Burma is increasingly important to China because China is getting more oil from the Middle East. At the same time, Middle Eastern oil is of less importance to the United States (where fracking technology is gradually making America free of oil imports). Burma is an important Chinese Indian Ocean bridgehead, as well as a cheaper route for moving oil. China is building an oil pipeline that will lower the transportation costs of Middle Eastern oil used by southwestern China. The oil comes into a Burmese port in Rakhine State and is then offloaded and pumped to China. By the end of the decade China will be importing 70 percent of its oil needs and nearly all of that will come via the Indian Ocean. The pipeline deals in Burma are a potential source of trouble because the transit fees go mostly to corrupt officials and not the locals whose land the pipeline goes through. This is yet another cause of unrest in the tribal north.
In addition to legal corruption, the Chinese are also at the center of illegal activities in the north. The big one is illegal timber, which is being taken only because Chinese traders will buy and transport the lumber to China. Local officials are bribed or threatened and the trade grows larger each year.
It’s not just pipelines, dams, and illegal timber deals. Most any large-scale economic deal in the tribal north is negotiated with the government. The Chinese pay off Burmese government officials and then move in to start operations. A recent effort to build a copper mine ran into problems when locals, who were not consulted or compensated, were confronted by police demanding they vacate their property so the Chinese can use it for the mine. The locals, most of them tribal, resisted. This became a political issue down south, as it resonated with corruption and Chinese payoffs that the new democratic government promised to eliminate. But a lot of these deals are still in force and that is proving to be an embarrassment for the officials who negotiated the terms and got paid off.
For three weeks now police and government officials in Rakhine state have been checking the citizenship status of ethnic Rohingya. These are a Moslem people originally from neighboring (majority Moslem) Bangladesh. The ethnic Burmese not only look different but are Buddhist, a religion Moslems have never gotten along with. The government believes that documenting the citizen status of Rohingyas will make it easier to deport them. But no countries want the Rohingya, no matter what the Burmese government thinks their citizenship status is.
In the last six months violence in Rakhine state has
caused over a thousand
casualties (and over 200 dead), most of them Moslem, and left thousands of buildings destroyed. This has displaced over 110,000 people (about 75 percent Moslem). The Moslems and Buddhists
have never gotten along in
and there's always been some tension. Until recently the military government suppressed violence and any open talk of these problems. 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 Moslem Rohingyas. Burma is about 70 percent ethnic Burmese (Burman) and 90 percent Buddhist. Only four percent of the 60 million Burmese are Moslem, and a little over half of the 2.4 million Moslems are Rohingyas. Burma and neighboring Thailand and parts of Vietnam are an island of Buddhism surrounded by Moslems who are seen as aggressive and threatening. That fear goes back for centuries, even though most of the Moslem converts to the south and east were obtained by persuasion, not conquest. India, to the west, was a different story, where the Moslems there have been fighting for nearly a thousand years to force Hindus (and any other non-Moslems) to convert. The current wave of Islamic terrorism is seen as another chapter in that sad story of intolerance and violence. While Burmese Buddhists are divided by politics and attitudes towards the northern tribes, they are nearly unanimous in wanting the Rohingyas gone.
Most of the current Burmese ethnic and religious violence is in Rakhine State, which has a population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostly
Rohingyas. These are Bengalis, 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, partly because the country is very overcrowded and partly because they now consider the Rohingya to be foreigners. 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 (mainly India) has been a growing problem. But Bangladeshis try to sneak into Burma as well, and this is now well received by the Burmese Buddhists.
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. The Rohingya have the support (for being allowed to stay in Burma) of the worldwide Moslem community. This makes the Burmese more determined to defeat this "Moslem invasion" and the more militant Buddhists are demanding that the Rohingya be expelled from Burma. That won't work because no one will take them. Moslem countries don't believe in that kind of retreat and that scares the Burmese Buddhists even more. Despite the stand-off, thousands of Rohingya are fleeing, mostly to Bangladesh, which does not want them. The Burmese are forcing Rohingya in the northwest to move to all-Rohingya communities and encouraging Rohingya to stay away from non-Moslems.
There is similar fear of the non-Burmese (and often non-Buddhist) tribes in the north. In this case it's the Burmese who are invading the thinly populated tribal territories and the tribes don't like it. The tribal areas were not part of Burma until Britain made it so, when their Burmese colony was granted independence after World War II. That bit of post-colonial nation building has never worked out.
Wealthier Rohingyas are fleeing to Malaysia, and about 24,000 Rohingyas are now living there. Smugglers will take Rohingyas down the coast by boat for over $1,000 per person. Over a third don’t make it (because of bad weather or problems with the overcrowded boat). Malaysia is Moslem and a better economic destination than Bangladesh (where you often get locked up in a refugee camp). About ten percent of the Rohingya who fled Burma are in Malaysia, the rest (over 200,000) are in Bangladesh.
In general, the Moslem world has reacted to the Rohingya situation not by offering sanctuary for Rohingya but by accusing Burma and other non-Moslem states of persecuting Moslems and driving innocent Moslems to use terrorism to defend themselves. While this plays well in the Moslem world, it gets hardly any attention in the West. In Burma and India, however, it’s big news and makes the idea of expelling the Rohingya even more popular.
November 26, 2012: An Indian military delegation arrived to negotiate more military aid for Burma and still more military ties (training of Burmese troops in India, intelligence sharing, and so on). This is all meant to counteract the growing Chinese influence in Burma. China has become more of an economic power in Burma than India and, in the end, this is more likely to get the attention of the Burmese leadership than military ties with India. But the Chinese presence is much more unpopular, despite the economic benefits.
November 7, 2012: Representatives of the rebel Shan State have admitted to government negotiators that the Shan have been producing illegal drugs to keep their armed resistance going. The Shan are willing to turn on the drug gangs if the government offers an attractive enough peace deal.
October 21, 2012: In Rakhine state another outbreak of violence between Moslems (
and Buddhists has led to 89 deaths and over 5,000 homes destroyed. Over 35,000 people, most of them Moslems, were driven from eight towns. This is another effort by Buddhists to force
Rohingyas into refugee camps or all-Rohingyas villages.
October 6, 2012: The Karen National Union (KNU) has dismissed three leaders for opening an unauthorized liaison office with the Burmese government. The Karen have long been divided over how to deal with the Burmese government. In this case, the three dismissed officials were reinstated by the end of the month. This was in part so the three could attend the five weeks of meetings starting next month. This is for the 15th Congress of the KNU. Held every four years, the Congress selects new leaders, tries to settle internal disputes, and agree on strategy. This time around the KNU has to deal with an elected government that is offering better peace terms. Many Karen want to make peace and stop the decades of war.