Myanmar: The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss


November 7, 2011: A year ago, elections were held for the first time in two decades. The voting was rigged, but a lot of people with no connection to the military junta got elected. Most of the generals in the junta retired, and no one stepped forward to take their place. Although a retired general was elected to run the country, most new government leaders were civilians. But many were people who worked for the previous military government. To the surprise of many observers, the new government instituted a lot of reforms. But Burma remained a police state, with the same people controlling the economy and making deals largely because of government support. Apparently the generals concluded that their half century old dictatorship was crumbling (which it was) and that last year's elections and subsequent reforms are an effort to achieve a "soft landing" (and avoid prosecution). That remains to be seen, although such things are not unknown (look at what happened in South Africa during the 1990s). As more reformers get out of jail (or exile) and into government, the shape of the future will become clear.

Despite the more open government, the UN and other aid groups are still being kept away from hundreds of thousands of tribal people forced from their homes by the fighting in the north and east. The new government is eager to get more new economic projects going, and is taking more land from people. Over 100,000 people were displaced like this in the last year. This is more than any year in the past decade, and represents government efforts to encourage foreign investment. But it is causing more unrest. While the military government is trying to be more democratic, it is also trying to make its key people rich.

After six months of fighting, there is a cease fire in Shan state, where several tribal rebellions flared up again after the elections last year. The army responded with a major offensive, but that came to an unannounced halt in September. Some of the rebels want to stop the fighting to protect their drug business. Opium production has returned to Shan State, and doubled in the past two years. Shan State (150,000 square kilometers and nearly five million people) is south of Kachin State, and borders China and Thailand.

November 5, 2011:  A Karen rebel group (Kaloh Htoo Baw) has worked out a cease fire and peace deal with the government. There are several rebellious tribal militias among the seven million Karen in Burma. These rebellions have been going on since Burma became independent of Britain after World War II. The ethnic Burmese never got along well with tribal peoples like the Karen and Shan (the two largest groups).

November 4, 2011: In the southeast, one of the Karen rebel groups (DKBA, or Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) has negotiated a ceasefire with the government.

October 31, 2011: China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos have agreed to increase security and cooperation along the Mekong River. This was in response to increased violence along the river, and especially the murder of 13 Chinese sailors (the crews of two small river freighters) last month. Most of the cargo ships on the Mekong are Chinese, and the 13 dead sailors appear to have been involved with drug smugglers (900,000 methamphetamine pills were found on the two boats.) The chief suspects in the murders are a group of Thai soldiers who were apparently out to steal the drugs on the two ships, but things went wrong.

October 27, 2011:  Some 60 farmers demonstrated in the capital to protest the seizure of their land by the government (for urban and commercial development). Police broke up the protest and seven of the demonstrators were arrested and face up to a year in jail. Such demonstrations are very rare, at least before the elections a year ago. Because of the Internet and cell phones, news of such demonstrations now gets out and apparently has some impact on government decision making.

October 25, 2011:  In the capital, a bomb went off in a taxi, wounding two people.

October 24, 2011: India and Burma have opened up much of their borders, mainly to allow local tribal peoples to freely cross for economic or family reasons. Burma, for example, allows Indians to go 16 kilometers into Burma without a passport or visa.

October 21, 2011: Although Chinese construction operations are still halted in the north, where dams were being built, the government is now converting the dam project into a gold mining venture. The high world price for gold makes it profitable to mine gold in many areas of northern Burma. The gold mining uses many noxious chemicals, which get into the water supply. Large scale gold mining is even less popular than the Chinese dams.



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