Myanmar: China Is Your Frenemy


February 1, 2013: China denies supporting the Burmese tribal militia on its border (United Wa State Army) but apparently the Wa have some kind of arrangement with the Chinese government, who allow armed Wa fighters to enter Chinese border towns to do business. The Wa signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 1989, apparently with the understanding that the government would not interfere with Wa drug operations (mainly methamphetamine but also opium and heroin). China tolerates this as long as most of the drugs flow into Thailand and not China. All these deals rely on the cooperation of corrupt officials because neither Burma nor China officially supports the production of illegal drugs. The Burmese are upset at continued shipments of Chinese weapons to the Wa, including some armored vehicles. China denies this, although the Wa forces largely use Chinese weapons (but then, so do the Burmese troops). Burma does not press China too hard on this issue because China is a major, if not the major, foreign investor in Burma.

The government is under foreign pressure to punish police for throwing smoke grenades at demonstrators near a copper mine in the north. The material that causes the smoke (white phosphorus) will cause severe burns if it gets on the skin. Users are taught to be careful when using these grenades, so that no friendlies get burned. Smoke grenades are normally used in combat to hide the movement or positions of your troops.

January 31, 2013: The government has agreed to a new round of peace talks with the Kachin rebels (KIA, or Kachin Independence Army) in the north. The talks will be held in northern Shan state by another rebel group (United Wa State Army) which is still at peace with the government. A 17 year old ceasefire with the KIA ended in 2011. The fighting grew much more violent in December.

January 30, 2013: Japan has agreed to cancel $3.6 billion in Burmese government debt. Several other countries have forgiven another $2.4 billion. The Burmese government got this concession by holding elections and enacting other policies (like not allowing men under age 18 to serve in the military and lifting the ban on public meetings) that were popular in the donor nations but not among Burmese leaders. There’s long been a lot of resistance to giving in to foreigner’s demands, especially those from the West. Many Burmese see this as foreigners trying to impose alien ideas on the Burmese. Many supporters of the former military government also resent the foreign use of “Burma” instead of “Myanmar.” The generals changed the official name to Myanmar decades ago but various rebel groups continued to call their country Burma, in part to stick it to the hated generals.

January 29, 2013: The government lifted a 25 year old ban on public meetings. This ban has been increasingly ignored, especially since the new elections three years ago. But the government has continued to selectively enforce the ban against groups it is hostile to.

January 28, 2013: Another Rohingya Moslem was shot dead in a confrontation between Moslems and troops. Since last June nearly 200 people (mostly Rohingya) have died in ethnic and religious violence 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). The current violence has caused over 100,000 Rohingya to flee their homes, many of them seeking shelter in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.

January 26, 2013: In the north troops finally, after seven months of fighting, captured the hilltop headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Based on the Chinese border, the KIA can quickly move their operation across the border. But once in China, the KIA will have to avoid appearing to be using China as a base for operations in Burma. Otherwise the Chinese will be obliged to come after the KIA, despite the rugged terrain along the border. China tolerates all sorts of odd characters along the border, as long as there is no violence or interferences with the government. Over 20,000 Kachins have fled into China to avoid the violence. Hundreds of Kachin women and children have been killed or injured by army operations. This includes frequent cases of rape by Burmese soldiers. This sort of thing is not uncommon, as the ethnic Burmese from down south have always looked down on the northern tribes. The KIA claims that they repulsed army assaults on their headquarters but ultimately left the area because of the many casualties they were taking from artillery and air raids. KIA fighters continue to kill and wound troops by attacking their long supply lines along the few roads in the north. KIA gunmen are also attacking businesses controlled by government supporters.

January 21, 2013: In the north Karen tribal rebels agreed to return fifty weapons they had taken from border guards. The border guards are recruited from Karen tribes that have made peace with the government and there is some animosity between the rebel and pro-government Karen groups. Seizing the weapons on January 5th was a violation of the ceasefire the Karen rebels have with the government.

January 19, 2013: The government declared a unilateral ceasefire in its operations against KIA rebels in the north. Despite the ban on reporters in the combat zone, reports indicate that the fighting is still going on. In response to this the government says troops are just defending themselves against rebel attacks. 

January 17, 2013: China warned Burma to avoid any further incidents of mortar or gun fire landing inside China. The Burmese Army is fighting ethnic Chinese (KIA) tribal rebels in northern Burma. The fighting occasionally takes place very near the border and Burmese fire sometimes lands in China. It’s a remote area, on both sides of the border, but the Chinese are not happy with the continued flow of refugees coming in as well as the activity of Chinese smugglers (who carry weapons and ammo to the Burmese rebels and illegal drugs into China).


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