Myanmar: Going After The Right People

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January 14, 2015: The government sentenced 20 Moslems to long jail terms after prosecuting them for Islamic terrorism. The accused were arrested in the north while on their way to a wedding and local officials saw an opportunity to make themselves look good to the central government and general public by striking a blow against Islamic terrorism. But many of those who observed the five month trial noted that there was really no evidence and that the twenty seemed to have been arrested and prosecuted arbitrarily. This appears to be another bit of illegal government theater that will generate a lot of unrest, or worse. The Moslem minority continues to suffer from violence and oppression. This is perpetuated by Buddhist religious nationalists who see the Moslems are a serious threat.

The government, under pressure to halt corruption and all sorts of illegal economic activity in the tribal north, responded by pointing out that special border inspection teams in the north had seized $27 million in illegal exports in 2013 and 2014. But that was less than one percent of the estimated value of illegal exports (mostly lumber, jade and drugs) and imports. Most of the activity is exports and the owners of those illegal operations are careful to bribe all the right people. The government refuses to, or is unable to, go after the “right people.”

Another response to pressure to do something about the rampant corruption in the north the government organized a raid on illegal loggers (who do about half a billion dollars in business a month) and security forces arrested 122 people in the north (Kachin State). Not surprisingly 83 percent of those arrested were Chinese and the rest from local tribes. Those arrested had documents giving them permission to take down the trees and transport the logs through KIA (Kachin Independence Army) controlled territory. The KIA and two other tribal rebel groups provide most of the armed opposition to the army in the Chinese border area. Rebels remain active here because China is a major market for heroin and other drugs produced in the north, as well as the illegal production and smuggling of lumber and jade. China is also the source of all the military equipment the rebels need. So this crackdown on smuggling is actually another way to attack the tribal rebels up north. While the tribal militias control large portions of the north, the more heavily armed army units can go where they want if they are willing to fight their way in. The rebels will fall back against the superior firepower of the army, and then block the roads the troops just used to advance.

China protested the arrest of its citizens. While the Chinese government is hostile to the drug smuggling, the jade and lumber are considered “clean” crime that helps the economy. The Chinese attitude is that it is OK to bribe locals so that Chinese firms can do business in foreign countries and that these arrests are the locals breaking an agreement after being paid for their cooperation.

The central government has lots of pro-China supporters, because the Chinese know how to spread the money around. So while Chinese smugglers are being arrested up north other Burmese officials ordered the arrest of over a hundred Burmese (mostly members of the northern tribes) for persistently protesting Chinese economic projects (mines, hydroelectric, pipelines) in the north. These undertakings have displaced thousands of tribal people, often illegally. The government uses the army to enable the Chinese to do what they want up there. Well, that is the plan. But over the years the protests have been persistent and get a lot of attention internationally. So now the government is going after those they believe are the protest leaders, especially the ones who bring their protests to the capital.

January 5, 2015:  The Roman Catholic Church announced the appointment of twenty new Cardinals (the 200 or so senior officials who run the church and elect new popes) and one of them, for the first time, was Burmese. This is the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Burma, which now has over half a million Roman Catholics. That is about 30 percent of the Christians in Burma. While 80 percent of Burmese are Buddhists the largest religious minority are the Christians (7 percent, compared to Moslems at four percent, Hindus at two percent and various, most of them ancient tribal faiths, at seven percent.) The Christians have been very active in the pro-democracy movement. With a Burmese cleric now a Cardinal it is easier to get international media attention. Other Burmese religious leaders welcomed the appointment of a Burmese as a senior official of the Roman Catholic Church.

December 27, 2014: In the north (Kachin State) troops advanced on the KIA rebels and forced the tribal gunmen from a key outpost. The army is trying to push the KIA away from the jade mining area. In the last year the KIA has been accused of demanding protection money from the jade mining companies in the area. The army considers this a violation of an unwritten (as far as anyone knows) agreement in which the army and the KIA share illegal revenues from the jade trade. 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.

December 23, 2014: A heavily promoted government sponsored meeting to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire was a flop with major rebel and army leaders refusing to attend. The rebel leaders don’t trust the army and the army wants to demonstrate that it cannot just be ordered by the government to negotiate with the tribal rebels.

December 20, 2014: China announced an $11.5 billion program of loans and aid to Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, mostly for infrastructure and large scale business construction projects. In addition to building roads, canals, pipeline and power lines to move exports back to China and Chinese goods into the neighboring countries, China sees programs like this as a means of building good will. It doesn’t always work as the investments often must be implemented via corrupt local officials and businessmen who are already unpopular for their questionable methods. It’s no mystery how this works because China already has over $20 billion in similar projects underway in these countries.

December 19, 2014: In the northwest (Sagaing Region) police fired on local tribesmen protesting the seizure of their farmland for Chinese developers. One protestor was shot dead and several were wounded. This led to more protests, including one in the capital in front of the Chinese embassy.

In the north (Kachin State) troops advanced on the KIA rebels and forced the tribal gunmen from an outpost.

 

 

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