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Myanmar: The Battle For Ethnic Purity And Teak
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September 7, 2013: The United States is trying to convince Burma to cut its military ties with North Korea. In exchange for that the U.S. will provide military and economic aid. Apparently the biggest problem here is that North Korea would pay bribes to key officials and the Americans won’t. However, there would be opportunities to plunder the American aid, but this is not something U.S. diplomats can use during their negotiations.

Violence between the Moslem Rohingya and police continues along the west coast. Buddhist clerics continue to call for the expulsion of all Moslems, describing Moslems as a constant threat to all Burmese. But there was never a problem with Islamic radicalism in Burma, thanks largely to the decades of army rule that kept Saudi missionaries and money for Wahhabi (the flavor of Islam al Qaeda likes) mosques and religious schools out. The military rule also relied on large doses of nationalistic propaganda, which extolled the importance of being Burmese. This meant the ethnic Burmese majority in the south who are largely Buddhist. The tribal peoples of the north and the Moslem and Christian minorities in the south were barely tolerated guests who had to keep their heads down. The Rohingya Moslems, living near the Bangladesh border, were not considered Burmese citizens but rather illegal migrants. The years of dictatorship suppressed all sorts of disruptive attitudes, but with the military rule gone, people are allowed to express themselves and the Buddhist radicals went after the Moslem minority first. Now there are a growing number of Burmese Moslems who see Islamic radicalism as a viable defensive tactic. It isn’t, but it makes sense to the young, determined, and stubborn.

Since last June over 250 people (mostly Rohingya) have died in ethnic and religious violence. Most of the unrest has been in Rakhine State, which has a population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostly Rohingyas. These are Bengalis, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). The current violence has caused over 140,000 Rohingya (mostly, with a growing number of non- Rohingya Moslems) to flee their homes, many of them seeking shelter in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. The Rohingya say the government is starving those in refugee camps and not punishing local Buddhists who attack Moslems. In the last few months there has been more anti-Moslem violence in other parts of the country, where Moslems are a smaller minority. Despite government orders to crack down on the Buddhist mobs, the local police are Buddhist and reluctant to go after fellow Buddhists on this issue. Years of news about Islamic terrorist violence around the world has left many Burmese believing the radical Buddhist clerics preaching for more violence against Moslems in Burma as a national security issue, not an outburst of paranoid fear.

August 31, 2013: In the north (Kachin state) the ceasefire was broken as soldiers and a pro-government militia fought to drive Kachin rebels out of a teak forest in the northern part of the state. At least two soldiers were killed. A wealthy (and very corrupt) businessman has bribed government and military officials to allow him to illegally cut down the teak forest and smuggle out the valuable lumber. China is a prime market for teak, as are many Western countries, despite sanctions against this sort of thing. Some of the Burmese involved in teak smuggling have been declared criminals by the United States, but in Burma you can stay out of trouble if you have the right people on your payroll.  

August 28, 2013: In the north a local military commander decided to deal with a long simmering border dispute by ordering the construction of a new border post five kilometers inside India. When confronted by Indian troops the Burmese insisted this was actually their territory. Only after days of negotiations, and some threats, did the Burmese agree to withdraw. The border has never been precisely marked in this remote area but as population grew, residents from both countries moved closer to each other and there arose disputes as to exactly where the border was. In this area the Indian villagers find themselves closer to a source of consumer goods across the unmarked border in Burma rather than in India. This ended up in a situation where Burmese troops were telling some Indians they were living in what local Burmese officials believed was Burmese territory. India is alarmed at the fact that the Burmese border claim would mean dozens of Indian families, in 18 border villages, would lose some of their land. The Indian villagers don’t seem to mind.

August 25, 2013: In central Burma (Sagaing) nearly a thousand Buddhists rampaged through a Moslem neighborhood, damaging and destroying homes and businesses and sending over 300 Moslems fleeing for their lives. Buddhist clerics first led a smaller crowd to demand that the police hand over a Moslem man under arrest and accused of attacking a Buddhist woman. Things escalated from there. This area had never had any anti-Moslem violence in this area before.

August 24, 2013: In the north (Shan state) a rebel militia (TNLA or Taang National Liberation Army) clashed with soldiers. This is the third such incident this month, and this sort of violence is preventing TNLA leaders from meeting with government officials to negotiate a peace deal.

August 22, 2013: In the south all police are on the alert to find three Moslem men who are believed to have entered illegally from Thailand and are seeking to carry out terrorist attacks in Burma. Police and intelligence officials have been particularly alert to a Moslem terror threat after a major Buddhist shrine in India was bombed last month.

August 21, 2013: The government and the UN are disputing accusations by a UN official that his car was attacked as he recently visited an area that had suffered anti-Moslem violence. The government pointed out that the UN official was unharmed and his car undamaged. The UN is under a lot of pressure from Moslem states to do something about the anti-Moslem violence in Burma. 

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