Expelling a million ethnic Rohingya Burmese to neighboring Bangladesh has caused a diplomatic mess that won’t go away. Even China is trying to get Burma to accept some kind of compromise that eliminates the threats of economic sanctions and war crimes trials. China is Burma’s most powerful ally, biggest investor and largest trading partner. China wants to gain some gratitude from Burma so the government will make more of an effort to approve unpopular (in the rebellions north) economic projects like dams and new pipelines. China has provided Bangladesh with a few million dollars’ worth of aid for the Rohingya. This is a token amount but welcome just the same. China has also sold a lot of military gear to Bangladesh and donated some as well. But Burma is a much more lucrative situation for China.
The crux of the problem is that although some Burmese protested the initial violence against the Rohingya, once the expulsion was done in 2017 nearly all Burmese stood by the results. That included Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese leader who became an international hero for her decades of efforts to restore democracy to Burma. She is likely to be the new president of Burma after the constitution is changed to allow that.
One condition the former military government demanded before allowing the return of democracy was that their nemesis Aung San Suu Kyi, the most popular politician in Burma, be barred from running for president. In addition, the new 2011 constitution gave the military control of all the security forces (police, border patrol and so on) as well as 25 percent of the seats in parliament. A few other items were added as well, like barring Aung San Suu Kyi (a key leader in the effort to force the generals from power) from high office. As many expected, the pro-democracy factions in parliament eventually became strong enough to change the constitution. One of the proposed changes is to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president.
While popular in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has a growing list of foreign enemies. She tells foreign critics that she believes the Rohingya are Bangladeshi and don’t belong in Burma. She is a Nobel peace prize winner and Burmese national hero who was once an international one as well. But now many foreign fans want her punished because of her attitude towards the Rohingya. 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 ruled from the 1960s to 2011, still has a lot of clout in Burma and were the first ones to make an issue of the Rohingya citizenship status. The military 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 sort of is. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011 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 they are still dealing with.
The anti-Rohingya violence that caused all this was instigated by nationalist Buddhist religious leaders and the Burmese military took advantage of it because in 2012 the Burmese military was no longer running the country. That meant the Buddhist nationalists could go after the Rohingya, something the military dictatorship had prevented for decades. Once an elected government was back in charge the Buddhist nationalists had the votes, and popular support to drive over a million Rohingya out of their homes and villages in the northwest (mainly Rakhine state) and into neighboring Bangladesh. The army, in the name of restoring order, got involved and actually caused much of the destruction during 2017. Since then several new military bases have been built in the depopulated areas. Eyewitness reports and commercial satellite photos confirm that no reconstruction has taken place in the depopulated areas. As a result, there is nothing for the Rohingya something to return to. The Rohingya in Bangladesh already know this and refuse to return to a wasteland occupied by the soldiers that took part in the violence that drove the Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Few Rohingya are going back because their homeland in northern Burma is still too dangerous for them. The Burmese government was threatened with sanctions but the army dominated Burmese government was not impressed enough to move faster to make the areas where the Rohingya refugees came from safer and more receptive to returning refugees. The military knows that China will stand by Burma. India still works with Burma, to deal with tribal rebels who operate along their common border. Thailand is another neighbor not bothered by the Rohingya situation.
Yet the international pressure to act is having an impact. The major obstacle to getting the Rohingya back to Burma is assurances that it is safe. That can be accomplished if the first small group back finds it is safe. Even then there is another obstacle. Most Rohingya refugees refuse to return until they receive citizenship. That was the dispute that triggered the current anti-Rohingya violence in Burma and the majority of Burmese are opposed to granting citizenship. Situations like this are common worldwide and they predate the modern nation-state with its strict border and immigration controls.
The Rohingya have always been an obvious minority in largely ethnic-Burmese Burma. The Rohingya are ethnic Bengali (an Indo-European group) while the ethnic Burmese and the tribal minorities are all East Asian (of which the Han Chinese are the largest faction). This meant the Rohingya were the most obvious minority in Burma and that is not a good thing historically. Expelling unwanted minority groups has been a common practice in this part of the world, and many other regions, like the Middle East.
The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with their treatment of the
because this sort of thing is not unique. What happened to
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. 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. Thus many of the nations (especially Moslem ones) criticizing Burma over their treatment of the Rohingya are guilty of doing the same thing 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 were 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 reduce 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. That was because the Bedoon were nomads who came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the Kuwaiti 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 were over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” were 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, and 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. The problem is more acute with the Rohingya because they were driven into a country that already had more problems with overpopulation and poverty than Burma. The Rohingya did not want to leave and many have lost property and jobs because of the expulsion. Yet whether the displaced people were forced out or left voluntarily no one has found an easy or perfect solution to these problems. Not in Burma or anywhere else.
In Bangladesh, the popular solution is to pressure Burma with international sanctions and threats of war crime prosecutions until Burma takes the Rohingya. Bangladesh has a strong case because Burma is not overcrowded, as it has 72 people per square kilometer compared to 1,100 in Bangladesh. Per capita income in Burma is $6,900 a year versus $5,000 in Bangladesh. Economic prospects are growing more rapidly in Burma than in Bangladesh. For example. Burma has growing (over 10 percent a year) natural gas exports which currently account for a fifth of export income. China is eager to invest many billions of dollars in Burma, especially compared to Bangladesh. India sympathizes with Burma because India continues to have problems with illegal economic migrants from Bangladesh. Those migrants are a hot political issue in the areas bordering Bangladesh and as a democracy India must, and is, addressing the issue. Bangladesh is also a democracy and the voters there want Burma to make right the damage they have done to Bangladesh with this forced migration. Burma is once again a democracy and the voters see the Rohingya as a Bangladeshi problem even though the original migration from what is now Bangladesh took place when India, Bangladesh and Burma were all under British rule. No easy solutions, there never are.
The Yaba Report
Increased efforts to control drug and people smuggling from northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia borders have persuaded Burmese drug producers to switch to Laos and Vietnam as their main export route. What prompted the change was Thailand sending more soldiers and police to the borders and intercepting more drug smugglers from Burma, even the ones who are armed and willing to use violence to get past the border. In southern Thailand, border guards checking cargoes of trucks headed for Malaysia have been finding more and more methamphetamine from Burma and headed for Malaysia. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it had long been smuggled out of northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia. Laos and Vietnam are not as convenient for getting the yaba to more distant markets but it is seen as a lot safer than Thailand and Malaysia.
September 17, 2019: After months of negotiations the government and the
NA (Northern Alliance) tribal rebels have worked out some initial agreements, including a ceasefire. No long-term peace deal yet but this is more progress with the NA than ever before. Some NA members are still engaged in combat with the army. The NA consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA (Arakan Army), MNDAA Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). The current battles do not involve the KIA. The NA exists because its members refused to sign the 2015 Burmese Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the Burmese government and military. The army, which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north, is the primary cause for violence. China is also involved because Northern Alliance members survive via their access to China. The access is tolerated as long as these Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma. This includes the OBOR (One Belt/One Road) project, which NA members do object to.
A NA peace deal would be based on the current NCA (Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement).
Efforts to get everyone to sign the NCA have been going on since the 1990s. The main obstacle is finding ceasefire terms that everyone can agree to and, more importantly, that the government, especially the army, can be trusted to abide by. Decades of military rule ended in 2011 but many of the rebel tribes didn’t believe it meant soldiers would behave in tribal areas. They were right because in the border areas the military still did as they pleased. The elected government has made some progress in curbing the military misbehavior and an August 2016 NCA meeting is supposed to take advantage of that. This was not a sure thing as there had been NCA meetings in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and none of those deals were completely effective. That said since 2011 there has been more peace and less army misbehavior in the border areas where lawlessness was long the norm. This is costing corrupt army officers a lot of money as they got rich by “taxing” or controlling a lot of illegal activities (mining, lumbering, smuggling in general). The corrupt officers also arranged for the illegal removal of tribes on land that had been “sold” to the Chinese for major development projects (mines, hydroelectric dams, pipelines). A new and improved 2016 NCA doesn’t make the Chinese happy either but officially they can’t express that because the official Chinese attitude is that they are doing everything legally.
September 15, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state) fighting between the army and AA (Arakan Army) rebels flared up again. Army artillery fire killed one civilian and wounded about a dozen others. Similar violence has been taking place in these areas since late August. This skirmishing has been going for quite sometime before that and the most obvious impact has been the large number (about 65,000) of civilians displaced by the fighting so far in 2019. Since mid-2018 soldiers have been fighting the AA rebels for control of territory along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states). The fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance. The AA had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in early 2016 as troops moved into territory where AA rebels were known to operate. All this was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case the AA had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the AA and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many AA supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the AA was never given official recognition, in large part because the AA was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless as in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have announced they are establishing a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state.
September 9, 2019: In the north (Shan State) the NA rebels announced a one month unilateral ceasefire in northern Shan State. The NA is negotiating with the government for a longer term peace deal. The army has also announced its own unilateral ceasefires in various parts of the north.