Myanmar: Battling History And Losing


December 4, 2019: The primary security problems continue to be concentrated in the border regions where ethnic and tribal minorities are the source, although not always the cause, of problems that have turned violent. One ethnic problem caused by violence is the million ethnic Rohingya Burmese pushed into neighboring Bangladesh since 2017. The pushing was done by Burmese Buddhist nationalists and the army. Burma is being accused of war crimes over this and is depending on neighbor and ally China to help get them out of this mess. Despite over two years of effort, few of the Rohingya Burmese refugees in Bangladesh have returned. This has caused a diplomatic problem but otherwise is ignored by most Burmese. No compromise seems possible and with a powerful ally like China (and its UN veto and economic clout) to block major UN action, Burma can afford to just let the situation simmer and concentrate on the other ethnic problems it must cope with.

All this is the result of how the modern state of Burma was created after World War II. That process was messy and in part due to no one having done it before. This was all about the relentless spread of nationalism over the last few centuries. This eventually became a European effort to ensure that everyone belonged to some kind of nation. Before that large portions of the world were inhabited by humans but there was no local government or ownership. By the 20th century that was no longer acceptable, at least to the European nations that had taken, or simply assumed control over the many remaining blank spaces where there was no government that owned or controlled an area. Bringing education, modern medicine and the industrial revolution to these areas proved to be more expensive than anticipated. Then there were a lot of locals who become more aware of nationhood and demanded it for themselves. So, between the late 1940s and 1960s, most of the colonial areas were turned into sovereign states.

Deciding who belonged to what new government was often difficult and an example of this was in northern Burma and along the Burmese borders in general. To address this mess, in 1947 the Panglong Conference was held between the many tribes in the border areas and British colonial authorities to decide who would join what nation before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for many tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. The tribes realized that life was harder and more precarious if you were a blank space on the map. Nearby nations or independent operators (warlords, gangsters or worse) could more easily make life miserable because you were “nobody”.

World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces during the war. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor, in this case former British colonies India and Burma, would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal in the 21st century is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea was to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement on how the government should be run in areas with many tribal organizations.

India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels. In Burma, many of these tribal and ethnic disputes were put on hold for decades by a military dictatorship that ruled from the 1960s until 2011. This is also a common situation. When all the communist police states of East Europe and Russia collapsed between 1989 and 1991 the result was many new nations along with ethnic and even tribal disputes long suppressed by totalitarian rule.

Such was very much the case in Burma after democracy returned in 2011. The border tribes were now more willing to work out peace deals with the government. The Rohingya were never violent like the tribes but had 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, but is no longer considered acceptable behavior.

The new Burmese democratic government did not have a lot of control over its military, which had retained a lot of autonomy as a condition for allowing the return of the democratic government. So when the Buddhist nationalists began attacking Rohingya in areas near the Bangladesh border, the army resisted orders to restore order. In 2017 the army took an active role in driving many Rohingya out of the country. Burma then agreed to allow the Rohingya back, but with conditions regarding citizenship and demands for reparation payments. Given all the complications progress is slow.

Negotiations with the tribal rebels are moving along more rapidly and, once more, China is playing a role. That is because China is part of the problem. Before the military gave up power in 2011 Burmese officers had made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. This continues to cause problems as China tries to maintain many of these economic projects by making them part of the new CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) agreement China and Burma signed in September 2018. That agreement called for both countries to begin detailed negotiations on where a 1,700 kilometer long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukpyu 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. Burma told China it was working on special “debt trap” provisions and the main one is for China to allow foreign nations to provide some of the loans needed for the CMEC work. Details of this deal are still being negotiated. This explains why only nine of the 38 projects that comprise CMEC have so far been approved by Burma. Reaching agreement on the rest of those projects gives Burma some leverage over China.

CMEC is the Burma component of the massive Chinese Obor (One Belt, One Road) effort. Also called BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), 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 BRI 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 BRI countries see 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 its costly development projects operational and wants 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-term deals with the locals. For the Chinese, it is just business while the Burmese see the tribes as potential rebels and long-term antagonists.

December 2, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state) a mortar shell exploded in a village, killing three civilians and wounding four. The locals accused the army of shelling the village but the army insisted two children were playing with an unexploded shell or landmine when it exploded, killing them and a nearby adult. Earlier in the day an artillery shell did land near another nearby village, wounding three civilians.

Soldiers have been fighting the AA (Arakan Army) rebels in the area since August and periods of active combat flare up repeatedly. Typically the army uses a combination of artillery fire and advancing infantry to push AA rebels away from roads or other areas the army wants to control, at least temporarily. This skirmishing has been going for quite some time before that and the most obvious impact has been the large number (about 100,000) 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 enterprises established 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.

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 now some violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have announced they are establishing a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state. The AA and their ally the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) have joined forces to recruit and train local men to resist the army. Together the two rebel groups have over 10,000 armed men. This force is expensive to maintain and the rebels pay for it with all manner of legitimate, and mostly illegal money-raising schemes.

In the southeast (Karen State), the army withdrew from an  MNLA (Mon National Liberation Army) base they had captured near the Thailand border. The army insisted on keeping an outpost in the area. The MNLA has a peace agreement with Burma and the army admitted it violated that by seizing the MNLA base in late November. Clashes like this, between soldiers and tribal rebels who have made peace, are common and that main reason there has been no peace with the border tribes since Burma became independent in the late 1940s.

December 1, 2019: Burma has agreed to join with India, Bangladesh and Thailand to cooperate in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal. This maritime zone is frequently used by smugglers and other criminals traveling across the Bay to nations bordering it.

November 29, 2019: In the north (Shan State), two foreign tourists riding on a motorbike set off a landmine. A German tourist died while his Argentinian companion was wounded. The two were off the trail in an area marked as unsafe because of landmines. Burma still has problems with landmines and other unexploded items because both the army and tribal rebels continue to use them. 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 all of 2018, there were 430 such casualties. That’s about seven percent of the world total. Most of those casualties for 2018 were in Afghanistan, Burma, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, and Ukraine.

In 2017 alone over a hundred Rohingya died or were wounded while fleeing Burma because of unmarked minefields near the Bangladesh 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 some children find one and it goes off as they “play” with 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 27, 2019: In the southeast (Karen State), an army advance on an MNLA (Mon National Liberation Army) base near the Thailand border caused several hundred Mon villagers to flee into Thailand to escape the fighting. The army began the fighting when some of their troops were not allowed to enter an area controlled by the MNLA.

November 22, 2019: In the north (Shan State), troops searching villages for TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) stockpiles found one that contained 170 weapons including assault rifles as well as 21 RPG launchers and one shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, plus 40,000 rounds of ammo and other military equipment. The rocket and missile launchers were Chinese made as were most of the other weapons. The TNLA admitted some of the weapons were theirs, but not all of them.

November 21, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), soldiers clashed with members of the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) near the Bangladesh border. Two ARSA men were killed and three captured. Burma considers ARSA an Islamic terrorist organization because of attacks they made along the border in 2016 and 2017. Not much violence since then except for a clash in January when ARSA fired on Burmese troops near the border, wounding three. ARSA is a Rohingya Islamic terror group that has proved to be more bark than bite and that suits the army just fine. ARSA appears to be recruiting and rebuilding in Bangladesh refugee camps and concentrating on smuggling in order to raise money.

November 15, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), fighting between soldiers and AA (Arakan Army) rebels nearly two thousand civilians fled from three villages to escape the fighting and the risk of being seized by soldiers for interrogation. These clashes with the AA are related to the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the NA (Northern Alliance) tribal rebels. These talks have worked out some initial agreements, including a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. Those last two items have not worked out. 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, 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 BRI project, which NA members do object to.

November 13, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), AA rebels used a remotely detonated landmine to kill seven soldiers and wound several others. One of the dead was an infantry battalion commander.

Elsewhere in the north (Shan state), fighting broke out between soldiers and TNLA rebels in at least three areas. This closed a major highway for hours. The TNLA has been responding to recent army attacks that have taken at least six TNLA base areas.

November 5, 2019: In the north (Shan State), AA rebels released 25 civilians they had captured in late October when the rebels seized a ferry. The army responded with airstrikes using armed helicopters, so the rebels took the civilians with them to avoid having the civilians mistaken for rebels and attacked from the air. When the rebels decided it was safe they returned cell phones to the civilians and gave them money to pay for transportation back to their home area.


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