Myanmar: More Rumbles In The Jungle

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May 4, 2015: After three months the Kokang fighting in the tribal north (Shan state) has died down. As usual the rebels lost because the army had more, and bigger, guns (artillery) and aircraft. The rebels were gradually pushed back and the soldiers took at least twenty rebel camps or fighting positions (like fortified hilltops overlooking key roads). The action was spread out and gradual. In three months the rebels lost nearly 500 dead while the army lost over 140 soldiers in nearly 300 separate violent encounters (ambushes, artillery or air attacks or battles for small bits of territory). Some of the army forces were pro-government tribal militias who suffered fewer losses than the army. Nearly 100,000 tribal civilians fled (most into China) the fighting and for the last few weeks more of these refugees have been returning home.  The fighting isn’t over, this is just a pause. A permanent peace deal does not exist yet although negotiations continue on yet another agreement that will finally bring peace to the north.

After more than half a century of trying the military has been unable to shut down the continuing armed resistance in the tribal north. This is very embarrassing for the military and is the result of there being so many different tribal armies up there who often don’t get along with their neighbors or the government. Added to that is the money to be made from exploiting natural resources (lumber, jade, minerals, hydro power) up there as well as illegal drugs.

The more immediate problem for the army were the complex tribal alliances up there. All this was in play during the recent fighting. Early on 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. Thus China often becomes another element the army has to consider when trying to defeat tribal rebels.

Most of the fighting in the north has been in Shan state. The Kokang tribal rebels of the MNDAA (Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army) were engaged in heavy combat with the army during February and March, but things began to quiet down in late April after a week of very intense combat. 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 which then escalated. The rebels claim it was more army abuse (rape and robbery) against tribal people that set off the latest round of violence. 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 and this refusal continues to be a problem.

The Kokang MNDAA has allies in the north who also resumed fighting the army. These included 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.

Further south there are continuing problems over the Moslem minority. This recently because a major issue again when graves containing over twenty Burmese Rohingya Moslems was found in southern Thailand. These Burmese were apparently held captive by smugglers who were seeking to get more money from friends or family of the captives before taking them across the border to Malaysia. Those who could not pay were killed or starved to death. Despite this sort of thing Burmese Moslems continue fleeing to Malaysia and other Moslem countries in the region. People smugglers use boats and trucks to move these people south, often through Thailand overland or Thai waters. Rohingya activists claim that up to 10,000 people a month are leaving with 75 percent coming from Burma. But thousands appear to have just 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 and trucks to pass without interference. Rohingya have long claimed that many of 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. It was also known that some refugees were killed by the smugglers because of money or other disputes.

Nearly 200,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. Thailand denies all the charges and refuses to allow foreign investigators into the country. These refugees had been treated poorly by the smugglers and this sort of thing is common. Because of international pressure the Thai government has cracked down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the smugglers.

Burmese Moslems continue to flee Burma because some Buddhist clergy have organized a nationwide effort among the Buddhist majority to fight non-existent Islamic radicalism in Burma. This is seen as a power grab by the Buddhist clergymen, using fear and nationalism to become a formidable political force in the country. So far it is working and the Moslem minority is paying for it. The radical Buddhist clergy have also been blunt and caustic towards foreign critics, especially UN officials who regularly visit Burma and criticize the anti-Moslem clerics.

April 28, 2015: China warned Burma to get the fighting away from the Chinese border and to make sure no more rockets or shells (from artillery or mortars) land in China. Some of that has happened recently and the Chinese want it stopped, or else. The latest intrusions occurred when soldiers attacked a rebel position that was 500 meters from the Chinese border. Some of the army machine-gun and artillery fire at these rebels ended up in China. In situations like this the army usually stops firing and, by mutual but unspoken agreement, the rebels are allowed to move away unmolested.

April 25, 2015:  In the north a long simmering border dispute has flared up again. This is taking place along portions of the 400 kilometer long border with the Indian state of Manipur. This last escalated in 2013 when Burmese police tried to build a new border post five kilometers inside India. When confronted by Indian troops the Burmese insisted this was actually their territory. Only after days of negotiations, and some threats, did the Burmese agree to withdraw. But then Indians complained that the Burmese police had begun building a wooden fence 100 meters inside India. Everyone was eventually calmed down but the basic differences remained. The basic problem was that the border has never been precisely marked in this remote area and no one really cared. But as population grew residents from both countries moved closer to each other and there arose disputes as to exactly where the border was. In this area the Indian villagers find themselves closer to a source of consumer goods across the unmarked border in Burma rather than in India. This ended up in a situation where Burmese troops were telling some Indians they were living in what local Burmese officials believed was Burmese territory. India is alarmed at the fact that the Burmese border claim would mean dozens of Indian families, in 18 border villages, would lose some of their land. The Indian villagers don’t seem to mind but the Indian government does. This time India claims that Burmese soldiers have moved into a small area (three square kilometers) on the border that both countries claim. Diplomats and military officers from both nations are negotiating an end to this confrontation.

April 21, 2015: The new democratic (but military dominated) government found itself on another Top Ten list and is not pleased. This time it was a report on government censorship worldwide. The ten worst offenders were (very worst first); Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, Burma and Cuba. Government officials protest that there is a lot more press freedom. That’s true, but a lot of restrictions remain from the decades of military rule and that’s enough to land Burma on this top ten list. The new government also found itself on a new Top Twenty list because, to placate the military, Burma spends 4.8 percent of its GDP on defense. Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the top purchasers of weapons from China.

April 11, 2015: In the northeast (Muse) a bomb exploded near the Chinese border and killed two policemen who were searching a village. It was unclear if this was connected to the nearby battles with the Kokang rebels or with the local drug operations.

April 6, 2015: India and Burma share a 1,643 kilometer long border. This is more a problem for India than Burma because India has a decades old tribal rebellion on its side of the frontier and only one battalion (fewer than 800 troops) per hundred kilometers of border. Thus there is ample opportunity for tribal rebels to sneak across and set up camps in Burma, safe from Indian security forces. Burma admits it is responsible for detecting and expelling these illegal visitors but most of the border area is thinly populated forests and mountains and it is very difficult to get troops into the area and very expensive to support them as they go after any intruders.  So India is going add a few more battalions to areas the rebels seem to prefer to cross at. This will at least make it more difficult for the rebels to move to their Burma sanctuaries. In Burma the army has another problem with these Indian tribal rebels in that most of those setting up bases in Burma have relationships with Burmese tribal rebels. This further complicates Burmese efforts to find and destroy (or persuade to leave Burma) the Indian rebel camps.

April 5, 2015: Despite another ceasefire (on March 30th), fighting in the north resumed between the army and a loose coalition of Kachin, Kokang and Palaung rebels. In part this was because three army divisions in the north began another advance and when this happens some rebels stand and fight (while most withdraw from the artillery and air attacks.) This army advance did produce over a week of very intense fighting which led to many rebels breaking contact with the army units. 

 

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