Myanmar: The Grand Illusion


October 1, 2013: The government expects to have peace deals with all tribal rebels in the north before the end of the year. At the same time the government is undertaking a large-scale anti-corruption and reform effort. But at ground level the corruption, which is the main cause of the anger up north, continues as if no real changes are under way. Many Burmese believe all the anti-corruption announcements are all for show, to deceive foreign investors and aid organizations into believing Burma is changing for the better. Burmese won’t believe anti-corruption efforts are working until they start seeing their corrupt officials and businessmen going away. For most Burmese that is not happening. What is happening is the corrupt power players (government and commercial) are making new deals with rebels and seeking to make many of their scams legal. This is how the northern rebels are being approached and many of the rebel leaders, weary after decades of fighting, are willing to accept a deal that leaves them a little better off.

The most corrupt institution in Burma is the military, but the new constitution that returned democracy in 2010 explicitly granted military leaders (including all the retired officers) immunity from prosecution for past crimes. The military was also given control of the defense ministry a fixed number (25 percent) of seats in parliament. In effect, the military leaders who once ran the country are still in charge of the defense budget and immune from prosecution for all the stealing they did in the past. Real reform will be very much an uphill slog and the military is ready to push back and win.

All this corruption has become normal for Burma, which is considered (along with Afghanistan and Somalia) as one of the three most corrupt nations on the planet. Burma is also one of the least economically developed countrys on the planet. Until the generals allowed the return of democracy in 2010, it was almost impossible for foreign firms to invest in Burma. There was no law and too much corruption. There’s a bit more law now but still a lot of corruption, and the foreign investors are still reluctant. Except for China, which is also awash in corruption and is more comfortable dealing with that kind of environment. The military generals (active and retired) are still in the middle of all this, controlling many illegal and untaxed industries. For example, Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and exports about $4 billion worth each year. Yet only about one percent of that is taxed. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by generals who export most of it to China. The military men are not giving up all their illegal businesses and the government, despite being elected, is reluctant to force the issue, at least not yet. Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly trying to force tribal rebels out of jade producing areas. 

Rakhine State continues to have problems with anti-Moslem violence. Since June 2012, this violence has left about 240 dead and 150,000 homeless. Rakhine State 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 140,000 Rohingya (mostly, with a growing number of non- Rohingya Moslems) to flee their homes, many of them seeking shelter in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. The Rohingya say the government is starving those in refugee camps and not punishing local Buddhists who attack Moslems. In the last few months there has been more anti-Moslem violence in other parts of the country, where Moslems are a smaller minority. About three million of 60 million Burmese are Moslem. Despite government orders to crack down on the Buddhist mobs, the local police are Buddhist and reluctant to go after fellow Buddhists on this issue. Years of news about Islamic terrorist violence around the world has left many Burmese believing that radical Buddhist clerics preaching for more violence against Moslems in Burma is a national security issue, not an outburst of paranoid fear.

The anti-Moslem violence in Rakhine State has hurt the economy up there, particularly for Moslems. Even those not chased from their homes find that it is hard to earn a living now. Moslem farmers can’t plant crops and many Moslems have been fired from government and non-government jobs. Buddhists have been hurt as well but not nearly as badly as Moslems. In Rakhine State and other parts of the country thousands of Moslems are afraid to return to their homes because of the continued threats from Buddhists.

In the north (Kachin state) the ceasefire was restored after corrupt soldiers stopped their attacks on Kachin rebels. Peace talks are to resume sometime in October. The corrupt soldiers had been hired by a wealthy (and very corrupt) businessman who had bribed government and military officials to allow him to illegally cut down a teak forest and smuggle out the valuable lumber. Government officials interceded and calmed things down. The Kachin would like to preserve the teak forests but, failing that, would like to at least get a piece of the action.

In the north (Shan State) tribal leaders have organized vigilante groups to seize drug addicts (including low level dealers) and force them into rehabilitation programs. The most common drugs are opium, heroin, and methamphetamines, all of which are produced up there although most of the stuff is exported. But more and more of it is diverted to local use, and that is very unpopular with most people up north. The tribal leaders and local tribal rebels operate the rehab camps.

In the north a long simmering border dispute has still not been resolved. In August some Burmese police tried to build a new border post five kilometers inside India. When confronted by Indian troops the Burmese insisted this was actually their territory. Only after days of negotiations, and some threats, did the Burmese agree to withdraw. But the Indians complain that the Burmese police are now building a wooden fence that is 100 meters inside India. The border has never been precisely marked in this remote area, but as the population grew, residents from both countries moved closer to each other and there arose disputes as to exactly where the border was. In this area the Indian villagers find themselves closer to a source of consumer goods across the unmarked border in Burma rather than in India. This ended up in a situation where Burmese troops were telling some Indians they were living in what local Burmese officials believed was Burmese territory. India is alarmed at the fact that the Burmese border claim would mean dozens of Indian families, in 18 border villages, would lose some of their land. The Indian villagers don’t seem to mind but the Indian government does.

September 29, 2013: In the northwest (Rakhine State) a Buddhist mob burned down 2 homes belonging to Moslems. This violence began when a Buddhist shopkeeper got into an argument with a Moslem cab driver over a parking place. Police were able to calm things down before anyone was killed.

September 21, 2013: Thailand complained to Burma after a Burmese patrol ship fired on a Thai fishing boat that strayed into Burmese waters. The 14 Burmese and Thai men on the fishing boat jumped overboard and were later rescued by a Thai patrol boat as the Burmese gun boat had gone on its way.

September 20, 2013: The government admitted that it had stashed $7 billion in government funds in foreign bank accounts. Some believe these foreign accounts hold over $11 billion. The government won’t say where the money is and is angry that their secret stash was revealed. That’s because the government has been trying to get the World Bank to forgive some of the debt the government has taken on for development. Most of that money was stolen and investigations into that led to revelations about the secret government bank accounts, which may contain some of the stolen cash.

September 14, 2013: India is trying to convince Burma to shut down Indian rebel (Maoists and tribal separatist) camps in Burma but very close to the Indian border. The Burmese are reluctant to get involved because the Indian rebels are heavily armed, behave themselves in Burma, and spend money in Burma as well. Some of the money is paid to local police and soldiers to keep their distance.


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