In the north (Shan State) fighting between soldiers and the rebel Northern Alliance has killed nearly 200 soldiers (including some pro-government tribal militiamen), rebels and civilians since it flared up again in late November 2o16. Despite government efforts to negotiate a general peace deal with the tribal rebels four of the rebel groups have chosen to fight and have come to be known as the “northern alliance.” The MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and AA (Arakan Army) the rebel tribes all have serious territorial, political 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.
The number of Burmese refugees fleeing from the Northern Alliance violence has increased again this month with over 5,000 a week crossing into China. This is happening despite the Chinese government ordering soldiers and police to stop Burmese refugees at the border in addition to finding those illegally inside China and forcing them to leave. These new policies (as of January) made entering China more difficult and forced those already in China to hide (or pay bribes). China complains that the latest outbreak of tribal rebel violence in Shan and Kachin States had driven over 50,000 Burmese into China since October and interfered with trade and movement across the border.
Rohingya Refugees Return
Since January Bangladesh has persuaded Burma to deal more forcefully with their border control problems. Burma is the cause of this mess by not controlling ethnic violence in the northwest that has sent over half a million Burmese fleeing, mostly to Bangladesh. In response Bangladesh this year has 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. So far in 2017 the new Bangladesh policy has persuaded over 5,000 Rohingya to return to Burma. Most of these left Bangladesh because they thought the refugee camps were more dangerous (because of seasonal flooding) than Burmese bullets.
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. Some 400 Rohingya in Bangladesh were arrested since October 2016 as suspected members of Rohingya terrorist groups organized to attack Burmese security forces. Meanwhile 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). Foreign criticism, especially from Moslem majority nations is largely ignored, in part because Burma depends on non-Moslem nations (like China, Thailand and India) for most of its trade and foreign investments.
March 13, 2017: Burma paid attention as neighbor Thailand revealed that a joint operations with Malaysia had led to the January 19th arrest of the Laotian leader of a major drug cartel (based in Laos) and several of his key associates. Captured documents and interrogations of those arrested revealed details of how this gang moved major quantities of yaba ("crazy drug") methamphetamine pills into Thailand where some was sold locally but most was moved into Malaysia using Moslem smugglers who have long moved illegal goods back and forth across the Malaysian border. Production of yaba has soared since 2010 and most of it is produced in and smuggled out of Burma via Thailand. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. A lot of the separatist and Islamic terrorist violence in southern Thailand was known to have been financed or carried out by gangs down there and the recent arrests of Laotian gangsters revealed the extent to which yaba profits were sustaining the southern violence. Burma has long recognized these drug profits as a major reason the tribal rebels in the north persists.
February 24, 2017: In the north (Shan State) a three day ceasefire meeting ended with no agreement by additional tribal groups to sign the 2015 NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement). The government has been trying to get seven rebel groups that would not sign in 2015 to change their minds. Eight other rebel groups did sign but there can be no real peace along the borders until all (or nearly all) the rebel groups agree.
This meeting was held in the headquarters of the UWSA (United Wa State Army) and the UWSA again made it clear that it was the leading rebel group, especially along the Chinese border. The Wa live in Shan state near the Chinese border. Along the Chinese border (Kachin and Shan states) the UWSA is a major factor and the Burmese army tends to respect UWSA military capabilities. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has over 20,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic (Han) Chinese, 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 in the past. The Wa have long been recognized as the leader of a loose coalition of tribal rebels in the north who have, like the Wa, refused to sign any of the peace deals the army has offered. The Wa coalition includes the KIA, the MNDAA, the SSA-N, the Arakan Army and the TNLA. Without the cooperation of this powerful coalition there can never be peace in the north. Thus there has been nearly continuous fighting in Shan state for years. This led to a ban on voting in much of Shan state. The fighting has been rather low level but there have been several thousand casualties each year and over 100,000 more refugees fleeing their homes since 2014.
Efforts to get everyone to sign the NCA have been going on since the 1990s. The main obstacle is finding ceasefire terms that everyone can agree to and, more importantly, that the government, especially the army, can be trusted to abide by. Decades of military rule ended in 2011 but many of the rebel tribes didn’t believe it meant soldiers would behave in tribal areas. They were right because in the border areas the military still did as they pleased. The elected government has made some progress in curbing the military misbehavior and the August NCA meeting is supposed to take advantage of that. This is not a sure thing as there have been NCA meetings in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and none of those deals were completely effective. That said, since 2011 there has been more peace and less army misbehavior in the border areas where lawlessness was long the norm. This is costing corrupt army officers a lot of money as they got rich by “taxing” or controlling a lot of illegal activities (mining, lumbering, smuggling in general). The corrupt officers also arranged for the illegal removal of tribes on land that had been “sold” to the Chinese for major development projects (mines, hydroelectric dams, pipelines). A new and improved NCA doesn’t make the Chinese happy either but officially they can’t express that because the official Chinese attitude is that they are doing everything legally.
February 2, 2017: The government signed sixteen economic agreements with neighbor Thailand, which is a major investor in Burma (although China invests over six times as much) but a lot of Burmese also work in Thailand.
January 29, 2017: Outside the capital Ko Ni, a prominent Moslem lawyer and government advisor, was assassinated at the airport by a gunman hired by a retired army officer who believed the current government was damaging Burmese culture and harming the country. There are a lot of older army officers who feel that way.
January 26, 2017: In the northeast, across the border in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province soldiers on night patrol encountered a group of at least six armed men apparently from Burma. When ordered to stop the intruders opened fire and fled. The soldiers returned fire but were unable to pursue in the dark. Soon after dawn the troops searched the area and found one dead body (apparently from one of the Burmese tribes active in the drug trade) and two backpacks containing 290,000 methamphetamine pills. Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to successfully resist government efforts to suppress the drug trade. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine trade is a regional problem and in each of the last few years over a billion dollars’ worth of meth (usually in pill form) was seized in neighboring countries. After 2008 annual seizures rapidly increased and are now several hundred million doses of methamphetamine, worth over a billion dollars a year. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge. Most (nearly half) of the seized pills are taken in China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business.