Myanmar: Bananas, Brides And Bad Neighbors


     March 21, 2019: A major project for the army in 2019 is to eliminate tribal rebel units from areas in Shan and Rakhine states where China will be working on its CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor). This deal was signed in late 2018 and some of the 1,700 kilometer long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukpyu SEZ (Special Economic Zone) will be built in Shan and Rakhine states. China is aware of the tribal rebel activity and the Burmese have assured China that these rebels would be kept away from the construction sites.

The CMEC corridor would improve roads, railroads and build, as needed, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. This would be financed by China and built mainly by Chinese construction firms using Chinese workers. Burma needs the investment and since 1988 China has been the major foreign investor in Burma with projects totaling $20 billion so far.

Shan State contains another complication as it is the center of the Burmese illegal drug production and the tribal rebels depend on the drug-related income to finance their armed forces. The drug business has been booming, especially the demand for methamphetamine. Production of meth, mainly in Burma, has gone from 30 tons in 2016 to over a hundred tons in 2018. Shan state, which is on the Chinese border, remains the largest source of illegal drugs in the region. Opium and heroin used to be the major source of income but those old staples are being displaced by methamphetamine. The Burmese methamphetamine production is a major regional problem that is worth billions of dollars a year to the tribes and that is a tremendous incentive for tribal drug gangs and corrupt government officials to help keep it going, The meth (usually in pill form) is called yaba locally and is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and China. Most (nearly half) of yaba goes to China, followed by Thailand. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business. The only real competition in the region is North Korea, which continues to produce and export the meth despite promises to China that North Korean meth would not go to Chinese dealers. Taiwanese gangsters have taken control of much of the meth distribution throughout East and Southeast Asia and are a growing presence in northern Burma. Unlike the Chinese form China, the Taiwanese tend to be a lot more discreet about what they are up to.

Chinese operating commercial (rather than Chinese government) enterprises in Kachin and Shan states are a major source of complaints in Burma. There seems to be no end of illegal schemes the Chinese come up with that profit at the expense of Burmese in the north. Two of the recent rackets is enticing or kidnapping Burmese women to China and selling them to Chinese men to be wives. There a growing shortage of Chinese women has created a market for young foreign women. China's "one child" policy of the last few decades and the ability to determine the sex of the child before birth led to more (20 percent more) boys than girls being born in China. There's a growing shortage of potential brides, and desperate Chinese men are willing to buy a kidnapped tribal girl from northern Burma (or anywhere else).

And then there are the Chinese banana plantations. Some are legitimate and registered in Burma to operate. But nearly all these Banana operations break the law in one way or another, usually by illegally expanding into state or locally owned forests and illegally using pesticides and fertilizer. For the northern tribes, China has rarely been a good neighbor.

Forever War For The Arakan

The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance. The AA 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 AA 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 AA 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 AA and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many AA supporters in the area.

Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the AA was never given official recognition, in large part because the AA 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 now some of the worst violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have announced they are establishing a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state. That did not happen as the army continued advancing, despite losses from occasional ambushes. The soldiers were seeking to find and arrest (and often murder) rebel supporters or young men suspected of being rebel fighters. In some towns and villages, the civilians will take refuge in local Buddhist temples and monasteries, which the soldiers tend to keep away from. Casualties among local civilians and rebels are higher than those suffered by the security forces but receive a lot less publicity.

March 20, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state) AA (Arakan Army) rebels continue fighting a losing, but bloody, battle with the army. Today troops report they were fired on as they entered Mrauk U, a town noted for its large Buddhist temples and large number of tourists (both Burmese and foreigners). The army warned the tourists to stay away until the troops were finished searching for rebels. This sort of thing has been going on for a year as the soldiers drive the AA out of territory along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states). In the last month, military operations have been particularly intense and thousands of civilians have fled their homes. So far this year some 20,000 civilians have become refugees as the army added 8,000 to the forces already in the area. Additional artillery, armed helicopters and ground attack aircraft arrived as well. The AA insists they have not attacked troops since March 15th and any army reports of attacks are one-sided actions when troops open fire on civilians or each other.

March 11, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state) AA (Arakan Army) rebels killed nine policemen.

March 2, 2019: In the northwest (Sagaing Region and nearby Rakhine state), troops shut down a dozen AA (Arakan Army) camps the tribal rebels had established in Burma just over the border from Indian Nagaland. This operation took about a month. The Burmese troops coordinated their operations with Indian forces on the other side of the border. The Indians blocked their side of the border when the Burmese troops were searching for or destroying a camp. The Burmese troops also shut down a major base camp established by Naga rebels in the Sagaing Region. Most Naga live on the Indian side of the border but the Naga rebels set up their camps on both sides of the border.

March 1, 2019: Bangladesh has stopped accepting refugees from Burma. Over a million Burmese Rohingya Moslems have fled to Bangladesh since the anti- Rohingya violence began in 2012. Only 16,000 arrived in 2018 and in 2019 the number of Rohingya seeking to enter Bangladesh has dwindled to nothing some weeks. Bangladesh has told the UN that any additional refugees will be stopped at the border and at that point Burma and the UN can work out where the refugees will go. Efforts to persuade refugees to return to Burma have largely failed as the anti- Rohingya attitudes still exist in Burma.

February 28, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), AA (Arakan Army) rebels ambushed a police convoy and killed two policemen.

February 26, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), an army officers wife was killed when she came upon a pipe bomb in a house she and her husband had recently moved into. The bomb went off while furniture was being delivered.    


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