Myanmar: The Price Of Peace

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This will be the last regular update for Myanmar/Burma. The organized violence there has declined to the point where it no longer qualifies for regular updates. Instead we will cover any major outbreaks of violence in our updates of neighboring countries or in a Potential Hotspot piece. Past updates for all wars remain available.

Since StrategyPage began in 1999 we’ve retired more wars than we’ve added. As we have noted frequently, the trend since the 1990s has been fewer wars. Those we have retired since 1999 include Haiti (2009), Nepal (2010), Sri Lanka (2010), Central Asia (2012), Ivory Coast (2012), Indonesia (2013), Chad (2013), Uganda (2013), Kurds (2013), Rwanda (2013), Balkans (2013), Ethiopia (2013), Congo Brazzaville (2013), Colombia (2017) and Mexico (2017).

December 7, 2020: The armed mayhem is fading in Burma, although some violence remains along with the potential for a lot more. More of the tribal violence is ending, for the moment. Tribal unrest has been around since the late 1940s and has long been the major source of armed conflict. At the same time progress towards a real peace agreement up north has been moving slowly towards success.

One nasty bit of violence in the north was more about religion and ethnicity than tribal rights. There does not appear to be much risk of anyone going to war over the Rohingya refugees Burmese nationalists chased out of the country once democracy returned in 2012. The violence intensified until 2017 when it mutated into mass movement of terrified Rohingya Burmese Moslems across the border. Since then many (currently 700,000) Burmese Rohingya refugees have been an involuntary presence in Bangladesh. All efforts to get Burma to take them back have failed. Apparently, Burma is OK with the refugees becoming a permanent presence just across the border. The refugees were initially welcomed by Bangladesh when they arrived in large numbers during 2017. After about a year the presence of nearly a million displaced Rohingya in an already crowded country became a problem. Most of the Rohingya refugees are in an area called Cox’s Bazaar and their presence 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 Rohingya situation is fairly common in Asia and there are millions of similar refugee communities in the region.

Nationwide the army still has a lot of political power, much of it because a condition for the army surrendering power and returning democracy was constitutional changes that granted the military a lot of statutory power. However, with a large enough majority in parliament the constitution can be changed. Democrats have been working on that since 2012. The army has resisted but the army is losing.

December 6, 2020: India has gone public with its support for Burmese army leaders complaining about “foreign support” the tribal rebels are receiving. The Burmese generals won’t come right out and name China but the Indians will.

For several months now India has been accusing China of tolerating an Indian tribal rebel group (Ulfa-I) in Yunnan province. While China has tolerated some Burmese Wa State rebel activities in China (Guangxi province), those are mostly of a commercial nature. Burmese rebels buy a lot of weapons and other stuff in China and ship (or smuggle) it into Burma. Guangxi does not border India, Yunnan does and China has claims on large portions of India that border Yunnan.

In northern Burma 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.

Burma has long obtained most of its weapons from China. That was because until 2011 Burma had been a military dictatorship for over 40 years and few nations would sell to them. This made Burma one of China’s top three export customers. Pakistan was the largest, getting 55 percent of weapons exports while Burma got about seven percent. Because of all that international pressure to end the dictatorship, Burma could not afford the most modern weapons or be picky about what they bought. The Burmese Air Force is a good example. Except for a few dozen modern fighters (Mig-29s and Su-30s) from Russia and six JF-17s from China, the rest of the air force consisted of much older aircraft. The navy does a little better because Burma has local shipyards that can build warships, at least those up to about 3,000 tons (frigates). Three frigates have been built and two imported from China by 2012. Three 1,100-ton corvettes were also built locally. For the locally built ships, weapons and electronics must be imported. Burma has also built a lot of smaller (500 tons or less) patrol ships, some armed with missiles. Three ships of this type were bought from China in the 1990s to give Burmese ship builders models for locally built versions. This includes twenty 250-ton armed patrol ships to replace older ones purchased from China and many smaller patrol boats built in Burma during the 1990s. The navy also has one sub, a 1988 vintage Kilo class Russian boat purchased from India after refurbishment.

The army has few expensive systems. Even the tank force is mostly Chinese made tanks that China stopped using in the 1980s and the only users left are nations that cannot afford to buy a lot of modern replacements. What is important to the army is lots of loyal infantry armed with Chinese small arms and other infantry weapons and equipment.

About one percent of Burma's 54 million people are in the armed forces, which included paramilitary "intelligence" and "security" secret police type organizations. The secret police kept an eye on the troops, and the troops kept an eye, and often a gun, on the people. Myanmar only spent about a billion dollars a year on the armed forces at the end, most of that going to pay and living expenses of infantry troops.

Most of the troops served in 500 infantry battalions, 60 percent of them "light infantry". The "light" units are cheap to maintain. No vehicles, and few heavy weapons. But such units are excellent for controlling unruly citizens. About half the infantry do just that, being assigned to 22 Operation Control Commands (OCCs), which cover most of the country. Each OCC has about ten infantry battalions, trained to deal with unrest, patrolling and low-level infantry combat. From the 1990s to 2011 the number of infantry battalions nearly doubled. This form of organization has been used to pacify, or try to pacify, the tribes in the north.

December 4, 2020: In the north, across the border in Bangladesh the government has begun moving Rohingya refugees out of the enormous Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp to smaller camps elsewhere.

December 2, 2020: In the capital the UEC (Union Election Commission) ordered local UEC offices to refuse army demands that records of the November 8th parliamentary voting be turned over. There is a constitutional way to dispute an election and the UEC demands that the army follow the rules.

November 26, 2020: In the north (Chinese border) there is a dispute over where the Chinese can build their new “smuggler control” border fence in Shan State. The Chinese began erecting the fence on the border without informing Burma and when the Burmese troops noted the activity and reported it there was an interesting reaction. The local Burmese commander border guards sent a letter to the Chinese commander of the area where the fence was going. The letter pointed out that the 1961 Burma-China treaty that defined where the border was and who could do what near it. The treaty specified that neither side could build anything within ten meters (32 feet) of the actual border. The Chinese halted work on the fence while Chinese diplomatic officials were consulted. There have been similar incidents like this over the past few years. China tends to regard treaties as suggestions, not rules.

November 8, 2020: Nationwide parliamentary elections were held and the army candidates were less successful that expected. The army blamed vote rigging by the democrats who already have a majority in parliament. The last elections were in 2016 and the army did less well than they expected.

October 25, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine State) the fighting between tribal rebels and the army has finally ended as the rebels and army negotiated a ceasefire and are working on a long-term ceasefire along with resuming peace negotiations. The fighting had intensified since June and because of that nearly 250,000 villagers have fled their homes. Many travelled all the way to the state capital, which is seen as the safest spot in the state. Since August over 5,000 new refugees a week were seeking shelter and food. The army has also revived the Internet restrictions, which were lifted in August. Now most cellphone users in Rakhine State can get slow (2G) Internet speeds. This makes it difficult to access pro-rebel web sites, or most others as well.

Most of the rebels involved in belong to the AA (Arakan Army). Many AA attacks are ambushes or raids on road traffic, outposts or border posts. Control of the roads is essential for the army, which depends on regular deliveries of all sorts of supplies. The army also has some air support, mostly surveillance but also occasional airstrikes. The rebels know the mountains and forests, which the army enters and moves through more slowly. The war up here is about driving away locals who can provide support for the rebels. Most of these civilians have nothing to do with the rebels and see themselves as innocent victims of random military violence. There is some truth to that because troops often loot abandoned villages or rape female refugees they catch up with.

The rebels have another advantage in their attacks are more precise and involve much less firepower. The soldiers spend most of their time wandering around in the forests seeking rebels who move faster in the bush and usually detect the troops before the soldiers can spot any rebels. Hiring, for forcing, local hunters to guide the troops rarely works because the local guides hate the troops and know that the rebels won’t forget if such guides and trackers cost them casualties.

Rebels attacks outposts and border posts for loot. 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.

The AA has support from one of the rebel coalitions, the NA (Northern, or Brotherhood Alliance) tribal rebels refuse to attend unless the government allows the AA (Arakan Army) to attend. The AA and the army have been fighting for two years now with no end in sight. The government, pressured by the army, declared the AA an outlaw organization in early 2020. The other tribal rebels disagreed and saw the army as the true outlaws. No long-term peace deal is possible without the NA and some NA members continued fighting the army.

All NA members agree that if the AA is not allowed to attend peace conferences neither will any NA member. 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 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 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 ( Belt and Road Initiative)/ Obor (One Belt, One Road) project, which NA members object to. So do other tribal rebels and the largest such group, the UWSA (United Wa State Army) boycott peace conferences and otherwise try to get their point across to the army and the government.

The army resisted making any concessions to the AA but enough was enough and that finally led to negotiations.

 

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