Myanmar: Violent Religious Bigots Seek Shelter


July 21, 2012: Fighting continues in the tribal north. For the last decade there have been ceasefire deals that tend to collapse into a period of heavy combat followed by another ceasefire. The Shan, Kachin, Wa, and some smaller tribes maintain armed and organized militias which can delay, but not stop, army movements in the sparsely populated north. The militias do prevent the government from maintaining regular control of the tribal north. This pattern has persisted since the 1950s because of corruption and ethnic tension between the northern tribes and the more numerous lowlanders. About a third of 58 million Burmese belong to various minorities and most of them are in the rebellious tribes of the north. The current ceasefires in the north are still broken when the army moves troops around and tribal militiamen open fire because they suspect the soldiers are up to no good. The troops have, in the past, regularly entered villages and engaged in looting and rape. The tribes don't forget this sort of thing.

 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 it was the British colonial troops that gained some control over there tribal areas and then made them part of post-colonial Burma in 1947. Britain had taken control of Burma in 1885, ending a thousand years of independence. During that thousand years the lowland kingdoms did not control the tribal areas most of the time. The British policy up north was to keep the peace and not exercise a lot of control. That suited the tribes, who retained a lot of autonomy and were able to trade with the more advanced (in terms of economy, education, and so on) south. The British encouraged trade with the tribes and brought peace and prosperity for over half a century. After 1947, the lowland Burmese sought to impose the control of their corrupt government which was eager to exploit, and not help, the independent minded tribes. That led to over half a century of perpetual rebellion.

Ethnic and religious violence, that was particularly intense last month, continues in the northwest (Rakhine State, the northwestern coast just south of Bangladesh) but at a reduced level. There have been several hundred casualties, most of them Moslem and thousands of buildings destroyed. This has displaced over 40,000 people. The Moslems and Buddhists have never gotten along and there's always been some tension. Until recently the military government suppressed any open talk of these tensions. But since the elections last year, there's been more freedom of the press and that has included more public discussion by Buddhists about how much they dislike the Rohingyas.

Rakhine State has a population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostly Rohingyas. These are Benglais, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh), who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). Bangladesh has refused to take these Moslems back as Bangladeshis, and the Rohingya have come to consider themselves a separate group. Burma never let the Rohingya become citizens, which helped stoke tensions between the Moslems and Buddhists. Bangladesh has long had too many people and illegal migration to neighboring areas has been a growing problem. In the 1990s, an outbreak of violence led to over a quarter million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Some 28,000 are in refugee camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live outside the camps in Bangladesh and some are in Thailand, where they are considered economic migrants and thus illegal. This year Bangladesh changed its refugee policy and refused to accept any more Rohingya, considering the refugee camps an unfair burden caused by Burmese refusal to absorb the Rohingya in their territory. This has led to Burma creating heavily guarded camps for these displaced Rohingya. Aid workers call these camps prisons, but the Burmese want to limit the movement of Rohingya who consider themselves at war with Buddhists. No Hindus, Christians, or Buddhists in this region have fond memories of Moslems, who have been around for over a thousand years as invaders and violent religious bigots. These memories are sustained by the current wave of Islamic terrorism around the world. The UN is trying to get Burma to absorb the Rohingya but the Burmese believe that absorption is not practical and these Moslems must move to a Moslem country (preferably Bangladesh, where they came from). The Burmese resent the UN interference and have arrested some aid workers who are helping the Rohingya.

As part of a deal with India, Burmese troops moved into areas near the Indian border where Indian rebel groups have long maintained camps. But none of the camps have been shut down yet. When the camps are shut down, India will respond with economic aid and investment deals.

China continues to expel tribal refugees (Kachin) from Burma. The Chinese do not want a lot of these refugees because their refugee camps tend to become bases for armed Kachin and smugglers.

July 10, 2012:  The United States has lifted some of the economic sanctions imposed on Burma (because of its decades of military rule). The new elected government is showing signs of dismantling many aspects of the military dictatorship. That said, the new government is still full of retired generals. While these guys talk of changing their old dictatorial ways, the reforms are not coming quickly. The U.S. lifted some sanctions because the government replaced some hardline generals with some less hardline ones. The problem is that all these senior army officers stick together and the new democracy initiative is seen by many as an army scheme to get out from under all the sanctions and revive the economy while not threatening the wealth and power the army leaders have built up in the last half century. Burmese reformers are pressuring the retired generals to allow more change. This sometimes irritates the generals, like the growing tendency among Burmese to call their country Burma. The generals have insisted, for decades, that the country be called Myanmar. But because the generals were so hated, most Burmese saw "Myanmar" as another name for oppression and military dictatorship. Most Burmese prefer "Burma", which harkens back to better times.

July 9, 2012: Police and soldiers raided a methamphetamine lab in Shan state, seizing $3.7 million worth of meth (in pill form) and raw materials. This included 73 kg (161 pounds) of the pills ready to be smuggled into China or Thailand. Heroin and meth production has increased in the last few years as a way for the tribes to raise money for weapons and other military supplies. The government has pledged to shut down drug production by 2014. That is unlikely to happen but the police and soldiers can do a lot of damage.  

July 4, 2012: In the south, along the Thailand border, police arrested 80 Thais and accused them of illegal logging. There's a lot of this going on along the border, and those arrested belonged to a gang that apparently did not pay bribes to the right people. Police also seized bulldozers (for creating roads) and heavy trucks (to carry out the logs), as well as heavy duty saws.


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