Myanmar: The Wasteland Welcome


July 25, 2019: China has offered all possible cooperation to Bangladesh to assist in the return of Rohingya (Burmese Moslems) in Bangladesh refugee camps to their homes in Burma. China did not mention any specific forms of aid. For a long time China has been an ally of Burma and the Chinese veto (and considerable clout in the UN) has blocked any UN action against Burma. The anti-Rohingya violence that caused all this was instigated by nationalist Buddhist religious leaders and the Burmese military took advantage of it because in 2012 the Burmese military was no longer running the country and seeking other opportunities. The Burmese military was forced to give up a lot of their decades of dictatorial power in 2011 and allow restoration of democracy. That meant the Buddhist nationalists could go after the Rohingya, something the military dictatorship had prevented for decades. Once an elected government was back in charge the Buddhist nationalists had the votes, and popular support to drive over a million Rohingya out of their homes and villages in the northwest (mainly Rakhine state) and into neighboring Bangladesh.

The army, in the name of restoring order, got involved and actually caused much of the destruction during 2017. Since then several new military bases have been built in the depopulated areas. Eyewitness reports and commercial satellite photos confirm that no reconstruction has taken place in the depopulated areas. As a result, there is nothing for the Rohingya something to return to. The Rohingya in Bangladesh already know this and refuse to return to a wasteland occupied by the soldiers that took part in the violence that drove the Rohingya into Bangladesh.

The troops in Rakhine state do have security concerns. A local non-Moslem rebel militia, the AA (Arakan Army) represents tribes angry over decades of mistreatment by the military and the fighting with soldiers has flared up once more. The army also says they are concerned about ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) a Rohingya Islamic terror group that has proved to be more bark than bite and that suits the army just fine.

The Burmese military benefitted from the Rohingya departure because the generals had a lot of business interests, many of them illegal, in the north. This was no secret and international furor over the Rohingya refugee crises diverted attention from how the army was making money in the north. Much of the property abandoned by the fleeing Rohingya will eventually be claimed by the military and sold. Some of the buyers will be Chinese, who finance a lot of the illicit activity in the north. Having the Chinese on your side means the military has been able to ignore the threat of revived UN sanctions. China prefers to work with the Burmese military, which makes Burmese democrats uneasy but the elected government is still running most of the country. The military has lots of autonomy that the elected officials are having difficulty eliminating.

The military leaders (both active and those retired to be politicians) find that they are losing more and more popular support in Burma because of the Rohingya mess and are actually quite willing to make a deal, as long as it does not involve allowing a lot of Rohingya to return. That is one thing most Burmese actually agree on.

The UN has similar problems with China in the UN, where it is considered prudent to not criticize China directly. China will ignore such criticism and then come up with ways to retaliate diplomatically or economically against the critics. China will also express gratitude to their supporters in the UN. No one is willing to make any real threats against Burma as long as China shields Burma and that shield shows no signs of being lowered. This has led to a lot of posturing for the media without any danger of actually having to do something to get the Rohingya safely back to their Burma homes. 

July 22, 2019: Malaysian police reported that they had uncovered a group of Rohingya who are carrying out an extortion campaign directed at Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. The police traced at least $20,000 of the extorted cash being sent (via halwa) to ARSA in Burma or Bangladesh.

July 20, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), the army brought in two small navy warships to support operations against villages built next to a river. The AA rebels decided to fire rockets at the navy ships as well as the advancing troops and have kept this up for the last two days. The navy ships were easy targets because they were operating in a narrow river with little room to maneuver and some of the rockets were fired, from close range, by remote control. Some damage was done to the ships and two sailors (and a soldier) were killed. At the same time, soldiers on the ground continued attacking nearby villages and these troops suffered over thirty casualties from the rocket fire, including nine dead.

July 18, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), the government refuses to restore Internet service to areas of Rakhine near the Bangladesh border. The Internet access was shut down on June 22nd, in an area that included part of adjacent Shin state. This was done for security reasons but locals note that it makes it more difficult for information about government misbehavior to get out. This is particularly true about the army, which often acts with violent impunity in the north.

July 9, 2019: The Burmese Navy received the first batch of Indian Shyena lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. These were ordered in 2017 and were developed and built-in India.

July 7, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), two border guards were killed when their checkpoint near the Bangladesh border was fired on by unidentified (so far) gunmen. It might have been ARSA, which has already made three similar attacks in the area so far in 2019.

June 27, 2019: In the north (Kachin and Shan states), locals report that opium production in the area has gone up in the last two years even though the government and the UN reported that it had decreased. This confusion was deliberate and arose from the fact that the army had gone into business with the opium growers. That ensured that official reports did not reveal the increased opium production. But the locals In Kachin and neighboring Shan state knew what was going on and were willing to mention it to outsiders. Production had been reduced in 2014-16 because a local tribal anti-drug group persuaded tribal leaders to go along. Then the army established control over more of the two states and became partners with some of the local drug gangs. There are still anti-drug operations in the north by government forces that have become partners with the drug gangs.


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