Myanmar: The Relative Calm Before The Possible Storm

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January 11, 2016: A lot of decisions are on hold until February, as on February 1 st Veteran reform advocate Aung San Suu Kyi takes power. Her party won 80 percent of the vote in November elections and everyone expects big changes. No one is sure exactly will get changed and to what extent, but things will be different.

In the north the army continues to battle tribal rebels while also making some of the rebel groups allies. This has been the policy for decades and there are always a few tribal leaders willing to take the benefits like no more attacks by the military, especially the artillery and warplanes and hassle-free use of roads to move people, supplies and (legal) exports. In rare cases the army will, unofficially of course, do a deal that allows a rebel group to continue producing and exporting drugs. These deals often involve the army (or at least senior officers) receiving a cut of the profits. A new round of peace talks with the Wa State rebels is to begin on January 12th. The Wa have the largest (20,000 armed men) tribal militia up there.

Heroin production is growing in the Golden Triangle (the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma, Laos and Thailand meet) and that keeps all manner of gangster, rebel and ethnic warlords in business. In 2015 over 800 tons of opium (the raw material for heroin) were produced in the triangle, over 90 percent of it in Burma. Burma is also where most of the opium is processed into heroin (ten tons of opium yields one ton of heroin). Global production of opium is currently about 7,000 tons. Back in the early 1980s 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. There was some illegal production in the Golden Triangle but only a fraction of what it is now. This is because the Chinese communists shut down opium production in China during the late 1940s. Some Chinese producers moved to Burma, Laos and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down and Laos was never a big producer. Burma, run by a military dictatorship, needed the money, and didn't crack down until the 1990s, in large part to destroy the military power of Chinese drug warlords who grew strong off their heroin profits. It then picked up in Pakistan, where it was soon driven across the border to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban heavily taxed drug production in the late 1990s and even halted production in 2000 because of oversupply (and falling prices.) The Taliban told Western nations that they were suppressing the opium production in return for foreign aid, but they allowed opium production to resume in 2001 when the foreign aid was not forthcoming. Opium has always been all about money. By 2010 military pressure on the Afghan drug gangs allowed the Golden Triangle, especially Burma, to regain more of the world heroin market. Afghanistan is still the leader, but Burma has over ten percent of the market and is gaining as is Colombia with a much lower share.

The violence against the Rohingya has died down and the May 2015 Thai crackdown on gangsters trying to smuggle Burmese Moslems through Thailand to Malaysia has forced many Rohingya to put migration plans on hold. It is estimated that attempts by Rohingya to travel (usually illegally) to another country are still down by over 70 percent. This is the result of international pressure on the Thai government to crack down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the people smugglers. This, and similar measures in Malaysia, have largely halted the lucrative people smuggling, for a while at least. Over 200,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. At least 25,000 are believed to have gone south in the first three months of 2015 and that level of activity continued until the Thai crackdown took effect in May. Suddenly a lot fewer (soon about 80 percent fewer) Rohingya refugees were showing up at in Malaysia or Indonesia. All the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal were now watching for boats engaged in people smuggling and that pretty much ruled out using large vessels anymore. Now smugglers can only move a few people at a time on smaller vessels that could avoid or pass inspection. The drove the price of using people smugglers way up, to the point where most Rohingya could not afford it. Meanwhile Rohingya still face persecution (and occasional violence) in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh. Rohingya are hoping the new reform government will help them but that is not assured.

January 3, 2016: China complained to Burma that one of its citizens was injured by a landmine on the Burma border. Many rebel groups operate along this border, sometimes on both sides. China has been pressuring Burma for years to reduce the violence on the Burmese side of the border, which often spills into China and killing or wounding Chinese.

December 31, 2015: In the north troops attacked positions manned by SSA-S (Shan State Army–South) rebels. The rebels demanded to know why the army had violated a recent (October 2015) ceasefire deal and killed one of their men. For years the army has fought the SSA-S for key terrain, usually to control roads that supply the 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 and the MNDAA are making a lot of money producing and smuggling drugs. Some army commanders up there do not trust the SSA-S and that may have triggered this clash.

December 27, 2015: In the northwest (Arakan State) tribal rebels (Arakan Army) and soldiers clashed briefly. There were some wounded. The northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east but the Arakan Army had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have proved to be a persistent problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government subsequently ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the Arakan Army, which has been very active lately clashing with troops on a regular basis, sometimes several times a day.

December 26, 2015: In the north (Shan State) three civilians died and three were sounded when a time bomb went off at a truck stop. Police found and neutralized another bomb that failed to go off. Kokang tribal rebels and their organization (MNDAA) were the main suspects. The MNDAA wants official recognition, something the government is reluctant to grant. The MNDAA is largely composed of ethnic Chinese who have long lived in northern Burma (as have other Chinese tribes). MNDAA 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 Kokang and MNDAA have become a drug gang as have many of its tribal allies in the north. These included the SSA-S. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring Wa and these two groups and the MNDAA 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 ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa and MNDAA) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations.

December 25, 2015: In the north (Kachin State) there another landslide in the jade mining area, killing at least fifty people. These landslides are made possible by all the illegal jade mining, which often involves removing most of the vegetation on a hillside. With the trees and shrubs gone there is nothing to hold soil together when there are heavy rains. There was a similar disaster up there a month ago, which killed over a hundred people. All this brought rebel commander Wei Hsueh Kang a lot of unwanted publicity because of his control of 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 the jade 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, mainly the Wa of the UWSA (United Wa State Army). Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly fighting with tribal rebels who are seeking to make some money in the jade producing areas. The military men are not giving up all their illegal businesses and the government, despite the 2011 elections that bought a civilian government to power. So far no one is willing to force the issue, at least not yet, especially when it comes to the lucrative illegal jade trade. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes also point out that all the illegal jade and gold mining ruins many water supplies (streams and lakes) but since outsiders (military and tribal warlords) dominate and protect the illegal mining, no one cares about some bad water except a few locals.

December 24, 2015: The navy commissioned the second locally built frigate. Based on the Chinese Type 053 frigate, the new ship is a 1,400 ton vessel equipped with 76mm cannon, anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The first locally made one entered service in March 2014 and the first one (made it China) entered service in 2010.

December 19, 2015: In the north (Shan State) MNDAA rebels clashed with troops and killed six soldiers and stole their weapons and equipment. MNDAA losses are unknown.

 

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