Myanmar: Bad News And Worse Publicity

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May 18, 2017: Peace efforts in the north are not making a lot of progress and the corrupt generals who surrendered power in 2011 are not only still in business but increasingly fighting back against their critics. The violence against Moslems by Buddhist nationalists continues but at a greatly diminished rate. China continues to try and buy as much of the country as it can, despite growing resistance. In other words, nothing much has changed recently.

The North Never Forgets

Efforts to finally obtain a peace deal in the north continue slowly. In late 2016 the government and various tribal groups agreed to continue with the twice a year “Panglong Conferences” in an effort to negotiate a long term peace deal. The next meeting is on May 24th and prospects appear slim, even though 700 delegates will be at the meeting. This time everyone is invited, not just those who signed the NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement). The tribes continue to find it difficult to unite, even something that is mutually beneficial to all the tribes. Most tribal organizations now supports the idea of a peace deal but have been unable to achieve much progress on key issues.

The causes of all this tribal strife go back a long way. Fighting between government forces and tribal rebels has, since 1948, left about 200,000 dead and crippled economic growth in the border areas being fought over. Officially known as the “Union Peace Conference 21st Century Panglong” conferences this is a long sought effort to update the original 1947 Panglong Conference held between the tribes and British colonial authorities just before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for the tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor (in this case former British colonies India and Burma) would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal now is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea is to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement. India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels.

In Burma there are two major problems with getting the tribal situation. First there are the many complex disagreements between the Burmese government and the tribes in general. Then there are the many disputes between various tribes. Many of the tribal coalitions are held together mainly by the need to unite for mutual defense from the army attacks and sometimes other tribes as well. Peace with the national government leads to more factionalism among the tribal coalitions. This is already happening in those areas that have been a peace for a year or so. As democracy returned to Burma in 2011 the army was forced to reduce their operations against the tribes. That process is continuing and with comes more opportunities for tribes to revive ancient feuds.

In addition to the new fighting between tribes there is the fact that some major tribal militias are not quite ready to negotiate. Most of these groups were allowed to observe the recent Panglong Conference but not participate. These observer groups are the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) and AA (Arakan Army), which 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.

One reason for the new attitudes by the military is that more rebels are resisting. That, in part, is because the new government has also passed laws allowing northerners to legally start and operate their own radio stations and this has brought more people up there together in opposition to the various outlaw operations they must deal with daily. Most of those illegal operations are made possible by corrupt politicians and illegal foreign investments (mainly from China) and Burmese generals paid off to keep the angry tribal rebels from interfering.

May 17, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) four jade miners were shot dead by soldiers who were guarding a jade mining site owned by a company partly controlled by senior military officers. This latest incident made the news because the four dead miners (and eleven others wounded) were local scavengers who scoured abandoned (because the owners felt there was not enough jade left to be worth extracting) jade mining sites. The soldiers were not on duty but were working second jobs to provide security for the jade mines and keep scavengers away to prevent accidental deaths and more unwelcome publicity. The scavengers have few other employment options and are not deterred by armed guards. The shooting incident comes a day after the mine owners managed to get the government to ban the showing of a new film (Jade and the Generals) that details the largely illegal jade mines of northern Burma. While the film could not be shown in Burmese theaters, it was available online and now the mine owners have another massive dose of unwanted publicity.

Until now the only newsworthy incidents at the jade mines were about those who 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 20i6 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.

May 16, 2017: In the south (the port city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon and the largest city in Burma) police seem to have ended over a week of anti-Moslem violence by arresting eight Buddhist vigilantes.

May 14, 2017: For the second time this year there was a major clash between Burmese drug smugglers just across the border in Thailand (Chiang Mai province). This time Thai soldiers on patrol at night two kilometers from the border encountered a group of at least fifteen armed men apparently from Burma. When ordered to stop the intruders opened fire and fled. During a running gun battle that lasted about ten minutes the drug smugglers seemed to disappear into the darkness. The soldiers were unable to pursue in the dark so they called for reinforcements and established a defensive perimeter. Soon after dawn the troops searched the area and found eight dead smugglers (apparently from one of the Burmese tribes active in the drug trade) and six backpacks containing 600,000 methamphetamine pills. Also found were two M16 and one AK47 assault rifles and other equipment. Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to resist government efforts to suppress the drug production. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine is a regional problem and in each of the last few years over a billion dollars in 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. 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. The Thais and Chinese are aware that the Burmese drug gangs have local security forces on the payroll, which is why these clashes with Burmese drug smugglers only seem to happen in Thailand. China plays down the fact that the smugglers don’t have much trouble on the Chinese side of the border because of the corruption.

May 11, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) A Chinese state owned firm (CITIC) proposes to take an ownership share (85 percent) of the new port being built at Kyaukpyu. The Chinese are financing and building the port facilities there and want to convert what was originally a $9 billion loan into an ownership stake. This would give China control of yet another newly built port near India. This proposal is not unexpected and became more likely after the completion (in 2015) of a 770 kilometer oil pipeline from China. The pipeline can move about 4.5 million barrels of oil a day. Back in 2013 a 2,500 kilometer natural gas pipeline from Burmese gas fields into China was completed and began operation. About a third of the pipeline is in Burma, the rest is in China. This pipeline delivers 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year. This is equivalent (in terms of energy) to 15 million barrels of oil. The Burmese gas replaces the more expensive liquefied natural gas in three provinces of southwest China as well as eliminates the need for 30 million tons of coal a year (a major source of air pollution). The success of the pipeline deal led to a January 2016 agreement that had Chinese firms investing over $9 billion to develop a SEZ (Special Economic Zone) around the pipeline terminal that will include the Kyaukpyu deep water port and a huge (1,000 hectare/2,500 acre) industrial park. China is said to have offered an additional inducement to allow the port ownership. If this was permitted China would abandon construction of an unpopular dam in Kachin State. This damn destroyed much land long used by local tribes and sends over 80 percent of the electricity generated to China.

May 9, 2017: In the south (Yangon) of anti-Moslem Buddhist vigilantes entered a Moslem neighborhood seeking Rohingyas they believed to be there illegally. Moslem men quickly assembled to confront the 30 or so vigilantes and a brawl began. The locals had also called the police who soon arrived and intervened. One Moslem man was wounded in the fighting.

May 8, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) and the WNO (Wa National Organization) withdrew from the tribal coalition (United Nationalities Federal Council or UNFC). This was not unexpected because many of the Kachin tribes survive (some thrive) by “taxing” illegal mining and logging, something that Burmese government officials would continue doing, but with less restraint, if the tribes made peace and the rebels disappeared. The Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) live in Shan state near the Chinese border have long been allies and business partners with the Kachin groups. The armed tribal rebels, especially the ones involved with the drug business, are not all that popular where they operate. That’s because the rebels encourage (sometimes coerce) local teenagers to join the rebels. These recruits get paid, but often not enough to justify the risk of getting killed or dying from disease or accident in the jungle.

May 5, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) there was a loud explosion outside a rural village (Thaenhi) that attracted police attention. After a three day investigation police found a recent grave containing two bodies that appeared to have died when a bomb was being built but went off prematurely. A week later the investigation continues. Police discovered bomb making materials and determined that devices being built were landmines. Police suspected there was some Islamic terrorist activity in the area because of an October 2016 Islamic terrorist. That was followed by security forces seeking suspects and information. This led to hundreds of Burmese Moslems killed and many more arrested. It is still unclear exactly who was behind the three guard posts on the Bangladesh border being attacked on October 9th by over 200 men armed with a few firearms and, for most of them, swords, spears and clubs. This left eight border guards dead and more soldiers died during operations after the attacks. All the weapons (several dozen firearms and 10,000 rounds of ammo) and equipment at guard posts were taken as the attackers fled. Thousands of Burmese Moslems (nearly all Rohingya) fled to Bangladesh as a result of the army reaction. Since 2012 nearly 170,000 Rohingya have fled Burma, most making an effort to leave the region (usually via Malaysia). Over 400,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and take refuge elsewhere in Burma since 2012.

April 29, 2017: In the north (Shan State) soldiers launched an offensive against TNLA tribal rebels. The troops arrived in the area four days ago with the obvious intention of staging a major operation.

April 17, 2017: In the south (Yangon) police found the body of a publisher who has long put out a magazine (The Iron Rose Weekly News) detailing the corruption and other criminal behavior of the military and government officials. The victim was stabbed to death in his office over the weekend. This is the second critic of the former military government to be murdered this year, and other report getting threats.

March 28, 2017: In the north several thousand Chinese troops carried out training exercises near the Burma border. These exercises involved live fire (actual artillery and aerial bombs) against ground targets. China has been trying to persuade the Burmese government to do something about reducing the fighting (between soldiers and tribal rebels) on Burmese side of the border. This border disorder has resulted in more Burmese refugees fleeing from the violence. As many as 5,000 a week were 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.

March 24, 2017: Burma has ordered more military equipment from India. In this case it is $40 million worth of lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. India has earlier sold Burma submarine detection equipment. The Indian made Shyena lightweight anti-submarine torpedo is a recent development. This is the first export sale and the Indian Navy has apparently only received a few dozen of them. For India Shyena replaces the Italian A244S, a 254 kg (559 pound) model widely used (by 16 nations) since the early 1980s model. These smaller torpedoes are used mainly for anti-submarine warfare and are usually fired from helicopters, naval patrol aircraft or warships. India bought 450 of the A244S but obtained a license to manufacture their version (called NST58) in India and because of that was able to develop local suppliers for nearly all the components.

 

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