The Influence of China on Ethnic Armed Groups in Border Regions

Myanmar Spring Chronicle – October 13 Scenes

Published by MoeMaKa, October 14, 2023

The Influence of China on Ethnic Armed Groups in Border Regions

The extent of China’s influence over ethnic armed groups along the China-Myanmar border is widely acknowledged but rarely openly discussed. Consequently, one must infer its influence through observations and events.

Commencing from the northernmost part of Myanmar, there exist armed groups, such as the KIO/KIA, situated in border regions of Kachin State with China. The ULA/AA, while not based along the border with China, receives military training and weaponry from groups within that region. Then there’s the armed group led by Zahkung Ting Ying (formerly the New Democratic Army-Kachin or NDAK), which has transformed into a border guard force operating in northern Kachin State, along with various other armed groups in Northern Shan State, like TNLA, Kokang armed group MNDAA, Mongla armed group, United Wa State Army (UWSA), and more. It’s a well-accepted fact that these ethnic armed groups, along with those governing self-governing regions, operate in circumstances where they must maintain close ties with China.

Over the past decade, there have been instances where ethnic armed groups have had to heed China’s encouragements to participate in peace talks and government-ethnic armed group conferences in Myanmar.

More recently, criminal networks have formed, and online financial fraud activities have extended beyond Myanmar’s border areas to the point where they’ve set up operations in places like Yangon’s commercial district. Many of these enterprises are driven by Chinese nationals. Over the last 3-4 years, crimes that disregard international borders, involving the coercion of labor from individuals lured into these activities, akin to human trafficking, have proliferated. The victims targeted by criminal networks involving Chinese nationals encompass individuals from not only Southeast and East Asia but worldwide. To function within these criminal organizations, individuals skilled in internet use are recruited from developing countries and, upon arrival, are effectively held captive, unable to return, and compelled to work under exploitative conditions.

These transnational crimes have tarnished China’s reputation. Since many victims of fraud include Chinese nationals, China began cracking down on these criminal organizations last year. In Myanmar, where the rule of law is severely compromised and armed groups hold sway, if these criminal networks are permitted to operate or ignored through taxation, they gain free rein and armed protection.

Presently, China is employing all available means, power, and influence to suppress these criminal enterprises. In recent weeks, regions along the Chinese border with ethnic armed populations have detained hundreds to thousands of individuals suspected of links to online fraud groups and extradited them to China. In a parallel development, the Myanmar military council government apprehended Chinese nationals associated with online fraud groups and turned them over to China.

China’s most recent move includes issuing warrants for two officers within the United Wa State Army on suspicion of being involved in online fraud. China has also offered a reward for the arrest of Wa State Construction Department Director Pao Ai Pan and Mong Lin District Governor Ai Hok, alleging their involvement in online fraud.

Recent incidents include the arrest of 11 entrepreneurs from the Kokang Autonomous Region while attending a trade fair in China. Furthermore, Wa State administrative officials, including one of the most influential figures in Wa State, and their relatives have had arrest warrants issued against them. Although the Myanmar Military Council has not publicly commented on China’s ongoing crackdown on online fraud and criminal networks, it is evident that the council is under pressure from China. Several months ago, during a visit by a Chinese representative who met with the military council’s leader, the suppression of these criminal networks was publicly emphasized, underscoring the Chinese government’s influence over Myanmar.

While the military council does cooperate to a certain extent with China on various projects, its reluctance to address these issues in military council publications suggests they do not view China’s concerns as a top priority. Despite recognizing the need to maintain cordial relations with China while appearing subordinate to Russia, they seem to believe that they do not have to exhibit excessive deference to China.