The border between Yunnan and Myanmar is no longer the dangerous and mysterious place that empries tried to control –from afar– in the 19th century. Perhaps it was simply the region’s remoteness from the capital cities negotiating its fate that created the mystique in the first place, but for many who have studied (and loved) the region’s history, the greatest shock from the latest photographs of the Kokang conflict may have been the extent of urbanization in Laukkai’s [шАБшбЧх╕В] downtown core. In 2015, Laukkai looks more like “a real city” than Vientiane [шРмш▒бх╕В] did when I first arrived there.
Years ago, I wrote an article that ridiculed the grandiose dreams of both the French and British Empires that imagined they would quickly criss-cross the area with railway tracks, opening up the supposedly-tremendous trade potential of what was (then) a poverty-stricken backwater, still using opium and seashells as (de facto) currency. Just a few months ago, I wrote an essay that included a rapid evaluation of the current projects to (finally) complete the links of road, rail and pipeline from Kyaukpyu [чЪОц╝В] to Kunming [цШЖцШО]. The area is emerging from obscurity, with a somewhat different timeline for each district on the map.
With the end of obscurity, new opportunities commence. Perhaps this is the opportunity for Kokang district (or, “special administrative zone”) to make a move for independence, separating from Myanmar. Perhaps not. Perhaps China will again demonstrate its policy of opposing separatism everywhere, as a matter of principle, regardless of its own national interests. This principle has been significant to the history of Burma more than once before, as, e.g., when Karen revolutionaries [K.N.U.P.] sought Beijing’s support for their own separate state, under the banner of Communism. They were refused. If China had been interested in supporting ethnic separatism within Burma, in order to create satellite states, they have had many decades of opportunities to do so, and declined.
Although photographs by tourists and hoteliers are easy to find on the internet, the 2015 conflict also highlights the decline of the conventional, western news media. In an era when CNN has closed its Baghdad bureau, and the whole news industry has collapsed its commitments to even the most headline-grabbing wars, an unpopular conflict in a poor country is unlikely to merit a single visit from a western journalist. I recall that when I was interviewed by a reporter from Le Monde he mentioned to me that his editor’s policy was, “One story on Laos about every four years” –unless there were nuclear war. The Yunnan border is presumably an even lower priority.
Of course, within Southeast Asia, the few publications from the past that might have lept at the opportunity to send someone into the field have disappeared, and never were replaced (the Far Eastern Economic Review being a prominent example). Admittedly, if some news bureau were to cover the travel-expenses and health insurance for such a venture, very few western journalists –if any– would have the combination of language-skills and political expertise to accomplish much more than sparking up casual conversations around the refugee camps (if they’re even allowed to approach the camps).
However, the round numbers of refugees being reported are too round for my liking (some sources say 30,000, some say 60,000), and it bothers me that I can’t find anything like a direct (independent) source, taking responsibility for the estimates. Instead, what reports exist, in English, rely on relationships with “stringers” sending back photographs by e-mail, and, of course, the recycling of official government statements from both Chinese and Burmese sources as “news”. A journalist in a Beijing office, or even a Rangoon office, may not have access to much more information than I have, from my desk in Canada.
The Kokang uprising raises many interesting questions that I can’t answer. What, currently, is the relationship between the Kokang and the Kachin Independence Army [K.I.A.]? For that matter, how could the current uprising change the situation for the (treaty-abiding) Wa State Army? The tiny parcel of land represented by Kokang seems as if it could be separated without any devastating effect on the Burmese economy, and yet, perhaps, the deeper threat to Myanmar is from the Kokang’s connection to broader claims of democracy and self-determination. If the Kokang had any degree of success whatsoever, would this provoke Shan State to demand independence? Presumably, for many in the Burmese military, it would be preferable not to have to ask these questions, and to instead eliminate the uprising. Conversely, I wonder if the other ethnic groups (thinking of sovereignty) would reject the prospect of Kokang leadership.
I’m unlikely to find answers to even these preliminary questions by reading in English, and while I may complain about the paucity of Western journalists conducting research on the ground, I’m aware, also, that the majority of such reporters couldn’t do much more than I once did, wandering around Jinghong [цЩпц┤к], in gathering together anecdotes about the politics along the borderlands. Admittedly, however, I learned many strange and secret things in the cafés of Jinghong.
Eisel Mazard researches Southeast Asian society and cultures. His website is www.eisel-mazard.com