Myanmar: The Heavy Shadow Of China

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June 2, 2014: The UN and the United States are pressuring Burma to make the Moslem Rohingya people in Burma citizens. This, it is believed, would halt the violence between Moslems and Buddhists in Burma. That’s unlikely and the problem of countries refusing to grant citizenship to a minority is an old one that is not easily solved. The most notorious example of this is found in Arab nations where it is quite common. The most notorious example is the Palestinians, who are refused citizenship in most Arab countries. This citizenship for migrants issue is less of a problem in Western nations and a few Middle Eastern ones (like Israel and Jordan) but is not really an anti-Palestinian effort as much as it is the continuation of an ancient practice. Burma refuses to consider making the Rohingya Burmese citizens, despite the fact that most Rohingya have lived in Burma for over a century. Some Rohingya still have kin back in Bangladesh but tend to consider themselves Burmese.

The UN and many Western nations also want the Burmese military to allow the 2008 constitution (created when the military government was still in control) to be modified to eliminate the excessive power of the military in the new democratic government. For example, the 2008 constitution guarantees the military have 25 percent of the seats in parliament and requires 75 percent of the votes in parliament to get the constitution changed. The generals are reluctant to allow these changes because so many Burmese are angry at the decades of bad behavior by the military government. Without some control over the government the generals who ran the military dictatorship, and some of their subordinates could be prosecuted for their crimes. The generals are under a lot of pressure over the constitutional reform issue. Burmese businessmen and foreign investors also back a reduction of military control, mainly because the military is the main source of the widespread corruption that cripples the economy.

Meanwhile the violence between the Moslem Rohingya and police continues along the west coast. Buddhist clerics now to call for the expulsion of all Moslems, describing Moslems as a persistent threat to all Burmese. But there was never a problem with Islamic radicalism in Burma, thanks largely to the decades of army rule that kept Saudi missionaries and money for Wahhabi (the Saudi flavor of Islam al Qaeda likes) mosques and religious schools out. The military rule also relied on large doses of nationalistic propaganda, which extolled the importance of being Burmese. This meant the ethnic Burmese majority in the south who are overwhelmingly Buddhist. The tribal peoples of the north (who are largely Christian) and the Moslem and Christian minorities in the south were barely tolerated guests who had to keep their heads down. The Rohingya Moslems living near the Bangladesh border were long regarded as illegal migrants. The years of dictatorship suppressed all sorts of disruptive attitudes, but with the military rule gone people are allowed to express themselves and the Buddhist radicals went after the Moslem minority first. Now there are a growing number of Burmese Moslems who see Islamic radicalism as a viable defensive tactic. It isn’t, but it makes sense to the young, determined and stubborn.

The UN, pressed by its Islamic members, is now talking of prosecuting Burmese leaders for “crimes against humanity” because of the continued poor treatment of Burmese Moslems and especially the Rohingya. This does not go down well with most Burmese and is making it difficult to fulfill recent promises to allow foreign aid workers back into northwestern areas where many Rohingya live. Angered by the UN threats the Buddhist radicals continue to demonstrate, sometimes violently, against foreign aid efforts for the Rohingya. Recently Buddhist nationalist have caused more diplomatic problems for the government by demanding a new law that would make it difficult for a Buddhist woman to marry a non-Buddhist. The new law would also ban multiple wives. All this is mainly directed at Moslems but would also impact the northern tribes. About a third of Burmese belong to various minorities and most of them are in the rebellious tribes of the north. Only about four percent of Burmese are Moslem while most of the northern tribes are Christian or pagan.

Not all Burma’s problems are internal. China is becoming more of a nuisance, in large part because the Chinese expect Burma to provide diplomatic support in “payment” for economic and military aid. As a member of ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Burma has been able to block anti-Chinese moves proposed by all the other ASEAN members. Burma is not doing so well with that lately. As a result China is losing control of ASEAN as that organization is now openly defying China. Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the regional group has since then expanded to include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Most of these nations oppose China's violation of many members EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) in the South China Sea. China long had a staunch (and paid for) ally in ASEAN with Cambodia and later Burma who blocked all attempts to unify and oppose China. That is no longer working as anger within ASEAN against Chinese aggression growing more widespread and intense.

The loss of Burmese support is largely the result of Burmese anger at Chinese business practices. China is under growing pressure from ordinary Burmese who resent illegal Chinese logging in the heavily forested north. This is part of a decades long effort by China to take control, legally or otherwise, of natural resources in northern Burma. To further this effort China has been quietly interfering in internal disputes and backing several of the rebellious tribes up there. For example, China is helping arm and finance some of these tribes. To protect the illegal lumber trade China helps out the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) in northern Kachin state.  Another example is the Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) who live in Shan state near the Chinese border. In Shan state the UWSA is a major factor and the Burmese army tends to respect UWSA military capabilities. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has about 30,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic (Han) Chinese, and many other Wa live across the border in China. The Chinese have made it clear to the Burmese government that any attack on the Wa would not be appreciated and have pressured the Burmese on behalf of the Wa. Burmese troops continue interfering with truck traffic entering Wa territory. The Wa can get what they need from China, but some Burmese Wa live closer to roads coming from the south, rather than those coming from China. Many Wa believe that the Burmese would like to push all the Wa into China, but that is not likely to happen because of UWSA resistance and Chinese support. This sort of Chinese interference in Burmese affairs is causing many Burmese to talk of joining the anti-Chinese coalition that currently consists of most of the nation’s China has territorial claims on.

Even without Chinese help the northern tribes continues to be a problem. In northern Karen state local Karen tribal militias continue to skirmish with soldiers. Gunmen of the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) still maintain their bases. The January 2012 peace deal has been more of a ceasefire than an end to all hostilities. The Karen are the largest tribal group in the north with over five million people (about eight percent of the Burmese population). Northern Karen State is not only largely Karen but also the site of many Chinese construction projects that are opposed by the local Karen who are being displaced and cheated by the Burmese government and Chinese businessmen.

Elsewhere in the north (Kachin State) the fighting has died down but the 100,000 Kachin refugees since the fighting that resumed in 2013 are still in bad shape. Half these refugees are in territory controlled by Kachin rebels and the army often prevents foreign aid (mainly food and medical supplies) from getting in. The separatist violence has been going on since the end of World War II but in the last decade there has been a new dispute; Chinese economic development. Kachin State has only 1.4 million people and most of them are Kachin who feel exploited by the ethnic Burmese from the south and the Chinese from just across the border.  The government and Kachin rebels are still trying to negotiate a new peace deal. The Kachin rebels survive by “taxing” illegal mining and logging, something that Burmese government officials would continue doing, but with less restraint, if the rebels disarmed. The Kachin rebels are not universally popular among their own people. In large part this is because the rebels are in the habit of kidnapping teenage boys and convincing them to become armed rebels.

May 30, 2014: Border guards from Bangladesh and Burma exchanged fire with each other. This went on for about an hour and there were no casualties. This incident was apparently the result other incidents on the 28th when Bangladesh accused Burmese border guards of firing on a Bangladesh border guard patrol near a Bangladeshi refugee camp for Moslem Rohingya refugees from Burma. After the patrol was fired on Bangladesh reported that one of its border guards was missing. Since then Burma revealed that it had found the body of a Bangladeshi man nearby. The Burmese insist that they fired on two men who were on the Burma side of the border and were suspected of belonging to a Burmese Moslem rebel group (Rohingya Solidarity Organization) known to be operating in the area. Burma informed Bangladesh that the dead man was not wearing the uniform of Bangladesh border guards. Burma arranged to transfer the body to Bangladeshi authorities but the Burmese officials who showed up at the border to do the transfer were fired on. Burma appears to be working to sort this out diplomatically while Bangladesh appears to have some discipline problems with its border guards.

May 22, 2014: There was another military coup in neighboring Thailand. This did not cause borders to be closed or any interruption in commerce.

May 15, 2014:  Most Western nations have extended sanctions against the Burmese military for another 12 months. These sanctions were imposed to persuade the Burmese generals to allow more reforms and dismantle the power the military still has over the government.

May 9, 2014: The government signed an agreement with India to improve border security and reduce the smuggling of goods and people. Both countries suffer because of the illegal border traffic as well as the practice of rebels groups to set up camps just across the border and used that as a base to stage raids into the homeland. 

 

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