Myanmar: What the Generals Left Behind


February 20, 2019: Still no solution to the Rohingya Moslems who have been driven into neighboring Bangladesh. The UN is seeking nearly a billion dollars from aid donors to pay for supporting the 900,000 Rohingya still stuck in Bangladesh refugee camps. Despite considerable efforts to persuade Burma to take the Rohingya back, it was pretty obvious at the end of 2018 that previous plans had failed. One glitch was the failure to persuade Rohingya Moslems to leave Bangladesh and return to Burma. This effort has been suspended with Burma and Bangladesh agreeing to work towards trying again in 2019. Not much progress so far. The fundamental problem remains; Burma does not want to take back the refugees and the Rohingya are unwilling to return as long as Burma continues to tolerate the hostile public attitudes towards the Rohingya. The Burmese Buddhist nationalists who started all the violence in 2012 were reviving a decades old hostility towards the Rohingya. The hostility was made worse by the upsurge in Islamic terrorism worldwide since the 1990s. Finally, the military commanders who had given up most of their power in 2011 and allowed democracy to return after half a century of military rule saw the Rohingya violence (which the army participated in) as a possible way to regain more of their political power. That would happen because Western nations are now considering reviving economic sanctions for Burma because of the unresolved Rohingya refugee problem. China is hoping for the worst because that would mean Burma would be largely dependent on China for trade and investment. It would make Burma a Chinese dependency (sort of like North Korea) and the Burmese don’t care for that but that the army leadership is comfortable with it.

A Loathsome Legacy

Decades of military rule left Burma one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. The 2018 international corruption ratings show that Burma is still near the bottom when it comes to corruption (132 out of 180 nations compared with 130 in 2017). Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Burma score is 29 (versus 30 in 2017) compared to 39 (41) for China, 40 (40) for India, 33 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 72 (73) for Japan, 38 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 31 (33) for the Maldives, 36 (34) for the Philippines, 63 (61) for Taiwan, 29 (29) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 14 (17) for North Korea, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 28 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 72 (75) for the United States, 27 (27) for Nigeria, 43 (43) for South Africa, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Burma’s corruption score has changed a lot since democracy was restored in 2011. Back in 2012 it was 15. That went up to 21 in 2012 and has continued to rise despite the military resisting attacks on their many scams, especially in the northern tribal areas.

Another legacy of military rule is the drug trade, which the military tolerated and profited from and continued to do so. The neighbors, especially China are getting more vocal and demanding something be done about all the drugs coming out of northern Burma, specifically opium, heroin and methamphetamine. Shan state, which is on the Chinese border, remains the largest source of illegal drugs in the region. Opium and heroin used to be the major source of income but those old staples are being displaced by methamphetamine. The Burmese methamphetamine production (over 300 tons a year and growing rapidly) is a major regional problem that is worth more than $40 billion a year and that is a tremendous incentive for tribal drug gangs and corrupt government officials to help keep it going, The meth (usually in pill form) is called yaba locally and is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and China. There are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand alone, plus many tourists who indulge. Most (nearly half) of yaba goes to China, followed by Thailand. 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 only real competition in the region is North Korea, which continues to produce and export the meth despite promises to China that North Korean meth would not go to Chinese dealers.

The neighbors are aware that the Burmese drug gangs have local security forces on the payroll, which is why these clashes with Burmese drug smugglers only seem to happen in Thailand. China plays down the fact that the smugglers don’t have much trouble on the Chinese side of the border because of corruption. This is most obvious when you consider that the chemicals needed to “cook” meth are smuggled in from China. Moreover, the drug trade in this area goes back a long time. The area was a known source of opium for many centuries. First as a valuable and expensive medicine (pain killer) and eventually, for wealthy Chinese, a recreational drug. In the 1700s the Chinese tried, with some success, to ban opium exports to China. The northern tribes of Burma have maintained their armies of well-armed, well trained and very motivated soldiers for generations because of the drug income. Soldiers going after the drug armies are offered a choice; bribes or bullets. The bribes are the more popular choice. The Shan drug gangs have also found that meth is more popular, easier to produce and distribute the product. Farmers who long prospered growing the poppies opium is obtained from, are now contemplating a future when they will have to switch to other crops. Many are considering offers to switch to coffee plants. This is not as profitable as poppies but is legal and foreign financing and technical assistance is available. Over a thousand small farmers have made the switch since 2015 and most have succeeded, which encourages more farmers to switch. There are other valuable crops available, like avocado, which sell for a premium in many foreign markets.

In the last few years, the cropland devoted to poppies has shrunk by over 15 percent and the decline is accelerating. The farmers and the Shan state population, in general, have another problem. The yaba is cheaper and more addictive than opium and heroin, and addiction is becoming a big problem. The drug gangs meet criticism with death threats. This causes more local unrest which is something Chinese threats could never do.

February 16, 2019: In the northwest (Sagaing Region, which is west of Kachin State), across the border in India hundreds of additional Indian troops arrived at portions of the border where Indian and Burmese Naga rebels have been operating. India fears the rebels will cross into India if only to escape Burmese troops. Most of the Naga people are Indian but some live in the Burmese far north Sagaing Region and belong to the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) which wants to form an independent Nagaland including Indian and Burmese territory and Naga people from both countries. The base shut down in Sagaing Region belonged to the NSCN-K faction of the NSCN. There are believed to be about 5,000 active rebels in NSCN with about ten percent of them Burmese Naga. The Naga are actually about two million people from a collection of tribes that share many ethnic (Burma-Tibetan) characteristics and traditions. About ten percent of the Naga live in Burma but most of the rebel violence occurs in Indian Nagaland. For years the Naga rebels have used bases in Burma to train and rest before returning to fight in India. After much diplomatic pressure, the Burmese army finally went after the Naga rebel camps and have now shut most of them down. The Naga rebels do not fight the Burmese soldiers but always retreat.

February 15, 2019: The head of the Burmese Army said, in a media interview, that there is no proof that the Burmese army deliberately attacked the Rohingya population and forced a million of them into Bangladesh, where most remain. The UN believes otherwise and wants to prosecute Burmese army leaders for crimes against humanity.

February 14, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), AA (Arakan Army) rebels claim to have killed ten troops and wounded many more in several clashes. For nearly a year now soldiers have been fighting the AA rebels for control of territory along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states). The fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance. The AA had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in early 2016 as troops moved into territory where AA rebels were known to operate. All this was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case, the AA had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the AA and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many AA supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the AA was never given official recognition, in large part because the AA was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless as in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not many violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have announced they are establishing a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state.

February 12, 2019: In the north (Shan State), several days of fighting between rival SSPP and RCSS tribal militias (over territory) caused some casualties plus about a thousand local villagers were forced to flee the area until the fighting subsides. These violent feuds have been going on for over a year with nearly one clash a week.

February 7, 2019: In the north (Kachin State), some 10,000 locals held a very vocal protest against the Chinese Myitsone dam. This is a very visible response to the Chinese ambassador, who visited Kachin State at the end of 2018 and bluntly told local officials that if China were not allowed to resume work on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project there would be serious consequences for Kachin state and Burma in general. After the visit, China reported that the ambassador found most people in northern Burma did not oppose the Chinese projects. The reaction in northern Burma was to accuse the ambassador of ignoring reality.

The dam project was the result of studies done in the late 1990s to develop the border areas and control flooding. Originally scheduled to be operational by 2017 the Myitsone project has been shut down since 2011 because of corruption charges (largely true) and armed resistance from local tribal rebels. China was always willing to make concessions to save the dam project but has been unable to agree with Burma on terms. Meanwhile, conditions in China have changed. Originally China needed the 6,000 MW of electrical power generated by Myitsone and 90 percent of it was going to China. But in the last few years Chinese economic growth has slowed and with that the need for additional electric power. Actually, there are now electricity surpluses in parts of China bordering Burma and the Chinese have been offering to export some of that electric power to northern Burma (which still has an electricity shortage). Because of this many similar Chinese development projects in northern Burma (other dams, new mines and lots of road and bridge building to support it all) are no longer as important to China.

Burma is willing to let Chinese development projects to go forward in the north as long as there is minimal corruption and misbehavior. That means compensating the local landowners (mainly tribes that have been in the area for centuries) fairly. China, however, wanted more than just the electrical power and profits from these investments. China also wants some diplomatic assistance, apparently regarding North Korea, South China Sea and other sensitive matters. China has been willing to negotiate with Burma and compromise on its unpopular economic activities, mainly in the north. China is also offering good deals (low prices) on modern military equipment and that has the Burmese military leadership interested. Meanwhile the border tribes have to go along with any Chinese settlement and the tribes don’t want the Burmese troops to have more effective weapons. The Kachin tribes don’t trust the Chinese or their own government.

February 6, 2019: The parliament is defying the military by officially discussing ways to break the veto power over constitutional changes the military obtained as a condition of allowing democracy to return. This effort has been underway for nearly a year. In March 2018 the newly elected Burmese president said he would work to change the constitution that grants the army a lot of political power and bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. The 2011 constitution gives the military control of all the security forces (police, border patrol and so on) as well as 25 percent of the seats in parliament. A few other items were added as well, like barring Aung San Suu Kyi (a key leader in the effort for forces the generals from power) from high office. Changing the 2011 constitution won’t be easy, even is such a move is supported by most Burmese. The military will not surrender their constitutional privileges willingly and have been cultivating their relationship with the Chinese. But the Burmese generals really have few friends as the Chinese will do business with whoever is in power.

February 1, 2019: In the northwest (Sagaing Region), troops shut down a base Naga tribal rebels had established in Burma just over the border from Indian Nagaland. This operation took about three days. The Burmese troops continued searching for and destroying Naga camps for the rest of February.

January 25, 2019: In parliament elected (as opposed to those appointed by the military) members are calling for the Chinese portion of the national debt to be paid off as soon as possible. About 40 percent of the $10 billion national debt is owed to China and much of it was taken on in the few years before the army allowed the return of democracy in 2011. The Chinese debt also carries a high-interest rate, something the Chinese insisted on.


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