In late November it became clear that the effort to persuade Rohingya Moslems to leave Bangladesh and return to Burma had to be suspended. Burma and Bangladesh agreed to work towards trying again in early 2019. Yet the fundamental problem remains; Burma does not want to take back the refugees and the Rohingya are unwilling to return as long as Burma continues to tolerate the hostile public attitudes towards the Rohingya. The Burmese Buddhist nationalists who started all the violence in 2012 were reviving a decades old hostility towards the Rohingya. The hostility was made worse by the upsurge in Islamic terrorism worldwide since the 1990s. Finally, the military commanders who had given up most of their power in 2011 and allowed democracy to return after half a century of military rule saw the Rohingya violence (which the army participated in) as a possible way to regain more of their political power. That would happen because Western nations are now considering reviving economic sanctions for Burma because of the unresolved Rohingya refugee problem. China is hoping for the worst because that would mean Burma would be largely dependent on China for trade and investment. It would make Burma a Chinese dependency (sort of like North Korea) and the Burmese don’t care for that but that the army leadership is comfortable with.
At the same time, the military dominated democracy still suffers from crippling corruption which would be worse if sanctions returned. The current government has been unable or unwilling to persuade local businesses to keep promises made to foreign trading partners. Burma was supposed to eliminate a lot of protectionist restrictions on foreign investment and that has not happened. If China becomes the dominant economic partner those protected Burmese markets would be forced to open up, but only for Chinese firms. The Chinese have no problem with corruption when it comes to foreign trade and doing business in foreign countries. This is not a feature for most Burmese to see the rampant corruption they deal with daily as another untreated aftereffect of decades of military rule.
China is the most likely winner in all this. China wants to keep Burma from establishing trade or military links with India or the West. If Burma becomes a Chinese dependency it will be possible for China to again control much of the illegal exports in the tribal north. Among these are jade, exotic timber and wives for Chinese bachelors. The jade and timber get some publicity but the trade in tribal women is something the Chinese (and Burma) are less willing to admit exist. It does and before 2011 the military government encouraged this human trafficking. There was a growing demand for women in China. Not just for brothels, but as wives. China's "one child" policy of the last few decades and the ability to determine the sex of the child before birth has led to more (20 percent more) boys than girls being born. There's a growing shortage of potential brides, and desperate Chinese men are willing to buy a kidnapped tribal girl from northern Burma. The tribes do not like this, as Chinese armies have been doing this for thousands of years, and it's something you never get used to. The return of democracy after 2011 was supposed to have put an end to this but all that did was reduce the number of Burmese women being taken into China and sold. There was less publicity for this practice because in 2011 the army agreed it had to go. But the money was too good and the demand too great.
One justification Burma uses for its aggressive actions against their Rohingya Moslem minority is the threat of Islamic terrorism. Yet that was never an issue with the Rohingya Moslems or their fellow Bengali Moslems next door in Moslem (and Bengali) majority Bangladesh. The Burmese army (a major believer in the “we are doing it to fight Islamic terrorism” angle) got their hopes up with the appearance of one Rohingya Islamic terrorist group ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) in 2013. ARSA did not develop into a threat. In mid-2017 there were rumors, but little proof, that ARSA and had attacked several Hindu villages in Burma and killed at least 99 Hindus. There have been persistent reports but not a lot of conclusive evidence that ARSA sought out and murdered Hindus. Islamic terrorists tend to take credit for their attacks, not deny them, so it’s unclear what was going on with this. These Rakhine State Islamic terrorists first became active in late 2016 and August 2017 when there were some attacks carried out by a previously unnoticed Rohingya Islamic terrorist group called ARSA. Its founder (a Rohingya expatriate) and much of the cash came from Saudi Arabia. Burma prefers to call groups like ARSA Islamic terrorists but until ARSA and the Saudi cash showed up there had not been much, if any, a religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. ARSA was openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received, especially since 2012. Until this new document appeared ARSA had denied any connection with al Qaeda but that had apparently changed. The ARSA leader; Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi (or just Ata Ullah) has received more attention now that Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda are calling for its members to help ARSA and the Burmese Rohingya any way they can. Despite that, since August 2017 there have been no more large-scale ARSA attacks but there have been some clashes with security forces. For the moment ARSA is largely a force on the Internet, not on the ground. The same can be said for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) operations in the area. ISIL was never able to establish itself in Burma or neighboring Thailand (which actually has a minor Islamic terrorist problem in the far south). Burma and Thailand are both Buddhist majority nations that have always allowed Moslem minorities but have responded violently if the local Moslems got aggressive or radicalized.
Why The Rohingya?
The Rohingya have always been an obvious minority in largely ethnic Burmese Burma. The Rohingya are ethnic Bengali (an Indo-European group) while the ethnic Burmese and the tribal minorities are all East Asian (of which the Han Chinese are the largest faction). This always made the Rohingya the most obvious minority in Burma and that is not a good thing historically. Expelling unwanted minority groups has been a common practice in this part of the world, and many other regions, like the Middle East. The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with their treatment of the Rohingya because t his sort of thing is not a unique situation. What happened to the Rohingya is part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large-scale disorder in the last century. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations and it is quite common in this part of the world and Bangladesh has produced more of these illegals than anyone else. Illegal migrants have become a more difficult problem since national states became the preferred form of government and it became common for there to be disputes over who belonged and who did not. The UN estimates that there are currently over ten million such stateless people. Thus many of the nations (especially Moslem ones) criticizing Burma over their treatment of the Rohingya are guilty of doing the same themselves or tolerating such misbehavior by an ally.
Most of the stateless are that way because they don’t want to live where they, or their ancestors, came from. Thus there are at least a million Moslems in Burma who originally (often over a century ago) came from Bangladesh but don’t want to return there. They prefer to live in Burma, where most of the population is Buddhist. India has a similar problem in its northeast tribal territories, especially Assam, where four million Bengali migrants (most of them, or their ancestors, entered illegally) are being denied citizen status. The tribal locals have long resented the illegal migrants, more so than the legal migrants. India sees this citizenship crackdown as a way to reducing support for local tribal separatist rebels.
There is a similar situation in the African country of Ivory Coast, where 700,000 people (a quarter of the population) are migrants (or the descendants of migrants) from Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. Over the last half-century, Ivory Coast encouraged these people to come work on coffee and cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Ivory Coast never agreed to offer citizenship and that led to a recent civil war between the migrants and the natives.
In the Middle East, you have over 100,000 stateless nomads in Kuwait. Called the Beduin, these people were not considered Kuwaitis in 1962 (when Kuwait became independent) because the nomads came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the oil wealth grew that attitude changed. Kuwait decided it was not making anyone else citizens. In Syria and Iraq, there have been government attempts to punish rebellious Kurds by declaring some of them, not citizens. That has not worked out well and the question of who the Kurds are and where they belong is still a problem.
In Russia and the former (after 1991) states of the Soviet Union, there are over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” are ethnic Russians who ended up outside Russia and liked being where they were but the locals did not want them. The other half were non-Russians who ended up in Russia but were not wanted. In Thailand, there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.
In the Dominican Republic, you have hostility towards migrants from neighboring Haiti which led to new laws making many migrants non-citizens. In Europe, you have over 50,000 Roma (gypsies) who are nomadic and prefer to not register births with the state or leave any kind of paper trail. Many Roma have settled down, but enough have not to remain a problem.
There is a worldwide problem with illegal migrants going somewhere to find jobs, staying, not being detected for a while, if at all, and eventually their descendants demand citizenship. This often leads to violence and resists lots of solutions thus becoming long-term problems. No one has found an easy or perfect solution to the problem. Not in Burma or anywhere else.
December 11, 2018: India and Bangladesh agree that both have a growing problem with Burmese Rohingya Moslems driven into exile by their own government and then obtaining false documents and passing themselves off as locals. The Rohingya were quick to notice that corruption in other nations is often the only way to get out of refugee camps and resume somewhat normal lives. Such illegal documents are available in Bangladesh and India, for a price. Burmese Rohingya can make such documents work because ethnic Bengalis are the majority in Bangladesh and quite common in eastern India. That makes it possible to get away with being someone familiar and “acceptable” and not a potential expelled minority.
December 8, 2018: The government is closing the refugee camps holding the remaining displaced Rohingya Moslems in the north. New homes are being built next to the camps and the refugees will not be able to return to their original homes or reclaim their property. The Rohingya were driven from their homes by Buddhist nationalist mobs or security forces. Since these Rohingya Moslems will have a difficult time earning a living they will be dependent on foreign aid and the army will control those deliveries as well as the movements of these former refugee camp Rohingya.
December 7, 2018: In the northwest (Rakhine State) soldiers have been fighting the AA (Arakan Army) rebels for the last four days as the army attempts to clear more areas of AA control. There have been about ten deaths and two dozen wounded, with each side suffering about the same number of casualties. Along the west coast (Arakan and Chin states) the fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance.
November 30, 2018: In the far north (Shan State), tribal leaders are trying to get two feuding rebel factions to settle their feud and stop fighting each other. Two rival rebel groups, the Shan State Army (or at least some of the factions) and TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) have been fighting for control of disputed territory for most of 2018. The latest outburst of violence, over the last week or so, caused several hundred villagers to flee their homes to avoid the shooting. In areas where the issue has been settled many villagers driven from their homes by the fighting are reluctant to return home because the rebels have a reputation for demanding payment from locals. The current fighting has been going on for months but there have been few casualties among the tribal gunmen. Sometimes other tribal rebel groups are involved and the one group that tends to be involved much of the time is the TNLA. This dispute began when the two groups were united to oppose army efforts to move into tribal territory. That had some success but then the two groups disagreed over who should control s0me of the areas protected from the army advance. After that, it became personal and somewhat self-perpetuating.
November 28, 2018: Thailand and Malaysia are again seizing people smuggler boats full of Burmese Rohingya Moslems seeking to reach a Moslem majority country like Malaysia or, preferably, Indonesia. Few make it to Indonesia and most are stopped at sea by warships or coast guard patrols and returned to where they came from. Sometimes smugglers are arrested but the main goal is to prevent Rohingya Moslems from landing in other nations and claiming asylum, which the destination countries do not want to grant.
November 24, 2018: In the northeast, across the border in Thailand (Phrae Province), a temporary police checkpoint caught some drug smugglers by surprise (which was why the temporary checkpoints are used) and although the smugglers pickup truck turned and sped away the police caught up with the vehicle and two of the three men in it were arrested. The truck held five million methamphetamine pills. Elsewhere in the north (Chiang Rai Province) soldiers near the Burma border ambushed seven Burmese smugglers carrying drugs into Thailand. The troops killed five of the smugglers (who were carrying a million methamphetamine pills) but the other two escaped back into Burma. The six million meth pills seized in one day were worth nearly $20 million (consumer cost). Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to resist government efforts to suppress the drug production. The largest state in northern Burma (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. 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 neighboring countries. After 2008 annual seizures rapidly increased and are now several hundred million doses of methamphetamine, worth over a billion dollars. In Thailand, the largest single seizure for 2018 was 15 million yaba (meth) pills. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge. 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. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business. The Thais and Chinese are aware that the Burmese drug gangs have local security forces on the payroll, which is why these clashes with Burmese drug smugglers only seem to happen in Thailand. China plays down the fact that the smugglers don’t have much trouble on the Chinese side of the border because of the corruption.
November 16, 2018: Bangladesh has canceled its latest effort to get nearly a million Burmese Moslem refugees to return home. Bangladesh had planned to send 2,260 Rohingya refugees (485 families) back to Burma starting on November 15th. Burma said they were ready to receive 150 refugees a day and get them resettled. This effort was canceled at the last moment when it was discovered that voluntary return was most definitely not working. Most of the Rohingya selected for return refused to go and some fled their refugee camp accommodations because of fears they would be forced back into Burma. The UN and most foreign aid organizations also opposed the Bangladesh repatriation plan. Bangladeshi officials later found that none of the 2,260 Rohingya selected wanted to return. The reluctance to return is based on the fact that there was no assurance that they had anything to return to other than the threat of renewed violence. Many of the refugees knew their homes had been destroyed or taken over and no one (Burmese or otherwise) had done anything to reverse that situation. Thus refugees saw returning as going from one refugee camp to another with the added penalty of more personal risk in Burma.