Myanmar: The Disobedient Generals Anger China

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January 13, 2017: In the north neighboring Bangladesh has at least persuaded the Burmese government to begin (this month) high-level talks about their border control problems. Burma is the cause of this mess by not controlling ethnic violence up there that has sent over half a million Burmese fleeing, mostly to Bangladesh. In response Bangladesh has already reinforced border security to try and stem the illegal migration. Bangladesh wants Burma to take back some or all of the more than 400,000 Burmese Rohingya Moslems who have fled across the border, usually as illegal migrants, since 2011. The situation got worse in late 2016 and over 40,000 Burmese Moslems have fled to Bangladesh since then. Bangladesh borders Burma’s Rakhine State which contains most of the Burmese Rohingya Burma insists the Rohingya are Bangladeshis who are in Burma illegally. Burma also fears the Rohingya will be a source of Islamic terrorists. While Bangladesh has arrested a few Pakistan trained Rohingya Islamic terrorists the Rohingya have largely avoided Islamic terrorism. But in Burma the Rohingya, who trace their origin to Bangladesh, have suffered increased persecution in Burma since the 1980s, and especially since the 2011 elections that restored democracy and got lot of anti-Moslem Buddhist nationalists elected. Most Rohingyas are Bengalis, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma, and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). Any kind of peace deal with the Rohingya is unlikely as far as most Burmese are concerned. 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).

Not everyone in Burma is convinced that the Rohingya are any kind of threat, Islamic or otherwise and the no one has not produced much proof yet. Many Buddhist and Christian Burmese oppose the treatment of the Rohingya and have been held protests in major cities against the decision to deny the Rohingya citizenship and classify them as Bengalis. But this is a minority attitude as most of the voters will not back any pro-Rohingya moves.

Despite that senior government officials called for a proper investigation to find out exactly what is happening up there especially since the army bans journalists from the conflict area. One thing most Burmese can agree on is that the army can’t be trusted to give an accurate account of anything going on in the north. The military has long seen the tribal areas, mainly in the north and along the eastern borders, to be their territory and to do what they want. That usually involves illegal activities, most of them involved with making money using corrupt practices. This has caused more problems with the locals (mostly non-ethnic Burmese tribes) and China.

While a lesser number of Burmese refugees are fleeing to China the Chinese government is getting angry and no longer waiting for the Burmese government to act. For the last month Chinese soldiers and police have been either stopping Burmese refugees at the border or finding them inside China and forcing them to leave. China complains that the latest outbreak of tribal rebel violence in Shan and Kachin States had driven over 30,000 Burmese into China and interfered with trade and movement across the border.

China wants the Burmese government to do something about it or face reduced Chinese investment. That threat has largely been ignored (or promises made and not kept) so now China is going to act without regard to Burmese promises or wishes. This means forcing refugees to return to areas where Burmese troops frequently fire on civilians or the refugee camps built inside Burma near the Chinese border. Burma can’t really afford bad relations with China, mainly because China has become a (if not the) major source of foreign investment. The Chinese want to continue doing business in Burma, but it has to be safe for those investments as well as the Chinese and Burmese working for Chinese firms in Burma. The problem is that the government has still not been able to gain control of the military, which has had a free hand in the tribal areas (especially Shan and Kachin) for over half a century. The Burmese government is having more success negotiating peace deals with the tribes but these deals often fail because the Burmese military won’t cooperate.

January 8, 2017: In the north (Kachin state) troops spent several hours fighting the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) tribal rebels before the KIA retreated from four outposts. There were at least ten dead, most of them KIA, and many more wounded. The army has been fighting the KIA again for nearly a year. A new Burmese president, backed by the new parliament, was expected to change that eventually but so far the army is misbehaving with impunity as it always has. Since early 2016 this violence has been concentrated in the northern states of Kachin and Shan. Tribal rebels have been again violently resisting advancing soldiers but the army keeps the media out so news of what is actually going on there takes weeks to get out. The army says it is defending itself against tribal aggression and by the time the facts get out (if they do at all) it is old news and thus no news. The troops are using their usual tactics of attacking (with gunfire, air strikes and artillery) villages believed to be pro-rebel (or at least anti-army). Troops are apparently under orders to burn the bodies of any civilians found in the villages (along with burning everything down). The fighting here is with tribal rebel groups that the military won’t negotiate with for various reasons.

December 27, 2016: In the north (Kachin state) troops attacked several KIA (Kachin Independence Army) tribal rebel outposts and took them before the end of the day.

December 26, 2016: In the north (Shan State) fighting between soldiers and TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) left three civilians dead and eight wounded. Since late November 2106 renewed fighting with the “northern alliance” of MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), TNLA, KIA and AA (Arakan Army) has left over a hundred dead, about half of them security forces (including some pro-government tribal militiamen) and civilians. Despite agreements for these rebel groups to join the current peace talks (which resume in February 2017), the rebel tribes all have serious territorial and economic disputes with the army. In Shan state, for example, the army and tribes are fighting over lucrative coal mining operations. In Kachin state the army violence is connected with the illegal gold mining and the tribal fear that the army cannot be trusted to observe the terms of any peace deal. Along the west coast (Arakan and Chin states) it’s about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust for a new peace agreement.

December 17, 2016: In the north (Kachin state) troops finally captured a major KIA base (Gidon) after four months of effort (mainly against roadblocks and outposts).

December 16, 2016: In the north (Shan State) tribal rebels (mainly KIA and TNLA) battled soldiers in several places over the last few days. There appear to have been over twenty dead and wounded. This fighting is not appreciated in nearby China, where civilians fleeing the violence illegally cross the border.

December 14, 2016: China again warned Burma to do something about the fighting along the border. This has been particularly intense since late 2016 in Shan State. There fighting between rebellious tribes and the Burmese army has increasingly seen stray bullets and mortar shells land on Chinese territory. In November a Chinese citizen inside China was wounded by some of the gunfire. China told Burma to restore order to the border which has been unruly for centuries. To emphasize the point China put army units near the Burma border on high alert and publicized the order. Aside from the violence China is unhappy with how all this violent interferes with trade moving across the border in both directions.

December 13, 2016: In the north (Kachin State) four more jade miners died in work related landslides. Since late 2015 (when a landslide killed over 200 miners) the government has threatened to suspend jade mining until acceptable environmental and safety procedures could be agreed on and implemented. Some work has been done on that but these new rules did not apply to the freelance jade miners who work illegally and are taking advantage of any mining bans to keep working. All the recent jade miner fatalities have been freelancers, usually inexperienced scavengers working in unstable areas that have already been scoured by professionals for nearly all the jade that was there. The main reason the government wants to reduce miner deaths is to halt all the bad publicity, which has forced the government to at least pretend to do something about what had been going on illegally in the north for decades. Efforts to enforce existing laws banning such activities and more forceful efforts to curb illegal jade mining did not work. Until now government threats caused unease among many of those involved in the largely illegal jade industry but had not slowed down production much. If anything jade mining has increased during 2106 with some 300,000 workers, mostly manual laborers (and often illegal migrants) working in a 700 square kilometer area that, from the air, looks like a wasteland with dozens of hills leveled and the debris left in unstable heaps that cause most of the landslides. This was believed to be a good time for the government to try and reform the jade business. Demand and prices are way down in China and the jade producers have to increase production to make any money at all. That means the jade mining is more visible from the air (which the government controls) and space (where even commercial satellite photos show the jade operations). The tribes involved in the jade trade would normally fight hard to oppose any government crackdown but because many of the people killed in the jade mining incidents are from the north there is less justifications for the tribal militias to get involved. Most jade mining activity is 650 kilometers north of the Burmese capital. The fatal landslides occur because the jade mining 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. All this has brought a lot of unwanted publicity to the jade trade. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and is a $30 billion a year operation in Burma. 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 Burmese military officers who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by tribal 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 corrupt Burmese generals and businessmen and their Chinese counterparts are not eager to give up the jade profits but they are now in a weak position. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes have long complained 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. But that has changed since 2011 because all the publicity has forced the Chinese government to at least recognize that the problem exists, mainly because of Chinese demand for jade and Chinese providing the cash and access to Chinese made earth moving equipment and corrupt border guards who let the illegal cash and equipment into Burma and the valuable (and untaxed on either side of the border) jade out. The Chinese are now willing to help crack down on the jade and other smuggling because it involves items popular with many corrupt Chinese officials.

 

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