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Who and what are behind Myanmar’s long-running civil war on China’s doorstep?

Conflict between ethnic-minority militias and government forces has flared up again in northern Myanmar close to the Chinese border, endangering the peace process promoted by Myanmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi and causing instability on China’s border.

Who are fighting?

The three armed ethnic groups behind the surprise attacks in the border area of northern Myanmar’s Shan State since early Sunday are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), according to Xinhua.

The three groups did not sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the Myanmese government and eight ethnic groups last year. The accord was one of the key political outcomes of Myanmar’s transition period under former president Thein Sein.

The KIA is the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, a political group comprising ethnic Kachins in northern Myanmar. It has clashed regularly with Myanmar’s military since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the two broke down. The Kachins are a coalition of at least six tribes whose homeland encircles territory in Yunnan in China and Northeast India, in addition to Kachin State in Myanmar.

The TNLA is the armed wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front and promotes self-determination for the Ta’ang people, a Mon-Khmer ethnic minority living in Shan State, Yunnan and Northern Thailand. The TNLA is well known for its opposition to opium poppy cultivation, which is a major contributor to Myanmar’s economy and concentrated in the Shan and Kachin states.

The MNDAA, also known as the Kokang Army, is led by ethnic-Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng and is an active insurgent group in the Chinese-speaking Kokang region, an area in the northern part of Shan State on the border with Yunnan. The MNDAA emerged from the remnants of the Communist Party of Burma, a powerful Chinese-backed guerrilla force that battled the Myanmese government before splintering in 1989, according to Reuters. The MNDAA was involved in what was called the biggest outbreak of fighting between ethnic groups and government troops in Myanmar in August, 2009 when government troops took over their Kokang region in a conflict that pushed tens of thousands of refugees into China.

Why are they fighting?

The conflict between government and ethnic minority forces dates back to the end of the second world war and the end of British colonial rule in 1948.

Fighting in past decades was largely fueled by feuds, competition over natural resources, and demands for more autonomy.

The conflicts have resulted in a central part of the country dominated by the majority Burmese, surrounded by various ethnic minority populations who form the majority in their own areas. Most of Myanmar’s ethnic groups are now concentrated within particular regions corresponding more or less to the states named after the seven ethnic nationalities: Karen, Kachin, Mon, Arakanese, Karenni, Chin and Shan, according to reports.

Suu Kyi is trying to forge a nationwide peace agreement between all ethnic groups after years of war in Myanmar’s many border regions, but ethnic minorities have a deep-rooted mistrust of the central government.

What is China’s involvement?

China has publicly distanced itself from Myanmar’s internal conflicts and sought to position itself as a mediator over the years, despite accusations that its projects in Myanmar have been one of the major triggers for the fighting.

China has been accused of tolerating or aiding rebels along its 2,200km border with Myanmar as its neighbour leans towards the West, but there is little evidence to support those claims.

On the surface, China provides humanitarian support to people fleeing across the border to escape the fighting.

The Chinese government offered food and medical supplies to an estimated 50,000 Kokang civilians who poured into southwest China last year after fighting erupted between the Myanmese Army and Kokang rebels.