Myanmar: The North Erupts Once More


December 9, 2016: In the northwest (Rakhine State) the violence continues two months after a major attack on three border posts. There were about 400 Rohingya Moslem attackers armed with firearms and edged weapons. The initial attack left 33 attackers and five border policemen dead. Over the next few weeks another four policemen were killed and even more local civilians. Four local Islamic terror groups released videos on the Internet declaring war (jihad) on the government and calling on Moslems in Rakhine State to join fight to force the government to give the 1.1 million Rohingya Moslems citizenship and put a stop to all persecution of Burmese Moslems. Since then the Rakhine State non-Moslems (10 percent of the population) have formed armed militias and called on the government to do whatever it takes to protect the Burmese citizens of Rakhine State. Since the Rohingya are no longer citizens that means the security forces pretty much do whatever they want to the local Rohingya.

By November 9th over 4,000 local Buddhists and over 20,000 local Moslems fled their homes to avoid the ensuing violence (mainly by the security forces). Food and other aid for the 87,000 Rohingya Moslems in a refugee camps near the state capital was interrupted for over a week after the attack. In 2012, during the last round of major violence in Rakhine State there were over a hundred dead and at least 140,000 homeless. This this time the results appear to be similar.

Not everyone in the national government is convinced that this is an Islamic terrorist uprising as the army and national police have not produced much proof yet. Many Buddhist and Christian Burmese oppose the treatment of the Rohingya and have been holding protests in most major cities against the decision to deny the Rohingya citizenship and classify them as Bengalis. But this is a minority attitude as most of the voters will not back any pro-Rohingya moves. Despite that senior government officials called for a proper investigation to find out exactly what is happening up there especially since the army bans journalists from the conflict area. One thing most Burmese can agree on is that the army can’t be trusted to give an accurate account of anything going on in the north. The military has long seen the tribal areas, mainly in the north and along the eastern borders, to be their territory and to do what they want. That usually involves illegal activities, most of them involved with making money using corrupt practices. This has caused more problems with the locals (mostly non-ethnic Burmese tribes) and China.

In July the government released the results of the 2014 census, the first since 1983. It showed that the country had 51 million people and that most (87.9 percent) were Buddhist. The largest religious minority were Christians, who were now 6.2 percent of the population (compared to 4.9 percent in 1983). Moslems went from 3.9 to 4.3 percent. Actually that is misleading as the government has declared most Rohingya Moslems in the north to be Bengalis and thus not citizens. Subtract the Rohingya from the census data and Moslems are 2.3 percent of the citizen population.

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 instigated by nationalist Buddhist clerics. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 over a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists. Even more Rohingya are refugees within Burma.

Most Rohingyas 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). Any kind of peace deal with the Rohingya is unlikely as far as most Burmese are concerned. There is growing popular anger among Burmese towards Moslems in general and the Rohingya in particular. This is fed by the continuing reports of Islamic terrorism word-wide and especially in the region (Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China).

The wealthy Arab oil states have put their considerable diplomatic and economic pressure on the UN to make a fuss but the Burmese generals long insisted that this could be safely ignored as they have been ignoring UN criticism for over half a century and getting away with it. The Arabs don’t get a lot of sympathy outside the Moslem world because anyone who can count notes that there is a lot more oppression and violence against non-Moslems by Moslems than the other way around. As more Western nations joined in with the demands for granting citizenship for Rohingya the government checked the opinion polls and did nothing. Burmese officials are standing by their belief that granting Moslems citizenship would result in more anti-Moslem violence. A mass armed uprising by the Rohingya was not unexpected but so far it has not accomplished much.

Neighboring Bangladesh is not happy with the fact that over 22,000 Burmese Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since October. Bangladesh borders Burma’s Rakhine State which contains a lot of Burmese Rohingya. While Bangladesh has arrested a few Pakistan trained Rohingya Islamic terrorists the Rohingya have largely avoided Islamic terrorism. There are already over 200,000 Burmese Rohingya in Bangladesh, most of them illegal migrants.

Shan Flares Up

In the north (Shan State) 19 days of renewed fighting with the “northern alliance” of MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and AA (Arakan Army) has left over 60 dead, about half of them security forces (including some pro-government tribal militiamen) and civilians. Despite agreements for these rebel groups to join the current peace talks (which resume in February), the rebel tribes all have serious territorial and economic disputes with the army. In Shan state, for example, the army and tribes are fighting over lucrative coal mining operations. In Kachin state the army violence is connected with the illegal gold mining and the tribal fear that the army cannot be trusted to observe the terms of any peace deal. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust for a new peace agreement.

December 8, 2016: In the east, just across the border in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, seven Burmese Wa tribesmen died when they tried to fight their way past a Thai border patrol. Most of the twenty Wa involved got away during this night time clash. The dead Wa were carrying 30 kg (66 pounds) of methamphetamine pills (about 550,000 of them). Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Since 2010 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) 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 some other northern tribes have not. Part of the arrangement the Wa have with China is to smuggle most of the meth out via Thailand.

December 4, 2016: In the north (Shan State) an air force jet crashed near the Chinese border, apparently the result of equipment failure. For a while there were rumors that a Chinese anti-aircraft missile brought the aircraft down but China denied that and there was no evidence of such a missile attack.

December 3, 2016: In the north (Shan State) tribal rebels from the Arakan Army, KIA, TNLA and MNDAA attacked (from three directions) the Mongkoe army base and the nearby town. The attack failed as the army used airstrikes, artillery and troops firing from bunkers to defend the base. Sixteen border police were reported missing and the bodies of nine of them were found a week later.

Elsewhere in the north, across the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh Indian tribal rebels ambushed an army patrol killing two soldiers and wounded eight others. India suspects these rebels have been hiding out in Burma but does not appear to have an exact location. Sometimes Indian troops cross the border, with Burmese permission, to go after Indian rebels.

December 2, 2016: In the north (Shan State) tribal rebels and government officials agreed that peace talks would have to be suspended until the current outbreak of violence had come to an end.

November 30, 2016: China complained that the latest outbreak of tribal rebel violence in Shan state had driven over 3,000 Burmese into China and interfered with trade and movement across the border. China wants the Burmese government to do something about it or face reduced Chinese investment.

November 25, 2016: In the south (the port city of Yangon) two small and crudely made bombs went off in a government compound. It was at night so there were no casualties. This was the third such incident in the last week. By the end of the month police arrested three local Moslem men who were found to possess bomb components.

November 12, 2016: In the north two more jade miners died in a landslide while at work. Earlier this year the government said it would suspend jade mining in Kachin State until acceptable environmental and safety procedures could be agreed on and implemented. That did not apply to the freelance jade miners who work illegally and are taking advantage of the ban to keep working. All the bad publicity forced the government to do something about what had been going on illegally in the north for decades. Efforts to enforce existing laws banning such activities and more forceful efforts to curb illegal jade mining did not work. Until now government threats caused unease among many of those involved in the largely illegal jade industry but had not slowed down production much. If anything jade mining has increased during 2106 with some 300,000 workers, mostly manual laborers (and often illegal migrants) working in a 700 square kilometer area that, from the air, looks like a wasteland with dozens of hills leveled and the debris left in unstable heaps that cause most of the landslides. This was believed to be a good time for the government to try and reform the jade business. Demand and prices are way down in China and the jade producers have to increase production to make any money at all. That means the jade mining is more visible from the air (which the government controls) and space (where even commercial satellite photos show the jade operations). The tribes involved in the jade trade would normally fight hard to oppose any government crackdown but because many of the people killed in the jade mining incidents are from the north there is less justifications for the tribal militias to get involved. Most jade mining activity is 650 kilometers north of the Burmese capital. The recent fatal landslides occurred because the jade mining 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 a lot of unwanted publicity to the jade trade. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and is a $31 billion a year operation in Burma. 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 Burmese military officers who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by tribal 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 corrupt Burmese generals and businessmen and their Chinese counterparts are not eager to give up the jade profits but they are now in a weak position. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes have long complained 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. But that has changed since 2011 because all the publicity has forced the Chinese government to at least recognize that the problem exists, mainly because of Chinese demand for jade and Chinese providing the cash and access to Chinese made earth moving equipment and corrupt border guards who let the illegal cash and equipment into Burma and the valuable (and untaxed on either side of the border) jade out. The Chinese are now willing to help crack down on the jade and other smuggling because it involves items popular with many corrupt Chinese officials.

November 9, 2016: In the northwest (Rakhine State) some 150,000 people have been cut off from aid for about a month. Today the first food aid convoys since early October were allowed in. Not much has been delivered since.


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