Nothing much has changed so far in 2017. Nevertheless there have been some new developments. 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 and winning. The violence against Rohingya 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. China tends to come up with offers people can’t refuse.
While the rest of the world sees Burma as needlessly persecuting its Moslem minority most Burmese still fear the Rohingya Moslem minority will be a source of Islamic terrorists. While Moslem majority neighbor Bangladesh has arrested a few Pakistan trained Rohingya Islamic terrorists the Rohingya in Burma have largely avoided Islamic terrorism. Bangladesh borders Burma’s Rakhine State which contains most of the Burmese Rohingya. Burma insists the Rohingya are Bangladeshis who are in Burma illegally. Bangladesh has never agreed with that.
Meanwhile over 500 Rohingya were arrested (and more than twice as many are being sought) since October 9th 2016 when three guard posts on the Bangladesh border were attacked by over 200 Rohingya men armed with a few firearms and, for most of them, swords, spears and clubs. This left nine border guards dead and four soldiers died during operations after the attacks. All the weapons (fifty firearms and 10,000 rounds of ammo) and equipment at guard posts were taken as the attackers fled. Army and police reinforcements were sent to Rakhine State and the border area where the attacks took place. Foreign journalists (and foreigners in general) were kept out of the area as the attackers were sought. This led 75,000 more Rohingya to flee the country (so far). This is largely because threats towards Rohingya, mainly by Buddhist vigilantes, have continued. Whoever the Rohingya terrorists are, they are not taking credit for the violence or identifying themselves. One of the few visible (at least on the Internet) Rohingya militant groups, the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) denies any connection with the violence and there is no evidence to contradict that claim.
Meanwhile there are still Rohingya terrorists (the Islamic angle is not yet established) in action and they have so far (since last October) been responsible for than sixty Rohingya being murdered or kidnapped. These actions are apparently directed at Rohingya seen as collaborating with the government. That includes local Rohingya leaders and Rohingya who work for the government or foreign aid organizations. Since 2012, when the anti-Rohingya violence began, over a hundred Rohingya have been killed by Buddhist vigilantes. That sort of thing has diminished but not disappeared while the Rohingya vigilante violence against other Rohingya has become a larger problem.
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.
The North Fights On
Tribal rebels accuse the army of adopting a new strategy of trying to keep foreign news media away from tribal areas, especially when tribal rebels are willing to let the foreign journalists move freely and see for themselves what is going on. The army has always been diligent about controlling media and since elected government returned in 2011 the military (with much of its political power intact) has managed to have its way in the north. This includes continuing to blame most of the violence up there on the rebels while only allowing reporters to see the army version of things. This new policy is apparently one of the aftereffects of a video that appeared on FaceBook on May 26th showing Burmese soldiers beating northern tribesmen in handcuffs. The army took a major political and media hit in the aftermath of that and the prospect of more video like that showing up led to orders that troops in the north do everything possible to avoid any further embarrassments.
Efforts to create a peace deal in the north that everyone can agree to is still a work in progress. Most of the visible progress is superficial. For example 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 last meeting was on May 24th and was well attended by representatives from nearly all tribal groups. But even though over 750 delegates showed up nothing was really resolved. This time everyone was invited, not just those who signed the NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement) last year. The main dissidents are a seven member alliance led by the UWSA (United Wa State Army) plus the KIA, TNLA, AA, NDAA, SSA-N and MNDAA which did not agree to come until the last minute. The USWA was pressured by China (the Wa are ethnic Chinese living on both sides of the border) to attend and bring the rest of the alliance with them.
At the conference Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement that ousted the army in 2011 met separately with the leaders of each the seven alliance members. Several weeks after the conference the alliance said that in the future they would only meet with government leaders, especially military ones, as a group and not one-on-one. The UWSA led alliance is the most powerful group not only because they have good connections in China and Thailand but because they are active in the drug trade and have plenty of cash. That means they are well armed and form a military opponent the Burmese Army has never been able to subdue. With the help of China the Burmese Army could defeat the rebels but the Chinese want much in return, especially in terms of cooperation in keeping the tribes from interfering with Chinese economic projects in the north. At the moment those Chinese projects are one of the major problems the tribes have with the government.
The tribes continue to find it difficult to unite, even for something that is mutually beneficial to all the tribes. Most tribal organizations now support 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 also 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 late 2016 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.
July 4, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) the violence continues as a Rohingya Moslem refugee was killed during a visit to the port city of Sittwe. The victim had come from a refugee camp on a truck (with a police guard) to take care of some business in Sittwe and was attacked by a group of Buddhist vigilantes and killed. .
June 27, 2017: In the northeast (Shan State) hundreds of villagers fled army shelling and advancing troops as the soldiers searched for a TNLA base they believed was in the area. Two civilians were killed by the shelling but it is unclear if any TNLA personnel were found or hurt.
June 20, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) soldiers and police swept into a remote area to check out reports that Rohingya terrorists had established a base and training camp deep in the local forests. The troops found the camp but the dozens of terrorists (including recruits in training) had been able to flee taking more of their weapons with them. But much was left behind, including twenty dummy guns (for training or actual operations) and lots of food. Over two days of searching a few Rohingya terrorists were encountered but none surrendered and three were cornered and died fighting. Some smaller camps were found as well but the Rohingya terrorists had established good security and were prepared to quickly vacate camps when troops were detected approaching.
June 5, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) army helicopters dropped leaflets over known sites for illegal gold and amber mining warning that if illegal miners and their families did not leave the area by the 15th they would face a major army operation to clear the area and anyone found in the area would be considered KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) rebels and treated as hostiles (shot at). Over a thousand people (miners and their families) fled to nearby towns that were somewhat prepared to receive them. The army carried out their sweep of the area but did not report on casualties.