Myanmar: Running From The Past


January 21, 2014: A second peace conference between the government and 17 tribal rebel groups has begun. Not all the rebel groups are attending and not all those who are believe that the discussions will succeed. But with the military government gone there is more optimism that last peace deals can be made. The pessimists point out that the most corrupt institution in Burma is still the military and the new constitution that returned democracy in 2010 explicitly granted military leaders (including all the retired officers) immunity from prosecution for past crimes. The military was also given control of the defense ministry and a fixed number (25 percent) of seats in parliament. In effect, the military leaders who once ran the country are still in charge of the defense budget and immune from prosecution for all the stealing they did in the past. Real reform will be very much an uphill slog and the military is ready to push back and win.  The new government is actually trying to not be a tool of the former military junta. Reforms are slowly being made. However the 2010 elections replaced the military dictatorship with many of the same people, out of uniform and trying to hide the fact that they rigged the vote. In response to this the rural tribes in the north revolted (again) but most were persuaded to make peace deals by 2013. These deals may not last and not everyone up there made peace. Decades of low level fighting against ethnic separatists in the north has resulted, during the last decade, in major victories for the government. There is not a lot of fighting, but major movements by Burmese troops into separatist areas that were long outside the control of the government. Temporary peace deals were made but the tribal rebels are producing major quantities of methamphetamine, and increasing amounts of heroin, to support continued fighting. China is not happy with many of these drugs (particularly heroin and meth) coming into China. That is difficult to change because the tribes are poor and the drug money is very attractive. China is also concerned with the popular opposition to major Chinese economic projects (dams and pipeline) in the north but the fundamentals remain the same. Tribal separatists continue to flee into Thailand. The government has done little to suppress a 2013 outbreak in anti-Moslem violence. Overall, economic and political progress is slow.

China’s generosity with aid and large investments in Burma make Burma one of the few reliable Chinese allies in the region. Otherwise China is much disliked by its neighbors, mainly because to border disputes and Chinese claims over the South China Sea. This is a 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) area south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. China claims all of it and this has aroused the ire of the neighbors and caused them to unite against China. This is often done via ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nation), which has taken a lead role in trying to arbitrate the disputes between ASEAN members and China over ownership of island in the South China Sea. This move is meant to persuade China to behave. Burma is an ASEAN member and is the only member that defends China. That has proved very useful in limiting the diplomatic damage ASEAN can do to China. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and later expanded to include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. All the ASEAN nations have some disputes with China. China agreed, in 2002, to cooperate with ASEAN over the Spratly Islands dispute but that was apparently all for show.

Moslem nations continue protesting attacks on Moslems in Burma. The latest accusation is about violence in a remote village in Arakan state where Buddhists are accused of killing a dozen or more Moslems. The government denies it and there is no proof yet. Foreign aid groups on the west coast (Arakan and Rakhine states), where most of the anti-Moslem violence occurs, make most of the complaints about local Buddhists attacking Moslems or interfering with efforts to get aid to displaced Moslems. Some of the accusations are true, but the Buddhists note that the Moslems are quick to complain yet say or do little about the more numerous Moslem attacks on non-Moslems worldwide. Buddhist religious leaders are encouraging violence against Moslems in order to prevent violence against Buddhists and other non-Moslems in Burma. This strikes a chord with most Burmese, be they the Buddhist majority in the south or the largely Christian tribes in the north. In 2013 over 250 people have died and over 150,000 driven from their homes because of the religious violence. Most of the victims have been Moslem and that is where more and more of the foreign aid is going. Before that most of the foreign relief aid went north to the tribal areas where the army has been fighting rebels for decades and since 2011 over 100,000 people have been driven from their homes. That is still going on but has been eclipsed since 2012 by the anti-Moslem violence. The government considers many of the foreign aid groups more interested in obtaining more donations by exaggerating the problems the refugees are having. The foreign aid staff are paid well for their efforts but it all depends on foreign donors, especially wealthy Arabs in the Persian Gulf, increasing their contributions.

The army continues fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The rebels there have been on the defensive since the army began attacking again in December.  The KIA agreed to peace talks in 2013 and a ceasefire deal was negotiated. But disagreements over details have delayed implementation and the army is trying to persuade the Kachins with force. That has worked in the past. Over 20,000 Kachins have fled into China to avoid the violence. Hundreds of Kachin women and children have been killed or injured by army operations.  This includes frequent cases of rape by Burmese soldiers. This sort of thing is not uncommon, as the ethnic Burmese from down south have always looked down on the northern tribes. KIA fighters continue to kill and wound troops by attacking their long supply lines along the few roads in the north. KIA gunmen are also attacking businesses run by government supporters. Despite this the army is moving more troops north and, as they long have done, abusing the local civilians by allowing troops to get away with rape and robbery, as well as forcing civilians to provide laborers or vehicles. The army blames the tribes for the continued violence, ignoring the bad behavior of the troops and the fact that the army leaders will often use troops to prevent tribes from interfering from corrupt business deals in north, especially those involving driving tribal people off the land they occupy and farm. In some areas, like Hpakant (near the Chinese border) the military has largely closed the area off to outsiders to conceal the illegal jade mining and the active participation of Chinese businessmen who buy the jade and provide supplies for the miners. About half the jade mined in Burma is done illegally, paying no taxes but plenty in bribes to the military.

January 14, 2014: In the west (Rakhine state) fighting between Buddhists and Moslems left three dead. The government denies that this happened.

January 11, 2014:  In the north (Kachin state) six soldiers were killed when the troops were hit by artillery fire. Apparently there was poor coordination between the artillery unit and the infantry unit advancing into areas where tribal people lived. The army frequently fires on tribal villages to drive the people out. The infantry then come in to loot the place and kill any survivors. The army had promised to not fire into this area, as part of the ongoing peace negotiations. But the army frequently breaks these agreements, usually because a local commander wanted to get back at local tribesmen for some real or imagined offense.

January 5, 2014:  Japan announced that it will provide $96 million in aid for the tribal people of northern Burma over the next five years. This is part of a Japanese effort to improve ties with Burma and to increase trade with and Japanese investment in Burma.

January 2, 2014: The government reported that troops had destroyed 9,200 hectares (23,000 acres) of poppy fields in the north in 2013. That was 3.5 times more than in 2012. Some 90 percent of the poppy destruction was in Shan state, where the tribes depend on opium and heroin for income and to keep armed resistance to the army going.


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