Myanmar: Promises


January 16, 2010: The government promised to allow free elections this year. These would be the first national elections since 1990. Back then, the military dictatorship lost, and refused to recognize the result, putting the leader of the winning party, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest most of the last two decades. The government hasn't set a date for this years' vote, and no one expects the results, if it goes against the dictatorship, will be respected.

The government has ceasefire agreements with 17 ethnic groups and six factions of the KNU (Karen National Union). But most of the Karen tribe refuse to make peace, and continue to fight via armed militias and small terrorist groups. A third of the 57 million population are minorities, mostly those belonging to tribes in the north and east. Religion is more of a unifying factor, with 85 percent of the population Buddhist.

While Chinese companies are developing Myanmar's gas fields, a South Korean firm won the $1.4 billion contract to build the pipeline that will carry the gas to China, starting in 2013. China is building a 770 kilometer long oil pipeline, from western Myanmar to China, and will be moving 12 million tons of oil a year by 2012.

There are nearly 150,000 refugees from Myanmar (Burma) in Thailand, nearly all of them from tribes that have been fighting the Burmese government for centuries. In addition, there are almost a million internal refugees in Burma, the result of fighting between the army and various rebellious tribes. There are about a quarter million Rohingya refugees. Some 28,000 are in camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live outside the camps in Bangladesh and the rest are in Thailand, where they are considered economic migrants, and thus illegal. Efforts to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar have failed.

Two years ago, India quietly stopped selling weapons to Myanmar. Other nations have picked up the slack. India was becoming uneasy doing business Myanmar. India, and Bangladesh had made an informal deal with Myanmar to drive rebels from each other's borders. Over the last few years, the three countries have worked out these deals, to rid themselves of rebel groups that had only survived because they could flee across the border and set up camp until their pursuers went away. For decades, Myanmar's neighbors avoided such cooperative relations, as a form of protest against the Burmese military dictatorship. But eventually, the need to deal with various rebel organizations overcame this distaste, for a while, anyway. Four years ago, India began selling weapons to Myanmar, to obtain a little more enthusiastic cooperation in the anti-rebel department.  Burmese troops have cleared out most of the Indian rebels from their side of the border. Apparently India believes that it can resume arms sales if the "rebels in Burma" problem gets out of hand again. Meanwhile, Myanmar gets all the weapons it needs from China and North Korea, although it has to pay (many of the Indian items were free, or cut rate.)

 Myanmar has been ruled by a military dictatorship for the last half century. The generals have run the economy into the ground, and succeeded in suppressing all attempts at establishing a representative government. They have also managed to maintain the support of a fairly large army. How have they managed to pull this off for so long? Simple, the generals have concentrated on maintaining the loyalty of the officers and senior NCOs in the armed forces. This is done by making the military a well paid, by Burmese standards, profession, and selecting carefully from among those who apply to be career soldiers.

January 11, 2010: An annual survey of freedom in nations, again put Myanmar in the lowest category (along with Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.)

January 9, 2010: In northeastern Shan state, tribal rebels blew down an electricity transmission tower. Meanwhile, the government reached an agreement with Bangladesh over where the maritime border should be. Some 14 months ago, Bangladesh and Myanmar had a naval standoff over who owned the right to search for, and extract, natural gas and oil along their maritime boundaries. Myanmar was unwilling to wait for the diplomats to sort it all out, and leased some of the disputed tracts to a South Korean company, which sent out four survey ships, accompanied by two Myanmar warships. They were met by four Bangladeshi warships. No one opened fire, and diplomacy eventually prevailed.

January 7, 2010:   The government condemned two men (an army officer and a foreign ministry employee) to death for revealing, to foreign media, that Myanmar was working closely with North Korea in military and technical matters. Several other men were sentenced to long prison sentences. The revelations included construction of a system of bunkers and tunnels in Myanmar. This led to allegations, not proven, that North Korea was helping Myanmar develop nuclear weapons.

January 3, 2010: The government has more than tripled the pay of low level government employees, to deal with inflation and discontent. The increase is also meant to persuade people to vote for the government in upcoming elections.

December 30, 2009: The government agreed to take back 9,000 Rohingyas tribal people who had fled in the early 1990. The Rohingyas do not want to go back.

December 24, 2009: The government has bought another twenty MiG-29 jet fighters from Russia. Myanmar got a big discount, as Russia is desperately trying to keep the MiG company in business. Over the last two decades, the Myanmar Air Force has bought about ten aircraft a year. China had offered similar J-10 fighters, but the Russians offered very low price, and some competition for China.

December 17, 2009: In northern Karen state, a bomb went off during a tribal celebration, leaving seven dead. It's unclear who was responsible.


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