Myanmar: The Voters Beat The Generals


November 16, 2015: Veteran reform advocate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 80 percent of the available seats in parliament in the first nationwide elections in 25 years. Despite the military being guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats Aung San Suu Kyi’s party still has an absolute majority (60 percent) and can form the next government with Aung San Suu Kyi in charge. The military says it will respect the electoral outcome of the November 8 vote. Despite that there is growing panic among the officers who ran a military dictatorship until 2011 when, after decades of growing domestic and international pressure, they gave up power and allowed a new constitution and free elections. The new (2008) constitution was written by the generals and for the generals and guarantees the military some key jobs and freedom from parliamentary interference with the military budget. The new government is expected to eventually try to revise the 2008 constitution, despite the risk of another military takeover or civil war.

So far the generals have kept their promises, but there is always the risk that might change if an elected government sought to punish the military for crimes committed during the dictatorship or shut down some of the illegal, but lucrative, operations the military still controls (like the illegal jade trade in the north). Then there are the corrupt (and profitable for the military) deals the generals made with China for development in the north. That stuff has kept the tribal rebellions going. China has not yet “congratulated” (acknowledged) the Aung San Suu Kyi victory but is expected to and is bracing for possible renegotiation of the contracts.

Aung San Suu Kyi has fought the military for decades and as soon as the generals let go in 2011 and allowed democracy to return she was elected to parliament in 2012 without interference by the generals. These free elections were part of an army scheme to get themselves out from under growing international sanctions and persistent tribal rebellions in the thinly populated north. The generals were not willing to just surrender and submit to trial for war crimes (which a lot of their opponents want), so they came up with a plan to use their enormous economic and political power to establish a democratic form of government they could still control. By letting many (but not all) opposition politicians out of jail, rescinding many unpopular laws and offering attractive peace deals to some of the tribal rebels, the generals have created enormous change. So far this has worked, and diplomatic pressure from China (long a business partner and ally of the generals) and many other nations led to the sanctions being lifted. The international community, eager to have one less dysfunctional tyranny to deal with tolerated the deal the Burmese generals created. So did many Burmese, who are more concerned with the prospect of prosperity than the possibility of bringing the generals to justice. The unspoken deal involved amnesty for the generals, who were allowed to keep all they had taken for themselves over half a century of misrule. That arrangement will not last but the generals and their followers are willing to risk it. The generals believe not enough Burmese are willing to risk a civil war in order to obtain justice for all the crimes committed by the military. But with the recent election results that perception is changing. Now a civil war becomes more of a possibility. The last free elections were in 1990 and Aung San Suu Kyi won that time. The shocked generals nullified the results and put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for twenty years. During that time she won a Nobel Peace Prize and became too famous for the generals to risk killing.

The new government has to deal with some serious and difficult problems in addition to the military. First there is the radical Buddhists led by monks who preach the need to fight and suppress the Moslem minority, especially the Rohingya. Then there are the tribal rebels up north who are at war more with the army than the Burmese government since it has been the military that orchestrates and protects the many corrupt deals up there. This includes lucrative jade mining and economic development deals with the Chinese. When you follow the money you often find yourself facing a lot of greedy, angry and heavily armed guys pointing guns at you.  

The violence against the Rohingya has died down and the May 2015 Thai crackdown on gangsters trying to smuggle Burmese Moslems through Thailand to Malaysia has forced many Rohingya to put migration plans on hold. Because of international pressure the Thai government also cracked down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the smugglers. This largely halted the lucrative people smuggling for a while. Over 200,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. At least 25,000 are believed to have gone south in the first three months of 2015 and that level of activity continued until the Thai crackdown took effect in May. Suddenly a lot fewer (soon about 80 percent fewer) Rohingya refugees were showing up at in Malaysia or Indonesia. All the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal were now watching for boats engaged in people smuggling and that pretty much ruled out using large vessels anymore. Now smugglers could only move a few people at a time on smaller vessels that could avoid or pass inspection. The drove the price of using people smugglers way up, to the point where most Rohingya could not afford it. The problem has to be solved in Burma and that will not be easy.

November 8, 2015: The first nationwide elections since 1990 (when the generals refused to accept the results and banned any more voting) were held for up to 30 million registered voters. The voting was apparently largely without incident or interference.

November 5, 2015: The leader of the Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) in the north called for China to be used to help mediate the disputes between the Wa and the Burmese government. The Wa live in Shan state near the Chinese border. In Shan state the UWSA is a major factor and the Burmese army tends to respect UWSA military capabilities. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has over 20,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic (Han) Chinese, and many other Wa live across the border in China. The Chinese have made it clear to the Burmese government that any attack on the Wa would not be appreciated and have pressured the Burmese on behalf of the Wa in the past. To underscore that support in early 2015 China supplied the UWSA with some 122mm towed howitzers (firing 21 kg shells up to 15 kilometers) and HJ-8 ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). The HJ-8 is nearly identical to the American TOW 2 in size, weight, range. That means a 19 kg (42 pounds) missile with a 3.9 kg (8.6 pound) warhead and a range of 4,000 meters. This is the first time any of the tribal rebels have had such weapons. The Wa are also the leader of a loose coalition of tribal rebels in the north who have, like the Wa, refused to sign any of the peace deals the army has offered. The Wa coalition includes the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), the SSA-N (Shan State Army-North), the Arakan Army and the TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army. Without the cooperation of this powerful coalition there can never be peace in the north. Thus there has been nearly continuous fighting in Shan state all year. This led to a ban on voting in much of Shan state. The fighting has been rather low level but there have been several thousand casualties this year and over 50,000 more refugees fleeing their homes.  

November 3, 2015: China is accused of coercing the Burmese government to ignore a Chinese police raid into Burma on October 6th. This was when a team of Chinese police crossed the border, kidnapped Bao Zhuoxuan and took him back to China. The victim was the 16 year old son of a prominent Chinese reform advocate. The teenage son was being sent to safety in the United States. This sort of thing is possible because China has long been able to bribe Burmese officials to do as they pleased in the north.



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