Myanmar: China Makes An Offer


May 28, 2016: Burmese in general, and the Buddhist majority in particular, refuse to change their attitudes towards the Rohingya Moslems. Burmese nationalists insist Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This is largely inaccurate and currently one of more prominent (in a worldwide media sense) of the many ethnic and religious problems that have long plagued Burma. Some 40 percent of the 52 million Burmese belong to ethnic minorities although 80 percent of the population is Buddhist. While most ethnic Burmese are Buddhists many of the other ethnics are not. A third of the non-Buddhists are Christians (mainly in the tribal north) and about 30 percent are Hindu. The ethnic Burmese are most hostile towards Moslems, who make up only about four percent of the population and less than ten percent of the minorities. Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. At that point the military government took away that citizenship but at least prevented religious violence against the Moslems by nationalist Buddhists. This was all because when Bangladesh was created in 1971 (after a Pakistani civil war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan) there were a lot of refugees fleeing the fighting and chaos that followed. While some of the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh most are from families that have been in Burma for a century or more. Violence against Rohingya returned after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 nearly a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the continuing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists. The intensity of the 2012 violence has declined but is still present, although not in large-scale actions that attract the media. The violence (infrequent murders, arson and the constant sense of unease) is mainly directed at Rohingya still living outside the refugee camps. But even the camps are under threat. To make matters worse Burma will not take back Rohingya who attempt to migrate without permission and are caught in another country. Thus there are thousands of Burmese Rohingya imprisoned (usually in guarded refugee camps) in Bangladesh and Thailand. Technically the Rohingya are stateless and because the majority of Burmese oppose changing that, the current government cannot fix the problem and no other country will accept the Rohingya and grant them citizenship.

Peace Efforts In the North

Since early 2016 China has been conducting a “charm offensive” with the new, non-military government of Burma. By April this had led to agreements that allowed China to resume some unpopular (with the locals) but major construction projects in the north. In late May there was a military cooperation agreement that might lead to better border security, or improved concealment of lucrative, and illegal, cross border activities (usually involving jade and timber). Although Burma is now a democracy, which means officials have to at least pay attention to popular hostility towards the pervasive and destructive corruption, actually doing something about the corruption is another matter. The leaders of the former military government have been preparing for efforts to curb their power and take down their corrupt business empire. The new (2015) 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 made it clear during the 2015 elections that something must be done about the corruption. China was the major foreign partners of the military government, especially when it came to investing in Burma when the rest of the world would not. Chinese economic projects in the north are not only unpopular with the tribes there but also with most Burmese because the Chinese paid the generals well (with bribes and business opportunities) to keep the tribal rebels and unarmed civilians from interfering up north in projects that mainly benefit China and do little for Burma. That protection was not always effective and many of those multi-billion dollar Chinese projects have been stalled since 2012 and the Chinese have made it clear they will to do business with new government on whatever terms the new government wants. Some kind of deal was made regarding a large Chinese copper mine, whose construction resumed in April. Local opposition had shut this project down in 2013 and while the deal that let work resume contained a lot of safeguards many local people did not trust the Chinese (who have ignored earlier agreements to operate legally) and have been demonstrating in larger and larger numbers.

Burma cannot ignore Chinese economic investment and the new government admits that. The trick is revising existing deals without killing them. Northern concerns must be addressed but many northerners just want a fair deal that compensates them for last land and does not ruin the water supply (as major mining projects often do). Currently China is eager to buy some regional allies (especially Thailand, Burma and Malaysia) to get some support for Chinese expansion efforts in the South China Sea. China is willing to pay a lot for such support and that need is not going last a long time. So Burmese officials are tempted to take the gifts and feel they can get away with also cracking down illegal economic activity on the Chinese border and Chinese firms that behave badly while building large new mines and power plants in thinly populated rural areas.

Tribal Politics

In the north (Kachin and Shan States) tribal rebels have been again violently resisting advancing soldiers since early May. The army keeps the media out so news of what is actually going on there takes weeks to get out. The troops are using their usual tactics of attacking (with gunfire, air strikes and artillery) villages believed to be pro-rebel (or at least anti-army). Troops are apparently under orders to burn the bodies of any civilians found in the villages (along with burning everything down). The fighting here is with 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 but so far the army is misbehaving with impunity as it always has.

Ethnicity and politics also plays a role in the northern unrest. The MNDAA is largely composed of ethnic Chinese who have long lived in northern Burma (as have other Chinese tribes). MNDAA used to be more political (communist) but that disappeared in 1989 when the Burmese Communist Party fell apart as a side effect of the collapse of communism in East Europe. MNDAA made peace with the government in 2009 but like most peace deals up north that did not last because the army kept operating in tribal territory. The Kokang and MNDAA have become a drug gang as have many of their tribal allies in the north. These included the SSA-S, which is allied with the neighboring Wa and these two groups and the MNDAA are making a lot of money producing and smuggling drugs. Opium and heroin production have been revived in the past few years. Production of methamphetamine is huge. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Over the last few years, production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields (opium is the sap of poppy plants) and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa and MNDAA) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. The Wa have established good relations (bribed the right officials) with the Chinese while the Kokang have not.

Elsewhere in the north (Kachin State) there were two more fatal (25 dead) landslides at a jade mining sites in May. That makes fourteen such incidents since last November, when a massive landslide left 114 dead. All the resulting media attention has forced the government to recognize that there is a huge illegal jade mining industry in the north. That led to some enforcement of existing laws banning such activities. The two May incidents forced the government to announce more forceful efforts to curb illegal jade mining. More forceful than what happened in April when two government officials were fired after being accused of illegally allowing heavy earth moving equipment to be sold and delivered to jade mining operations in the north. At the time that was seen as a token move by the government because jade mining continued. While all the government threats have caused unease among those running the illegal jade industry it has not slowed down production. If anything jade mining has increased with some 300,000 workers, mostly manual laborers (and often illegal migrants) working in a 700 square kilometer area that, from the air, looks like a wasteland with dozens of hills leveled and the debris left in unstable heaps that cause most of the landslides.

The jade mining activity is 650 kilometers north of the Burmese capital. The landslides occur because the jade mining often involves removing most of the vegetation on a hillside. With the trees and shrubs gone there is nothing to hold soil together when there are heavy rains. All this has brought a lot of unwanted publicity to the jade trade. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and is a $30 billion a year operation. Yet only about one percent of that is taxed and half of the jade is found by illegal mining operations and is quietly sold to Chinese traders. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by Burmese military officers who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by tribal rebels, mainly the Wa of the UWSA (United Wa State Army). Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly fighting with tribal rebels who are seeking to make some money in the jade producing areas. The corrupt Burmese generals and businessmen and their Chinese counterparts are not eager to give up the jade profits. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes have long complained that all the illegal jade and gold mining ruins many water supplies (streams and lakes) but since outsiders (military and tribal warlords) dominate and protect the illegal mining, no one cares about some bad water except a few locals. But that has changed since 2011 because all the publicity has forced the Chinese government to at least recognize that the problem exists, mainly because of Chinese demand for jade and Chinese providing the cash and access to Chinese made earth moving equipment and corrupt border guards who let the illegal cash and equipment into Burma and the valuable (and untaxed on either side of the border) jade out.


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