Myanmar: It's Not Easy Being Mean


April 2, 2016: The military is bracing for the most serious attack on its power and corrupt business empire. The new parliament has, in theory, the power to undo all the laws the generals put in place during 2011 to preserve that wealth and provide immunity from prosecution. For half a century the military ran the country as a dictatorship that mainly benefitted the generals and their cronies. The majority of Burmese opposed that and made that clear during the 2015 elections for parliament.

Despite the military being guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats in the 2008 constitution (that made the 2011 elections possible) reformer Aung San Suu Kyi’s party still gained an absolute majority (67 percent) and was able to form the current government with Aung San Suu Kyi in charge. The generals suspected this would happen and passed a law making it illegal for anyone with children who are not Burmese citizens to hold high office (like prime minister or president). The two sons of Aung San Suu Kyi are British (because her deceased husband was). The generals prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from being with her husband and children from 1989 to 2010, Most of that time she was under house arrest.

There is growing anxiety among the officers who ran a military dictatorship until 2011 that the reformers will go after the illegal business empire the generals built over decades of corrupt rule. The generals believed they had an unwritten understanding that they were guaranteed amnesty for past crimes if they allowed the return of democracy. The problem is that those past crimes included a lot of illegal (by Burmese law) practices that persist. For example lots of land was illegally taken from northern tribes so Chinese and Burmese businesses could establish themselves up there. These land thefts continue. China was building dams and mining operations in the north until growing tribal resistance forced a halt. The new government is willing to consider Chinese requests to resume their operations up north but only if it is done legally and the locals up there (mostly tribes that have occupied the land for centuries) are fairly compensated. China can afford to do that, even if they don’t like it. The Chinese are willing to negotiate while the generals are unsure of what they can get away with now. The generals and their Burmese business associates cannot afford to operate legally because that would be very expensive and would make the generals and their allies vulnerable to prosecution. Avoiding that is something worth fighting for but right now the generals are just making threats. The generals still control the police and use that to harass reformers they can get away with jailing. But many of the generals fear that the reformers may have the upper hand. Foreign aid donors and investors are demanding an end to corruption as a condition for continued support. The badly needed aid and investment money is also not coming if the generals try to regain control of the government.

The 2008 constitution was written by and for the generals guarantees the military some key jobs and freedom from parliamentary interference with the military budget. The new government is expected to eventually try to revise the 2008 constitution, despite the risk of another military takeover or civil war. So far the generals have kept their promises but there was always the risk that an elected government would try to punish the military for crimes committed during the dictatorship or shut down some of the illegal, but lucrative, operations the military still controls (like the illegal jade trade in the north). Yet cleaning up the corruption in the north, especially the deals done with the Chinese, are essential for dealing with the continuing tribal rebellions up there and making Burma attractive to foreign investors..

The Northern Plights

In the north (Shan State) the army continues fighting the TNLA (Taang National Liberation Army) tribal rebels. This current round of violence began in January when the pro-government SSA-S (Shan State Army-South) called on army help because of a dispute with TNLA. These two groups have long been at odds over a number of issues. The army is always trying to bribe tribal warlords to help protect, rather than hinder, the lucrative scams the military has long operated in the north. This usually works when it exploits existing tensions (and sometimes ancient feuds) between two tribes. That often results in fighting between the tribes. This sort of thing is seen as another form of corruption up north and most of the tribal rebels openly condemn it. To make these unpopular deals work the army has to help the bought and paid for tribal allies when necessary. This is one of those situations.

Elsewhere in the north (Kachin state) thousands of anti-opium activists are interfering with poppy farming and opium production. The drugs are unpopular in the tribal territories and this anti-drug effort was organized by local Christian clergy and supported by many tribal leaders. For that reason the drug gangs can’t just apply force (in the form of beatings and gunfire). That could start an armed tribal uprising against the drug operations. The drug gangs try to spread cash around to keep the locals happy but there are limits to how much they can spend and many of those taking the cash agree with the anti-drug movement but are willing to take and money and stay quiet. That changes if fellow tribesmen get gunned down. In response to all this the drug gangs have called in the police. The cops are also on the gang payroll and the military controls the police and gets a share of the drug profits. So now the police are threatening the anti-drug groups. Again, the cops have to be careful. Too much force and they will find themselves on the receiving end of tribal violence. While profitable, it’s not always easy being a crook up north.

Despite some local problems the drug trade up north is big business, worth over $30 billion a year, and protected by some powerful patrons in Burma and neighboring countries (including China). Shutting down the drug production up there has been done before but it requires all the countries involved to cooperate. Until the recent elections Burma was the lone holdout but the new government seems inclined to make the effort if the neighbors, especially China, reciprocate. That is, the new government wants China to halt its support for the Burmese generals and their corrupt businessmen allies.

Relief For Rohingya

In the last year about 17 percent of the 145,000 Rohingya still in government protected refugee camps returned home. At this point most of the Rohingya who fled to those camps after 2012 have returned to their neighborhoods, often to rebuild homes and businesses destroyed by the anti-Moslem violence that began in 2012. The violence against the Rohingya died down during 2015. That convinced more Rohingya to stay in Burma. Another factor was the increased difficulty in illegally leaving. Over 200,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since 2012. At least 25,000 are believed to have gone south in the first three months of 2015 and that level of activity continued until the Thai crackdown took effect in May. Suddenly a lot fewer (soon about 80 percent fewer) Rohingya refugees were showing up at in Malaysia or Indonesia. All the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal were now watching for boats engaged in people smuggling and that pretty much ruled out using large vessels anymore. At this point smugglers can only move a few people at a time on smaller vessels that could avoid or pass inspection. That drove the price of using people smugglers way up, to the point where most Rohingya could not afford it. While Rohingya still face persecution (and occasional violence) in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh they believe the new reform government will help them. That is not a sure thing but it is one of the few new developments the Rohingya can be optimistic about.

April 1, 2016: Parliament approved a measure that allows reform leader Aung San Suu Kyi to hold an official government position (“State Counselor”) that makes it easier for her to run the government. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the NLD (National League for Democracy) the reform party that won the dominant position in parliament during the November elections.

March 31, 2016: The new parliament opens with the NLD very much in control. But because the constitution requires that 75 percent of members of parliament must approve changes in the constitution and the generals are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats, the generals have, for the moment, a guarantee of some protection from radical changes to the basic laws.

March 4, 2016: In the northwest (Arakan State) tribal rebels (Arakan Army) claim to have ambushed an army convoy and killed 30 soldiers. The army said nothing. The Arakan Army had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in February 2016 as troops moved into territory where Arakan Army rebels were known to operate. All this was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case the Arakan Army had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the Arakan Army and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many Arakan Army supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the Arakan Army was never given official recognition, in large part because the Arakan Army was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless as in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not violators are prosecuted.

The Arakan Army is not alone as there are several other tribal rebel groups that the military won’t negotiate with for various reasons. These include the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), the SSA-N (Shan State Army - North), the TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) and the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army). A new Burmese president, backed by the new parliament, is expected to change that eventually.


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