Myanmar: Divide And Keep Conquered


July 30, 2014: Growing popular opposition to the remaining military control of the government is not making much progress. The military still controls (via corruption or coercion) the government bureaucracy, especially the courts, police and, of course, the military. This enables the generals to hit back hard at opponents. Journalists are being sent to jail and popular demonstrations are suppressed by police. The courts regularly rule against tribes that bring lawsuits against illegal land grabs and similar misbehavior (by military owned or backed companies) in the north. Meanwhile the anti-Moslem paranoia of the Buddhist clergy is largely left alone. The generals know that the continuing attention Islamic terrorist atrocities get in the international media makes it difficult for sufficient international pressure to build against Burma for bad treatment of the Moslem minority in Burma.

The military continue to work out peace deals with tribal rebels while also continuing attacks on troublesome (to military economic interests) tribal rebels along the borders. The army believes it has to maintain an aggressive stance or else the tribal rebels will unite and become a serious problem. As far as the tribal minority in the north is concerned the government is continuing to break promises like they have been doing since 1948 when modern Burma was created by the departing British colonial officials. The British gave Burma control of remote tribal areas that the pre-colonial Burmese kingdoms had generally left alone and, at best, considered buffers with China and Thailand. After 1948 the ethnic Burmese saw the tribal territories as an economic opportunity and moved in like never before. This created friction and the tribes and the ethnic Burmese down south have been fighting ever since.

The government effort to negotiate peace with the tribes is hampered by distrust and the refusal of the tribes to disband the governmental institutions the tribes have built. The government is particularly hostile to the tribes taking over police and taxation in the areas the tribal militias control. The taxation often includes road checkpoints by the tribal “police” that collect fees from any vehicles that wish to get through the area. The tribes don’t trust police or taxpayers from the south because the ethnic Burmese who work those jobs are seen as hopelessly corrupt and not very efficient either.

International banks and other lenders (like the IMF) are telling Burma some fundamental changes are necessary before Burma will see a lot of foreign investment. In particular something must be done about the extensive corruption. This makes it difficult for all businesses to operate. Then there is the lingering power of the army. The foreign investors and most Burmese are pressuring the Burmese military must allow the 2008 constitution (created when the military government was still in control) to be modified to eliminate the excessive power of the military in the new democratic government. For example, the 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and requires 75 percent of the votes in parliament to get the constitution changed. The generals are reluctant to allow these changes because so many Burmese are still angry at the decades of bad behavior by the military government. Without some control over the government the generals who ran the military dictatorship (and many of their subordinates) could be prosecuted for their crimes. The generals are under a lot of pressure over the constitutional reform issue. Burmese businessmen and foreign investors also back a reduction of military control, mainly because the military is the main source of the widespread corruption that cripples the economy.

Speaking of corruption, the neighbors are having more problems with the growing drug trade in Burma. Since 2006 Burma has gone from being the source of seven percent of the world illegal production of opium and heroin to 18 percent. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine production is possibly the largest in the world and a major regional problem. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be at millions of meth addicts in China and Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge.  Most of the meth goes to China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business. The smugglers have become more resourceful and less of the smuggled meth is seized by police. The main beneficiaries of the drug trade are the tribal armies along the borders of China and Thailand.

The UN, the United States and most Moslem countries continue, without much success, pressuring Burma to make the Moslem Rohingya people in Burma citizens. This would, according to the foreigners, halt the violence between Moslems and Buddhists in Burma. That’s unlikely as far as the Burmese are concerned. The Burmese also point out that the problem of countries refusing to grant citizenship to a minority is an old one that is not easily solved. The most notorious example of this is found in Arab nations where it is quite common. The most troublesome example is the Palestinians, who are refused citizenship in most Arab countries. This citizenship for migrants issue is less of a problem in Western nations and a few Middle Eastern ones (like Israel and Jordan) but is not really an anti-Palestinian effort as much as it is the continuation of an ancient practice which are common in eastern Asia as well. Burma refuses to consider making the Rohingya Burmese citizens, despite the fact that most Rohingya have lived in Burma for over a century. Some Rohingya still have kin back in Bangladesh but tend to consider themselves Burmese. Meanwhile there is growing popular anger among Burmese towards Moslems in general and the Rohingya in particular. This is fed by the continuing reports of Islamic terrorism word-wide and especially in the region (Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China). The wealthy Arab oil states have put their considerable diplomatic and economic pressure on the UN to make a fuss but the Burmese generals know this can be safely ignored as they have been ignoring UN criticism for over half a century and getting away with it. The Arabs don’t get a lot of sympathy outside the Moslem world because anyone who can count notes that there is a lot more oppression and violence against non-Moslems by Moslems than the other way around.

The generals are hard negotiators. The tribes find that peace agreements with the government require continued negotiations (and concessions) to get government compliance. Case in point is the current effort by the tribes to get the military to remove old mines. Since the 1960s over 100,000 landmines were planted by the military. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and major bases or government controlled towns. Few of these mines were ever cleared and the government refuses to start work on that despite all the talk of peace. The mines are a constant hazard in the thinly populated tribal areas and make a lot of grazing and farm land too dangerous to use. The military has offered to clear some mines if the tribes will reduce their operations or move their gunmen away from key roads or new economic enterprises up there that the military has an interest in. The tribes are reluctant to do this because that means abandoning tribal people who are being forcibly displaced from land they have occupied for centuries.

July 29, 2014: A meeting of tribal leaders in the north agreed to press the government for a federal form of government. This would give the tribes more control over their own affairs. But the way politics and economics currently work in Burma the military can block any tribal interference that hurts military business interests in north by using force. The military is not going to give up its power in the north easily or willingly.

July 24, 2014: The government has now agreed to allow foreign aid groups return to the camps used by Moslem refugees in the northwest. Between February and April officials increased restrictions on foreign aid groups working along the northwestern coastal area. These aid groups provided essential support for the refugees as well as many other Moslems in the area. This amounted to aid for over half a million people, most of them Moslems. The government found itself on the receiving end of considerable international diplomatic and media pressure to back off here. What the government was really angry about was the fact that aid groups had become a prime source of data for foreign journalists on violence against Burmese Moslems. The government accused the aid groups of giving out exaggerated and one-sided information, which is very common with foreign aid groups everywhere. These groups depend on donations to operate and their most effective pitch for donations is via international media. The media is more likely to do stories on extreme events than something that has become ordinary and routine. The government was also angry at the fact that the aid groups’ version of events was considered more reliable than what the government put out and tended to ignore the casualties suffered by non-Moslem Burmese. What the government really wants is for the foreign aid workers to shut up but that wasn’t happening. Many foreign aid workers are idealists and many are volunteers who feel a duty to report what they see. The government believes they have an understanding with the foreign aid groups now, but that remains to be seen. With the aid groups back in action the government saves millions of dollars they would otherwise have to spend to supply the refugees. The Burmese have a long standing policy of not backing down to pressure from foreign media and aid groups so this new unspoken deal may work.

July 21, 2014: The government said that a 2011 deal with China to extend the Chinese railroad system through Burma via a new 1,200 kilometer line to Burma’s northwest coast has been cancelled. There was much popular opposition in Burma to the project, especially in the north. The tribes saw the Chinese railroad as another opportunity for the southerners to seize tribal land and bring in more settlers from the south. When the deal was signed both the government and China realized that there was a lot of opposition in Burma to it and believed they could placate that opposition before the three year “start by” clause in the contract expired. That did not work out as hoped.  This does not mean that the Chinese will not try again.

July 20, 2014: In the north (Shan state) the army attacked and eventually took a camp of the SSA-N tribal rebels. Elsewhere in Shan state the army moved more troops to confront units of the United Wa Army, which is the one tribal army up north that continues to refuse to even talk peace with the government. Low level combat has continued in Shan state throughout July has it also did in June.

State controlled media admitted what many Burmese already believed; that a false rape claim by a Buddhist woman was the cause of recent (July 1st) anti-Moslem riots in Mandalay that left two dead, over 20 injured and caused thousands of Moslems to flee their homes over several days. Much damage was done to Moslem businesses and residences. Early on there were rumors of anti-Moslem activists paying the woman to give false testimony. Hundreds of people have been arrested in connection with the riots and many non-Moslems are angry about the curfew imposed to halt the unrest. The Chinese minority (about a third of the million people in the city) are particularly angry at the Buddhists activists who were believed to have staged the unrest.

July 12, 2014: The government began a widely publicized crackdown on smuggling along the Thailand border. In particular the security forces were out to interfere with drug smuggling. The drug trade up there is largely controlled by the (often rebellious) tribal militias. Without the drug profits these tribal militias would not be able to restrict army operations in the north. More vehicle traffic is now being inspected, forcing the drug producers to move the opium, heroin and amphetamine into Thailand off the roads (using porters and animals). This is slower and more expensive, but does not do significant damage to the tribal drug income. Not all the drugs are produced by anti-government tribes. Some tribal militias have made peace with the government in return for unofficial permission to produce drugs. This has become a problem because a lot of these drugs end up being sold to locals (especially young men) and a coalition of Karen tribes recently formed an anti-drug alliance to try and shut down the government supported drug production by some pro-government Karen tribes. The government has used these divide and conquer tactics in the tribal territories for decades.

July 11, 2014: Neighboring Bangladesh enacted a law that prohibits Burmese Rohingyas from marrying Bangladeshi Rohingyas in order to obtain Bangladesh citizenship. The Rohingya tribes have long lived on both sides of the border and Bangladesh (90 percent Moslem) wants Burma (4 percent Moslem) to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas who migrated to Burma over the last two centuries.



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