Myanmar: The Unwelcome Traveler


August 15, 2018: Bangladesh cannot get Burma to take their Rohingya Moslems back. The latest effort had the Bangladesh foreign minister and a team of 14 specialists visit the Burmese capital to discuss the issue with their Burmese counterparts. The Bangladeshis came back empty-handed and reported that “talks will continue.” Talk is cheap and Burma will discuss the issue indefinitely without agreeing to take nearly a million of its population back. The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with this because the Rohingya controversy is not a unique situation but is part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large-scale disorder in the last century. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations and it is quite common in this part of the world and Bangladesh has produced more of these illegals than anyone else. Illegal migrants have become a more difficult problem since national states became the preferred form of government and it became common for there to be disputes over who belonged and who did not. The UN estimates that there are currently over ten million such stateless people.

Most of the stateless are that way because they don’t want to live where they, or their ancestors, came from. Thus there are at least a million Moslems in Burma who originally (often over a century ago) came from Bangladesh but don’t want to return there. They prefer to live in Burma, where most of the population is Buddhist. India has a similar problem in its northeast tribal territories, especially Assam, where four million Bengali migrants (most of them or their ancestors entered illegally) are being denied citizen status. The tribal locals have long resented the illegal migrants, more so than the legal migrants. India sees this citizenship crackdown as a way of reducing support for local tribal separatist rebels.

There is a similar situation in the African country of Ivory Coast, where 700,000 people (a quarter of the population) are migrants (or the descendants of migrants) from Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. Over the last half century, Ivory Coast encouraged these people to come work on coffee and cotton plantations. Unfortunately, Ivory Coast never agreed to offer citizenship and that led to a recent civil war between the migrants and the natives.

In the Middle East, you have over 100,000 stateless nomads in Kuwait. Called the bedoon, these people were not considered Kuwaitis in 1962 (when Kuwait became independent) because the nomads came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the oil wealth grew that attitude changed. Kuwait decided it was not making anyone else citizens. In Syria and Iraq there have been government attempts to punish rebellious Kurds by declaring some of them non-citizens. That has not worked out well and the question of who the Kurds are and where they belong is still a problem.

In Russia and former (after 1991) states of the Soviet Union, there are over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” are ethnic Russians who ended up outside Russia and liked being where they were but the locals did not want them. The other half were non-Russians who ended up in Russia but were not wanted. In Thailand, there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.

In the Dominican Republic you have hostility towards migrants from neighboring Haiti which led to new laws making many migrants non-citizens. In Europe, you have over 50,000 Roma (gypsies) who are nomadic and prefer to not register births with the state or leave any kind of paper trail. Many Roma have settled down, but enough have not to remain a problem.

There is a worldwide problem with illegal migrants going somewhere to find jobs, staying, not being detected for a while, if at all, and eventually their descendants demand citizenship. This often leads to violence and resists lots of solutions thus becoming long-term problems.

Empty Assurances

The June 6 agreement between the government and UN proved, as expected, unable to help Burmese refugees in Bangladesh. It was immediately pointed out that the agreement is about what the UN and government will do, not what they must do according to any set schedule. Moreover, China continues to use its veto to block any meaningful UN action against Burma over the Rohingya issue.

Burmese Rohingya Moslems continue to flee to Bangladesh in 2018, although only at the rate of about a thousand a month. There are not many left and it is still not safe to be Rohingya in Burma. The million or so Burmese refugees in Bangladesh (and elsewhere) are stuck there for what appears to be an extended period. As happens in large refugee camps like this, criminal gangs form and use force, often murder, to gain control of illegal activities like extortion, distribution of illegal drugs and smuggling (including people). Bangladesh has assigned more police to the camps but it is not enough.

The Burmese government insists that only validated Burmese residents will be allowed back and the verification process is stalled with only a few thousand Rohingya “verified” as Burmese. The UN agreement is unlikely to change that because the Burmese, with some justification, are insisting on documentation from refugees and many have not got it. Burma was approving less than ten percent of the names Bangladesh presents as authentic Burmese Rohingya and that may be increased to appease the UN but even then that does not guarantee that the refugee will return. The repatriation back to Burma of was supposed to begin in January 2018 but continued army violence against Rohingya still in Burma made that impossible. Added to that were the administrative problems and so much more. Those Rohingya going back must do so voluntarily and the refugees know what is going on in their former neighborhoods. That’s because Rohingya willing to go back want to return to their homes and property. If their home was destroyed (as many were during the military violence) the returnees want an opportunity to rebuild and for the government to supply money and supplies to make that possible. That would be difficult because in many of the areas Rohingya fled from local officials have treated the former Rohingya property as “abandoned” and available or resale and reuse. The UN can demand that the government do something about that and the government can refer the disputes to Burmese courts where each claim must be litigated.

The Burmese are under no binding obligation to expedite this repatriation process. Rohingya refugees are aware of this and will not return until the government clears up the property ownership issues. That happening is considered an impossible dream by all concerned. As a result, many Rohingya refugees are seeking new homelands. Bangladesh is not considered a good candidate because the country is already crowded and poor and long the source of illegal migrants to other nations. At the moment Moslem refugees are a hard sell, even in Moslem countries. No one is willing to take a lot of Rohingya and Bangladesh does not like being stuck with these large refugee camps near the Burmese border. Because the Rohingya are Moslem most Moslem nations have been quick to condemn Burma and urge international efforts to force Burma to take back the Rohingya. Bangladesh is moving ahead with its effort to provide IDs for nearly a million Rohingya refugees. This will include collecting biometric data (digital photos and fingerprints) on all of them. This is supposed to be done by the end of 2018. Burma has no similar data on the Rohingya forced out of Burma and uses that as an excuse not to allow any back in unless they have the proper documents.

August 6, 2018: In the far north, some of the tribal rebels do what the army does and go total outlaw. That is currently happening in the far north where two rival rebel groups, the Shan State Army (or at least some of the factions) and TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) have been fighting for control of disputed territory. The latest outburst of violence had caused nearly a thousand villagers to flee their homes to avoid the shooting. In areas where the issue has been settled many villagers driven from their homes by the fighting are reluctant to return home because the rebels have a reputation for demanding payment from locals. The current fighting has been going on for months but there have been few casualties among the tribal gunmen. Sometimes other tribal rebel groups are involved and the one group that tends to be involved much of the time is the TNLA.

July 27, 2018: In northeast India, across the border from Burma, Burmese troops are putting pressure on Indian rebels belonging to NSCN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang). This Indian tribal separatist group is now considering moving their operations out of Burma. This comes after Burmese troops restricted the movement of the rebels inside Burma and threatened to arrest and deport rebel leaders who had long operated freely in Burma. This came after India complained that the NSCN-K rebels had become more active and defiant, mainly by using their bases in Burma. As a result of that on June 26th another battle between Indian commandoes and Indian tribal rebels took place three kilometers inside Burma. This came after the rebels had ambushed an Indian patrol on June 18th, wounding three soldiers before fleeing back into Burma. India has an informal agreement with Burma that when Indian rebels based in Burma inflict casualties on Indian forces and the Burmese cannot get to the rebel camp, Indian commandos will take care of it.

July 23, 2018: Burma is intensifying its crackdown on Islamic schools (madrassas). While most of these do not try to radicalize their students, a few have (and been shut down). To avoid more radical madrassas the government decreed that all instruction must be in Burmese. Most Madrassas make a big deal about teaching Islamic scripture (Koran) in Arabic. Although the Koran has been translated into many languages purists (especially Arabs and most Islamic terrorists) believe using anything but Arabic is haram (forbidden) and that often gets transgressors killed.

July 16, 2018: Burma is again asking for Chinese help in bringing peace to the troubled tribes of northern Burma. Some of these tribes are ethnic Chinese that long ago fled China to escape imperial control. The most powerful of these Burmese tribes are the Wa and there are many Wa still living in China. That’s because until the late 1940s these tribal areas between China and the kingdoms of Thailand, Burma and India were a no man’s land because there was nothing there but jungle and hostile tribes who wanted nothing to do with any government. The British convinced the tribes to join either Burma or India because the British were leaving and at the time China was still fighting a civil war which, no matter who won, would be good for independent tribes in these jungles. Turned out that there was a lot of jade and other minerals in those hills as well as a tradition of the tribes producing opium. While the Indians finally subdued their tribes Burma is still working on it.

The Wa are powerful because they have been most successful in the drug business and have good connections in China and Thailand. The Wa gave lots of cash for arming their private army and providing economic opportunities for the Wa. Thus the Wa are a military force the Burmese Army has never been able to subdue. With the help of China, the Burmese Army could defeat the Wa and other 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.

The main Chinese goal is to get its economic projects, mainly those connected with the Obor (One Belt, One Road) effort. Obor is all about China building roads, railroads, pipelines and ports to make it easier for Chinese imports and exports to move around, from East Asia to Europe, Africa and more. Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka and Burma are all Obor participants that are seeing billions of dollars in construction Chinese projects taking place and the terms of these deal tend to favor China, not the country where the construction takes place. Not surprisingly many people in these Obor countries see the Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. The Burmese tribes have long depended on Chinese cash and diplomatic influence to survive. China is working that angle as much as it can to get their costly development projects operational and want long-term peace with the tribes to keep the Chinese investments safe and profitable. The tribes are more willing to trust the Chinese than their own government which puts it all on China to make this work.

July 14, 2018: In the north (Kachin State) 20 jade miners died because of a landslide. There is more risk of this thing because unemployed jade miners become scavengers who scour abandoned (because the owners felt there was not enough jade left to be worth extracting) jade mining sites. Some lucrative jade mines are shut because of legal problems and those sites have armed guards and police to provide security for the jade mines mainly to keep scavengers away. But many old mines that still have some jade left in them are not guarded or monitored by safety engineers in order 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 or the danger. Two months ago there was a similar accident in this area that killed 17 miners working on a slag heap. The army hopes to get these jade mines working again and better economic ties with China will help with that.


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