Myanmar: The Generals Are Not Interested


November 17, 2014: The government is now under pressure from the United States as well as the UN and the Moslem world to do something about the continuing bad treatment of Burmese Moslems. The government plan for granting citizenship to Rohingya Moslems is considered a failure and a deception outside of Burma because the procedure allowed very few Rohingya to qualify and most Rohingya are going to remain stateless despite this “reform”. Thus the international pressure on Burma to make the Rohingya Burmese citizens intensifies. This would, according to the foreign critics, halt the violence between Moslems and Buddhists in Burma. That’s unlikely as far as most Burmese are concerned. 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 troublesome example is the Palestinians, who are refused citizenship in most Arab countries where they find themselves as refugees. 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 which is common in eastern Asia and Europe as well. Burma long refused to even consider making the Rohingya 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). The wealthy Arab oil states have put their considerable diplomatic and economic pressure on the UN to make a fuss but the Burmese generals long insisted that this could be safely ignored as they have been ignoring UN criticism for over half a century and getting away with it. The Arabs don’t get a lot of sympathy outside the Moslem world because anyone who can count notes that there is a lot more oppression and violence against non-Moslems by Moslems than the other way around. As more Western nations joined in with the demands for granting citizenship for Rohingya the government decided to make a gesture. But now that the gesture has been rejected the pressure will continue. Burmese officials are standing by their belief that granting Moslems citizenship would result in more anti-Moslem violence. The generals have another reason for stonewalling the foreigners and that is that the Moslem issue prevents the foreigners from concentrating on the fact that the former military dictators of Burma are still running things and resisting efforts by Burmese reformers to install true democracy. That would likely result in prosecution of many officers who ran the previous military dictatorship. These officers would be charged with all sorts of crimes, from murdering and illegally jailing political opponents to corruption. The generals are not interested in paying for their past crimes.

On the west coast (Chin state) the local government has shut down four ethnic newspapers in the last month. The given reason is that these newspapers had not bothered to register with the government. These papers have been publishing for years (one as long as ten years) without registration and the current closures are believed related to officials trying to extract bribes.

Another issued with the Rohingya is the illegal migration of Rohingya from Burma and Bangladesh. These people pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia, Thailand, India or more distant points (like Indonesia). Rohingya activists claim that 16,000 people have left in the last month, 75 percent of them from Burma. But several thousand appear to have disappeared. Rohingya also accuse security forces in Burma and Thailand of working with the smugglers, usually in the form of taking bribes to allow the smuggler boats to pass without interference. Some Rohingya say the missing Rohingya refugees were murdered by security forces who sank their boats. Others point out that smugglers tend to use poorly maintained boats, which are often overloaded and this leads to boats sinking, especially in bad weather or being stranded when engines fail. Over 100,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012.

In the north (Shan state) the army continues peace talks with the Shan State Army (SSA). The main obstacle to signing a new ceasefire with the tribal rebels is demands by different SSA factions for slightly different ceasefire conditions. Despite the January 2012 ceasefire with SSA fighting has continued. Low level combat has been going on in Shan state since June. The Shan aren’t the only tribal coalition with faction problems. The KNU (Karen National Union) has a similar problem with the majority of factions wanting a ceasefire deal while a minority wants to fight on for better terms.  

In the north the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) is under growing pressure from tribal leaders to free 200 Shan people they forcibly conscripted since 2011. These conscripts are used to carry stuff and provide other support for the armed rebels. Such misbehavior is common in the tribal north and some of the tribal rebels are more troublesome in that regard than others. The KIA are also accused of demanding protection money from the jade mining companies in the area. 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 and half of it is found by illegal mining operations and is quietly sold to Chinese traders. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by generals who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by rebels. 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.  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, especially when it comes to the lucrative illegal jade trade.

Shan tribal leaders are also complaining to the national government about the recent census, which counted only 300,000 of the half million Shan people in Kachin state. The government says that this is not their fault because tribal rebels prevented census workers from entering some tribal areas.

Heroin production continues to grow in the tribal north, protected by military and government officials willing to leave the drug gangs alone if the bribes are large enough. All this has global implications. Although Afghan poppy production (measured by the area planted) increased this year, the Afghan share of the worldwide heroin trade was only 75 percent, and declining. Northern Burma is making a comeback. Northern Burma was the main source until the 1980s, when production was forced out and moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. The Burmese competition is driving down prices and the drug gangs are trying to make up for the lost income by increasing production. These Burmese tribes had once produced most of the world’s opium, but had their operations shut down by a vigorous government offensive in the 1980s. Opium production shifted to the Pushtun tribes (first in Pakistan, then across the border to Afghanistan). By the 1990s 90 percent of opium and heroin was coming from Afghanistan. As a result of the Burmese resurgence producer income per kilo (2.2 pounds) for heroin has been declining and is likely to decline more as the Burmese tribes continue to increase production. As happened in Afghanistan, heroin is a lot cheaper right where it is produced and there is a growing problem with heroin addiction in northern Burma near the Chinese border. Tribal leaders are not happy with this, but as long as the government tolerates the bribery of officials up there, nothing can stop the heavily armed and wealthy drug gangs.

November 16, 2014: For the third day in a row students demonstrated in the capital. The students are opposing a new education law that they believe will reduce academic freedom. During the half century of military rule there was no academic freedom and educational standards fell as well. The students are also opposed to all government efforts to maintain the power of the generals and other officers who once ruled as a military dictatorship.

November 14, 2014: China and Burma agreed to another $7.8 billion in economic deals, most of them involving Chinese money invested into Burmese projects. These new deals are an attempt to rescue some older projects that have been stalled. The problem here is that three decades of unprecedented economic growth in China has caused even more Chinese and their new wealth to find its way into northern Burma looking for profitable opportunities. In the last decade that has led to some major (multi-billion dollar), government backed investments in hydroelectric dams and mines. Projects like this need legal protections, especially ownership of or legal access to lots of land. Each major project creates the need for hundreds of smaller enterprises and lots of economic growth in general. All these businesses want legal ownership or leases on land. Burmese entrepreneurs from down south are glad to oblige and bribe (or partner with) government officials and military commanders up north to “legally” steal tribal land. Eventually this leads to another tribal rebellion, but that’s simply a cost of doing business up north. But it has led to billions of dollars in projects being stalled because of tribal violence against the Chinese.

November 2, 2014: In the north (Shan state) the army resumed peace talks with the Shan State Army (SSA). Each time this happens the talks last a few days (or less) until both sides have issues they have to take up with their followers before holding another meeting.

October 31, 2014: The United States imposed sanctions on a prominent, anti-reform Burmese businessman. This was done to show American support for constitutional reforms in Burma that would allow for true democracy. Burmese reformers accuse the United States of underestimating the resolve and capabilities of the former military leaders who ran Burma until 2011. These men have resisted reforms that would make them accountable.

October 26, 2014: It became known that a Burmese journalist was killed (in the east, Mon state) and quietly buried by the military on October 4th. The army said the journalist was actually a tribal rebel and had lunged for a soldiers’ weapon in an escape attempt. Turned out that the dead man was a journalist but that he had once worked for prominent reform organizations. This made him suspect to the military and the army is accused of murdering the man. An investigation is under way.  



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