Myanmar: Where Bribes And Threats Can Be Used More Effectively

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April 11, 2013: The new government is still full of retired generals and other former army officers. While these guys talk of changing their old dictatorial ways, the reforms are not coming quickly enough for many people. A major reason for this resistance is that many reforms would hit the former operators of the military dictatorship right in the pocket book. For example, many reformers are demanding a new tax law that makes sure all sources of income is taxed fairly and that the tax laws are enforced. During the decades of military rule, one of the privileges of being part of the military government was the ability to avoid paying taxes. Not just for themselves but for companies they owned or were involved in. The officers can’t oppose the proposed tax laws openly (and admit their guilt), so they have to invent other reasons and basically block reform in general. But another recent reform, allowing privately owned daily newspapers, is even more annoying to the officers and their corrupt cronies because now all their past, and present, dirty deeds are being talked about openly. No one said reform was going to be easy, and it is certainly getting messy.

The U.S. lifted some sanctions because the government replaced some hardline generals with some less hardline ones. The problem is that all these senior army officers stick together and the new democracy initiative is seen by many as an army scheme to get out from under all the sanctions and revive the economy, while not threatening the wealth and power the army leaders have built up in the last half century. Burmese reformers have been pressuring the retired generals to allow more change for two years now and it is slowly working.

Another side effect of reform is the growth in ethnic tensions. With information more freely available tribal and religious minorities (mainly the Moslems and tribal Christians) are more aware of how badly they’ve been screwed (especially compared to the majority ethnic Burmese Buddhists). Thus the revival of tribal rebellions the military dictatorship thought they had crushed once and for all. The old animosity towards Moslems (which dates back nearly a century, when it was used by Burmese nationalists as part of the protest against British colonial rule) has also been revived, mainly by Burmese nationalists and Buddhists clergy. In a larger sense the violence is mainly about the fact that much of northern Burma was never really part of Burma but tribal territories ruled by no one except the few tribes that lived in the thinly populated hills and forests. Most Burmese lived in the southern plains and river deltas. Migrants from India (most of them Moslem) were never really welcome.

While the tribal violence can be ignored by most Burmese, because it is so far away, the anti-Moslem violence is right next door. The Moslems live in the south, often in separate neighborhoods, but right next to Buddhists. While most are recognizable (Indo-Europeans from Bangladesh and India) to the East Asian (similar to Chinese) Burmese, many are not. The anti-Moslem violence is spreading, sustained by generations of bad relations between Moslems and non-Moslems. With the police state government gone for two years now, people are free to act on their ethnic and religious hatreds and there’s more of it in Burma than the pro-democracy movement leaders realized. Just because you wish it weren’t so won’t make it go away. How to deal with these violent attitudes is giving the new government big headaches. This is especially true when orders to fix things are given but are not carried out. Senior officials say (and often believe) all the right things. But the closer you get to the violence the more you find local officials that are not inclined to be nice to the minorities. As a result, it’s difficult to get the mob leaders and the killers prosecuted or the refugee camps for Moslems and tribals run properly.

Democracy and less corruption are having a positive impact on the economy, which grew six percent last year and five percent the year before (the first year with democracy). Curbing many of the corrupt practices and economically restrictive laws still on the books is expected to push the economic growth rate into double digits.

April 10, 2013: Shan tribesmen accuse local government officials of stealing the money Chinese companies paid for tribal land bought for a natural gas pipeline to China. The officials were middlemen and were supposed to make sure the tribal families got the amount they were due. Instead the corrupt officials kept most of the money for themselves. This sort of thing has been going on for some time and is the main reason the northern tribes are still in a state of rebellion. What has changed is the new elected government and the repeal of the old media laws that restricted what could be reported. Now privately owned media can report about the many corrupt practices that thrived under the military dictatorship.

April 5, 2013: A large fight in an Indonesian refugee camp left eight Burmese Buddhists (fishermen jailed for being in Indonesian waters illegally) dead and 16 Burmese Moslems (Rohingya trying to reach Australia). The cause of the fight was the fishermen raping or molesting Rohingya women. In this region fishermen are often criminals (pirates and smugglers) and consider themselves tough guys who are above the law. That didn’t work in the refugee camp, where they were outnumbered by angry Rohingya and beaten in a battle involving clubs and fists.

Peace talks with the Kachin tribal rebels were delayed again. The Kachin accused the Chinese (who are part of the talks because Chinese economic projects in tribal areas are a major reason for the rebellion) of forcing the delay because they objected to the presence of foreign observers (the UN, Western diplomats) at the talks. The Chinese have found it more productive to work in the shadows, where bribes and threats can be used more effectively. China is trying to get past the tribal unrest in northern Burma so that Chinese economic projects (hydroelectric dams, mines, and pipelines) can be revived. This is not going well so far.

April 4, 2013: Police have arrested 42 people in Meikhtila (central Burma) and charged them with instigating the ethnic violence that began March 20th and left 43 people (mostly Rohingya Moslems) dead. Half those arrested were Moslems. The weeks of violence drove at least 12,000 people from their homes and saw some Moslem neighborhoods burned to the ground.

April 2, 2013: In the south (Yangon) 13 children died in a pre-dawn fire at a Moslem religious school. Many local Moslems assumed that it was the work of Buddhists anti-Moslem radicals, but it turned out to be an electrical fire caused by poor maintenance and diesel fuel that leaked from the school generator (used during the frequent electrical blackouts).

April 1, 2013: For the first time in nearly half a century, privately owned newspapers appeared on the streets. The military government outlawed all media that was not state controlled when they took power in 1964.

March 27, 2013: The government imposed curfews on two more towns (Nattalin and Zigon) in central Burma to help curb the growing anti-Moslem violence. Yesterday three nearby towns had curfews imposed and that did calm things down. But radical Buddhist monks are travelling around preaching the need to drive out Moslems.

 

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