Myanmar: The Player


October 18, 2011: The government continues to negotiate with Wa tribes in the north. The nearby Kachin tribes are not talking, but fighting, and having a hard time of it. The army has been fighting the Kachin tribal militias since June. There are over 30,000 Kachins who have fled the fighting and gathered in poorly equipped refugee camps along the Chinese border. These camps are short of food and other supplies, and the Burmese and Chinese security forces often block access. To the south, the Karen tribes have been under attack and over 20,000 Karen are in refugee camps along the Thai border.   

The government is now accusing the Kachin of involvement in the drug trade (specifically, methamphetamine). Over the last few years, there has been enormous increase in production of illegal drugs (heroin, opium and methamphetamine) in northern Burma, with much of it exported to the world via Thailand (where some of the drugs would create a lot of local addicts). The Burmese military dictatorship has been using drug production as a weapon against rebellious tribes, helping friendly tribes to produce and smuggle drugs. But now rebel tribes have been attacking the heroin operations of pro-government tribes. The growing (or returning) heroin trade is also a source of income for the government, and the government is unhappy with these losses. To make matters worse, some of the heroin gangs are paying the tribal rebels for protection. Meanwhile, the government destroys poppy fields belonging to hostile tribes. This is big change from the 1990s. Overall, in the decade after 1996, opium and heroin production declined nearly 90 percent in Burma, but has been making a comeback in the last few years (which hurt Afghan heroin producers, who flourished when the Burmese supply dried up). The government has encouraged some tribes to switch sides, and oppose the rebel tribes, by giving them permission to grow poppies (which produces opium and, with a chemical transformation, heroin). In the last year, Burmese heroin went from five percent of the world's supply, to over 12 percent. Meanwhile, some tribes have switched to methamphetamine, which does not require growing poppies (for opium and heroin), just chemicals smuggled in from China (which is a growing market for illegal drugs). 

Despite shutting down the Chinese construction of a $3.6 billion hydroelectric dam in northern Kachin State, the workers and equipment are still there. So are the security forces guarding the site. And some work continues, mainly that of surveyors and road builders preparing future stages of the project. Thus it appears the work is actually being delayed, not halted. The government has also released some political prisoners (although most of those released were common criminals). The government has also made another deal with India to chase Indian rebels out of their border sanctuaries in Burma. India responded with a $500 million loan, to be used to buy Indian goods and build infrastructure in Burma. This is all part of the Burmese strategy of playing India and China off against each other.

In Kachin and Shan state, army troops continue advancing on several fronts against Kachin tribal rebels. The government appears determined to shut down the Kachin rebels, and keep them down, for at least a few years. Thus the major, and expensive, military effort up north.

October 15, 2011: In western Burma, Arakan and Karen rebels joined forces to attack an army convoy. This is another indication that the government effort to divide and conquer the tribes is falling apart. The Arakan and Karen tribes have been allied in the past, and apparently are again.

October 11, 2011: The government enacted a new law that allowed workers to form labor unions and strike. This is a big change, but may be reversed if there is too much labor unrest.

October 2, 2011: In Kachin State, a bomb exploded while a rebel was setting it up, killing only the rebel.

September 30, 2011:  In a surprise move, the government ordered a halt to a construction of a hydroelectric dam in northern Kachin State. The tribes up there, and many other Burmese, had objected to the project, which mainly benefitted China (who was buying most of the power.)

September 27, 2011: In northern Shan State, a four day battle with Kachin tribal rebels resulted in the rebels losing the main base of one of its brigades. The fighting is taking place near where several hydroelectric dams are being built by the Chinese.


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