Myanmar: Counting Problems

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March 16, 2014: The government is conducting a census March 29-April 10 and some (the Kachin and Ta’ang National Liberation Army) of the 135 ethnic groups to be counted are refusing to cooperate because they disagree with the classifications used and see this as a ploy to extend more control over the tribes. As a result of these disputes several hundred thousand people may not be counted. Many other ethnic groups fear that this census, the first in 30 years, will be used by the government to increase the persecution of minorities, especially the tribals and Moslems. The Rohingya Moslems of the northwest see the census as another effort by the government to discredit Rohingya efforts to assert their claim to citizenship, and not illegal migrants who just happen to have been in Burma for nearly two centuries.

The census is part of a larger government effort to work out a long-term peace deal with the northern tribes. This has been elusive as the tribes were never part of Burma until the British colonial government came along and simply made the tribal territories and the ethnic Burmese lands to the south one entity. When the British left in 1947 the new nation of Burma found itself in possession of northern territories full of tribes that wanted nothing to do with Burma. But over the last 60 years government efforts to pacify the tribal areas has brought a lot of ethnic Burmese and modern technology north and many of the tribal people like the new tech and ideas. Making peace with the Burmese is a goal for more and more tribal people, but making it happen has proved difficult. The southerners are seen as corrupt and dishonest and there’s a certain amount of truth to that when it comes to how the Burmese deal with the northerners. But with nearly half a century of military government gone and Burmese talking about fighting corruption and cleaning up government there’s a new hope in the north. Government officials are telling tribal people with grievances (especially stolen land) that these problems will be fixed, and soon. At the moment it is mostly hope because the fighting is still going on and the distrust of southerners is still common. The tribals want to see some results.

The government is accused of trying to drive foreign aid group MSF (Doctors Without Borders) out of the country. The process began in February when officials increased restrictions on MSF operations along the northwestern coastal area where the foreign aid group provides the only medical care for over half a million people, most of them Moslems. The government is facing considerable international diplomatic and media pressure to back off here. What the government is really angry about is the fact that MSF, because of its numerous clinics in Moslem villages and refugee camps has become a prime source of data for foreign journalists on violence against Burmese Moslems. The government believes MSF gives out exaggerated and one-sided information, which is very common with foreign aid groups everywhere. These groups depend on donations to operate and their most effective pitch for donations is via international media. The media is more likely to do stories on extreme events than something that has become ordinary and routine. The government also finds that the MSF version of events is considered more reliable than what the government puts out and tends to ignore the casualties suffered by non-Moslem Burmese. Of course that is the result of the Buddhist mobs and officials destroying or shutting down most medical facilities treating Moslems over the last two years. Non-Moslems have plenty of medical facilities that will treat them but will turn away Moslems. What the government really wants MSF to do is shut up but MSF won’t do that. MSF staffers are idealists and many are volunteers who feel a duty to report what they see or, as the government believes what they think or simply believe they want to see.   

Since the violence began in 2012 Moslem nations have energetically and more frequently protested attacks on Moslems in Burma. Burmese Moslems, mostly Rohingyas are Bengalis, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma, and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). The current violence began in 2012 and has caused over 200,000 Rohingya (mostly, along with a growing number of non- Rohingya Moslems) to flee their homes, many of them seeking refuge in Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia. The Rohingya say the government is starving those in refugee camps and not punishing local Buddhists who attack Moslems. The anti-Moslem violence soon spread to other parts of the country, where Moslems are a smaller minority. About three million of 60 million Burmese are Moslem. Despite government orders to crack down on the Buddhist mobs the local police are Buddhist and reluctant to go after fellow Buddhists on this issue. Years of news about Islamic terrorist violence around the world has left many Burmese believing that radical Buddhist clerics preaching for more violence against Moslems in Burma is a national security issue, not an outburst of paranoid fear.

All this bad publicity is lost on most non-Moslem Burmese. That’s because throughout the region Islam tended to arrive in the form of a conquering army that would be less abusive to new subjects who converted. Most of the people in south Asia resisted this demand to convert and suffered generations of Moslem violence because of their intransigence. Non-Moslems in the region also note that most of the religious violence in the world is caused by Moslems. Hindus, Jews, Christians and Buddhists are all frequent targets, as are many Moslems believed to be heretics (like Shia and many smaller groups). Foreign observers rarely pick up on these ancient grievances but the locals take it for granted and react violently to real or imagined Moslem threats. 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 insist they 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.

The government doesn’t mind the foreign media getting distracted by the MSF “expulsion” story. The official line is that Burma is not trying to expel MSF, but the reality is that government officials and security forces are making it increasingly difficult for MSF to operate in Burma. The government says it will replace the MSF medical teams and has sent some Burmese medical personnel in to do that. But there are not enough medical resources in Burma to replace what MSF is providing.

Fighting continues in the north and the cause is hostility towards government corruption and efforts to suppress the drug trade. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. In 2013 there were 1,228 drug related criminal cases up there, compared to 276 in 2012. These cases involved the arrest of over 2,300 people, nearly twice as many as in 2012. The Burmese methamphetamine is a regional problem and in each of the last few years over a billion dollars in meth (usually in pill form) was seized.  In 2012 some 227 million doses of methamphetamine, worth about $1.3 billion were seized in the region. That was a seven fold increase from 2008. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia. Most (nearly half) of the seized pills are taken in China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. It’s believed that Burmese meth labs produce about 1-2 billion doses (in pill form) of methamphetamines each year, which have a street value of over $8-16 billion. At least a quarter of that stays in the Burmese tribal territories where that kind of money has become a key component of the local economy and allows the rebels to equip, uniform and sustain private armies. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China and throughout East Asia. China is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the meth production in the tribal territories and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business.

March 5, 2014:  The United States released a report that accused Burma of continuing to buy weapons from North Korea and allow North Korea to use Burma as a transit point for illegal North Korean weapons exports. For over a year now the U.S. has been trying to convince Burma to cut its military ties with North Korea. In exchange for that the U.S. offers to provide military and economic aid. Apparently the biggest problem here is that North Korea bribes key Burmese officials to allow the illegal arms shipments to move through Burma and to encourage Burma to buy more North Korean weapons. The Americans won’t pay bribes. However, there would be opportunities to plunder the American aid, but this is not something U.S. diplomats can mention during their negotiations. For the moment there are plenty of Burmese officials who want to keep taking the North Korean money but will keep listening to the Americans.

February 28, 2014: In the north the army captured two Shan rebel camps after two days of fighting. This was the first army clash with the SSA-S rebels this year. Despite ceasefires signed or those offered fighting continues in Shan state which contains thousands of armed rebels belonging to several different groups. The army tries to assert control in a variety of ways and that tends to cause more fighting.  

February 27, 2014: The government ordered MSF to cease operations in Burma. The government soon backtracked in the face of international outrage and pressure.

February 25, 2014: The government declared that the 37 ton slab of rock called the “jade bolder” found in Kachin state is not jade at all but just a large rock. If it were jade it would be worth several billion dollars. The 37 ton bolder was found on February 9th by a prospector and within a week troops were sent in to guard the rock and the guy who found it. Not everyone believes the announcement about the rock not being jade and see it as another government ploy to steal jade. In response to that the government said it would put the rock on display to dispel suspicions. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and exports about $4 billion worth each year. Yet only about one percent of that is taxed and half of it is found by illegal mining operations and is quietly sold to Chinese traders. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by generals who have connections inside China. The military men are not giving up all their illegal businesses and the government, despite being elected, is reluctant to force the issue, at least not yet. Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly trying to force tribal rebels out of jade producing areas. 

February 20, 2014: Two Burmese Buddhist politicians visiting Malaysia were shot at by men on a motorcycle. The Burmese were not hurt and police believed this was an assassination attempt by Islamic radicals angry at Buddhist violence against Moslems in Burma.

 

 

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