Myanmar: Lots Of blame, Not Much Solution

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November 30, 2017: Nobel peace prize winner and Burmese national hero Aung San Suu Kyi is being blamed by a growing number of foreign admirers for not doing more to solve the Rohingya problem. She has been harshly criticized for not speaking out more forcefully against the treatment of the Burmese Rohingya, especially those forced to flee the country. But all politics is local and Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese Buddhist who sympathizes with the plight of the Rohingya but recognizes that most Burmese feel less certain about who is at fault here. Another problem foreign critics overlook is that the army still has a lot of power in Burma and were the first ones to make an issue of the Rohingya citizenship status, and also put the issue on hold when they were on power because a refugee dispute with neighboring Bangladesh was not in their interest. Now it is. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011 (with the removal of a military government) agrees with this “it is an internal problem” policy and has the support of India and China, two neighbors that have faced this problem themselves and are still dealing with it. Aung San Suu Kyi agrees with the Burmese military that that China is the best alternative (for investment and essential imports) if international economic sanctions are again imposed on Burma, as they were until the generals gave up some of their power and allowed the 2011 elections. Suu Kyi recently agreed to visit China for the third time to discuss economic matters.

Meanwhile there is not much progress is solving the Rohingya problem. The only one benefitting from the anti-Rohingya violence (which was instigated by nationalist Buddhist religious leaders) is the military, which was forced to give up a lot of their power in 2011 and agree to a restoration of democracy. But now the threat of international sanctions gives the military more power in Burma to resist corruption investigations and interference with their profitable, but illegal, activities in the north. There is also a Rohingya Islamic terror group operating in the north as well. This group (ARSA) is real but largely ineffective so far.

Several hundred thousand more Burmese Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August and now only about 35 percent of the pre-2012 Rohingya remain in Burma and they are still threatened by anti-Rohingya violence. Until recently Burma refused to take back any of the Rohingya who have left (usually to avoid being attacked) and that left Bangladesh with a refugee crises with no easy solution. Many of the refugees in Bangladesh are trying to move on to other nations and over 40,000 have reached India, 100,000 Thailand and 40,000 Malaysia. All three of these nations are trying to get Burma to take back the Burmese Rohingya and Burma long refused because it does not recognize these Rohingya as Burmese citizens. Both Burma and Bangladesh blame the Rohingya problem on British colonial rulers, but Britain left the region in the late 1940s and blames Burma and Bangladesh for not settling disputes like this. Being a sovereign nation means taking responsibility. But for the Rohingya there was lots of blame, not much solution.

The Islamic world is demanding UN action. That is not going to happen as long as China backs Burma and China has recently made it clear that the support is still there. One obvious example was the recent agreement where China will invest over seven billion dollars in upgrading Kyauk Pyu port in Rakhine State and the Burmese government agreed to let China control (via 70 percent ownership of the new port facilities) of the upgraded port. China had wanted 85 percent but backed down because most Burmese wanted China to have much less control. Meanwhile the more the rest of the world pressures Burma on the Rohingya the more power the Burmese military gets back and the easier it is for China to make corrupt deals (which helped weaken the military before 2011) and restore ones that had been halted. It has become easier for China to establish itself as the primary source of weapons and military equipment in Burma.

Tribal Unrest Continues

Tribal rebels have been active in the last month, especially in Chin and Kachin states. With so much attention (international and domestic) focused on the Rohingya situation the army feels free to move against tribal rebels that the elected government was working with in an effort to finally achieve a peace deal. The military prefers a military solution, mainly because the military has long profited from all manner of corrupt and illegal deals in the tribal territories and does not want to give up all that income. This is all done at the expense of the local tribes, which is why the tribal rebels have existed for so long (since modern Burma was created after World War II).

Then there are the Islamic terrorists. In late 2016 and August 2017 when there were attacks by a Rohingya Islamic terrorist group called ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). Its founder (a Rohingya expatriate) and much of the cash came from Saudi Arabia. Burma prefers to call groups like ARSA Islamic terrorists but until ARSA and the Saudi cash showed up there had not been much, if any, religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. ARSA is now openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received, especially since 2012. The ARSA leader; Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi (or just Ata Ullah) has received more attention now that Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda are calling for its members to help ARSA and the Burmese Rohingya any way they can. Since August there have been no more large scale ARSA attacks but the government blames ARSA for the recent deaths of 18 Rohingya village chiefs who had agreed to help the government determine who is eligible for official ID cards among the returning Rohingya refugees. There is no proof of ARSA involvement in these murders (or accidental deaths) and ARSA does not appear to have a lot of support among Moslems in Burma or Bangladesh. Meanwhile Bangladesh is attempting to register all the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and for most of these Rohingya they would receive official ID for the first time or replace ID lost during their flight from Burma.

November 28, 2017: In the west (Chin state) soldiers clashed with members of the AA (Arakan Army) tribal rebels near the Indian and Bangladesh border. The AA accused the army of entering AA territory without permission. Fighting between the army and the AA has occurred several times this month and the most recent clash sent over a thousand civilians fleeing into India. The fighting this month have caused nearly a hundred casualties, apparently equally distributed between rebels and soldiers.

November 23, 2017: Burma and Bangladesh worked out an agreement in which Burma would take back most of the 600,000 Burmese Rohingya Moslems that had fled to Bangladesh in the last year to get away from anti-Moslem violence. The details of this agreement are not all that clear but the deal is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately most of the Burmese Rohingya are not willing to return because the anti-Rohingya has not subsided. Meanwhile Bangladesh continues to have few problems with Islamic terrorism, with deaths from Islamic terrorist violence down by nearly half this year.

November 20, 2017: India hosted the first joint military exercises with troops from Burma. The six days of joint training will also show Burmese officers what is expected if Burma begins to supply UN peacekeepers, like the other South Asian countries (especially India and Pakistan) have done for decades. India is also trying to counter growing Chinese influence in Burma. India is at a major disadvantage here because China has a much larger GDP and more advanced manufacturing capabilities. Indian made weapons cannot compete although some commercial items can. But that is not enough.

November 19, 2017: China proposed a solution for the Rohingya violence in Burma that consisted of a ceasefire in Burma (no more violence against Rohingya), allowing Bangladesh to send Rohingya back to Burma and negotiations to settle the Rohingya nationality problem once and for all. The Chinese proposal ignores the fact that the violence is instigated by Burmese Buddhist religious leaders and that most of the refugees do not want to go back to Burma. Finally there is the problem of identification. Since Burmese Rohingya are not recognized as citizens of Burma by Burma most have little or no official ID that can prove they came from Burma. Of course they have a unique (to Burma) accent and detailed memories of where they lived in Burma but this sort of thing has never gained much international recognition as acceptable ID.

November 7, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) three jade miners were shot dead and several others wounded by police who were guarding a jade mining site shut down because of corruption investigations. Some 500 unemployed jade miners had become scavengers who scoured abandoned (because the owners felt there was not enough jade left to be worth extracting) jade mining sites. Some more lucrative jade mines are shut because of legal problems that this is what the police were guarding. The police provide security for the jade mines mainly to keep scavengers away. That is important to prevent accidental deaths and more unwelcome publicity to the lucrative but embarrassing jade industry. The scavengers have few other employment options and are not deterred by armed guards. The army hopes to get these jade mines working again and better economic ties with China will help with that.

 

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