Myanmar: Starving Your Friends


May 19, 2011: The war continues in the north, between the army and various rebel groups. These include the SSA (Shan State Army) and its ally the United Wa State Army. Actually, there are two Shan State Armies (north and south) and these have joined forces against the government (despite the fact that one of them is technically a government ally). For the last decade, the government had some success in dividing the tribes with bribes and good treatment. But this effort has run into some problems.

The current fighting has been going on since the start of the year. The tribes feel they are being played, and trust the government even less. The Shan State and United Wa State can muster nearly 10,000 armed men (although not on a full time basis.) Because of the expense, and lack of roads, the government can't get an overwhelming number of troops into the north. So a stalemate is not only possible, it has been the norm for decades. The new round of violence is also directed at government civilian workers. These have been lured north (by higher pay and other opportunities) to provide services (medical, educational and so on) that would make government rule easier to accept. The tribal rebels know that, and are increasingly killing and terrifying these bureaucrats.

One reason for the increased violence against southerners is the government encouragement of human trafficking. There is a demand for women in China. Not just for brothels, but as wives. China's "one child" policy of the last few decades, and the ability to determine the sex of the child before birth, has led to more (20 percent more) boys than girls being born. There's a growing shortage of potential brides, and desperate Chinese men are willing to buy a kidnapped tribal girl from northern Burma. The tribes do not like this, as Chinese armies have been doing this for thousands of years, and it's something you never get used to.

In the southeast, the Karen tribes don't have to worry as much about kidnapping and a drug trade, but the battles with Burmese troops have been a daily occurrence this year. It's another endless war. The military dictatorship refuses to allow the kind of autonomy the Karen (or other tribal minorities) demand, so the fighting goes on. The situation with the Karen is made worse by bad weather, that is causing food shortages. More Karen are fleeing to Thailand to avoid starvation, as well as the fighting.

The government officials in the north are not always heartless foreign rulers. They can be bribed. And that is what the drug gangs are doing, so that they can grow more poppies (that yield opium, which can be refined into heroin). The northern tribes see the Afghan heroin production under increasing threat, and sense an opportunity to once more become the major source of heroin (which they were, until China organized a campaign to shut it down in the 1980s). The Chinese are still hostile to opium (as they have been for the last three centuries), but corruption and constant demand keep the drug gangs in business.  

The army has a problem with rising (worldwide) food prices. Because the average pay of soldiers is about $50 a month, those with families have come to depend on government "gifts" of free rice each month. Although usually low quality stuff, if allows families to get by. But the sharp rise in food costs has caught up with the army, which is cutting the free food for families in some units. The army is large (350,000 troops) and loyalty is obtained by providing jobs for men who would otherwise be unemployed. That loyalty is in danger if the food shortages spread.

May 18, 2011: A bomb went off on a train outside the capital, killing two people. Police believe this is the work of Karen rebels.


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