Myanmar: The Fear Of The Generals


July 2, 2014: Despite well publicized government efforts to work out peace deals with tribal rebels the army continues to attack Karen and Kachin rebels along the borders. The army believes it has to maintain an aggressive stance or else the tribal rebels will cause trouble. The tribes simply see the government continuing to break promises like they have been doing since 1948 when modern Burma was created by the departing British colonial officials. The British gave Burma control of remote tribal areas that the pre-colonial Burmese kingdoms had generally left alone and, at best, considered buffers with China and Thailand. The tribes and the ethnic Burmese down south have been fighting ever since.

There are still a lot of unresolved issues with the tribes that the government will not address. One in particular is the many (over 100,000) landmines the government has planted in the tribal territories since the 1960s. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and major bases or government controlled towns. Few of these mines were ever cleared and the government refuses to start work on that despite all the talk of peace. The mines are a constant hazard in the thinly populated tribal areas and make a lot of grazing and farm land too dangerous to use.

The government effort to negotiate peace with the tribes is hampered by distrust and the refusal of the tribes to disband the governmental institutions they have built. The government is particularly hostile to the tribes taking over police and taxation in the areas the tribal militias control. The taxation often includes road checkpoints by the tribal “police” that collect fees from any vehicles that wish to get through the area. The tribes don’t trust police or taxpayers from the south because the ethnic Burmese who work those jobs are seen as hopelessly corrupt and not very efficient either.

International banks and other lenders (like the IMF) are telling Burma some fundamental changes are necessary before Burma will see a lot of foreign investment. In particular something must be done about the extensive corruption. This makes it difficult for all businesses to operate. Then there is the lingering power of the army. The Burmese military must 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 still 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 many 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.

Speaking of corruption, the neighbors are having more problems with the growing drug trade in Burma. Since 2006 Burma has gone from being the source of seven percent of the world illegal production of opium and heroin to 18 percent. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine production is possibly the largest in the world and a major regional problem. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be at millions of meth addicts in China and Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge.  Most of the meth goes to China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business. The smugglers have become more resourceful and less of the smuggled meth is seized by police. The main beneficiaries of the drug trade are the tribal armies along the borders of China and Thailand.

The UN, the United States and most Moslem countries continue, without much success, pressuring Burma to make the Moslem Rohingya people in Burma citizens. This would, according to the foreigners, halt the violence between Moslems and Buddhists in Burma. That’s unlikely as far as the Burmese are concerned. The Burmese also point out that 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. Meanwhile there is growing popular anger among Burmese towards Moslems in general and the Rohingya in particular. This is fed by the continuing reports of Islamic terrorism word-wide and especially in the region (Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China).

June 28, 2014: In China Indian and Burmese leaders were publicly told that China had only peaceful intentions. This was not very convincing, especially since the reason for the meeting was to praise a 1954 Chinese agreement to honor its borders of India and Burma. This agreement was violently violated by China in the 1960s and in the last year there has been more aggressive talk, and actions, from China.

June 25, 2014: Burma has agreed to become the first export customer for the Chinese JF-17 jet fighter. This aircraft was developed with cash and guaranteed orders from Pakistan. Burma would be the first export customer and this is supposed to include assembly of the aircraft in Burma.

June 11, 2014: In the north (Shan state) the army attacked and eventually took a camp of the SSA-N tribal rebels. Elsewhere in Shan state the army moved more troops to confront units of the United Wa Army. Low level combat continued through the rest of June.

Bangladesh and Burma reached an agreement over recent border violence. In late May there were several incidents where Bangladesh accused Burmese border guards of firing on a Bangladeshi border guards near a Bangladeshi refugee camp for Moslem Rohingya refugees from Burma. Later Bangladesh reported that one of its border guards was missing. Burma then reported they 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. The new agreement includes pledges to continue investigating what happened in late May and to establish better and faster communications between the border security forces of both countries. This includes coordinating efforts to deal with smuggling and other cross-border crime.

June 8, 2014: In an effort to settle some longstanding border disputes with China the government has agreed to cede some territory (less than a hundred hectares/250 acres) to China. This caused local Shan farmers to get very angry when told their farmland was now in China and belonged to China. The government says it will work out an agreement to let the farmers work their lands that are now in China but given past performance (or lack thereof) the farmers are not optimistic.

The government denied that it had secretly and illegally sold North Korea Russian anti-ship missiles. The accusation arose when North Korea released video showing its warships firing what appears to be a Russian Kh-35 anti-ship missile. This is a new missile, having entered Russian service in 2003 although it was being offered for export in the late 1990s (when the Russian Navy could not afford to.) Russia denied it sold the missiles to North Korea thus the only other likely source is Burma, which has been conducting an illegal (and always denied) arms trade with North Korea for over a decade. Other export customers have been Algeria, India, Venezuela and Vietnam.



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