Myanmar: Beware The Cranky



July 6, 2020: The election commission recently set November 8th as the date of the first general election held in Burma under a civilian government in over 60 years. There are over 90 political parties registered and contesting 1,171 seats in both national and state legislatures.

The army still enjoys many parliamentary benefits because of the political compromise it worked out before it agreed to restore democracy in 2011. That agreement gave the military more influence in parliament. The military did not have an automatic veto but they only needed win over a few non-military members of parliament to get their way. That has been more difficult each year and a five percent cut in the military budget request last May was another example of that. A more threatening example of military decline is the current feud between the Burmese generals and the Chinese government. The Chinese want less fighting in the north, especially in areas near the Chinese border. This dispute is not out in the open and the Chinese have the last word. It is the Chinese veto in the UN that prevents Burma from being condemned and sanctioned for army atrocities against tribal rebels and Rohingya Moslems in the north. China has committed similar atrocities against its own Turkic Moslem minority but China is a cranky superpower while the Burmese generals are just cranky.

Party Politics

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 2018 conviction of two foreign journalists who were sentenced to seven years in jail for violating Burma's 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 the million or so 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 1962 and only gave it up in 2011, still has a lot of clout in Burma. The generals 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 both 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. 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. China does not trust the military either, but the generals and the Chinese have more in common than the generals and Burmese democrats.

July 3, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine State) the fighting between tribal rebels and the army has intensified over the last few weeks and over 40,000 villagers have fled their homes. Many have fled all the way to the state capital, which is seen as the safest spot in the state. Army leaders have become more outspoken about “foreign support” the tribal rebels are receiving. The generals won’t come right out and name China but it is no secret that China has done little to curb Chinese weapons dealers from selling all manner of military small arms to tribal rebels and getting it across the border into Burma. That cannot be done without the acquiescence of the Chinese government. In this way the Chinese are sending a message to the Burmese generals, who the Chinese see as equally responsible for the violence in the north, sometimes right on the Chinese border. Both the rebels and the army are often using Chinese weapons and ammo against each other. There are not a lot of casualties and most of them are from army convoys being ambushed or the army firing into pro-rebel villages to drive the civilians, and any rebels, out and into the bush. The army does not have enough troops to occupy all the territory they push tribal rebels, and civilians, out of. Often the rebels, if not the civilians (at least not right away) come back and resume attacking convoys and patrols.

Most of the rebels involved in the current fighting belong to the AA (Arakan Army). Most AA attacks are ambushes or raids on outposts or border posts. Outposts and border posts are looted after the troops have been driven away. These attacks are not just about stealing some weapons and other gear, it is also intimidating the border guards and troops into backing off on border security. A major source of income for the AA is getting illegal drugs from nearby Shan State, where most illegal drugs in the country are produced, into Bangladesh. The AA works with Burmese Rohingya refugees just across the border in Bangladesh. The appearance of the covid19 virus earlier this year has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages. As a result, the refugee communities are seen as a persistent source of covid19 infection.

Another source of casualties in the north, along the Bangladesh border, are the landmines and booby traps set by both the army and the rebels to make it more difficult to get hit with a surprise attack. There are 20-30 dead or wounded a month from the mines and other explosive traps in the north. Nearly 60 percent of these casualties are in Rakhine State where the AA and army have been fighting for several years now. Most of the landmine casualties are civilians, who often don’t know the army or AA has planted some mines in an area. Both sides do often record and remove mines they have placed. But the point of mines is surprise and civilians travelling through mined areas do so without being warned that mines are there. The mine danger is another reason the army prefers to use artillery to clear civilians out of an area and sometimes to clear mines.

July 2, 2020: In the north (Kachin State), an illegal jade mining operation turned into a disaster when heavy recent rainfall caused a pile of mining waste to slide into a lake creating a mudslide that hit an area where hundreds of amateur jade miners were seeking small bits of jade. Over 17o people died. The last such disaster took place in the same area during April 2019 when 54 jade miners died during a landslide that took place at night while everyone was sleeping. About 40 vehicles also disappeared into what, when it was all over, was described as a “mud lake.” 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 and work these sites without much regard for safety. 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. The death toll today was the worst ever. The previous record death toll was a hundred lost in a 2015 incident that led to calls for more jade mining safety. Not much was done.

July 1, 2020: It’s been a month since much reduced quarantine rules were introduced throughout the country. All government and most non-government employees returned to work during June. There were still some distancing rules but not much fear of a major outbreak of the virus. So far there have been 313 confirmed cases of covid19 in Burma, with six deaths. There were 85 new cases during June bot no more deaths. So far that comes to six cases per million people and 0.1 deaths. Most of the known cases came from China.

Elsewhere in the region, Bangladesh has 986 covid19 cases per million and 12 deaths per million. In Thailand, it’s 46 cases per million people and 0.8 deaths. India has 506 cases per million and 14 deaths while Pakistan had 1,049 cases per million and 22 deaths per million people. Malaysia has 268 cases per million and four deaths while China, where the virus began, stopped releasing covid19 cases and deaths data as part of a government program to try and blame the U.S. for the virus. Few (Chinese or foreigners) believe that and it is taken for granted by neighbors of China that the “Wuhan Virus”, as it was first known, indeed came from China. By now it has also become known that covid19 is not much more dangerous than one of the deadlier annual influenza epidemics. The flu is taken for granted and it is unclear if covid19, which is genetically almost identical to the 2013 SARS virus, another Chinese corona (trans-species) virus, will be an annual event or disappear like SARS and similar diseases. Covid19 is unique in that it attacks the lungs and is often mistaken for pneumonia. As such it is particularly dangerous to the elderly or anyone with a weakened immune system or other illnesses. Most healthy adults and children do not notice covid19 at all even if exposed to it.

June 26, 2020: In the north, across the border in Bangladesh police clashed with Rohingya gangsters suspected of kidnapping people for ransom. The gun battle, which left four Rohingya men dead took place near one of the refugee settlements in an area called Cox’s Bazaar. The presence of Rohingya gangsters makes worse a situation where the arrival of nearly a million Rohingya since 2017 has tripled the local population. At first, the locals were eager to help fellow Moslems, for a few months at least. But that expected short visit has gone on for three years and there is no end in sight. The appearance of the covid19 virus has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages.

June 2, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine State), border patrol forces encountered about 30 armed ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) men near the Bangladesh border. At least two ARSA men were killed during a 30-minute gun battle. ARSA then withdrew, possibly taking other dead and wounded with them. The two dead ARSA men were wearing combat uniforms and were found with their weapons. Two border patrol police were wounded. 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 few clashes in 2019 where ARSA fired on Burmese troops near the border. 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.


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