Myanmar: The Assimilation Wars


October 21, 2019: Despite two years of effort fewer than a thousand of the million ethnic Rohingya Burmese pushed into neighboring Bangladesh have returned. This has caused a diplomatic problem but otherwise is ignored by most Burmese. No compromise seems possible and with a powerful ally like China (and its UN veto and economic clout) to block major UN action Burma can afford to just let the situation simmer and concentrate on the other ethnic problems it must cope with. All this is the result of how the modern state of Burma was created after World War II. That process was messy and it was in part become no one had done it before. This was all about the relentless spread of nationalism over the last few centuries. This eventually became a European effort to ensure that everyone belonged to some kind of nation. Before that large portions of the world were inhabited by humans but there was no local government or ownership. By the 20th century that was no longer acceptable, at least to the European nations that had taken, or simply assumed control over the many remaining blank spaces where there was no government that owned or controlled an area. Bringing education, modern medicine and the industrial revolution to these areas proved to be more expensive than anticipated. Then there were a lot of locals who become more aware of nationhood and demanded it for themselves. So between the late 1940s and 1960s, most of the colonial areas were turned into sovereign states.

Deciding who belonged to what new government was often difficult and an example of this was in northern Burma and along the Burmese borders in general. To address this mess in 1947 the Panglong Conference was held between the many tribes in the border areas and British colonial authorities to decide who would join what nation before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for many tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. The tribes realized that life was harder and more precarious if you were a blank space on the map. Nearby nations or independent operators (warlords, gangsters or worse) could more easily make life miserable because you were “nobody”.

World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces during the war. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor, in this case former British colonies India and Burma, would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal in the 21st century is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea was to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement on how the government should be run in areas with many tribal organizations.

India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels. Similar decisions were made throughout vast areas of Africa, the Middle East and Asia as thousands of tribes chose, or were forced, to join a nation-state to be a subject of. Many of these tribes had a hard time adapting. Not just in Burma but also northeast India, northwest Pakistan and throughout Southeast Asia (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and so on). These “assimilation conflicts” are at the core of the many post World War II little wars that continue to the present.

In Burma, many of these tribal and ethnic disputes were put on hold for decades by a military dictatorship that ruled from the 1960s until 2011. This is also a common situation. When all the communist police states of East Europe and Russia collapsed between 1989 and 1991 the result was many new nations along with ethnic and even tribal disputes long suppressed by totalitarian rule.

This was very much the case in Burma after democracy returned in 2011. 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 t his sort of thing is not unique. What happened to the Rohingya is part of an ancient pattern that has, in the last century, become a common cause of large scale disorder. 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 as nation 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 were 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 whom, 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. The problem is more acute with the Rohingya because they were driven into a country that already had more problems with overpopulation and poverty than Burma. The Rohingya did not want to leave and many have lost property and jobs because of the expulsion. Yet whether the displaced people were forced out or left voluntarily, no one has found an easy or perfect solution to these problems. Not in Burma or anywhere else.

In Bangladesh, the popular solution is to pressure Burma with international sanctions and threats of war crime prosecutions until Burma takes the Rohingya. Bangladesh has a strong case because Burma is not overcrowded, as it has 72 people per square kilometer compared to 1,100 in Bangladesh. Per capita income in Burma is $6,900 a year versus $5,000 in Bangladesh. Economic prospects are growing more rapidly in Burma than in Bangladesh. For example. Burma has growing (over 10 percent a year) natural gas exports which currently account for a fifth of export income. China is eager to invest many billions of dollars in Burma but has less interest in Bangladesh. India sympathizes with Burma because India continues to have problems with illegal economic migrants from Bangladesh. Those migrants are a hot political issue in the areas bordering Bangladesh and as a democracy India must, and is, addressing the issue. Bangladesh is also a democracy and the voters there want Burma to make right the damage they have done to Bangladesh with this forced migration. Burma is once again a democracy and the voters see the Rohingya as a Bangladeshi problem even though the original migration from what is now Bangladesh took place when India, Bangladesh and Burma were all under British rule. There are no easy solutions to these situations of deciding who belongs where.

In Burma, the anti-Rohingya violence 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. 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, when most of the expulsions took place. 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 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.

Fewer than a thousand Rohingya have gone back because their homeland in northern Burma is still too dangerous for them. 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 will stand by Burma. 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. The major obstacle to getting the Rohingya back to Burma is assurances that it is safe. That can be accomplished if the first small 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 competition here is often the army, which considers such moneymaking opportunities a bonus to the pay and support they receive from the government.

October 17, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state) fighting between the army and AA (Arakan Army) rebels continues to flare up repeatedly. For the last ten days, the army has been using a combination of artillery fire and advancing infantry to push AA rebels away from roads or other areas the army wants to control, at least temporarily. Similar violence has been taking place in these areas since late August. This skirmishing has been going for quite sometime before that and the most obvious impact has been the large number (about 70,000) of civilians displaced by the fighting so far in 2019. Since mid-2018 soldiers have been fighting the AA rebels for control of territory along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states). The fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. 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 not violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have announced they are establishing a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state. The AA and their ally the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) have joined forces to recruit and train local men to resist the army. Together the two rebel groups have over 10,000 armed men. This force is expensive to maintain and the rebels pay for it with all manner of legitimate, and mostly illegal money-raising schemes.

October 16, 2019: South of Rakhine state, off the coast of the Irrawaddy River delta, fishermen found over two dozen sacks of something floating in the water. Soon 23 of the sacks were salvaged and found to be full of methamphetamine. The drugs were turned over to the police who estimated that the retail value of this methamphetamine was about $2 billion. This was the largest seizure ever made in Burma. It was unclear how it got into the water but considering a large number of navy patrol boats operating in the area and the popularity of this coastal area with smugglers, it is believed smugglers threw the methamphetamine overboard at night when they feared a patrol boat was about to send a search party aboard.

October 9, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), a bomb exploded outside a construction site for a local headquarters of the NLD (National League for Democracy). The NLD is currently the ruling party in the parliament and wants to keep it that way by expanding party operations throughout the country. It is unclear who set off the bomb and for what reason. Construction firms are often forced to pay “protection money” to gangsters, rebels or even the army in order to avoid violence.

Elsewhere in the north (Shan state), TNLA rebels ambushed a military convoy, killing three soldiers and wounding seven nearby civilians.

September 27, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), two armed Rohingya men were shot dead by Bangladesh border guards. The dead men refused to halt and were found to carry a quantity of methamphetamine. The men were armed with rifles and were later identified as Burmese methamphetamine living in a Bangladesh refugee camp. So far this year 44 Rohingya men have been killed by police because of illegal activities. The most common crime is smuggling Burmese drugs into Bangladesh.


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