Myanmar: The Best Generals Money Can Buy


March 4, 2013: In the two months since troops up north captured, after seven months of fighting, the hilltop headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the rebels there have been on the defensive. The KIA agreed to peace talks after their January defeat, but these have been delayed several times. China has moved several more battalions of infantry to the border, as a sign to the KIA that the rebels cannot use bases in China to launch attacks into Burma.

After losing their headquarters the KIA quickly moved many of their gunmen and headquarters personnel across the border into China. But once in China, the KIA will have to avoid appearing to be using China as a base for operations in Burma. Otherwise the Chinese will be obliged to come after the KIA, despite the rugged terrain along the border. China tolerates all sorts of odd characters along the border, as long as there is no violence or interferences with the government. Over 20,000 Kachins have fled into China to avoid the violence. Hundreds of Kachin women and children have been killed or injured by army operations. This includes frequent cases of rape by Burmese soldiers. This sort of thing is not uncommon, as the ethnic Burmese from down south have always looked down on the northern tribes. The KIA fled into China because of the many casualties they were taking from artillery and air raids. KIA fighters continue to kill and wound troops by attacking their long supply lines along the few roads in the north. KIA gunmen are also attacking businesses run by government supporters. Despite this, the army is moving more troops north and, as they long have done, abusing the local civilians by allowing troops to get away with rape and robbery, as well as forcing civilians to provide laborers or vehicles. The troops also headed for ruby mining areas along the Chinese border. This is actually small scale mining, with not a lot of rubies being found each year. But it’s enough to encourage many locals to look. Now the soldiers are looking for people who have some of those gems.

Elsewhere in the far north the Shan State Army–South (SSA-S) is under more pressure from the army, which earlier this year advanced into tribal territory in violation of a December 2011 peace deal. This has led to a growing number of skirmishes. The army is apparently trying to interfere with the tribal drug operations up north. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring United Wa State Army (UWSA) militia, and these two groups are making a lot of money in the drug business. Opium and heroin production have been revived in the past few years. Production of methamphetamine is huge. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Over the last few years production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields (opium is the sap of poppy plants) and these labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially the United Wa State Army, use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters and run their own government. The government has been in a weak bargaining position here but always had the option to declare the militias in violation of the 2011 peace deal and renew fighting. The government has made no official announcement about the state of the peace deal with SSA-S and UWSA, and this is apparently another case of the army acting on its own. The army says it is merely providing security for a road building project and that the SSA-S has delayed working out details of the peace deal.

The army gets away with these independent (of government control) operations because the new constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament. That, plus other economic allies in parliament, gives the generals a fair bit of freedom from government interference. The non-military politicians believe that in a few years they will have the votes to remove the mandatory 25 percent rule and trim the independence of the military. The generals still possess considerable economic, as well as military, power. The army could still simply take control of the government again if they wished. This would be somewhat suicidal, considering the international and economic backlash. While China might agree to the generals regaining control, Chinese economic aid would not be enough to keep a new military dictatorship afloat. So the politicians and generals dance around each other. While unpopular with foreigners, the army’s unauthorized operations in the tribal north are popular with most Burmese, at least among the non-tribal majority in the south. Most Burmese are less enthusiastic about the large chunk (over 20 percent) of the national budget the army takes. That will decline as the number of army controlled seats in parliament does.

In the south the increase of foreign investment (since the generals allowed an elected government to take over two years ago) is revealing a dark side. The new foreign money and economic freedom means there is a growing need for land to build on. The generals had, before they surrendered power, basically stolen a lot of land, at least on paper. Now police are showing up with these documents and telling farmers and villagers to move. Many of the dispossessed will not leave and there has been more and more violence. Many Burmese see this as a growing problem, as army schemes to steal are increasingly uncovered. It’s generally known that the generals have profited from many of the Chinese investments, especially in the tribal north, over the last decade. Follow the illegal money and you will often find senior army officers and wealthy foreigners, usually Chinese, providing the cash.

Violence between the Moslem Rohingya and Buddhist locals continues along the west coast. Since last June nearly 200 people (mostly Rohingya) have died in ethnic and religious violence in Rakhine State, which has a population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostly Rohingyas. These are Bengalis, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh), who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). The current violence has caused over 100,000 Rohingya to flee their homes, many of them seeking shelter in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. The Rohingya say the government is starving those in refugee camps and not punishing local Buddhists who attack Moslems.

February 13, 2013: In central Burma violence continues at the site of a Chinese copper mine. Efforts to build this mine ran into problems when locals, who were not consulted or compensated, were confronted by police demanding they vacate their property so the Chinese could use it for the mine. The locals, most of them tribal, resisted. This became a political issue down south, as it resonated with corruption and Chinese payoffs that the new democratic government promised to eliminate. But a lot of these deals are still in force and that is proving to be an embarrassment for the officials who negotiated the terms and got paid off.

February 11, 2013: Several foreign journalists working in Burma received emails from their email provider (Google) warning that hackers, apparently working for a foreign government (China or Burma, most likely) had been trying to get at specific email accounts and that Google was warning those on the target list to be careful.


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