Myanmar: Follow The Money And Die


August 22, 2019: The UN began, in mid-2018, issuing ID cards to Rohingya refugees from Burma, and so far have issued the IDs for two-thirds of the 740,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. These IDs make it easier for Rohingya to return to Burma because the ID is proof that they were pushed out of Burma by the army and vigilantes in the first place. Despite that few Rohingya are going back, even with the ID card. Their homeland in northern Burma (Rakhine state) is still too dangerous for most Rohingya. The Burmese government was threatened with sanctions but the army dominated Burmese government was not impressed enough to move faster to make the areas where the Rohingya refugees came from safer and more receptive to returning refugees. The military knows that China is eager to be Burma’s main ally, to the exclusion of Western nations making threats. India still works with Burma, to deal with tribal rebels who operate along their common border. Thailand is another neighbor not bothered by the Rohingya situation.

Yet the international pressure to act is having an impact. Burma and Bangladesh have screened a list of 20,000 Rohingya refugees willing to return and agreed that 3,500 of these volunteers are acceptable to both countries. This group is to be allowed back in Burma soon, probably before the end of the year or sooner. How that works out will determine how many more Rohingya refugees return. It’s not much, but it’s progress, no matter how slow.

The major obstacle to getting the Rohingya back to Burma is assurances that it is safe. That can be accomplished if the first group back finds it is safe. Even then there is another obstacle. Most Rohingya refugees refuse to return until they receive citizenship. That was the dispute that triggered the current anti-Rohingya violence in Burma and the majority of Burmese are opposed to granting citizenship. Situations like this are common worldwide and they predate the modern nation-state with its strict border and immigration controls.

The Unwanted

The Rohingya have always been an obvious minority in largely ethnic Burmese Burma. The Rohingya are ethnic Bengali (an Indo-European group) while the ethnic Burmese and the tribal minorities are all East Asian (of which the Han Chinese are the largest faction). This meant the Rohingya were the most obvious minority in Burma and that is not a good thing historically. Expelling unwanted minority groups has been a common practice in this part of the world, and many other regions, like the Middle East. The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with their treatment of the Rohingya because this sort of thing is not unique. What happened to the Rohingya is part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large scale disorder in the last century. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations and it is quite common in this part of the world and Bangladesh has produced more of these illegals than anyone else. Illegal migrants have become a more difficult problem since national states became the preferred form of government and it became common for there to be disputes over who belonged and who did not. The UN estimates that there are currently over ten million such stateless people. Thus many of the nations (especially Moslem ones) criticizing Burma over their treatment of the Rohingya are guilty of doing the same thing themselves or tolerating such misbehavior by an ally.

Most of the stateless are that way because they don’t want to live where they, or their ancestors, came from. Thus there are at least a million Moslems in Burma who originally (often over a century ago) came from Bangladesh but don’t want to return there. They prefer to live in Burma, where most of the population is Buddhist. India has a similar problem in its northeast tribal territories, especially Assam, where four million Bengali migrants (most of them, or their ancestors, entered illegally) are being denied citizen status. The tribal locals have long resented the illegal migrants, more so than the legal migrants. India sees this citizenship crackdown as a way of reducing support for local tribal separatist rebels.

There is a similar situation in the African country of Ivory Coast, where 700,000 people (a quarter of the population) are migrants (or the descendants of migrants) from Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. Over the last half-century, Ivory Coast encouraged these people to come work on coffee and cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Ivory Coast never agreed to offer citizenship and that led to a recent civil war between the migrants and the natives.

In the Middle East, you have over 100,000 stateless nomads in Kuwait. Called the Bedoon, these people were not considered Kuwaitis in 1962, when Kuwait became independent. That was because the Bedoon were nomads who came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the Kuwaiti oil wealth grew that attitude changed. Kuwait decided it was not making anyone else citizens. In Syria and Iraq there have been government attempts to punish rebellious Kurds by declaring some of them not citizens. That has not worked out well and the question of who the Kurds are and where they belong is still a problem.

In Russia and former (after 1991) states of the Soviet Union there were over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” were ethnic Russians who ended up outside Russia and liked being where they were but the locals did not want them. The other half were non-Russians who ended up in Russia but were not wanted.

In Thailand, there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, and would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.

In the Dominican Republic, you have hostility towards migrants from neighboring Haiti which led to new laws making many migrants non-citizens. In Europe, you have over 50,000 Roma (gypsies) who are nomadic and prefer to not register births with the state or leave any kind of paper trail. Many Roma have settled down, but enough have not to remain a problem.

There is a worldwide problem with illegal migrants going somewhere to find jobs, staying, not being detected for a while, if at all, and eventually their descendants demand citizenship. This often leads to violence and resists lots of solutions thus becoming long-term problems. No one has found an easy or perfect solution to the problem. Not in Burma or anywhere else.

Bangladesh Balks

The Burmese refugees have overstayed their involuntary presence in Bangladesh. Already a crowded country, most of the refugees are in an area called Cox’s Bazaar and their presence tripled the local population. At first the locals were eager to help fellow Moslems, for a few months at least. But that expected short visit has gone on for two years and there is no end in sight. These situations are increasingly common worldwide. First there is the strain on local resources in an already overpopulated area. The locals grow resentful and then angry. This is accelerated by loss of jobs to refugees who are willing to work, illegally, for less. The refugees have food and medical aid which is more than many of the locals have, especially those who lost their jobs to refugees, who are forbidden to take jobs, and got them anyway. Complaints to local police often become another opportunity for the police to enrich themselves with another bribe. Many of the idle refugees seek solace in drugs, usually cheap Burmese methamphetamine pills. Production of this stuff is a major regional problem that is worth billions of dollars a year to the northern Burmese tribes and that is a tremendous incentive for tribal drug gangs and corrupt Burmese 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. 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 and the United Wa State militia, which dominates meth production, is basically untouchable. Bangladesh is seen as a new market opportunity and entrepreneurs among the refugees organized meth smuggling operations. Refugees are hired to smuggle the yaba in and distribute it to refugees and locals. Police efforts to curb the yaba trade leads to gun battles, arrests and more reasons to want the refugees gone. The refugees have nowhere to go and situations like this rarely end well.

The Wrath of NA

The NA (Northern Alliance) consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA (Arakan Army), MNDAA Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). The current battles do not involve the KIA. The NA exists because its members refused to sign the Burmese 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the Burmese government and military. The army, which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north, is the primary cause for violence. China is also involved because Northern Alliance members survive via their access to China. The access is tolerated as long as these Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma. This includes the OBOR (One Belt/One Road) project, which NA members do object to.

August 21, 2019: In the north (Shan state), fighting broke out a week ago and that violence has continued. So far there are at least 19 dead, nearly a hundred wounded and over 2,000 locals have fled their homes. It’s not just the NA that is causing a commotion up north. In 2019 continued feuding between some rival rebel groups or between rebels and the military has led to seemingly endless violence in the north. This year the army arranged a truce between SSA-S (Shan State Army-South) and SSA-N (Shan State Army-North). These two groups have a lot in common but have been fighting over disagreements over how to interpret the terms of the NCA (National Ceasefire Agreement) the SSA-S signed in 2015. The army and tribes often do not agree on details of ceasefire or peace deals and fighting resumes. These ceasefires tend to work, with periodic brief lapses due to local disputes.

August 20, 2019: In the north (Rakine state), two roadside bombs were used against a police convoy, leaving a commander dead and four policemen wounded.

In neighboring Shan state, a local militia leader and his wife were killed during a TNLA attack.

August 19, 2019: In the north (Rakine state), army artillery hit a home and killed an army NCO who was on leave to help care for his sick mother-in-law. Soldiers were skirmishing with tribal rebels nearby and in cases like that stray bullets or shells often injure nearby civilians.

August 15, 2019: In the north (Shan state) the NA announced that they had launched an offensive against the army forces in the area. There were already NA/army battles going on but this announcement seemed to promise more of it this month. Today there were NA attacks in five different locations leaving about ten dead.

August 8, 2019: In the north (Shan state), TNLA and MNDAA rebels joined forces to attack an army infantry battalion headquarters. At first, it was thought this attack was in response to the army drug raids today that seized millions of dollars’ worth of NA drugs and equipment. It was later discovered that the attack had been planned several weeks ago and the rebels quietly arrived in the area six days ago to make final preparations.

July 25, 2019: In the north (Shan state), soldiers raided several NA drug production and distribution sites. Data obtained during these raids led to more in early August. The NA lost about $10 million worth of drugs and equipment. These losses and continued army attacks in Shan and Rakhine states are the main reason for the increased fighting between the NA and the army during August.


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