Myanmar: Yet Another Major Tribal Uprising


March 7, 2015: The tribal north (Shan state) is burning and the army appears unable to shut down the growing armed resistance. This is very embarrassing for the military and the embarrassment got worse recently when the army openly asked the Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) to please not give the Kokang rebels, who have fought the army to a standstill, help in the form of weapons and ammunition. 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 about 30,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic (Han) Chinese (as are most Kogang), 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. Burmese troops continue interfering with truck traffic entering Wa territory. The Wa can get what they need from China, but some Burmese Wa live closer to roads coming from the south, rather than those coming from China. Many Wa believe that the Burmese would like to push all the Wa into China, but that is not likely to happen because of UWSA resistance and Chinese support. This sort of Chinese interference in Burmese affairs is causing many Burmese to talk of joining the anti-Chinese coalition that currently consists of most of the nation’s China has territorial claims on. That is unlikely as China has already become a major component of the Burmese economy.

Most of the fighting in the north has been in Shan state where so far this year there have been over a thousand casualties among civilians, soldiers, police and rebel fighters. The Kokang tribal rebels of the MNDAA (Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army) have been engaged in heavy combat with the army for a month now. The army says the rebels started it when they ambushed a patrol on February 9th and wounded four soldiers. The rebels say the soldiers fired first. That led to more fighting that left at least fifty soldiers dead within a week. Rebels say the army quickly escalated and on the 10th launched three air strikes against rebel positions. 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 are tribal rebels who 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 Kokang MNDAA has allies in the north who have also resumed fighting the army. These include 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 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 the Wa 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. At the moment the Chinese are not happy with the Burmese Army because the months of army activity has pushed nearly 100,000 refugees into China and disrupted trade (both legal, illegal and semi-legal).

China has set up refugee camps for the civilians fleeing the fighting in northern Burma. It’s estimated that over 60,000 have fled to China this year although many returned after the fighting moved from the vicinity of their village.

Down south the months (since September 2014) of demonstrations against the new National Education Law continue and have grown as more people come out to support the original student protestors.  The government outlawed the protests but the students and their growing number of supporters have not backed down, even in the face of soldiers now with “shoot to kill” orders. In the capital there have been four days of violence as police and secret (not in uniform) police attack protestors who, at most, move away but rarely disperse. The police have also used an old (in Burma) technique of hiring pro-government protestors to confront the anti-government protestors and to sometimes start brawls. This has not worked either as the students keep showing up in the streets despite injuries and losses from arrests. The government fears student demonstrations that cannot be shut down because in the past this sort of thing has toppled governments.  This all started because students believe the new education law gives the government more political control over higher education and makes it easier to prosecute those who speak out against the government. Many Burmese agree with the students and feel that the new democracy is just the old military dictatorship with rigged elections (and rigged everything else).

China is having problems with the new Burmese government as well. In southern China Burmese rebels remain active near the Chinese border because China is a major market for heroin and other drugs produced in northern Burma. China is also the source of all the military equipment the rebels need. At the moment the Chinese are not happy with the Burmese Army because the recent army activity has pushed thousands of refugees into China and disrupted trade (both legal, illegal and semi-legal). Many of the civilians, and rebels, on the Burmese side of the border are Burmese citizens but also ethnic Chinese. Most Chinese border areas contain these ancient Chinese tribes, who long ago decided they did not want to belong to a Chinese empire and fled, and often had to keep fleeing. China is also angry at the Burmese Army for arresting (or at least detaining) Chinese citizens who were in Burma when all this tribal violence broke out. The Burmese are not cooperating with Chinese government efforts to locate and return their citizens to China. Most annoying is the Burmese refusal to do something about the recreational drugs pouring into China from the tribal territories of northern Burma. This annoys Thailand as well. The Burmese government adds that to its list of important things to take care of. It is a long list.

Bangladesh is complaining about more Burmese Moslems continue fleeing to Bangladesh (and Malaysia and other Moslem countries in the region). For those Burmese Moslems who cannot afford people smugglers to take them to wealthier Moslem countries like Malaysia or Indonesia there is always nearby (but quite poor) Bangladesh. The Burmese refugees are not welcome there and are often confronted by soldiers or police who force those fleeing Burma back across the border. Rohingya (Burmese Moslems) claim that up to 10,000 people a month are leaving. Over 150,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. It’s unclear how many have fled via land to Bangladesh but according to Bangladesh it is far too many and pressure the Burmese government to do something.

February 25, 2015: In the north rebels leaders warned followers who had fled to China to stay there until told otherwise. The rebels are very wary of any army peace proposals, having been betrayed so frequently in the past.

February 23, 2015: The government claims that Chinese mercenaries are working for the northern rebels. China says this is not so. In fact, many of the Burmese tribes have clans (or individual members) living on both sides of the border. Some from the Chinese braches of the rebels tribes might not only have entered Burma to fight for their kinsmen but are known to have gone to Burma to get a well-paying job in the thriving tribal drug businesses. Chinese are definitely involved with the smuggling of these drugs into China and arranging for distribution throughout China.

February 22, 2015: The government denounced the Wa rebels for going to the aid of the Kokang rebels in the north. The Wa denied they were involved.

February 21, 2015: For the second time in a week a Red Cross vehicle carrying tribal refugees was fired on in the north. The army and the rebels each blame the other for this.

February 17, 2015: The government declared martial law in Shan State, at least in areas where most of the fighting was going on.

February 16, 2015: In the northeast a police patrol in Shan state on the Thai border came upon over half a million dollars’ worth of chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine. A smuggler had apparently brought them up the Mekong River from Vietnam and hid them for his tribal buyers to pick up and move to the hills were portable labs produce the meth pills that have become a major source of income for the tribes.

February 12, 2015: The government said Rohingya (Burmese Moslems) would not be able to vote in an upcoming referendum on a new constitution. Most Burmese are Buddhists and many Buddhist clergy claim the Rohingya are illegal migrants that should have no rights. This has become a popular, and violent, attitude with a growing number of Burmese Buddhists.



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