Burma (Myanmar) has gained another dubious distinction; the longest Internet ban ever recorded. In northwestern Burma, parts of Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, have had Internet access blocked for over a year. The Internet shutdown began June 21 2019 and initially applied to several areas in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state. Internet access was subsequently restored in all of Chin State but the shutdown continued in parts of Rakhine State where the army had been fighting a Rakhine tribal rebel group called the AA (Arakan Army). This fighting had been going on since early 2019 and was made worse by the fact that the AA, unlike most tribal rebel groups up there, have always been more gangster than champion of tribal rights.
Cell phones came late to northern Burma. This was part of many changes that took place after the Burmese military finally agreed to end their decades of military rule and allow elections in 2011. The army staged a coup in the 1960s and managed to hold onto power for nearly half a century. Elections meant a lifting of military restrictions on communications and cell phone service flooded the country bringing many regions, particularly the tribal north, affordable and widespread phone service for the first time ever. The army soon found out that the tribal rebels used cell phones not just for operational communications but to stay in touch with their civilian supporters. This is the reason for the long Internet shutdown in Rakhine State, which is supposed to be lifted at the end of July.
There was plenty of AA violence to keep the military anxious. For example, in late May, 2020 Rakhine state was the scene of a major raid by over a hundred AA gunmen who attacked a border post at 2 AM. Four defenders were killed and some of the outnumbered border guards fled to a nearby army base. Nine border guards and three civilians (related to border guards) were missing when security forces recaptured the compound at dawn. The border post had been looted. This attack was not just about stealing some weapons and other gear from the border guards, it was more about intimidating the border guard force into backing off on border security. A major source of income for the AA is getting illegal drugs from nearby Shan State, where most illegal drugs in the country are produced, into Bangladesh. The AA works with Burmese Rohingya refugees just across the border in Bangladesh. The drug smuggling gangs in the refugee camps are outlaws in both countries and one of the reasons the refugees have overstayed their involuntary presence in Bangladesh. While the refugees were welcomed when they arrived in large numbers during 2017, after about a year the presence of nearly a million displaced Rohingya in an already crowded country became a problem. Most of the Rohingya 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 three years and there is no end in sight. The appearance of the covid19 virus has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages.
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. 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. Cell phones have changed how drug producers and smugglers do business. In the past, only the military and police had reliable long-range wireless communication. Some drug gangs could buy military-grade comms but most drug production and smugger personnel did without. With cell phones, and especially with web based encrypted messaging apps, the gangsters and tribal rebels now have an edge.
The AA is part of the larger and very active NA (Northern, or Brotherhood Alliance) tribal rebel association, which had agreed to a ceasefire earlier in the year. The military said it would respond to any rebel attacks during the ceasefire. Such truces are part of ongoing negotiations that, in late 2019, worked out some initial agreements, including a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. Those last two items have not worked out so far. No long-term peace deal yet but this is more progress with the NA than ever before. Some NA members are still engaged in combat with the army. The NA consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA, MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). Most of the current clashes do not involve the KIA and AA. One reason so few tribal rebels refuse to negotiate is because the government has shown it can and will use its power to shut down Internet access. Voice and texting capability remain so shutting down Internet access is not a death sentence. Still, the threat of losing web access is a strong incentive to at least negotiate.
The NA exists because its members refused to sign the 2015 Burmese 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 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 BRI (Silk Road) project, which NA members do object to.
Northern Burma is also a problem because it is the core of the drug producing “Golden Triangle.” This is the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. This area still produces most of the illegal drugs in East Asia. Northern Burma (Kachin province) is where most of the illegal drug production takes place. The drug production requires access to large quantities of industrial chemicals. The source is usually China or India and the pressure is on both countries to halt these questionable exports. Heroin production requires locally grown poppy plants treated with special chemicals to produce heroin. Poppy plants, the local raw material for opium, have grown in northern Burma for thousands of years. Burma is currently the most prolific portion of the Golden Triangle and that keeps all manner of gangster, rebel and ethnic warlords in business. This has been a bonanza for providers of cell phones and cell phone services.
In 2015 over 800 tons of opium was produced in the triangle, over 90 percent of it in Burma, which is also where most of the opium is processed into heroin, as in ten tons of opium yields one ton of heroin. Global production of opium is currently about 7,000 tons. Back in the early 1980s 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. There was some illegal production in the Golden Triangle but only a fraction of what it is now.
Chinese communists shut down opium production in China during the late 1940s. Some Chinese producers moved to Burma, Laos and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down and Laos was never a big producer. Burma, run by a military dictatorship since the 1960s, needed the money, and didn't crack down until the 1990s, in large part to destroy the military power of ethnic Chinese Burmese drug warlords who grew strong off their heroin profits. Heroin production then picked up in Pakistan, where it was soon driven across the border to Afghanistan.
It gets more complicated in northern Burma. Kachin State is thinly populated (1.2 million people in 89,000 square kilometers of hills and forests.) Most of the people in Kachin are the ethnic Chinese, and over 100,000 Kachins live across the border in China. Most of the people in Shan are also ethnic Chinese tribes. These tribes have never gotten along with the ethnic Burmese to the south. The Burmese are more distantly related to the Han Chinese (20 percent of the world population), but consider themselves quite distinct. The Chinese border area is, for China, a very distant and isolated part of China. For a long time, the Chinese government paid little attention to the Kachin. Now, however, Burma is a growing trading partner, and China has economic interests (roads and hydroelectric dams) in Kachin State. The sudden arrival of cell phones and Internet access in the north was revolutionary for all concerned. Before the generals gave up power and allowed democracy, there was limited cell phone service in the country (500,000 phones for 50 million Burmese). By 2015 just about every family had a cellphone as did nearly half the population. Before 2011 what cell phone service there was existed in large cities and not the tribal territories. By 2015 the tribal north had cell phones and it paid to expand that service to remote areas. Paying for a cell phone and service quickly became a vital necessity. Inexpensive phones from China, along with equally affordable equipment for cell phone service providers spread quickly throughout the country.
These tribal areas were full of tribes that fled the ever-expanding Chinese Empire. Similar tribes can be found near most Chinese border areas, especially in Southeast Asia. Kachin State is thinly populated (1.2 million people in 89,000 square kilometers of hills and forests.) Most of the people in Kachin are the ethnic Chinese, and over 100,000 Kachins live across the border in China. Most of the people in Shan are also ethnic Chinese tribes. These tribes have never gotten along with the ethnic Burmese to the south. The Burmese are more distantly related to the Han Chinese (20 percent of the world population), but consider themselves quite distinct. The Chinese border area is, for China, a very distant and isolated part of China. For a long time, the Chinese government paid little attention to the Kachin. Now, however, Burma is a growing trading partner, and China has economic interests (roads and hydroelectric dams) in Kachin State.
Britain came to control the tribal areas of India and Burma during the 19th century. After World War II (1939-45), when Britain agreed to independence for the colonies, it convinced the northern Burma tribes to become part of Burma rather than try to survive as new tribal states. Same deal to the adjacent Indian tribal areas. This eventually produced many tribal rebel militias that fought back against the more numerous non-tribal Indians and Burmese and all their bureaucrats, rules and organized corruption, which was often at the expense of the tribes.
Imperial China had never tried to subdue and incorporate the tribes of the Golden Triangle, just suppress the growing exports of opium. This became a major problem in the 18th century when many wealthy Chinese families found their adolescent children, and some older kin, turning into drug addicts. The Imperial government waged the first large scale “war on drugs” to suppress the opium addiction. This effort was disrupted by the British in the early 19th century when they fought a brief war with China so that Britain could continue to export Indian opium to China. That has never been forgotten in China, although now it is the Chinese who are the major exporter of addictive drugs (ketamine and precursor chemicals for heroin and meth) while still suffering from large quantities of Golden Triangle “yaba” getting into China.
Cell phones and the Internet made it easier for the drug gangs, and drug users, to operate. China has resorted to Internet shutdowns in only a few instances. More reliance is placed on a huge Internet censorship organization. Less affluent nations simply shut down Internet access, usually via cellphones for most of their citizens, while leaving the basic phone functions alone. Rarely are the Internet shutdowns for as long as in northern Burma. That shutdown did work, but was lifted as soon as the rebel threat was diminished. Internet access via cellphones has greatly increased personnel connections among family members scattered over large rural areas in the tribal territories. Cell phones and Internet access also brought in news, entertainment and commercial data that made local farmers and fishermen more successful and the tribal people more aware of each other. This has made it easier for the tribal rebels to communicate; with each other, their unarmed supporters and the outside world. While the tribal resistance has been going on for centuries, a decade of cell phone service has changed tribal attitudes and capabilities more than any other even or new tech.