Myanmar: The Understanding


February 10, 2016: So far the military has not tried to halt the momentous and unexpected (to them) power shift. These changes accelerated in November 2015 when 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 (and the first to actually take power since the 1960s). The new government is expected to take action on two issues (ethnic unrest and Chinese encroachment) the military was reluctant to tackle, as was the current elected (but still military dominated) government. The military was always in favor of getting the economy growing rapidly, something decades of military rule had prevented. But many military leaders had prospered during the dictatorship because they could be corrupt (to get rich) without fear of prosecution. The new government is under a lot of pressure to crack down hard on corruption in order to increase economic growth and reduce the widespread poverty. Such a crackdown would also cause tensions with China, which has, for over a decade, invested heavily in the tribal north via corrupt deals with the military. Unwinding all these unfair (especially to local tribes) deals will be painful for the Chinese as well as prominent Burmese military leaders and businessmen.

Another thorny issue the new parliament is expected to address is ethnic and religious tensions. Some 40 percent of the 52 million Burmese belong to ethnic minorities although 80 percent of the population is Buddhist. While most ethnic Burmese are Buddhists many of the other ethnics are not. A third of the non-Buddhists are Christians (mainly in the tribal north) and about 30 percent are Hindu. The ethnic Burmese are most hostile towards Moslems, who make up only about four percent of the population and less than ten percent of the minorities. Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. The military took away that citizenship but at least prevented religious violence against the Moslems by nationalist Buddhist clerics. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 nearly a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists.

Despite the military being guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats in 2008 Aung San Suu Kyi’s party still has an absolute majority (60 percent) and was able to form the current government with Aung San Suu Kyi in charge. Because of that there is growing anxiety 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. It is believed that there has been no resistance by the generals because there is an unwritten understanding that the military will comply as long as the new governments grant, in effect, amnesty for past crimes.

The 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.

Some of the most important changes in Burma since the army gave up power in 2011 have occurred inside the security forces. For example, the military is losing control over the national police. After the military took over in 1962 they absorbed many police into the army and filled the police leadership with army officers (often retired ones). For decades the militarized police were very unpopular because they were very effective at terrorizing the population. But now the 80,000 personnel of the national police are increasingly free of military control and are going to nearly double by the end of the decade. More important the new national police are concentrating on keeping the population safe rather than enforcing obedience to a military dictatorship. This is something very important to most Burmese but hardly noticed by foreigners. Both the national police and the army are getting new equipment and new training. The goal is to turn the military into a force that defends the country rather than terrorizes it into compliance.

In the northwest (Arakan State) tribal rebels (Arakan Army) have been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. This outbreak was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case the Arakan Army had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the Arakan Army and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many Arakan Army supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the Arakan Army was never given official recognition, in large part because the Arakan Army was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless as in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not violators are prosecuted.

The Arakan Army is not alone as there are several other tribal rebel groups that the military won’t negotiate with for various reasons. These include the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), the SSA-N (Shan State Army - North), the TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) and the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army). A new Burmese president, backed by the new parliament, is expected to change that.

A lot of common military practices that were illegal (or are illegal now) are still going on. But as these practices come to light they are being addressed. A recent example was triggered by the appearance of a video on the Internet showing an officer beating a subordinate who displeased him. Actually this form of leadership is still quite common in Asia. It used to be common in the West but was outlawed and largely disappeared from Western armed forces during the 20th century. As recently as World War II and the 1950s this sort of “hands-on counseling” was still common in the American military. But increasing enforcement of rules against it saw this sort of violence largely gone by the 1980s. Burmese want to see this sort of thing gone as well but it takes a while. The appearance of the video did produce assurances from the military that the offending officer in the video would be found and punished and everyone reminded that this sort of thing is no longer allowed, especially not when it is likely someone will capture the incident on video.

February 8, 2016: Military leaders, who lost control of parliament in late 2015, agreed to presidential elections on March 17th. The generals (both on duty and retired) still have a lot of influence in the bureaucracy, the courts and the business community. So if they wanted to these military leaders could stir up a lot of opposition to the changes now taking place.

January 25, 2016: In the north (Kachin State) there was another landslide in the jade mining area, killing as many as twenty. That makes the third major landslide up there since November 2015. So far over 150 have died from these accidents. The landslides are made possible by all the illegal jade mining, which often involves removing most of the vegetation on a hillside. With the trees and shrubs gone there is nothing to hold soil together when there are heavy rains. All this has brought rebel commander Wei Hsueh Kang a lot of unwanted publicity because of his control of the jade trade. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and is a $30 billion a year operation. Yet only about one percent of that is taxed and half of the jade is found by illegal mining operations and is quietly sold to Chinese traders. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by generals who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by rebels, mainly the Wa of the UWSA (United Wa State Army). Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly fighting with tribal rebels who are seeking to make some money in the jade producing areas. The military men are not eager to give up all their illegal businesses. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes also point out that all the illegal jade and gold mining ruins many water supplies (streams and lakes) but since outsiders (military and tribal warlords) dominate and protect the illegal mining, no one cares about some bad water except a few locals.

January 18, 2016: In the north (Shan State) fighting broke out between feuding tribal militias. The TNLA (a rebel group) and the pro-government SSA-S (Shan State Army - South) have long been at odds over a number of issues. The skirmishing between the two groups continues.


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