Tue 12 Feb 2013
Filed under: Opinion,Regional
The border between Yunnan province and northern Myanmar (formerly Burma) has always been porous. To the people who live in the region, the border is a crooked mark on other people’s maps, an arbitrary boundary snaking its way 2,400 kilometres through rugged and wild terrain. The authorities in Beijing have seen the same land as a lawless borderland, a place to be controlled.
In October 2012 the trial of a Burmese drug lord, Naw Kham, who was sentenced to death for the killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong river in northern Thailand, sharpened the sense in China that the Sino-Burmese border remains a breeding ground for criminal gangs and drug traffickers. The Chinese are also growing steadily more alarmed about the conflict between Myanmar’s army and the Kachin Independence Army (known by the perhaps inauspicious initials “KIA”) and the potential of its spilling over into China. Last month, the generals in Myanmar ordered a major offensive, deploying fighter jets and heavy artillery against KIA positions. Chinese authorities fear a humanitarian crisis on their territory, should the thousands of Karen and Kachin displaced from Kachin state and living in refugee camps in northern Yunnan be forced to seek safe haven farther from Myanmar, in southern Yunnan.
The people of this ecologically and ethnically diverse region have taken refuge on ether side of the border for centuries, according to various regional balances of power. For nearly as long they have frustrated attempts by both Burmese and Chinese governments to impose order. In “The Art of Not Being Governed”, James C. Scott argues that “Zomia”, a name he gives to the swath of highland communities that stretches from the edge of Tibet to Vietnam’s central highlands, is the largest remaining region of the world not to have been fully incorporated into nation-states.
The Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century ended nearly 500 years’ rule of an independent kingdom in what is today Yunnan. Dynasties subsequent to the Mongols’ Yuan have all continued to claim Yunnan as a province—but administering it is another matter. Officials were often posted to the province as a form of punishment. They saw it as being a dangerous, disease-ridden backwater inhabited mostly by non-Chinese who stubbornly refused the officials’ benevolent efforts to “civilise” them.
The Manchu conquest of China in the mid-17th century and the founding of the Qing dynasty marked the beginning of an especially turbulent era in Sino-Burmese relations. Throughout the Qing period, Yunnan, and especially the Sino-Burmese frontier, became a haven for anyone eager to avoid unnecessary involvement with the state. It was a Wild West on the Mekong. Illegal miners, smugglers, fugitives and would-be warlords lived side-by-side with local ethnic groups, corrupt Qing officials, and Burmese pirates. Conflicts were frequent and bloody.
The last claimant to the throne of the defeated Ming dynasty spent most of his reign on the run, with his court in tow. He finally fled into Burma seeking refuge. The Manchu army stormed across the border and demanded the Burmese king hand over his guest, to be executed, or else prepare to fight.
The Qing empire also fought a series of border wars against the Burmese in the middle of the 18th century. They launched four invasions into Burma in the span of just a few years, each venture proving more disastrous than the one before. The Qing commanders initially tried to hide the extent of their defeats. After each display of official incompetence the emperor grew more enraged until finally he unleashed the full fury of the elite Manchu bannermen against the Burmese king. So confident was the emperor in Manchu military prowess that even as his troops were mustering, he was already considering plans for how to incorporate a conquered and chastened Burma into the empire. Unfortunately for him, the Manchu troops were more adept at fighting their wars of conquest in the arid climate of Central Asia. Tropical heat and disease—especially dysentery—decimated their ranks in Burma. Hoping to spare his empire further humiliation, the emperor called it a draw. Two decades later, after trade and diplomatic relations had been restored between Burma and the empire, the emperor decided that, notwithstanding the evidence, the Qing had won the war after all.
Subsequent Chinese governments would gain a modicum of control over Yunnan. But even into the 20th century local leaders maintained a high level of autonomy, and the frontier continued to harbour its share of fugitives and rebels. In the aftermath of the Communist victory in 1949, thousands of troops nominally loyal to Chiang Kai-shek fled into Burma and Thailand. Many continued the fight, supported with arms and money from Taiwan and the United States. Others joined criminal gangs, supporting themselves through poppies and piracy.
Today, as the governments of Burma and China expand their reach into the isolated valleys and hillsides of the Sino-Burmese frontier, local communities are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their autonomy. The Chinese government sees this as a triumph for nation-building and the rule of law. The local people however have a longer memory. Over the past millennium they have been conquered many times, but never allowed themselves to be truly governed. Why start now?