The Burmese military denies it, but it appears the army response to the August 2017 Islamic terror attacks in Rakhine State were not just about seeking the perpetrators but another of the brutal army operations against civilians. For decades the army has used violence against civilians in the northern tribal areas (which includes Rakhine State) to weaken tribal rebels. These tactics include firing on pro-rebel villages, often with artillery and then sending it troops to burn down everything. The soldiers usually loot the place and kill or rape civilians as they please. Only about a third of the 1.1 Rohingya are still in Burma and over half of them fled since August 2017. Surveys of the 655,000 Rohingya refugees in Burma indicate that the two month army operation killed about 7,000 of the fleeing Rohingya. Most (about 70 percent) of those deaths were directly due to army violence. Some 15 percent of these were burned to death when their homes were destroyed and another seven percent were beaten to death by soldiers. Some two percent died when they encountered landmines near the border. The army claims only 400 civilians died but the evidence shows otherwise, as it has throughout the north for decades. But the violence was never on such a scale. The elected government in Burma is limited in what it can do because the post 2011 constitution (where the army gave up half a century of military rule) gave the military veto power over what the elected officials could do to the military. There is an ongoing effort to change that and some Burmese see the increased army violence in the north as part of an effort to delay changes to the 2011 constitution. The next major struggle between the government and the military will be how the agreement to take back the refugees is carried out. The military is aided by Buddhist radicals, who started the Rohingya expulsion effort in 2012. While the Buddhist clergy oppose the scale of the army violence against the Rohingya they do not support taking the refugees back. Whatever happens the repatriation process will be carefully scrutinized in Bangladesh and Burma.
The China Connection
And then there is China, which stands to gain influence in Burma if the Rohingya crises continues. Despite blocking UN resolution against Burma China is trying to make the best of a bad situation. This is about economics and politics. Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011, now agrees with the Chinese pragmatism. She also believes 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 has visited China three times to discuss economic matters. Meanwhile the Islamic world is demanding UN action against Burma. 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 2017 agreement where China invests 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) 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 and the return of economic sanctions makes China even more indispensable to Burma. The military interest in the tribal areas is now largely economic as the generals got rich off all sorts of scams in the north, especially after China began investing.
The Islamic Terrorist Threat
ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) is now calling for Rohingya to join with al Qaeda to fight the Burmese army and establish Rakhine State as the independent Moslem state of Arakan. This refers to the Arakan region, which is the coastal area that includes Rakhine State and the coastal area along the Bay of Bengal from eastern Bangladesh down into Burma. Some 1800 years ago Arakan became an independent Hindu state but 500 years later Islam spread to the area in part became Arakan was one of the many branches of the ancient Silk Road from China. The population was largely Bengali and Burmese. In the 18th century the Burmese kingdom to the east conquered the area but lost it to the British a century later and most of Arakan became part of nation of Burma by the time the British left in the late 1940s. For Islamic radicals Arakan, like Spain, Portugal and parts of the Balkans are still considered part of the Caliphate (Islamic Empire) because they had once been ruled by Moslems. The current inhabitants of these “lost territories” are now largely non-Moslem and have no interest in becoming Islamic states again. Groups like al Qaeda see an opportunity in Burma. Islamic terrorists first showed up in late 2016 and August 2017 when there were attacks by a Rohingya Islamic terrorist group called ARSA. 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 was openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received, especially since 2012. Until this new document appeared ARSA had denied any connection with al Qaeda but that has apparently changed. 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 2017 there have been no more large scale ARSA attacks but the government blamed ARSA for the 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. That is supposed to aid in returning these refugees to Burma.
January 1, 2018: In the north (Shan state) fighting resumed between the army and SSA-N tribal rebels. This is another rebel group that has refused to participate in peace talks.
December 31, 2017: In the north the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) rebels have selected new, younger, leaders to replace the older ones who are blamed for recent losses to the military. The KIA still controls large portions of Kachin state but the army has increased its attacks, apparently because most attention is on the Rohingya situation.
December 25, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) the army renewed its offensive against the KIA tribal rebels near the Chinese border. Troops attacked in several areas and artillery fired on the KIA headquarters near the border. The army continued attacking into January and several thousand civilians fled their homes. This appears to be an effort to halt illegal (not paying a “tax” to the army) mining of amber and gold, which helps finance the KIA, which has refused to participate in peace talks.
December 24, 2017: At the UN China and Russia blocked efforts to punish Burma because of the mistreatment of the Burmese Rohingya Moslems.
December 21, 2017: In the north (Shan State) about fifty KIA and TNLA tribal rebels attacked an area through which the Chinese oil and natural gas pipelines passed and were repulsed by the army before any damage could be done to the pipelines.
December 19, 2017: Burma and Bangladesh signed an agreement than has Burma taking back most of the 655,000 Burmese Rohingya Moslems that had fled to Bangladesh (after October 9, 2016). Actually about 700,000 Rohingya refugees are eligible but most of them are in Bangladesh. The Rohingya fled to get away from anti-Moslem violence. Burma began building two processing centers on the Bangladesh border and these were nearly completed by the end of the year. The reception centers begin operation on January 22nd. The returning refugees will be resettled in Rakhine state and receive economic and other foreign aid to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately many (if not most) of the Burmese Rohingya are not willing to return because the anti-Rohingya violence has not subsided and Burma is demanding identity documents that most of the refugees do not possess. There is also some dispute over exactly how many Rohingya refugees there are with some estimates indicating a million or more.
December 16, 2017: ARSA released a document on the Internet calling for Rohingya to join with al Qaeda to fight the Burmese army and establish Rakhine State as an independent Moslem state of Arakan. The document apparently existed since September 2017 but now it has been made public.
December 6, 2017: Bangladesh believes that most of the methamphetamine pills smuggled into the country since July have been smuggled in by men pretending to be Rohingya refugees or were Rohingya hired to make some money by carrying the pills across the border. Police reports indicate that about half of the 1,000 “mules” (civilians) hired to get pills across the border during that period were “refugees”. During that period police seized half a million pills when they arrested 70 smugglers and most of the smugglers were real or pretend Rohingya refugees. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of the methamphetamine pills are smuggled out via Thailand but a lot of it goes directly to China and Bangladesh. Since 2010 production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields (opium is the sap of poppy plants) and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations.
December 5, 2017:
In Afghanistan Afghan and American Special Forces killed Omar Khetab, the deputy leader of
AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent). AQIS is making some headway in Burma via ARSA. Technically Afghanistan is not part of AQIS territory but it has become a more reliable base area (for training camps) than Pakistan or anywhere else in South Asia. AQIS was created in 2014 and initially tried to establish its headquarters in Karachi, long a haven for all sorts of criminal activity and forged alliances with the major Islamic terrorist organizations there. Yet AQIS has been responsible for very few terror attack in Pakistan or anywhere else. AQIS was created to manage and support operations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Burma. Islamic terrorism experts believe this was largely a publicity stunt by al Qaeda to counter the growing popularity of the more radical ISIL. Indian Moslems have produced some recruits for Islamic terrorism, but not enough to produce the level of mayhem Islamic terrorists wanted. Lacking a lot of radical clergy and religious schools India has simply not produced a lot of radicalized young men willing to kill and be killed. Similar recruiting problems were encountered elsewhere but other Al Qaeda groups have continued to provide enough cash and other assistance to keep AQIS going and barely visible. The Afghan training camps were a major AQIS asset and the recent losses there will hamper AQIS everywhere it has a presence. That includes Burma.