Reformers believe that progress has been made as the new government is no longer a military dictatorship even though the military still retains much political power. Reformers believe that the military will gradually lose this power over the next few years unless the generals stage another coup. But after 49 years of military rule and, since 2011, a taste of democracy, even the generals are not so sure another coup would work. So for the time being there are still plenty of greedy and corrupt generals (and their non-military allies) getting in the way of prosperity and efficient government. An example of this is the current ceasefire negotiations with the northern rebels. There have been such agreements in the past, which are invariably violated by the army in support of corrupt officials and businessmen who have bribed officers to deal with angry tribesmen fighting against land theft and various other scams inflicted on them. Because the old military government censorship is largely gone news of these scams and the military collusion is getting out and making possible to prosecute and, in a growing number of cases, convict the guilty.
Reformers are also encouraged by the massive (and high reaching) corruption crackdown in China. That’s because in the last decade a major incentive to screw with the northern tribes has been Chinese businesses willing to invest in northern Burma. This required access to and ownership of a lot of traditional tribal lands. The generals were accommodating and this led to wide scale theft of tribal land and forced (often with much bloodshed) over 100,000 tribal people into exile. A lot of the current violence up north is a lingering aftereffect of past government and Chinese mistreatment of the locals. The tribes want justice and with the generals out of power there is a sense that justice might be possible. The end of military rule in 2011 made it possible to more thoroughly and openly investigate how the land scams worked in the north and those results were published. The generals protested but the newly elected government was more sympathetic.
The tribal north (Shan state) is still the scene of daily clashes between tribal rebels and the army. The military appears unable to shut down the continuing armed resistance. This is very embarrassing for the military and the embarrassment got worse recently when the Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) refused to aid the army in fighting the Kokang rebels. The Wa also live in Shan state near the Chinese border. The UWSA is a major factor in Shan state 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 (as are most Kogang), 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.
Most of the fighting in the north has been in Shan state where so far this year there have been nearly two thousand casualties among civilians, soldiers, police and rebel fighters. The Kokang tribal rebels of the MNDAA (Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army) have been engaged in heavy combat with the army for two months now. The army says the rebels started it when they ambushed a patrol on February 9th and wounded four soldiers. The rebels say the soldiers fired first. That led to more fighting that left at least fifty soldiers dead within a week. Rebels say the army quickly escalated and on the 10th launched three air strikes against rebel positions. All this is actually a resumption of clashes that began in December. By the end of 2014 the army had moved in reinforcements and the Kokang withdrew gradually, continuing to inflict casualties on the soldiers. According to the rebels, soldiers kept advancing and have attacked other rebels groups near the Chinese border as well. The rebels often ambush army trucks bringing in supplies and reinforcements and are expert at ambushing army patrols. The army responds by attacking villages and driving away the families of the rebel fighters, denying the rebels food, medical care and other support. The rebels have struck back by firing on neighborhoods where the families of local policemen live. In response the government has moved these families further south until the fighting is over.
The MNDAA are tribal rebels who used to be more political (communist) but that disappeared in 1989 when the Burmese Communist Party fell apart as a side effect of the collapse of communism in East Europe. MNDAA made peace with the government in 2009 but like most peace deals up north that did not last because the army kept operating in tribal territory. The government refused to recognize the MNDAA as one of the tribal rebel groups negotiating a ceasefire. Sine February 9th, when the fighting with the Kokang rebels began, there have been over a thousand military (army and rebel) casualties along with hundreds of civilian injuries.
The Kokang MNDAA has allies in the north who have also resumed fighting the army. These include the Shan State Army–South (SSA-S). For years the army has fought the SSA-S for key terrain, usually to control roads that supply and troops and everyone else. The army has also been trying to interfere with the tribal drug operations up north. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring Wa and these two groups are making a lot of money producing and smuggling drugs. Opium and heroin production have been revived in the past few years. Production of methamphetamine is huge. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Over the last few years, production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields (opium is the sap of poppy plants) and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially the Wa use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. The government has been in a weak bargaining position here but always had the option to declare the militias in violation of the 2012 peace deal and officially renew the fighting. That declaration has not happened yet. TNLA (Taang National Liberation Army) rebels in nearby Shan state as well as the KIA (Kachin) rebels also support the Kokang rebels. These three 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. China is also the source of all the military equipment the rebels need. At the moment the Chinese are not happy with the Burmese Army because the months of army activity has pushed nearly 100,000 refugees into China and disrupted trade (both legal, illegal and semi-legal).
The India has joined Burma in pressuring China to do something about the continued shipments of Chinese weapons to tribal rebels in northern Burma and northeast India. China denies this is happening and points out that many rebels, especially the Wa army has long used Chinese weapons they bought from illegal dealers in China and then smuggled into Burma. China also points out that Burmese troops also use Chinese weapons. Burma and India counter that the rebels in both countries are using weapons China did not sell to the Burmese Army. Moreover these Chinese weapons (often older and cheaper designs) are showing up worldwide in the hands of rebels, terrorists and gangsters. The point here is that China is looking the other way as a huge illegal arms sales and smuggling operation goes about its business. China is in the midst of a major corruption crackdown so these complaints from Burma and India might be addressed this time around.
April 2, 2015: The government officially apologized to China for the death of five Chinese civilians hit by a bomb from a Burmese warplane on March 13th. The Burmese aircraft thought it was attacking rebels on the Burmese side of the border. The Burmese government denied this accident at first but after about a week (and Chinese movement of warplanes to their side of the border along with threats of retaliation) the Burmese officials realized the truth and apologized unofficially. It took a while to get the formal apology composed to the satisfaction of the Chinese.
March 30, 2015: The government and 16 tribal rebel groups agreed on a draft of a nationwide ceasefire agreement. The rebel groups have to ratify the draft before starting to negotiate a final agreement for signing. This draft does not cover the heavy fighting that has been going in Shan State (near the Chinese border) with the Kokang (MNDAA) tribal rebels. This group is considered renegade even though the MNDAA still has close ties with several rebel groups that are part of the ceasefire negotiations.
March 25, 2015: In the northeast (Shan state) two explosions were heard in an army base and the army later reported that tribal rebels had fired two mortar shells into the base. No details of damage or casualties were released.
March 23, 2015: The air force launched another attack on Kokang rebels in the north (Shan State).
March 21, 2015: In the northeast (Shan state) soldiers took another hilltop position long occupied by the Kokang rebels. There were nearly fifty casualties during the final push to the top of the hill. The soldiers have the advantage of numbers, artillery and air power (for bombing and observation).
March 20, 2015: President Thein Sein openly admitted that the military would retain their political power for a while but would eventually lose it.
March 19, 2015: In the northeast (Shan state) the air force resumed attacking the rebels. The air force had halted operations up there after a Burmese warplane crossed the border by mistake and killed five Chinese with a bomb on the 13th.
March 18, 2015: In the northeast an army patrol in Shan state was attacked by five different groups of MNDAA tribal rebels. Three rebels and 13 soldiers died. The army claims to have seized drugs the rebels were seeking to smuggle into Thailand but the rebels denied that.
March 16, 2015: The army began negotiations with 16 tribal rebel groups with the aim of working out a nationwide ceasefire.
March 15, 2015: China threatened to respond militarily if there was another Burmese air force attack inside China.
March 14, 2015: China issued a formal protest over the Burmese air strike in China yesterday.
March 13, 2015: A Burmese warplane strayed into China and killed five (and wounded eight) Chinese with a bomb. According to local Chinese this was the third such bombing in the last week but the first one to cause any Chinese casualties. Burmese artillery shells have also landed on the Chinese side of the border.
March 10, 2015: For the second time in a week police used force and arrests to break up a large student protest. The latest round of police action led to the arrest of over a hundred demonstrators. These demonstrations have been going on since September 2014 and are directed at the new National Education Law. Despite police crackdowns the number of demonstrations has grown as more people come out to support the original student protestors. The government outlawed the protests but the students and their growing number of supporters have not backed down, even in the face of soldiers now with “shoot to kill” orders. The police have also used an old (in Burma) technique of hiring pro-government protestors to confront the anti-government protestors and to sometimes start brawls. This has not worked either as the students keep showing up in the streets despite injuries and losses from arrests. The government fears student demonstrations that cannot be shut down because in the past this sort of thing has toppled governments. This all started because students believe the new education law gives the government more political control over higher education and makes it easier to prosecute those who speak out against the government. Many Burmese agree with the students and feel that the new democracy is just the old military dictatorship with rigged elections (and rigged everything else).
March 9, 2015: Chinese and Burmese officials met on the border (in Shan State) to work out procedures to prevent the fighting (between soldiers and rebels) in Shan State did not spill over into China.