March 14, 2012:
Government efforts to gain Western trade and aid depend on putting on a convincing show of democracy. Nevertheless, Burmese feel they are still controlled by a government dominated by army officers (many of them now retired). While many democracy activists have been released from jail in the last two years, most are still monitored and harassed by the police. New elections (to select replacements for legislators who have died or resigned) are believed to be rigged. Burmese reformers have been able to examine some voter registration records (long controlled by the military government) and found many dead people still registered. The government says this is simply an administrative effort and will be fixed. While the government has reduced a lot of its police state activities, you still have to be careful what you say and to whom.
The generals and their families still control much of the economy and get an extraordinary amount of cooperation from the government and police. Anyone not as well connected gets ensnared in a bureaucratic morass. Bribes can help but it's an uphill slog.
In the far north two major tribal militias, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Shan State Army–South (SSA-S) refuse to negotiate with the army. This is in part because these two groups are making a lot of money in the drug business. 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. Thailand recently seized four million meth pills being smuggled in from Burma on a pickup truck but a lot more gets through. 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. The government is in a weak bargaining position here.
The government is trying to be less economically dependent on neighboring China by developing more trade with other nations, especially those in the West. The Chinese are a lot of trouble to deal with, partly because the Chinese border is in the north, where rebellious tribes dominate. Some of the tribes have clans on both sides of the border and are accustomed to crossing freely. Given the thin population and thick vegetation up there, neither government has been able to control the border. China is now openly complaining of incidents where Burmese soldiers crossed into China and shot Chinese they had problems with.
The Chinese are particularly nervous because they have invested a lot of money in building natural gas and petroleum pipelines, as well as hydroelectric dams up there. The Kachin tribal rebels shut down the $3.6 billion dam project six months ago, but the pipelines (going from China to the Bay of Bengal coast) still seem to be on schedule. A lot of Chinese workers and equipment for the dams are still out in the bush, waiting for orders to resume work. That is costing the Chinese a lot of money. The government is trying to negotiate a new peace deal with the Kachin rebels but is not having a lot of success. The government has screwed the Kachin so many times in the past that it is difficult to generate sufficient trust to make a deal. The Chinese are unhappy because the renewed fighting last year sent over 10,000 Kachin fleeing into China to avoid the Burmese troops.
March 12, 2012: The two major Karen tribal militias, KNU (Karen National Union) and the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) have agreed to unite. The DKBA had made peace with the government in the 1990s, but never felt it was getting a fair deal. The two groups are now negotiating a more comprehensive peace deal with the new "democratic" government. The tribal leaders understand that it's the same generals pretending to be democrats but the generals appear willing to make some concessions for peace.
The government has agreed to open a fifth border crossing with Thailand, to encourage trade. Border trade with all neighbors is up 60 percent in the last year. Much of this benefits the tribes that live in much of the Burmese border areas. Most of the non-tribal Burmese live near the sea, not the mountainous interior. Most of the border trade is with China, followed by Thailand, India, and Bangladesh.