Myanmar: Tilting Towards India


June 30, 2015: The army has sent more troops to their 1,643 kilometer long Indian border. This is in support of India which has a decades old tribal rebellion on its side of the frontier and only one battalion (fewer than 800 troops) per hundred kilometers of border. Thus there is ample opportunity for tribal rebels to sneak across and set up camps in Burma, safe from Indian security forces. Burma admits it is responsible for detecting and expelling these illegal visitors but most of the border area is thinly populated forests and mountains and it is very difficult to get troops into the area and very expensive to support them as they go after any intruders.  So India sent a few more battalions to areas the rebels seem to prefer to cross at. This makes it more difficult for the rebels to move to their Burma sanctuaries but does not stop them. Because of the recent rebel ambush inside India, using Burmese bases, the Burmese army will use Indian intelligence on routes the rebels are using to cross the border and have Burmese troops watch and block these routes. Getting all the Burmese reinforcements in place will take until later in July.

On the Indian side of the border troops are limiting the amount of food people can take with them into Burma. People on the Burmese side rely on regular food imports from India so limiting the flow of food will limit what the Indian rebels get. The Indian rebels are not likely to take food by force from Burmese as this would turn the Burmese against them.

This is in contrast to how the previous military government in Burma had quietly made peace deals with some of the Indian rebel groups. This was meant to ensure that the Indian rebels did not cause trouble along the border, especially by cooperating with Burmese tribal rebels. Since the 2011 elections the new Burmese government has developed closer relations with India, encouraged by a lot of Indian economic investment and military aid. As a result those old agreements with the Indian rebels no longer apply. Until the June 4th ambush this change in policy was largely kept quiet.  After June 4th the Burmese leader quickly decided to put Chinese concerns on the back burner and pay more attention to Indian needs.

Many Burmese were not happy with the June 8th Indian cross-border commando raid but a year ago the Burmese government agreed to attack camps of Indian rebel groups in northwest Burma. This would involve the use of information about the Indian rebels supplied by Indian military intelligence. This sometimes included camp locations and other data. India believes there are at least 25 such camps in northern Burma, with precise locations given for 17 camps. Some are as close as six kilometers from the border while others are up to 40 kilometers away.

There was apparently no absolute prohibition of Indian forces would operating inside Burma. Because agreement had not really worked India felt justified in making the commando raid. For over a year India tried to convince Burma to shut down Indian rebel camps in Burma. The Burmese were reluctant to get involved because the Indian rebels were heavily armed, behaved themselves in Burma and spent money in Burma as well. Some of the money was bribes for local police and soldiers to keep their distance. India offered more trade and infrastructure (cross border roads) deals as well as military assistance. Moreover Burma has had more problems with their own rebellious tribes in the north in the past year. This brought with it pressure from China to protect the expanding Chinese investments in northern Burma. These Chinese investments caused more problems with the tribes up there. Burma was also unhappy with the lack of Chinese cooperation to curb the Chinese arms smuggling that goes into Burma and via Burma to rebels in India (tribal ones in the northeast and communist ones throughout eastern India).

The Misrule Of The Generals

The Burmese military in under growing domestic and foreign pressure to give up the veto power it has under the new constitution. The generals have used this to “protect their interests.” This has included blocking “hostile” (anti-military) candidates from running for president or attempts by parliament to curb military power. This is all about how the 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and requires 75 percent of the votes in parliament to get the constitution changed. The generals are reluctant to allow any changes because so many Burmese are still angry at the decades of bad behavior by the military governments. Without some control over the government the generals who ran the military dictatorship (and many of their subordinates) could be prosecuted for their crimes. The generals are under a lot of pressure over the constitutional reform issue. Burmese businessmen and foreign investors also back a reduction of military control, mainly because the military is the main source of the widespread corruption that cripples the economy.

Smuggler Scandals

The security forces have now paid more attention to multi-national smuggling gangs. Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia have all become more active in a joint effort to shut down the criminal gangs responsible for smuggling Bangladeshi and Burmese Moslems through Thailand to Malaysia and beyond. In the last few months this effort has made it so difficult to travel overland via Thailand that the smugglers have had to use ships instead and thus bypass Thailand. Police in Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia have identified several criminal gangs involved with people smuggling and already arrested nearly a hundred individuals and are seeking even more. Often the gangsters resist and there have been several gun battles (and over a dozen dead smugglers).

The people smuggling business is very lucrative, not just from the money collected (in cash or debt owned by migrants and family members who stay behind) but also by later calling the family and demanding more cash. This extortion often leads to the murder of migrants whose family will not or cannot come up with additional cash. Smugglers will also lie to migrants about the terms of payment, which often includes finding the migrant a job in some other country to pay off the debt over a few years. These jobs are often virtual slavery because the “wage” is not enough to pay the debt and interest. This sort of “debt bondage” is common throughout South Asia even though it is technically illegal in most areas. Some of the people using the smugglers know of the risks but the chance of a better life in a country with better economic, political and employment conditions is believed worth the risk. Most migrants from Burma or Bangladesh are content to just get away from those two countries and try to start a new life. Indonesia and Malaysia are seen as good destinations, while Australia or some other wealthy nation is the best, but least likely, destination to reach.

The greed and ruthlessness of the smugglers is now becoming obvious as mass graves of migrants (killed by smugglers) are being found in Thailand and Malaysia. More migrants have died at sea when some of the overloaded and poorly maintained smuggler boats sink. Often the only record of these sinking comes when bodies and debris wash up on a nearby shore. Often survivors of the lost ships are rescued at sea or get to shore to report what happened. Survivors describe how the gangsters on board left with the only lifeboat, abandoning the migrants on a sinking ship. Sometimes the ship does not sink and when police find the ship they get enough information about the gangsters involved to identify new individuals and gangs and go after them. 

The recent increase in people smuggling is the result of anti-Moslem violence in Burma that began in 2012. Most of the victims of this violence have been Rohingya Moslems and since 2013 thousands have gone missing after getting on boats to be taken south. Often this was done with some cooperation from security forces willing to take a bribe. This smuggling became big business and soon included migrants from Bangladesh (Burma’s northern neighbor and the original home of the Rohingya Moslems). It is believed that up to 10,000 people a month are leaving with 75 percent coming from Burma. But thousands appear to have just disappeared. Security forces in Burma and Thailand have been accused of working with the smugglers, usually in the form of taking bribes to allow the smuggler boats and trucks to pass without interference. Security forces have been accused of sinking some boats because the smugglers refuse to leave. Others point out that smugglers tend to use poorly maintained boats, which are often overloaded and this leads to boats sinking, especially in bad weather or being stranded when engines fail. Over 200,000 of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since 2012. At least 25,000 are believed to have gone south in the first three months of 2015. Thailand denies all the accusations and refuses to allow foreign investigators into the country. Burma is even more hostile to journalists trying to investigate the smuggling situation. Rohingya who survived the trip report that some smuggler gangs will use the camps to try and extort more cash from the families of some refugees and will torture or kill some refugees while doing this. Some of the bodies found in these camps showed signs of torture and other abuse. Most of the deaths appear to be from disease or exhaustion. Because of international pressure the Thai government cracked down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the smugglers and the smugglers now avoid Thailand. Malaysia has become more active in going after the smugglers but the illegals keep coming and most end up in Malaysia. Despite the police pressure the gangs continue making a lot of money moving these illegal migrants and continue operating.

The Kokang Conundrum

The fighting up north in Shan State continues, despite effort by the Kokang rebels to start negotiations. The Kokang tribal rebels of the MNDAA (Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army) are accused of starting it all when they ambushed an army patrol on February 9th and wounded four soldiers. The rebels say the soldiers fired first. That led to more fighting which then escalated. The rebels claim it was more army abuse (rape and robbery) against tribal people that set off the latest round of violence. All this is actually a resumption of clashes that began in December. By the end of 2014 the army had moved in reinforcements and the Kokang withdrew gradually, continuing to inflict casualties on the soldiers. According to the rebels, soldiers kept advancing and have attacked other rebels groups near the Chinese border as well. The rebels often ambush army trucks bringing in supplies and reinforcements and are expert at ambushing army patrols. The army responds by attacking villages and driving away the families of the rebel fighters, denying the rebels food, medical care and other support. The rebels have struck back by firing on neighborhoods where the families of local policemen live. In response the government has moved these families further south until the fighting is over.

The MNDAA wants official recognition, something the government is reluctant to grant. The MNDAA is largely composed of ethnic Chinese who have long lived in northern Burma. MNDAA used to be more political (communist) but that disappeared in 1989 when the Burmese Communist Party fell apart as a side effect of the collapse of communism in East Europe. MNDAA made peace with the government in 2009 but like most peace deals up north that did not last because the army kept operating in tribal territory. The government refused to recognize the MNDAA as one of the tribal rebel groups negotiating a ceasefire and this refusal continues to be a problem.

The Kokang MNDAA has become a drug gang as have many of its tribal allies in the north. These included the Shan State Army–South (SSA-S). For years the army has fought the SSA-S for key terrain, usually to control roads that supply and troops and everyone else. The army has also been trying to interfere with the tribal drug operations up north. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring Wa and these two groups and the MNDAA are making a lot of money producing and smuggling drugs. Opium and heroin production have been revived in the past few years. Production of methamphetamine is huge. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Over the last few years, production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields (opium is the sap of poppy plants) and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa and MNDAA) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. The government has been in a weak bargaining position here but always had the option to declare the militias in violation of the 2012 peace deal and officially renew the fighting. That declaration has not happened yet. TNLA (Taang National Liberation Army) rebels in nearby Shan state as well as the KIA (Kachin) rebels also support the Kokang rebels. These three groups provide most of the armed opposition to the army in the Chinese border area. Rebels remain active here because China is a major market for heroin and other drugs produced in the north. China is also the source of all the military equipment the rebels need.

June 28, 2015: The government revealed that it had recently replaced an air force general, apparently in response to a March incident where the air force accidentally dropped a bomb inside China (killing several Chinese) while attacking tribal rebels near the Chinese border. This incident made Chinese very angry and some sort of suitable response from Burma was expected. This despite the fact that with rebels deliberately operating so close to the border incidents like this happen all the time, but usually because troops are firing back at rebels and some of the bullets and shells land in China.

June 26, 2015: The army has agreed to meet with their Indian counterparts to create a plan for closer cooperation against Indian rebels operating on the Burmese side of the border.

June 17, 2015:  On the Bangladesh border a Bangladeshi policeman was arrested during an incident that involved gunfire but no deaths. The cause was Bangladeshi police in a boat chasing drug smugglers down a river that begins in Burma but empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladeshi police accidentally crossed into Burma and their boat was fired on. It took both countries a while to sort out exactly what had happened.

In the north (Kachin State) tribal rebels set off three bombs, wounding two policemen.

June 15, 2015: In the north (Kachin State) fighting broke out between soldiers and tribal rebels. In neighboring Shan State Kokang rebels broke a ceasefire they had declared a week earlier and fought with soldiers.

June 11, 2015: The government ordered a ban on Rohingya Moslems leaving the country without permission. This is part of an effort to halt the operations of people smugglers.

In the north (Shan State) the Kokang rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire in an effort to get peace talks going and end four months of fighting.

June 8, 2015: In the northwest a team of about twenty Indian commandos crossed into Burma and in the space of a few hours attacked two separatist rebel camps. Most of the rebels were not in the camps and the few that were escaped, despite a pursuit and the Indian commandos soon returned to India. Initially India reported that their troops had killed twenty of the separatist rebels and wounded another 30. That was an estimate based on a successful pursuit, but the fleeing rebels knew the terrain better than their pursuers and got away. This unusual attack was in response to a June 4th ambush in the same area where these rebels ambushed Indian army vehicles and killed 18 soldiers.

June 1, 2015: China announced that it would hold military exercises tomorrow along the Burmese border, including firing artillery shells into jungle areas next to Burma. These exercises were a response to fighting between Burmese troops and ethnic Chinese (Kokang) rebels within a few hundred meters of the Chinese border. This has frequently led to bullets and shells landing in China. Since this fighting began in February this stray fire has killed five Chinese civilians and wounded many more. Nearly 100,000 Burmese tribal civilians fled (most into China) the fighting. 



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