Myanmar: Smugglers And Slavers


June 1, 2015: China announced that it will hold military exercises tomorrow along the Burmese border, including firing artillery shells into jungle areas next to Burma. These exercises are 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. Burma blames some of it on the Kokang rebels firing into China to cause problems between China and Burma. In any event Burma insists that this fighting is finally over and that the Kokang rebels have, for now at least, been defeated.

The fighting against the Kokang in the tribal north (Shan state) apparently has died down since the middle of May. As usual the rebels lost because the army had more, and bigger, guns (artillery) and aircraft. The rebels were gradually pushed back and the soldiers took over twenty rebel camps or fighting positions (like fortified hilltops overlooking key roads). The action was spread out and gradual. Since February the rebels lost over 500 dead while the army lost over 140 soldiers in about 300 separate violent encounters (ambushes, artillery or air attacks or battles for small bits of territory). Some of the army forces were pro-government tribal militias who suffered fewer losses than the army. Nearly 100,000 tribal civilians fled (most into China) the fighting and for the last few weeks more of these refugees have been returning home.  Some of the refugees are fleeing rebels who are more aggressively recruiting new fighters. In some cases the tribal militia recruiters are “conscripting” (kidnapping) young men and when word of that gets around many potential victims flee, often with their young wives and children.

The fighting isn’t over, this is just a pause. A permanent peace deal does not exist yet although negotiations continue on yet another agreement that will finally bring peace to the north. 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 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.

The security forces have now turned their 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. Often they 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 since 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 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. 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.

May 29, 2015: The navy found a people smuggling ship adrift off the south coast. The converted fishing boat was carrying 727 Bengalis. The engine had failed and the boat was leaking. The navy refused to let anyone (especially journalists) get close to the boat, which was towed to a small island off the coast and anchored there. The government said it might move the boat to Rakhine State (up north) which has a majority Moslem population. Meanwhile it appears the passengers are being questioned and the police are trying to find out who the people smugglers are and if any of them are still aboard.

May 15, 2015: In the north (Shan state) the army reported a clash with Kokang rebels that left at least 24 rebels dead as the troops fired on rebels caught close to the Chinese border. In the last five days the army has seized three more hilltop bunkers from the rebels and now believes the Kokang are on the run. Like similar victories in the past, this one won’t last. The Kokang will stay out of the way and rebuild and the violence break out once more in the future. 

May 14, 2015: Some more shells (from artillery or mortars) landed in China wounding five civilians. This sort of thing has been happening since February and the Chinese want it stopped, or else. The latest incident is the result of Burmese soldiers fighting Kokang rebels very close (a few hundred meters) to the border.

May 8, 2015: In south Thailand (bordering Malaysia) police found and arrested 117 illegal migrants mostly from Bangladesh but 26 were Rohingya Moslems from Burma. When questioned they said smugglers dropped them off on the Thai coast further north and for two weeks they walked south to avoid police.



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