Who Are Myanmar’s Kokang Rebels And What Are They Fighting For?

By Joshua Lipes
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myanmar-kokang-rebels-sept-2009.jpg Ethnic Kokang soldiers stand outside a deserted market in Shan state in a file photo.

Clashes between government troops and Kokang rebels in northeastern Myanmar’s Shan state have left more than 100 people dead and caused around 100,000 refugees to flee across the border into China since early February. Here is a look at who the rebels are and what they claim to be fighting for:

Who are the MNDAA?

Ethnic Kokang are primarily based in northern Shan state and the minority group maintains a rebel army of around 3,000 troops under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The MNDAA was formerly part of a China-backed guerrilla force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and became the first of about a dozen factions to sign a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the government after the group broke apart in 1989.

However, the agreement faltered in 2009 when armed groups came under pressure to transform into a paramilitary Border Guard Force under the control of Myanmar’s military—a move the MNDAA resisted.

Peng (also known as Phone Kya Shin) left the Kokang self-administered zone, which the MNDAA had controlled, during a government push into the territory that year. The move by the military also saw floods of refugees move into China’s Yunnan province, and Peng’s return has spearheaded a new attempt to retake territory he previously held.

Why are they fighting Myanmar’s military?

Fighting erupted Feb. 9 in Laukkai, capital of the special region of Kokang in the northern part of Shan state near Myanmar’s border with China, between army troops and MNDAA rebel forces.

U.S. officials have long suspected Peng Jiasheng of playing a major role in drug trafficking, initially in opium and more recently in methamphetamines. While he claims to be fighting for ethnic rights, the current struggle appears to be part of a bid by the rebel leader to retake power of an area that supports lucrative trading and smuggling because of its location on the border with China.

Local media reports say the MNDAA had been joined in the recent clashes by allies the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakanese Army (AA).

The KIA and the TNLA are Myanmar’s last remaining major ethnic armed groups that have not secured bilateral cease-fires with Naypyidaw since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the former military regime in 2011.

All groups have denied involvement in the fighting, but all of them, including the United Nationalities Federal Council bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups, voiced sympathy with the Kokang and called on the government to hold talks.

What effects have the clashes had on the region?

More than 50 military troops and 70 Kokang rebels have been killed in fighting since Feb. 9, according to the Myanmar government.

An estimated 100,000 refugees have poured across the border into neighboring China since the fighting began, according to aid workers.

Myanmar has declared a state of emergency in the region in response to the conflict, and called on Beijing to prevent rebels from using its territory to launch "terrorist activities."

Chinese officials have stepped up border controls and called on all parties to prevent a further escalation of fighting.


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