Myanmar: Trying To Survive Drugs, Religion And Corruption


April 7, 2014: Peace negotiations with the northern tribes continue and are proceeding smoothly as both sides try to work out compromises on the remaining contentious issues. One of these issues is the drug trade, which has become a major part of the economy in the tribal lands. The government has a five year plan to eliminate the opium, heroin and methamphetamine production up there. Failure to gain tribal agreement to this could cause the peace deal to, in part at least, fail. Many tribal factions, including armed ones that currently serve in some tribal militias, don’t want to give up their drug business. That’s a big problem down south because of the growing number of addicts all these cheap drugs are making possible. Drugs, however, are not the main problem up north.

Peace has been elusive in large part because 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.

Another urgent reason for making peace with the tribes is that fighting them is very expensive, in terms of cash and lives. The army does not publicize its losses up north but enterprising journalists have examined media from periods of heavy fighting up there and found that the military will suffer several hundred casualties a month. Some of those campaigns go on for four or more months and a lot of vehicles and aircraft are lost, not to mention firing a lot of ammo. The post-junta government is under pressure to be more open about these losses but career bureaucrats and military officers have made a persuasive case to continue the secrecy.

Many of the northern tribes agree that the availability of cheap (locally produced) drugs is an unacceptable problem and some of the tribal militias are working with the military to shut down drug production. It’s not just tribal people up there getting addicted, but a growing number of soldiers as well. Next door Thailand and China continue having problems with the drug trade in Burma. 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 arm, 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.

A year ago anti-Moslem violence broke out in Meikhtila (central Burma). While thousands of Moslems have returned to the homes they fled during the attacks, some 8,000 Moslems there are still in refugee camps. The fighting has stopped but not the religious tensions. The anti-Moslem riots left 43 people (mostly Rohingya Moslems) dead. Dozens were arrested (half of them Moslems) and charged with instigating the violence. Weeks of unrest drove at least 12,000 people from their homes and saw some Moslem neighborhoods burned to the ground. Homes and businesses that were not destroyed were looted. The Moslems are angry over the damage, as well as the prosecution of Moslems, but not Buddhists, for the violence. Most of the victims were Moslem, but the Buddhist dominated courts are concentrating on trials for Moslems who fought back. More Moslems are organizing defenses against Buddhist mobs. This includes forming militias and building fences and barricades and letting Buddhist radicals know that any attack will be met with deadly violence. This appears to have prevented some attacks, as Buddhist mobs that would normally keep going and trash Moslem neighborhoods now halt and withdraw when it is obvious that there will be a violent resistance.

Meanwhile in the northwest 140,000 Rohingya Moslems living in refugee camps are in danger of starvation because local Buddhists accuse the air workers of supporting Moslem violence against Buddhists and have driven most foreign aid workers out of the area. The government is believed to be involved because police did little to protect the aid workers. The UN is demanding that the government do something about this mess as the refugees are running out of food and other supplies because local Buddhists block the shipments. The government does not want to go to war with the local Buddhists but cannot sit by and let the Moslem refugees starve.

April 6, 2014: On the outskirts of Rangoon a dispute between a Moslem and a Buddhist led to the Buddhist man being stabbed in the eye. Police attempts to arrest all the Moslem men involved failed and the incident then escalated into mob violence. Several hundred Buddhist men rampaged through a Moslem neighborhood causing much property damage before the police showed up in force. There had never been such anti-Moslem violence in the area before.

April 3, 2014: About a thousand troops arrived on the border of Kachin tribal territory and officers told nearby Kachin rebel leaders that if the rebels follow through on their threat to block the census workers the army and air force would advance on Kachin rebel bases in the area.

March 31, 2014: The navy commissioned the first locally built frigate. Based on the Chinese Type 053 frigate, the new ship is a 1,400 ton vessel equipped with cannon, anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

March 29, 2014: The government made it official that Moslems could not identify themselves as Rohingya during the census. 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.

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 since 2012. 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.



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