Myanmar: China Offers The Gift Of Compromise


May 1, 2016: For the last month China has been conducting a “charm offensive” with the new, non-military government of Burma. Meanwhile the leaders of the former military government are bracing for the most serious attack on its power and corrupt business empire. The new parliament has, in theory, the power to undo all the laws the generals put in place during 2011 to preserve that wealth and provide immunity from prosecution. For half a century the military ran the country as a dictatorship that mainly benefitted the generals and their cronies. The majority of Burmese opposed that and made that clear during the 2015 elections for parliament. China was the major foreign partners of the military government, especially when it came to investing in Burma when the rest of the world would not. Chinese economic projects in the north are not only unpopular with the tribes there but also with most Burmese because the Chinese paid the generals well (with bribes and business opportunities) to keep the tribal rebels and unarmed civilians from interfering up north. That protection was not effective and now many of those multi-billion dollar Chinese projects are stalled and the Chinese have made it clear they will to do business with new government on whatever terms the new government wants. Burma cannot ignore Chinese economic investment and the new government admits that. The trick is revising existing deals without killing them. Northern concerns must be addressed but many northerners just want a fair deal that compensates them for last land and does not ruin the water supply (as major mining projects often do).

In the northwest (Arakan State) tribal rebels of the Arakan Army have proved more difficult to shut down than the army expected. On April 19th a rebel ambush left 21 soldiers dead, including a battalion commander. The Arakan Army had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in early 2016 as troops moved into territory where Arakan Army rebels were known to operate. All this 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. 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 armed tribal separatists. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless than in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not violators were prosecuted and the new non-military government is trying to reform the way the security forces operate up north. 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 eventually.

The MNDAA is largely composed of ethnic Chinese who have long lived in northern Burma (as have other Chinese tribes). 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 Kokang and MNDAA have become a drug gang as have many of its tribal allies in the north. These included the SSA-S, which 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 Wa have established good relations (bribed the right officials) with the Chinese while the Kokang have not.

In the north fighting near the Chinese border between the army and Kokang tribal rebels continues. In part this is because Kokang and their organization (MNDAA) wants official recognition, something the government is reluctant to grant. When the fighting was at its height in 2015 over 100,000 pro-rebel civilians fled to China to avoid the trigger happy soldiers. By the end of 2015 the Burmese army declared the fighting over and most of the refugees retuned. The Chinese promoted this by accepting the Burmese assessment and closing the refugee camps they had established for the pro-rebel civilians. But the fighting had declined not stopped and many of the returning refugees found themselves still exposed to soldiers who would fire artillery or machine-guns a villages suspected (usually incorrectly) of harboring rebels. China refuses to reopen the refugee camps and tolerates, for the moment, the 20,000 Burmese who are living in rough camps they have built themselves.

Next door in Thailand there is general agreement within the military that the public is more hostile to the military than ever before and there is likely to be a backlash once democracy is restored. The new Thai constitution is supposed to protect the military because the generals believe they have enough supporters to block a later effort to revoke the new constitution. The Thai generals also note what is happening next door in Burma, where the military allowed elections in 2011 after nearly fifty years of military rule. Despite “guarantees” in the new Burmese constitution most Burmese still want to punish their generals for crimes committed during military rule and continuing bad behavior by active and retired officers. The Thai generals have promised new elections in 2017 if the new constitution is approved. What happens if the constitution is not approved is less certain.

April 29, 2016: Indian and Burmese troops have begun joint patrols along parts of their mutual border. This is one result of a mid-2015 agreement to cooperate with India to prevent Indian rebel groups from establishing bases inside Burma. In mid-2015 the Burmese army sent several thousand additional troops to the 1,643 kilometer long Indian border. Burma admits it is responsible for detecting and expelling these illegal visitors but most of the border area is thinly populated forests and mountains and it is very difficult to get troops into the area and very expensive to support them as they seek out and deal with any intruders. India believed it was a matter of priorities. The cooperation with India goes beyond sharing intelligence and coordinating security operations on both sides of the border. To help with this India also sent a few more battalions to areas the rebels seem to prefer to cross at and increased patrols on the Indian side of the border. This makes it more difficult for the rebels to move to their Burma sanctuaries but does not stop them. This intense interest in border security began with a June 4th 2015 ambush inside India where Indian rebels operating from Burmese bases inflicted heavy casualties on Indian troops. This led to an Indian cross-border commando raid on June 8th that destroyed the rebel camp Burma insisted did not exist. This was clear evidence that despite Burmese promises in 2014 to shut down such camps the rebels were still there. In mid-2015 India believed there were at least 25 such camps in northern Burma, with precise locations given for 17 camps. Some are as close as six kilometers from the border while others are up to 40 kilometers away. The rebels got the message and most packed up and moved back to Assam on the Indian side of the border.

April 28, 2016: In the capital hundreds of Buddhists demonstrated outside the American embassy protesting the use of the term Rohingya to describe Burmese Moslems that Burmese nationalists insist are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This is yet another of the many ethnic and religious problems that have long plagued Burma. 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 Buddhists. This was all because when Bangladesh was created in 1971 (after a Pakistani civil war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan) there were a lot of refugees fleeing the fighting and chaos that followed. While some of the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh most are from families that have been in Burma for a century or more. The military did not allow violence against Rohingya but 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.

April 27, 2016: In the north (Shan State) two German tourists and their guide were wounded when a nearby landmine went off. The tourists were a tribal area that has been at peace. This incident brought unwanted attention to a major problem in the north; the atmosphere of lawlessness created by decades of tribal militias establishing or asserting control over most of the rural areas (which means most of the north). One of the problems this creates is making it impossible for mine-clearing teams to operate in in many areas. Worse, you never know if there are any old, but still functional, mines anywhere up there. The rebels and the military both use the mines to defend their bases. The military will allow many mines to be cleared in areas they control. But in most of the north there are still thousands of old mines out there that cause several hundred casualties a year, mostly to unwary civilians. Since the 1960s over 100,000 landmines were planted by the military. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and government controlled towns. The rebels appear to have used nearly as many. The mines are a constant hazard in the thinly populated tribal areas and make a lot of grazing and farm land too dangerous to use. The military has offered to clear some mines if the tribes will reduce their operations or move their gunmen away from key roads or new economic enterprises up there that the military has an interest in. In many areas the tribes are reluctant to do this because that means abandoning tribal people who are being forcibly displaced from land they have occupied for centuries by massive (usually Chinese controlled) construction projects.

April 7, 2016: In the north (Kachin State) fighting resumed between local rebels and the army. This was the first such violence this year. The rebels belong to the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), which is also fighting the army in nearby Shan State.


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