Myanmar: Get By With A Lot Of Help From China


November 15, 2018: Bangladesh had planned to send 2,260 Rohingya refugees (485 families) back to Burma starting today. Burma said they were ready to receive 150 refugees a day and get them resettled. This effort was canceled at the last moment when it was discovered that voluntary return was most definitely not working. Most of the Rohingya selected for return refused to go and some fled their refugee camp accommodations because of fears they would be forced back into Burma. The UN and most foreign aid organizations also opposed the Bangladesh repatriation plan. Bangladeshi officials later found that none of the 2,260 Rohingya wanted to return. The reluctance to return is based on the fact that there was no assurance that they had anything to return to other than the threat of renewed violence. Many of the refugees knew their homes had been destroyed or taken over and no one (Burmese or otherwise) had done anything to reverse that situation. Thus refugees saw returning as going from one refugee camp to another with the added penalty of more personal risk in Burma.

The Hypocrisy Defense

The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with their treatment of the Rohingya because this sort of thing is not a unique situation. What happened to the Rohingya 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 nation-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. Thus many of the nations (especially Moslem ones) criticizing Burma over their treatment of the Rohingya are guilty of doing the same themselves or tolerating such misbehavior by an ally.

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 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 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 Bedouin, 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 not 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. No one has found an easy or perfect solution to the problem.

Landmine Politics

In the tribal territories,  there has not been much fighting lately, at least between tribal militias and the army, but there have been casualties, most of them civilians. The combat zones are dangerous even when there are no armed men around. That’s because both sides continue to use landmines. In 2017 there were 119 landmine detonations in Burma that left 52 dead and 124 wounded. Nearly all the victims were civilians and most of this occurred in a few tribal areas (like Shan State). For the first five months of 2018, there were 127 landmine incidents that left 23 dead and 136 wounded. In 2017 alone over a hundred Rohingya died or were wounded while fleeing the country because of unmarked minefields near the border. The continued violence in the north has made it impossible for mine-clearing teams to operate in many areas. Worse, you never know if there are any old, but still functional, mines anywhere up there as records were not kept on where all the mines were placed. The rebels and the military both use the mines to defend their bases. The military will allow many mines to be cleared in areas they control. But in most of the north, there are still thousands of old mines out there that cause several hundred casualties a year, mostly to unwary civilians.

Since the 1960s over 100,000 landmines were planted by the military. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and government controlled towns. The rebels appear to have used nearly as many. The mines are a constant hazard in the thinly populated tribal areas and make a lot of grazing and farm land too dangerous to use. The military has offered to clear some mines if the tribes will reduce their operations or move their gunmen away from key roads or new economic enterprises up there that the military has an interest in. In many areas the tribes are reluctant to do this because that means abandoning tribal people who are being forcibly displaced from land they have occupied for centuries by massive (usually Chinese controlled) construction projects.

In addition to the largely civilian landmine casualties, there are a growing number of losses from roadside bombs planted by tribal rebels. These are meant for military vehicles or pedestrians but sometimes civilians trigger them or, as happened in a recent case, some children found one of these and it went off when they began to handle it. The rebels believe that some of these bombs were planted by the military to make the rebels look bad. The military has used dirty tricks like this before so the accusation is not entirely groundless.

November 12, 2018: Thailand has been identifying and expelling Burmese in the country illegally. So far over 2,000 illegals have been arrested and sent back to Burma. The crackdown began in early October and it is estimated that over 10,000 illegals have returned to Burma, most of them voluntarily. Meanwhile about 20,000 Burmese enter Thailand each month legally to take unfilled jobs.

November 11, 2018: China and Burma finally signed the agreement for a new deep water port on the west coast (Bay of Bengal). It took 18 months of negotiations before Burma and China reached an agreement on how to finance and manage the new port China wants to build in northwestern Burma (Rakhine State). The original proposal was for China to take an ownership share of 85 percent of the new port being built at Kyaukpyu. The Chinese have agreed to reduce their share to 70 percent and expand the capacity of Kyaukpyu in line with demand, not all at once. Burma would be able to control the growth of the Kyaukpyu economic zone and this prevents Burma from getting stuck with more debt than it can handle. The Chinese are financing and building the port facilities there and offered to convert what was originally a $9 billion loan into an ownership stake. This would give China control of yet another newly built port near India. This proposal was not unexpected and became more likely after the completion (in 2015) of a 770 kilometer oil pipeline from China. The pipeline can move about 4.5 million barrels of oil a day. Back in 2013 a 2,500 kilometer natural gas pipeline from Burmese gas fields into China was completed and began operation. About a third of the pipeline is in Burma, the rest is in China. This pipeline delivers 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year. This is equivalent (in terms of energy) to 15 million barrels of oil. The Burmese gas replaces the more expensive liquefied natural gas in three provinces of southwest China as well as eliminates the need for 30 million tons of coal a year (a major source of air pollution). The success of the pipeline deal led to a January 2016 agreement that had Chinese firms investing over $9 billion to develop an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) around the pipeline terminal that will include the Kyaukpyu deepwater port and a huge (1,000 hectare/2,500 acre) industrial park. This facility and the port will provide over 100,000 jobs for local Burmese and lots of tax revenue for the government. China offered an additional inducement to allow the port ownership. If this was permitted China would abandon construction of an unpopular dam in Kachin State. This dam destroyed much land long used by local tribes and sends over 80 percent of the electricity generated to China. Burma was willing to negotiate and now there is a deal.

October 24, 2018: At the UN China and Russia sought, unsuccessfully, to suppress presentation of a UN study on how the Burmese government mistreated their Rohingya minority. China and Russia can use their veto power to block active measures by the UN against Burma but shutting down discussion or research on the matter requires persuasion, which is often not enough. China is the main defender of Burma at the UN and uses its veto as needed. Russia helps because Russia is also dependent on China for economic and diplomatic assistance. This Chinese protection is repaid by Burma allowing a lot of questionable investments in Burma.


Article Archive

Myanmar: Current 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close