Officials from the southwestern Chinese province that borders Myanmar have offered cash to entice ethnic Kachin refugees to return to their war-torn homeland and threatened a blockade if the group's armed forces refuse to sign a peace deal, a Kachin religious leader told RFA’s Myanmar Service after talks in China last week.
The officials from China’s Yunnan province offered as much as 120,000 yuan (U.S. $20,000) to each displaced Kachin refugee family who opts to return home to northeastern Myanmar. Yunnan accounts for the bulk of the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) China-Myanmar border, the Kachin official said.
The offer, which came with a Chinese entreaty that Kachins accept the Myanmar government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), was made during a March 1 meeting at the Chinese border town of Ruili between Yunnan authorities and Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) representatives, said KBC chairman Hkalam Samson.
The Yunnan delegation also urged the Kachin public not to oppose the signing of Myanmar government’s NCA. The October 2015 agreement is the centerpiece of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace plan to end decades of warfare between ethnic armies and the central government.
China, a major player in the ethnic conflicts along the Myanmar-China border with ambitious plans to build dams and pipelines and to exploit natural resources in Myanmar, offered to assist the refugee returnees by building homes and providing other necessities once the cease-fire process is concluded, the KBC official said.
RFA called the Chinese embassy in Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon seeking confirmation of the offer, but got no reply.
Activist Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network, an NGO, said a Chinese government offer conditional on refugees returning would not go down well with displaced Kachins.
“I don’t think the return of the displaced Kachin refugees to their prior-to-displacement conditions can be achieved by making a give-and-take deal,” he said.
“Internally displaced persons [IDPs] have the right to agree to return only if conditions are right for them to live in dignity. They shouldn’t be exploited politically, socially and economically. So if they want to help the IDPs, it should be a no-strings-attached deal,” added Khon Ja.
Decades of warfare in Kachin state have created a population of some 100,000 Kachin refugees. Recent fighting that flared up in 2018 displaced some 4,000 Kachins.
The authorities from Yunnan province also asked the KBC leaders to appeal to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed group representing the mostly Christian Kachins, to sign the government’s NCA as soon as possible, Hkalam Samson said.
He told RFA that the Yunnan authorities threatened a blockade if the KIA refuses to sign the NCA. Other reports have said the Yunnan officials said they will recall Chinese technicians who are providing technical assistance to KIA and close the border gates, if the KIA refuses to sign the pact.
“They stated clearly that KIA needs to sign the NCA,” Hkalam Samson told RFA.
“If the KIA does not sign the NCA by the end of 2019, the Chinese side will start a blockade,” he said, referring to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) which has been engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar military in Kachin state.
“It could include all traffic, both human and commerce flows, and stop all exports and imports and flow of daily commuters through the border gate,” he added.
RFA contacted KIA spokesperson Colonel Naw Bu, but he said on Thursday that he lacked authority to comment on the Chinese threats.
KIO 'ready to sign'
The KIA and other armed groups — the Arakan Army (AA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — are known collectively as the Northern Alliance.
The ethnic armies of the Northern Alliance have not signed truces with the government and continue to engage in sporadic fighting with Myanmar forces in their quest for greater autonomy and ethnic minority rights within a federal system.
KBC chairman Hlakam Samson said the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA's political wing, prefers signing a bilateral agreement with the Myanmar government rather than join the multilateral NCA.
“The KIO is ready to sign the bilateral agreement for now. It would [approach] NCA agreements through political negotiations. In my understanding, if there's progress for returning refugees and an improvement in public confidence, it is more likely they would sign NCA,” he said.
Kachin Youth leader Seng Nu Pan said that the conditions were not yet ripe for signing the NCA.
“Ethnic minorities have been demanding the rights of autonomy and self-determination. These are our main concerns. If we are granted these rights, we can accept the demands to sign NCA,” he told RFA.
“If the military refuses to grant us these rights, they shouldn’t be making these demands to sign the NCA,” he said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Kyaw Tun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Khaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.