Myanmar: The Bloody Cost Of Doing Business


December 24, 2013: While the government has negotiated a new round of truce deals with the northern tribes the tribal people who had fled the recent fighting are returning to find yet another reason to start fighting once more. This is actually an old problem that has gotten worse; southerners with lawyers, false documents and rented soldiers telling tribal families that they do not own the land they have been occupying for centuries. This sharp increase in this sort of thing is a side effect of all the new Chinese investment in the tribal north.

There has always been some Chinese investment in the north. For one thing, the Chinese are only there for the money and are armed only for self-defense. So they are seen as less of a threat than the ethnic Burmese southerners. Many of the northern tribes are ethnically Chinese and settled in northern Burma after fleeing Chinese imperial rule or yet another civil war. China is surrounded by such groups, which is always a side effect of empire building.

Three decades of unprecedented economic growth in China has caused even more Chinese and their new wealth to find its way into northern Burma looking for profitable opportunities. In the last decade that has led to some major (multi-billion dollar), government backed investments in hydroelectric dams and mines. Those sorts of projects need legal protections, especially ownership of or legal access to lots of land. Each major project creates the need for hundreds of smaller enterprises and lots of economic growth in general. All these businesses want legal ownership or leases on land. Burmese entrepreneurs from down south are glad to oblige and bribe (or partner with) government officials and military commanders up north to “legally” steal tribal land. Eventually this leads to another tribal rebellion, but that’s simply a cost of doing business up north.

One of the many side effects of this economic boom and more corruption in the tribal territories has been an increase in drug (opium and meth) production up there. For the past decade the government has been going after the Kachin because of their growing involvement in producing and distributing methamphetamine. Another favorite is heroin and opium. The tribes, under pressure from Chinese investors and aggressive southerners need the cash to survive. Most of the drugs are exported via Thailand (where some of the drugs would create a lot of local addicts). The

The recently replaced (by elections) Burmese military dictatorship used drug production as a weapon against rebellious tribes by allowing pro-government tribes to produce and smuggle drugs unhindered. Before long rebel tribes were attacking these drug operations. The growing (or returning) heroin trade is also a source of income for the government, and the government was unhappy with the losses caused by rebel attacks. To make matters worse, some of the heroin gangs were paying the tribal rebels for protection. Meanwhile, the government has been sending troops to destroy poppy fields belonging to hostile tribes.

This is all a 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 after that. This has hurt Afghan heroin producers, who flourished when the Burmese supply dried up in the late 1990s. The government had 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). This has had an impact on the world heroin supply. In 2011 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). 

December 19, 2013: Japan signed an economic cooperation deal that will lead to a lot more Japanese investment in Burma.

December 18, 2013: In the north (Shan state) a bomb went off killing three people and wounding two. No one took responsibility.

December 17, 2013: The U.S. imposed sanctions on three companies and one individual in Burma because of illegally doing business with North Korea.

December 16, 2013: In the north police arrested 16 Chinese (and five Burmese guides) who were in restricted areas looking for mineral deposits. The Chinese will help establish an illegal mining operation if they find anything and smuggle the precious ores into China. What was surprising about this incident is that the Chinese were not able to bribe the police to go away and keep it all quiet. Some government officials in the north are trying to keep the Chinese out so that Burmese entrepreneurs can (legally or otherwise) exploit the metals. This is typical of the north, especially the areas close to the Chinese and Thai borders. The illegal opportunities have brought in a lot of money, guns and violence because there is little law enforcement up there and disputes are often settled with violence not court proceedings.

December 6, 2013: In the north (Shan state) three people died in two incidents of unmapped landmines going off. The mines, often locally made, were used mainly by tribal rebels to slow down army operations. The rebels usually removed mines that were no longer needed but in situations where rebel units were wiped out or driven from an area, mines would be left in the ground until someone stumbled across them. Each year 50-100 people are killed or wounded in such incidents up north.

October 26, 2013: The government reports that it has arrested 93 people for crimes committed during last months’ religious violence in Thandwe.  Another 71 people are being sought. In the last year nearly 300 have been killed in such Buddhist-Moslem violence and nearly 200,000 driven from their homes.

October 24, 2013: In the north there is a refugee crises as aid groups try to reach nearly 100,000 tribal people who have fled recent fighting.




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