Myanmar: China Will Provide


September 6, 2010: As planned, the generals who run the government have "retired" to run in the November 7 elections. But not before carefully selected subordinates were promoted to fill the empty commands. Fewer than a hundred senior officers, and their families, control the country, and have done so for over half a century. This ruling class sticks together, otherwise they would be killed by the millions of Burmese they have persecuted and exploited over the decades. The new organization appears to leave the former generals still in charge. If they get elected, as they expect (via a vigorous campaign, suppressing opposition parties and, if needed, rigging the vote) the "retired" generals will be the elected civilian leaders, which the military will be subordinate to.

Easier visa requirements has led to a sharp increase in tourism, which is up 37 percent this year. About a third of the 300,000 annual visitors are from neighboring China and Thailand. But this doesn't really boost the economy much, since the ruling military families, and the military in general, have a stranglehold on commercial activity. There's no economic opportunity unless you have a military "partner." Staying in business means paying unofficial taxes to your military patron, as well as providing jobs to anyone your patron favors. It's all very feudal, and inefficient. Sort of communism without all the dogma and slogans.

The government plan to turn tribal militias into border guards is working, although there is still some resistance. While many Karen tribal leaders have made deals with the government (to stop the army attacks and gain some cash), some tribal members still resist, even after joining the new border guard. There have been some shootings and other violence. The tribal leaders point out that with tribesmen acting as border guards, there will be fewer non-tribal officials and soldiers around. The soldiers are feared because they tend to do whatever they want, and get away with it. This starts with extorting money at checkpoints, and can escalate to rape and murder. Most Burmese troops in Karen territory are concentrating on the tribes that have not surrendered. The tactics remain as they have always been; burn villages and chase civilians into the jungle. Many trek to the Thai border and seek sanctuary. Meanwhile, the government, with economic and technical help from China, is building more railroads into the sparsely populated north. This is mainly for economic reasons, to make it profitable to extract raw materials. But it also makes it easier and cheaper to send soldiers north, and keep them supplied. This could spell the end of the tribal militias that are still holding out up there. The tribal rebels continue to fight a low level guerilla war, tossing grenades into government offices and setting off bombs in military and government installations in the tribal territories. There are not many of these attacks (a few a month), but it's enough to remind the government that they are not welcome up north.

India is holding its nose and being nice to Burma, because tribal rebels in northeast India are shifting their bases from Bangladesh (where India convinced the government to seek out and expel the Indian tribal rebels) to Myanmar (where the territory is even more remote and thinly populated than in Bangladesh). India has a 1,600 kilometer border with Myanmar.

The UN is seeking to form a commission to investigate whether the generals running Burma were guilty of war crimes. China will oppose this, but that often is not enough when enough countries are behind it. More Western countries are not waiting for the UN, and are putting more economic sanctions on Burma. China is taking advantage of this by letting the Burmese know that Chinese manufacturers can supply just about anything they need, and are increasingly doing so.

August 29, 2010: For the first time, Chinese communist warships have visited a Burmese port (Yangon). The two Chinese ships are returning from service with the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Yangon is the fifth foreign port the two warships have visited as they make their way back to China.

August 28, 2010:  The government announced the retirement of senior generals, and who their replacements would be. The current bunch of senior generals have been in charge since 1992.

August 16, 2010: A major Western bank (Barclays) has agreed to pay a fine of $298 million to the United States, for helping countries under sanctions (Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Burma), avoid them. Burma, like Iran, has many government officials whose sole task is to find ways to get around sanctions, and get military equipment, or civilian gear that is embargoed.

August 14, 2010: In the south, an army captain was killed when a gunfight broke out between two groups of soldiers who were seeking to extort money from Thai fishing boats (who were illegally working in Burmese waters.) While extortion of Burmese is usually worked out ahead of time, foreigners are often up for grabs, and that sometimes leads to disputes.

August 13, 2010: The government announced general elections would be held November 7th, the first in two decades. The last ones were honest, and when the result went against the generals, the votes was overthrown and opposition candidates who won were jailed or driven into exile.


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