Myanmar: Chinese Opportunities


September 17, 2018: In Bangladesh, police commanders are complaining that NGOs and the UN are discouraging Rohingya refugees from returning to Burma. That’s not hard to do but the accusations are disputed by the UN and NGOs, What is undisputed is that the NGOs do often have their own foreign policy and a tendency to try and work the mass media to persuade or coerce governments to work for them. This has led Bangladesh to impose restrictions on what the 41 NGOs operating in the Rohingya refugee camps.

The basic problem here is Bangladesh cannot get Burma to take their Rohingya Moslems back. Bangladeshi officials regularly meet with their Burmese counterparts to discuss the issue. So far nothing has been accomplished in all these meetings but both sides declare that “talks will continue.” Talk is cheap and Burma will discuss the issue indefinitely without agreeing to take nearly a million of its colonial era population back. That’s the key to this as it was British colonial administrators that encouraged the Rohingya Moslems to move from what was then British ruled India (which was Hindu and Moslem) to the largely Buddhist Burma. Once independent the Burmese resented the presence of these alien looking Bengalis who were always good citizens but were never accepted. The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with expelling the Rohingya because that is not a unique situation.

Such expulsions are part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large-scale disorder during 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 as that led to 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 to reducing support for local tribal separatist rebels. There are similar problems on every continent and no one has found an easy solution to these deadlocks.

The Rohingya dispute has claimed some high profile victims and the most prominent is Nobel peace prize winner and Burmese national hero Aung San Suu Kyi. She 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 recent conviction of two foreign journalists who were sentenced to seven years in jail for violating the official secrets act. The two had also exposed army atrocities in the tribal north, The punishment of two foreign journalists had a lot of popular support inside Burma, as has the harsh treatment of the Burmese Rohingya, especially those forced to flee the country.

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 Burmese military (which took power in the 1960s) still has a lot of clout in Burma and were the first ones to make an issue of the Rohingya citizenship status, and also put the issue on hold in the 1980s when they were in 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 (after negotiating with the military dictatorship) agrees with this “it is an internal problem” policy and has the support of India and China, two neighbors that have faced similar problems that are still dealing with.

Aung San Suu Kyi also agrees with the Burmese military 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 most of their power and allowed the 2011 elections. Suu Kyi fears the Burmese military trying to seize control of the government more than she fears foreign media and diplomatic criticism. The military coup possibility is more important to most Burmese than the fate of the expelled Rohingya or how Burmese courts treat foreign journalists. 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. China prefers to work with the Burmese military, which makes Burmese democrats uneasy.

September 12, 2018: Bangladesh again proclaimed that it would never assimilate the Burmese Rohingya refugees, even those the Rohingya are ethnically Bengali and share the same religion as Bangladeshis. Most of the Burmese Rohingya come from families that have been in Burma for over a century and most speak Burmese and consider themselves Burmese. There has also been some intermarriage with ethnic Burmese (who are East Asian, like most Chinese rather than Indo-European as most Bangladeshis are) which means many Burmese Rohingya no longer look like Bengalis.

September 9, 2018: China and Burma signed a CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) agreement that enables detailed negotiations to begin on where a 1,700 kilometers long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukphyu SEZ (Special Economic Zone) will be built and what it will consist of. The corridor would improve roads, railroads and build, as needed, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. This would be financed by China and built mainly by Chinese construction firms. CMEC paid special attention to the risk of a “debt trap” where Burma might find itself with debt it could not repay unless it turned over new facilities to Chinese ownership or control. This has happened in other nations, most recently in Sri Lanka. Burma needs the investment and since 1988 China has been the major foreign investor in Burma with projects totaling $20 billion so far.

CMEC is the Burma component of the massive Chinese 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. Many of the tribal people are more willing to trust the Chinese than their own government which puts it all on China to make this work. While these Chinese projects often displace tribal people, usually without any compensation, the Chinese are more willing to make long-terms deals with the locals. For the Chinese, it is just business while the Burmese see the tribes as potential rebels and long-term antagonists.

September 6, 2018: The ICC (International Criminal Court) ruled that Burmese officials were likely guilty of war crimes for what they did during the expulsion of their Rohingya Moslems. The ICC can indict, arrest and try suspected war criminals and has done so in the past (with mixed success). But Burma points out that it never signed the treaty agreeing to abide by ICC rulings and is thus not subject to them. But Bangladesh did sign that treaty and this sets up another of those international shouting matches that create a lot of media noise and not much more. Some Western nations impose sanctions on individuals named by the ICC but this restricts the international travel of these individuals (and their money) but little else.

September 5, 2018: In the north, across the border in China (Kunming) Chinese officials held a brief meeting with four Burmese rebel groups (TNLA, Arakan Army, MNDAA and Kachin Independence Army) to try and establish some basis for a permanent peace deal in northern Burma. These four groups, also known as the Northern Alliance, have refused to sign the Burmese 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the Burmese government and military (which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north.) This was the first time China held such a meeting and was able to arrange it because the Northern Alliance members survive because of their access to China. The access is provided as long as the Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma.

August 21, 2018: In neighboring Thailand police made their largest drug seizure ever near the capital, arresting three men (all Thais) and hauling away 14 million methamphetamine pills worth $45 million when on the street. This shipment, apparently from northern Burma, was headed for Malaysia and possibly Indonesia as well. Thailand and Malaysia are well aware that they are part of a smuggling route that gets these drugs to locals as well as people throughout Southeast Asia.


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