Potential Hot Spots: Burma And The Myanmar Martyrs

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August 13, 2021: In south Asia, India’s eastern neighbor Myanmar (Burma) is having serious problems adapting to democracy, unity and independence. There was another military coup in early 2021, a decade after the military government (since 1962) finally gave in to demands for freedom and democracy. By 2010 the army had failed at running the economy or dealing with the rebellious northern tribes. The military negotiated a deal with the democrats that left the military with some of their political power as well as immunity from prosecution or retribution for a long list of past crimes. Once elections were held, the generals realized they had underestimated the degree of popular anger at the decades of military misrule. After 2011, with Burma governed by a government answerable to the people, not a military caste, there were calls for cancelling the political privileges the military had retained as part of their agreement to allow peaceful transfer of power. The late 2020 nationwide elections put into power a government that finally had the votes, and determination, to cut the military down to size and make them much less capable of another coup. The generals moved faster than the new government and once more took control of the country on February 1st.

The generals found that it was not as easy as the early 1960s. This time there was much less compliance and a lot more defiance. In fact, most Burmese acted the way they voted, despite the greater firepower and, so far, resolve of the generals. The army has trashed the economy and put more and more Burmese out of work and without access to food, the Internet or the banking system. So far, the resistance continues. The generals have become more dependent on their business partners. China, who were also partners-in-crime with the generals, The Chinese connection may be the vital key to victory, or fatal flaw in the coup plan. It all depends on how much Burmese are willing to resist China. This is important in so many ways and the result of regional changes that have taken place over the last few centuries.

Six months later, on August 1st the military declared themselves the provisional government. There were vague assurances of new elections but few voters believed the voting would be free and fair. China promptly recognized the provisional government and just called it the government. Meanwhile the supporters of the ousted government organized themselves as the NUG (National Unity Government) and sought to gain foreign support, avoid capture (or death) by the military. Many Burmese diplomats outside the country at the time of the coup continued to support the elected government. Some Western countries reported that the Burmese military was seeking to kidnap or kill these “rogue diplomats”. Not to be outdone, in the north one of the tribal militias offered $3,000 to any Burmese soldiers who defected, with his weapon. In addition to the case the rebels promised safe passage out of the country. The military has refused to negotiate and refused UN offers to mediate negotiations. Unlike 2010, this time the military sees their situation as do or die. Too many Burmese now want the military leaders dead or in prison. The Burmese avoided civil war for decades after the 1962 coup and everyone seems to believe this was not the correct way to go about it. Now the Burmese have to see what, if any, military assistance they can obtain from foreign supporters.

Burma was, until 1948, part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia and one of the last additions. In 1885 Britain took control of what is now Burma after nearly a century of commercial and territorial conflicts between the expanding Burmese monarchy and the British East India Company, the economic engine that powered the effort to form what would, for about a century, become the largest component of the British colonial empire. Burma was a unique addition to the empire as it was the largest possession whose population was East Asian (Han) while the rest of India was Indo-European. The majority of Burmese were descendants of Han tribes that had migrated, at least three thousand years ago, from what is now southern China. About the same time the Central Asian nomads who became dominant in western Eurasia, poured into India and kept going for centuries until they dominated their less aggressive but culturally and economically advanced predecessors. Same thing happened in south-east Asia but for several reasons the expansions halted in Burma, northeast India, Tibet and into Central Asia. The Indo-European Indians were far more culturally and technologically advanced than their European cousins. Indians were very active traders, mainly by sea across the Indian Ocean. When the Europeans began their Age of Exploration in the 1400s, once they reached East Africa and the Persian Gulf, they encountered Indian traders who had already been there for over a thousand years. The British did not come to South Asia to build an empire but to trade. The empire-building was a side effect of trade disputes. The South Asian British colonial rule only lasted for about two centuries and it ended when the British realized they were losing a lot of money maintaining it.

Burma, like India, had been a collection of feuding kingdoms when the British arrived. Modern Burma long consisted of southern Burma, where the ethnic Burmese (Burans) dominated. In the north, as in northeast India, there was an even larger and more diverse collection of tribes that had long maintained their independence. The British persuaded the tribes to become part of the new democratic Burma. A similar collection of tribes in northeast India made a similar deal. Many of the tribal peoples were not happy with the new central government and that produced over sixty years of rebellion and unrest. Democratic India eventually negotiated new peace deals with the separatists among the tribes. The 1948 democratic Burma tried to do the same but continued resistance of the tribes contributed to the longest-lasting military government in South Asia. There was another element to this. Most Burmese noted that India never had a coup and Moslem Pakistan, at least West Pakistan, suffered a lot of coups and had their first one before Burma did. Also noted was that the coups in Pakistan led to Pakistan falling apart. In 1970 an uprising in East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh) demanded a separate state and West Pakistan (modern Pakistan) was unable to prevent it. Since then, Bangladesh, emulating India, adopted a coup resistant government that worked. Pakistan continues to be threatened by its own military, which now exercises its political power without taking over the government. The generals in Pakistan and Burma have one thing in common, they established government and personal economic ties with China. It is these business relationships with China that give the generals independent (of their own government) economic power and the ability to coerce an elected government into obeying the military, and not the other way around.

Applying this in Burma is proving more difficult than in Pakistan, where the Chinese investments came after the Pakistan military had already carried out several successful coups but were always forced to eventually back off and allow elections to return. But now, thanks in part to Chinese assistance, the Pakistani military can control the government without being the government.

The success of the Chinese economic conquest approach is not assured in Pakistan and is even less of a sure thing in Burma. As long as the generals can find enough money to pay their troops, they can maintain their power. But as the Pakistani generals have discovered there are limitations to this approach. You must be able to intimidate your population, not go to war with them because that would risk foreign intervention. That’s what happened in Pakistan during the 1971 civil war. When troops from West Pakistan started killing rebellious civilians in a big way, neighboring India was outraged and soon intervened. This forced the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan to surrender and allowed the formation of Bangladesh.

So far, the Burmese Army is keeping the death toll down. Six months after the coup only about a thousand civilians have died and very few soldiers killed. The generals are under pressure to pay close attention to troop morale and realize that another boost in soldier pay will not be enough to maintain loyalty in a force where most troops belong to extended families with many members who are not in the military and more of them are being shot at by the military. The Chinese realize that if the Burmese can avoid open warfare with an increasingly angry population, the generals could prevail. More Burmese are obtaining weapons and using them and the generals have a hard time portraying dead or wounded soldiers as Myanmar Martyrs. None of Burma’s neighbors are eager and ready to invade, as India did in 1971 Bangladesh. Bangladesh consists of a Moslem Bengali population. Most Bengalese were Moslem, which is why you had East Pakistan from 1948 to 1970. But a third of Bengalis were Hindu, including a few Christians. In 1970, not all Moslem Bengalis lived in East, or West Pakistan. The massacre of Bengalis in East Pakistan generated a lot of Indian support for intervention. There are often times when ethnicity trump’s religions.

Such is not the case in Burma, where the Buran group, while possessing ancient ethnic connections with the Han in China, now consider themselves, like the Han-related majorities in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam as very distinct and want as little to do with China as possible. This is a common pattern on all the current borders of China, where Han who wanted no part of a Chinese empire are still struggling to escape Han domination.

In Burma the six-month old coup is another expression of Han hostility. The continued resistance developed an armed component after about three months. The CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement) is mainly about organizing peaceful protests but as more civilians were shot, some CDM factions began shooting back. Worse, there were organized attacks as well. This began in April when someone fired five rockets at the Shante Air Force base outside the city of Mandalay. The rockets caused no damage or injuries and were believed aimed at the Chinese CH-3A UAVs that were delivered in 2015 and used mainly to keep an eye on tribal rebels in the north. After the coup the army asked China for assistance in using all the manned and unmanned aircraft and helicopters China and Russia has sold to Burma in the last decade. The military imported $2.5 billion worth of military gear since 2010, China 58 percent of it and Russia 33 percent. Now these weapons were being used against the nationwide uprising. China is something of an expert on this as is installing a “Big Brother” level surveillance in China and is willing to export that tech. An elected Burmese government would never divert the huge sums required to purchase and install Chinese Big Brother levels of surveillance. The Burmese military is another matter, especially when it has taken over the government again. At the moment the military is in charge and China sees another major export sale looming. Better surveillance capabilities will provide immediate help to suppress the rebels.

China faces huge economic losses if the current coup fails. China is a major foreign investor in Burma and those projects often displace Burmese illegally and without compensation. Most of this misbehavior occurred in the northern border areas where hostile tribes live. These tribes tend to have armed militias that have been fighting the military for over sixty years. Chinese investments gave the tribal rebels more targets for unarmed protests and armed attacks. China will do whatever it can to protect those investments, which include oil and natural gas pipelines from southern China to the northeast Burma coast. The pipelines have come under increasing attacks.

The first thing the new military government did in February was assuring China that Chinese assets would be protected. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Within two weeks Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China.

The Burmese Army has long been at the center of most illegal economic activity. Some estimates indicate that at least $20 billion has been illegally moved out of Burma during the fifty years of military rule and much more stayed in the country. Almost all of that was military personnel or their gangster and commercial allies. Military families still control a lot of the economy and most of the wealthy families in Burma have a military connection. The illegal cash leaving amounted (on average) to about six percent of GDP. The military may have surrendered much of their political power in 2010, but they held on to their considerable personal wealth.

The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked since the coup and a few have been set on fire. The military was forced to assign more troops and hire some armed guards to protect the Chinese businesses.

The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agreement with the elected government in 2016, refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests during the last six months. Despite most of the economy being crippled, the military still has income because during their decades of rule they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with over a billion dollars a year, assuming the Chinese operations can keep functioning. Burmese army officers 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. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically but is one of the few nations supporting the military government.

China is in uncharted territory here but is mainly risking money, not a lot of Chinese lives. The Chinese see this as an opportunity to see how far this new version of “conquest by aggression” can go. This is an important experiment because it is a new version of the tactics the Europeans, especially the British, used centuries ago to replace Chinese dominance of East Asia.

One thing the current Burmese conflict is unlikely to change is the dominance of the government by ethnic Burmese (Burman) people at the expense of the third of the population consisting of minorities. The army always played on this during the decades after the 1962 coup. Even after elections were resumed the army still had allies in the form of militant Buddhist nationalists. Another thing that unites and divides the country is religion. Some 80 percent of Burmese are Buddhists, including many of the rebellious tribes in the north. A third of the non-Buddhists are Christians, mainly in the tribal north and about 30 percent are Hindu. The ethnic Burmese are most hostile towards Moslems, who make up only about four percent of the population and less than ten percent of the minorities. Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 nearly a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists. China assures the Burmese generals that they have proven solutions for all these problems.

 

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