Myanmar: Lowland Dreams


December 30, 2011:  The government has promised to achieve peace with all the tribal rebels within three years. That's unlikely, but at least there is more talk of negotiations than yet another military offensive. One of the side benefits of a peace deal would be to halt the growth of the drug trade. Government efforts to reduce opium and heroin (chemically refined opium) production had some initial success, with opium production down twenty percent (to 330 tons) in 2010. But opium and heroin production seem to have recovered in the past year. Meanwhile, production of methamphetamine is soaring. 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 these labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially the United Wa State Army use the profits to buy more weapons for their army and run their own government.

Several days of peace talks with the  Wa have resulted in a cease fire and Burma allowing trade to resume with people in Wa territory. Earlier this month the government negotiated a cease fire with Shan State Army South. For over a month, the government has had teams, led by senior officials, negotiating with over a dozen rebel groups and offering ceasefires and peace terms. Negotiations continue with Kachin, Mon, China, and other tribal militias.

Over six months of fighting has left several thousand dead or wounded, and over 30,000 refugees. These tribes have well organized armed forces and a long history of being screwed by the lowlanders (ethnic Burmese). The army has the advantage of artillery, control of towns and most roads, air power, and no hesitation to just attack villages and terrorize civilians.

The Burmese tribes got to where they are long ago as they fled the expanding Chinese empire, preferring to move rather than submit to feudal bureaucrats. In northern Burma, the tribes see the Burmese bureaucrats and soldiers as no different from the Chinese ones. Decades of Burmese broken promises makes negotiations difficult but the tribes are anxious to get access to teachers and medical care, as well as trade with the south. So the peace negotiations regularly alternate with periods of violence. The lowland Burmese have never had control of the tribal uplands. In fact, before the British colonial troops gained some control over there tribal areas, and then made them part of post-colonial Burma in 1947, the lowland kingdoms did not control the tribal areas.

The army has been fighting the Kachin tribal militias again, since June. There are over 25,000 Kachins who have fled the fighting and gathered in poorly equipped refugee camps along the Chinese border. These camps are short of food and other supplies, and the Burmese and Chinese security forces often block access. To the south, the Karen tribes have been under attack and over 20,000 Karen are in refugee camps along the Thai border.  The fighting against the Shan tribes has produced accusations that the army is using human shields (including Buddhist monks) to protect supply convoys from attack.

The newly elected "democratic" government is still largely controlled by the generals who ran the decade's old military dictatorship. But in an effort to shed the stigma (and economic sanctions) of being a dictatorship, the new government is freeing thousands of political prisoners, reducing censorship and allowing more open dissent. But the government is not halting development projects (especially natural gas pipelines and unpopular dams that mainly benefit China and the generals who get a lot of cash). The few Burmese who protest the dam projects are arrested. With over 70 percent of Burmese living without access to electrical power, many are angry about all the natural gas and hydroelectric power being sold to China. But that is necessary for the generals to stay in power. China provides cash, weapons, and diplomatic protection for the generals.

The new government has promised more reform than it has delivered. Bureaucrats continue to steal and abuse citizens, just not as much as before the elections. Increased media freedom means more Burmese are finding out about the extent of these crimes and it is feared that the censorship will return to avoid widespread unrest. While censorship and bans have been lifted on older media outlets, new ones are largely forbidden.

December 29, 2011: An explosion in a medical warehouse outside the capital left 20 dead, many more wounded and dozens of buildings burned down. At the scene of the blast there was a crater ten meters (31 feet) wide and several meters deep. Police say it was not a bomb but are not yet sure what caused the blast.

December 20, 2011: A bomb went off in a university in the capital, killing one person and wounding another. No one took credit for it.

December 19, 2011: Government negotiators worked out a ceasefire with Karen rebels operating along the Thailand border.

December 10, 2011: The government has ordered the military to cease attacks on tribal rebels. This gesture is meant to encourage reluctant rebels to negotiate peace deals with the government. Some peace deals have been worked out but the fighting is still intense in some areas, especially Kachin State in the north.

On the Mekong River, joint China, Burma, Laos, and Thailand security patrols began. Most of the commercial traffic on the river is Chinese and China persuaded the other countries that border the river to contribute police to the mixed, but largely Chinese, patrols.



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