’s Chinese community, sources told RFA, adding that the belief that he had been killed was widespread.
A source that was close to Li called him a “gentle” person with moderate political views, despite his personal connections to the Peng family.
Other sources said that if Li had committed any acts of treason he should have been given a fair and public trial, while his death in custody had conjured up images of life under Myanmar’s former military regime—a contradiction to democratic reforms introduced by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian since taking power in 2011.
A large number of Myanmar's ethnic Chinese and residents of Kokang disagree with Peng Jiasheng, they said, and would prefer to integrate as citizens of the country.
But Li’s death had lent legitimacy to the rebel cause, they added, prompting moderate ethnic Chinese to call their loyalty to the country into question.
Li’s death came to light as fighting in Kokang intensified over the weekend, with the military employing air and artillery strikes against rebels, a resident of Kokang told RFA Monday.
“The battle raged all day [Sunday] with military aircraft bombing the area intensively,” he said, adding that he was unclear about the number of casualties from the day’s fighting.
“When the military airplanes dropped bombs, it looked as if the whole mountain caught fire. Government troops also used artillery [Sunday] but it has been quiet today.”
The source said residents of Kokang were required to show their identification to cross the border into China’s Yunnan province and that refugees were being told to use the checkpoint at the Chinese town of Nansan to enter the country.
“It is reported that China’s armed police will seal off the border area in two or three days as more and more refugees cross on daily basis,” he said, adding that there are now more than 4,000 refugees living in Nansan.
Refugees and aid workers have said Chinese authorities previously offered reliable humanitarian aid to some 100,000 Kokang refugees who fled to Yunnan, but have begun forcing thousands back across the border into Myanmar since last week.
Also on Monday, Kokang residents reported that Myanmar’s military aircraft had mistakenly dropped four bombs into Chinese territory during Sunday’s battle.
Pictures provided by the residents show individuals dressed like Chinese officials investigating the bomb sites, though China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not made any public comments about the alleged incident.
Bilateral meetings were held over the weekend in both China and Myanmar with the aim of reducing tensions over the Kokang conflict, the officials Global New Light of Myanmar reported Monday.
Officials from the foreign ministries of both nations met in the Shan State border town of Muse on Sunday, while a delegation of the Myanmar-China Friendship Association traveled to Beijing to meet with Liu Zhenmin, the Chinese vice-minister for foreign affairs, along with other officials from March 3-8.
Reported by Li Tong and Qian Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen and Feng Xiaoming. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.