China’s embassy in Myanmar urged its nationals to leave a border area in the country’s restive Shan State Thursday, citing growing security risks.
A surge in unrest has seen increased clashes between Myanmar’s ruling military junta and armed ethnic rebel groups in the Laukkai district in the mountainous northern state, which shares a border with China. Beijing’s complicated role in the conflict reflects Myanmar’s fraught ties with its largest trading partner.
Shan state a hotbed of online crime involving Chinese nationals
In addition to political unrest amid Myanmar’s nearly three-year civil war, unstable governance has made Shan state a hotbed for cross-border criminal activities, with a proliferation of online scam centers. More than 40,000 Chinese nationals involved in online fraud schemes have been arrested and deported in the past three months, according to Radio Free Asia, while the UN estimates that at least 120,000 people have been trafficked into working the scams. With Beijing having pressed the military junta for months to shut down the scam centers, a major offensive by an alliance of ethnic rebel groups in October paved the way for a crackdown on cross-border crime that targets Chinese nationals, according to CNN.
Beijing is playing both sides in Myanmar’s civil war
China’s endorsement of Myanmar’s junta, while also tacitly supporting the ethnic militant groups “encapsulates the self-interested, though sometimes seemingly conflicted way in which China operates towards Myanmar,” The Economist wrote. China has indirectly encouraged the militias to crack down on cybercrime gangs to maintain its short-term security interests. But to further its long-term economic and strategic ambitions, Beijing cozies up to the junta to which it sells millions of dollars worth of weapons and which it can manipulate more easily than Myanmar’s pro-Western democrats. “But now China has to make the decision: Do we want stability, or do we want the manipulation?,” a Burmese American analyst told Voice of America. “You can manipulate the bad governance, but then you don’t have the stability, and all the investment that you put into the area is at risk.”
Armed conflict brings large-scale displacement and civilian casualties
The UN estimates that more than 660,000 people have been displaced since fighting between the junta and the Three Brotherhood Alliance of militia groups escalated in late October. Some displaced people have been forced to move multiple times for safety, the UN said, while others fear leaving current displacement sites to prevent being forcefully recruited. More than 300 civilians have died in the violence, according to unverified reports. Migrant workers who fled the border town of Laukkai described their “unbearable” ordeal since the armed conflict began, with one telling Frontier Myanmar that he couldn’t afford to buy rice for more than 20 days after his construction work was stopped due to high costs and instability. Others overheard the military’s soldiers suggesting using civilians as shields against fire from the militia groups. A spokesperson for the Brotherhood Alliance told The Irrawaddy that it will not stop its operation until it eliminates the junta from Myanmar, adding that negotiations are unnecessary because the military regime is too weak.