As the conflict in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, has seen a lot of important developments recently I thought it might be useful to resume this series on the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) fighting against the military junta who seized power in a coup in 2021. To kick things off once again I thought it would be worth covering a group that was relatively obscure throughout the decades of fighting of the Burma Civil War but has recently come to assume a much larger role in the conflict and likely will be a significant player in a post-junta Myanmar.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is the EAO of the Kokang people, who inhabit the mountainous northeast of Shan State on the Chinese border. And while many other of Burma’s myriad of ethnic minorities have dealings with the People’s Republic, the Kokang have a closer link in that the majority of the population are ethnically Han Chinese.
These people, called the Kokang Chinese, originally began to migrate into the region in the 17th Century. The collapse of the Ming Dynasty saw a powerful Chinese military family also migrate, the Yangs, and they established their own state, Kokang. This became a tributary state to the Chinese Empire, before being ceded to British Burma in 1897.
Because of its remote location it was effectively left as an independent state by the British, retaining its distinctive culture and mandarin chinese language as a result. This situation also meant that Kokang was able to become a key part in the opium industry that provided much of the regions income, forming the northern tip of the infamous Golden Triangle.
While the trade was comparatively small for decades, the massive influx of Nationalist Chinese soldiers fleeing the communist take-over of China in 1949 saw the industry explode, with Kokang becoming a major player in global opium and heroin production. This was dominated by a rather unique warlord, Olive Yang, who commanded an army that allowed her to maintain control over the lucrative routes down through Shan State into Thailand.
This saw opium run one way while guns supplied by the CIA under Operation Paper ran the other, intended for anti-communist groups with the idea of building up forces for an invasion of communist China by the exile Nationalist elements. What actually happened was the creation of the powerful narco-armies that came to dominate the triangle, with the Kokang being a perfect example.
Olive Yang was able to play the government in Rangoon and the Nationalist Chinese forces off against each other for quite a while, consolidating her strength as the ruler of Kokang, but in 1962 she was arrested by the government in an attempt to bring the rogue region under their control.
Instead Kokang became the stronghold of the Communist Party of Burma, a situation that lasted until 1989. That year the Party collapsed into ethnic factions, with the Kokang leader Pheung Kya-shin founding the MNDAA.
The group immediately signed a ceasefire with the military government controlling Burma at the time, the first of the ethnic forces to do so. As reward Kokang was recognised as the First Special Region – in effect giving the Kokang autonomy to manage their affairs as they saw fit.
Narcotics continued to be the major source of income, though in 2003, under pressure from outside powers and the central government, poppy cultivation was banned, though the actual determination that this was carried out with has been questioned by outside observers and law enforcement.
Whatever the truth of this, certainly the Kokang-controlled border towns began to boom as they catered to Chinese gamblers with money to burn as China’s economy exploded. And naturally, with money being earnt the Myanmar army’s generals decided they wanted in and engineered a takeover.
In 2009 the MNDAA was beset by factionalism when Pheung Kya-shin refused demands for the MNDAA to become a Border Guard Force, essentially an auxiliary unit of the Burma army, and his deputy staged a coup with the support of the military. The MNDAA loyalists fled to China, along with almost 40,000 refugees, and that would have been the end of the organisation.
But Pheung was not finished, and resurfaced in December 2014, giving an interview in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, declaring that he was the “King of Kokang” and would soon reclaim his territory. In February 2015 the MNDAA, assisted by their allies in the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) attacked Myanmar army and police positions in Kokang, and several months of fighting took place.
The conflict even spilled over into neigbouring China when an errant airstrike by the Myanmar Air Force struck a field in that country, killing four Chinese civilians. This led to the Chinese military deploying considerable forces in the area and expressing their displeasure, and while the Burmese military made public apologies, there were also a number of accusations that Chinese soldiers were fighting alongside the Kokang as volunteers or mercenaries.
Things did settle down, though the occasional skirmish flared between the MNDAA and the Myanmar army for several years until the military coup of February 2021. At that point conflict broke out between the MNDAA and the military, as it did with many of the EAO’s.
While much of the attention has been put into the efforts by the various People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) that have sprung up to fight the military in previously peaceful parts of the country, as well as the operations conducted by bigger groups such as the Kachin Independence Army or the Karen National Liberation Army, the MNDAA has largely been overlooked in reporting.
But that is now all changing. In alliance with the Ta’ang and the Arakan, who between them form the Three-Brother’s Alliance, the MNDAA launched an offensive in October 2023 code named “Operation 1027” against the Myanmar military and pro-Junta allies throughout northern Shan State. This offensive has seen a number of important strongpoints fall to ethnic forces, and coordination has also occurred with other groups such as the Kachin to put heavy pressure on the military’s presence in northern Myanmar.
Interestingly one of the stated aims of the offensive by the MNDAA is the closing of call centres located in towns in the area that were under the control of the military and which were running phone-and-cyber scams, as well as shutting down criminal gangs that were linked to slave labour and sex trafficking that operated widely in the border areas. This situation had been publicly condemned by the Chinese government and led to their demands that the Myanmar government deal with the problem, something they had failed to do, probably because of the general’s relationship with this illegal business.
It seems that the MNDAA, by loudly proclaiming their intent to eliminate these criminal enterprises, is hoping to further improve their relations with Beijing, no doubt anticipating China’s support when they reestablish themselves in their former domain and possibly giving them much greater sway on a post-junta government because of this backing.
Because unlike most of the other ethnic groups who are fighting for freedom, the MNDAA do have a powerful outside sponsor in the People’s Republic, ties that are reinforced not just by proximity and business interests, but by blood. And that means the MNDAA and their leadership will not remain as an obscure group on the fringe of things any longer.