Myanmar: No Retreat


September 17, 2012: China is not happy that its $3.6 billion dam project in the northern tribal lands is still stalled because of popular opposition. Pipeline building projects (to get Persian Gulf oil to western China more cheaply) are also under pressure. Because of that, and the recent switch from dictatorship to dictator-approved democracy, finding the right people to bribe in Burma has been difficult. The Chinese will keep trying until they find the right combination of Burmese officials they can buy or coerce.

Meanwhile, the military keeps fighting tribal rebels in the north. Peace deals are frequent and don't last mainly because the army continues its aggressive patrolling and tend to fight any armed rebels it encounters. Even with the new democratic government, there is not a lot of trust between the tribal groups and the more numerous lowland Burmese.

Another intractable situation concerns the Moslems in northwest Rakhine State. In the last three months violence there has caused over a thousand casualties, most of them Moslem, and left thousands of buildings destroyed. This has displaced nearly 100,000 people (about 75 percent Moslem). The Moslems and Buddhists have never gotten along in Rakhine State and there's always been some tension. Until recently the military government suppressed any open talk of these problems. But since the elections last year, there's been more freedom of the press and that has included more public discussion by Buddhists about how much they dislike the Moslem Rohingyas. Burma is about 70 percent ethnic Burmese (Burman) and 90 percent Buddhist. Only four percent of the 60 million Burmese are Moslem and a little over half of the 2.4 million Moslems are Rohingyas. Burma and neighboring Thailand and parts of Vietnam are an island of Buddhism surrounded by Moslems who are seen as aggressive and threatening. That fear goes back for centuries, even though most of the Moslem converts to the south and east were obtained by persuasion, not conquest. India, to the west, was a different story, the Moslems there have been fighting for nearly a thousand years to force Hindus (and any other non-Moslems) to convert. The current wave of Islamic terrorism is seen as another chapter in that sad story.

Most of the current Burmese ethnic and religious violence is 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, but the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45).

Bangladesh has refused to take these Moslems back as Bangladeshis, and the Rohingya have come to consider themselves a separate group. Burma never let the Rohingya become citizens, which helped stoke tensions between the Moslems and Buddhists. Bangladesh has long had too many people and illegal migration to neighboring areas (mainly India) has been a growing problem. In the 1990s, an outbreak of violence led to over a quarter million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Some 28,000 are in refugee camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live outside the camps in Bangladesh and some are in Thailand, where they are considered economic migrants and thus illegal. The Rohingya have the support (for being allowed to stay in Burma) of the worldwide Moslem community. This makes the Burmese more determined to defeat this "Moslem invasion" and the more militant Buddhists are demanding that the Rohingya be expelled from Burma. That won't work because no one will take them. Moslem countries don't believe in that kind of retreat and that scares the Burmese Buddhists even more.  Despite the stand-off, thousands of Rohingya are fleeing, mostly to Bangladesh, which does not want them. The Burmese are forcing Rohingya in the northwest to move to all-Rohingya communities and encouraging Rohingya to stay away from non-Moslems.

There is similar fear of the non-Burmese (and often non-Buddhist) tribes in the north. In this case it's the Burmese who are invading the thinly populated tribal territories and the tribes don't like it. The tribal areas were not part of Burma until Britain made it so when their Burmese colony was granted independence after World War II. That bit of post-colonial nation building has never worked out.  

The generals who ran the half-century old military dictatorship are still key players in the new democracy. The reform minded generals (who convinced their fellow generals to allow democracy or face eventual economic collapse and civil war) got themselves and many of their allies elected to the new parliament. Other generals still control the military, police, and large chunks of the economy. While the generals have given up a lot of power, they still hold onto a lot of it and are unwilling to give it all up. The democratic reformers, who have been fighting the generals for decades are proceeding carefully, as they also want to avoid provoking the hardline generals into another military takeover and civil war.

The generals are slowly giving up a lot of their power, along with the tools they used to maintain their dictatorship. The parliament is passing laws, despite many pro-military members, that attack military privilege and control. With more long-time reformers in the government many aspects of military rule are being torn down. This includes censorship and tools like a secret blacklist, that named Burmese who were not to be allowed to travel abroad and foreigners who were never to be allowed to enter Burma. The pro-military members of the government are fighting complete elimination of the blacklist, and pro-military officials can still make it difficult for reformers to get passports.

August 28, 2012: President Thein Sein pardoned three Burmese Moslems employed by the UN who were recently convicted by a Rakhine State court of aiding Rohingya rioters and inciting unrest.

August 26, 2012: India believes that several tribal separatist groups have fled to Burma after Bangladesh security forces attacked the camps they had long used along the Indian border.



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