Myanmar: What A Fine Mess We Have Here


March 14, 2018: UN investigators have decided that the flight of over 700,000 Burmese Rohingya Moslems to Bangladesh was deliberate genocide and that this was made possible by Facebook and that someone in the Burmese government should be prosecuted as a war criminal. This assessment generated more anger and hostility in Burma because the UN investigators seemed to miss the fact that the Burmese military operates autonomously, as it has done for decades and the 2011 deal that returned an elected government to power did little to curb the power of the military to do as it pleases in the border areas and tribal north. The tribal rebels of Burma would like to see the UN go after the Burmese generals for decades of violence, as well as holding China to account for supporting the Burmese generals, but that is unlikely to happen. The Chinese, who have substantial investments in Burma, are pro-government when it comes to the Rohingya. Burmese wonder what the definition of genocide is when 99 percent of the victims survived the attempt to kill them (although six percent are considered missing). The instigators of the violence were a handful of ambitious, nationalist and eloquent Buddhist clerics that created a crises the army took advantage of. The UN is unlikely to prosecute radical clerics and rogue generals because that model is too close that found in a lot of the Moslem nations that are pushing the UN effort to prosecute Burma. The tribal rebels are out of luck as well because they are a problem for China and China has also paid for a lot of UN clout. Meanwhile some of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have organized (established a presence on Internet social media sites) and are demanding peacekeepers (armed escorts) before they will return to Burma. That is unlikely to happen because the UN peacekeeper budget is exhausted and the Burmese generals will not tolerate foreign troops for any reason.

The repatriation to Burma of Rohingya Moslems in Bangladesh was supposed to begin in January but continued army violence against Rohingya still in Burma made that impossible. Those Rohingya going back must do so voluntarily but there have been many reports of Rohingya refugee camp leaders putting Rohingya on the “will return” list even if the refugee does not want to return. This abuse of the lists may have to do with corruption or Rohingya politics. There has been some violence in the camps over the issue.

The Burmese military is accused of agreeing to allow repatriation while also ordering its troops to interfere with that in subtle ways. Rohingya leaders have called on the UN and Bangladesh to persuade Burma to renegotiate the repatriation agreement so that the Burmese military will behave. Burma will not even try that because the military has veto power over government decisions and China has been backing Burma (and the Burmese military) in the Rohingya matter. So the UN has to be careful not to offend China or anyone else who has purchased a lot of loyalty in the UN bureaucracy.

Rohingya keep fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Although arriving in much smaller numbers the more recent Rohingya refugees report that Burmese troops continue to make life difficult by blocking their movement as well as interfering with commercial traffic and the distribution of relief supplies. The soldiers conduct frequent searches of Rohingya homes and businesses which is usually just an excuse to do some looting. Rohingya heading for the border, carrying possessions, are often stopped, searched and robbed of any valuables plus an occasional rape. Sometimes Rohingya are taken away for questioning, which turns out to be a kidnapping and only the payment of cash to the soldiers will get the captive released. This is, in effect, a less newsworthy way to forcing Rohingya to leave. The Burmese army denies everything and refuses to allow foreign (UN) investigators into Rakhine State to see for themselves. Satellite photos and local reports indicate that the military is treating the abandoned (by fleeing Rohingya owners) property is being considered as available for the taking by anyone able to enforce their claim. The military is already doing that and this is something the military has done before in the tribal territories.

Up until late 2017 the soldiers used rather blatant force to persuade the Rohingya to leave. This usually involved looting Rohingya settlements as well as killing or raping those too slow to move. Less than a third of the 1.1 million Rohingya are still in Burma and over half of them fled since August 2017. Surveys of the 680,000 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, usually against non-Moslem tribal minorities. But the violence was never on such a scale because there was no neighboring nation the military could legitimately push unwanted groups into. 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) guaranteed 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 could or would be 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. So far the repatriation has not started and may never do so because of continued violence and Rohingya unwillingness to trust the military.

Reviving Dead Monsters

All this Rohingya activity in Rakhine State has attracted existing tribal rebels like the AA (Arakan Army) who are now calling for restoration of the Arakan Empire which ceased to exist 233 years ago. This is a renewal of ancient feuds over who should control the northwest coast of Burma, an area with a long history as an independent Arakan state. For example in late 2017 ARSA (the new Islamic terror group in Burma) called 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 deep 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. After that most of Arakan became part of the post-colonial nation of Burma. When the British left in the late 1940s they had created a Burma with unique borders and many citizens who were not ethnic Burmese. 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 there have been some clashes with security forces. For the moment ARSA is largely a force on the Internet, not on the ground.

Slavery To The South

Rohingya who seek to flee farther than Bangladesh run into even worse situations. To the south in Thailand and Malaysia slavery is still thriving as fishing companies seek cheap labor. Men from Bangladesh and Burma are recruited for jobs in Thailand but once they arrive are forced to first work for nothing to pay for their transportation and the recruiting fee. This form of debt slavery is a common scam in the region, especially in remote areas where it will not be noticed. This sort of thing is illegal everywhere but police don’t do anything unless a violation is reported. The persistent poverty in Burma and Bangladesh has led to an increase in this sort of people smuggling to Thailand and Malaysia, two countries that have been economic powerhouses in the region and a magnet for millions seeking jobs. The smugglers charge a lot of money, and those smuggled (also illegal) in then become slaves for years until the fees are paid off. Sometimes the “slaves” are offered paying jobs once their debts are paid off but the system tends to keep the slaves in debt for life. These debt slaves are common on rubber plantations as well as aboard fishing boats.

Corruption Declines As The Military Fades

Decades of military rule left Burma one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. The 2017 international corruption ratings show that Burma is still near the bottom when it comes to corruption (130 out of 180 nations compared with 156 out of 175 nations in 2013). Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations ( usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9 ) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. The current Burma score is 30 (versus 28 in 2016) compared to 63 (61) for Taiwan, 40 (40) for India, 29 (29) for Russia, 54 (53) for South Korea, 17 (12) for North Korea, 35 (33) for Vietnam, 84 (84) for Singapore, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (36) for Sri Lanka, 33 (36) for the Maldives, 34 (35) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (26) for Bangladesh, 30 (29) for Iran, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 41 (40) for China, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 43 (45) for South Africa, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Burma’s corruption score has changed a lot since democracy was restored in 2011. Back in 2012 it was 15. That went up to 21 in 2012 and has continued to rise despite the military resisting attacks on their many scams, especially in the northern tribal areas.

March 12, 2018: In the north (Shan State) there were several clashes between TNLA tribal rebels and a rival group SSA-S over territory. There were about a dozen casualties over the weekend. SSA-S is pro-government and TNLA is not but both groups generally try to avoid fighting each other.

February 26, 2018: India has agreed to cooperate more with Burma to control the flow of illegal drugs from Burma to neighboring countries. Most of the drugs (meth, hashish, opium and heroin) come from the northern tribal territories of Burma. This drug production has been going on there for centuries and large scale efforts have managed to reduce but not eliminate the production and distribution of banned drugs.

February 24, 2018: In the northwest (Rakhine State) three bombs went off in the state capital. There were no deaths and police later arrested six Buddhist radicals associated with the local Arakan Army (AA) tribal rebels.

February 16, 2018: The Burmese army commander-in-chief visited Thailand and the Thai military arranged for the Burmese general to a high royal honor (medal); the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. This good will gesture was appreciated by the Burmese general, who is under criticism by the Moslem world and the UN for the way the Burmese has been handling their Royhinga minority. Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes resist government efforts to suppress the drug trade. Because of this the leaders of both countries try to cooperate in controlling and containing this drug trade.


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