Myanmar: The Moslem Problem


April 30, 2013: China is reported to have delivered up to five M-17 helicopters, some armed with Chinese heat-seeking missiles, to the UWSA (United Wa State Army) in the north. This would enable the UWSA to effectively attack government Mi-24 helicopter gunships, as well as more quickly move armed men and supplies around the sparely populated and generally roadless border region. China has long tolerated the UWSA buying small arms (mortars, machine-guns, and 12.7mm sniper rifles), uniforms, and other military gear from Chinese traders along the border. But Mi-17s are a lot more expensive (over $5 million each new, less than half that if second-hand) and require trained operators and maintainers (who are probably Chinese). China has long used these Russian Mi-17s and manufactures them under license. The helicopters may have been leased from the Chinese or simply loaned to the UWSA for a while.

China denies supporting the UWSA on its border but apparently UWSA has some kind of arrangement with the Chinese government, who allow armed UWSA fighters to enter Chinese border towns to do business. The UWSA signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 1989, apparently with the understanding that the government would not interfere with UWSA drug operations (mainly methamphetamine but also opium and heroin). China tolerates this as long as most of the drugs flow into Thailand and not China. All these deals rely on the cooperation of corrupt officials because neither Burma nor China officially supports the production of illegal drugs. The Burmese are upset at continued shipments of Chinese weapons to the UWSA, including some armored vehicles. The helicopter deal is particularly scary. China denies all this, although the UWSA largely use Chinese weapons (but then, so do the Burmese troops). Burma does not press China too hard on this issue because China is a major, if not the major, foreign investor in Burma. Letting the UWSA get helicopters may be a Chinese ploy to persuade the Burmese government to allow China to resume its dam building (for producing electricity for China), mining, and oil pipeline operations in the north. In the last month the government has been more hostile to locals who have been protesting the Chinese operations up north. In the last week the police have been much more violent against the protesters. The main cause of opposition to the Chinese mines and pipelines is the government corruption that saw local farmers lose their land without fair (or sometimes any) compensation. Local tribes see the Chinese projects as another way to displace them from the areas they have lived in for centuries.

The anti-Moslem violence continues and there appears to be no end in sight. The Moslems live in the south, often in separate neighborhoods but right next to Buddhists. The anti-Moslem violence is spreading, sustained by generations of bad relations between Moslems and non-Moslems. With the police state government gone for two years now, people are free to act on their ethnic and religious hatreds and there’s more of it in Burma than the pro-democracy movement leaders realized. Just because you wish it weren’t so won’t make it go away. How to deal with these violent attitudes is giving the new government big headaches. This is especially true when orders to fix things are given but are not carried out. Senior officials say (and often believe) all the right things. But the closer you get to the violence the more you find local officials that are not inclined to be nice to the minorities. As a result it’s difficult to get the mob leaders and the killers prosecuted or the refugee camps for Moslems run properly.

In the far north the Shan State Army–South (SSA-S) continues to battle soldiers who, since January, have been advancing into tribal territory in violation of a December 2011 peace deal. This has led to a growing number of skirmishes and, in the last few weeks, over a thousand villagers have fled the violence. The army is apparently also trying to interfere with the tribal drug operations up north. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring UWSA, 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 the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. The tribal rebels, especially the UWSA, use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters and run their rebel organizations. 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 officially renew the fighting.

April 29, 2013: The government issued a long awaited report on how to deal with the problem of violence by the Buddhist majority against the Moslem minority. The main recommendations were to double the number of security personnel (mainly police, who tend to be Buddhist) in areas where Moslems live and to introduce family planning education to Moslem communities and make birth-control measures available. Most (89 percent) of Burmese are Buddhist, with the rest being Moslem (4 percent), Christian (4 percent), Hindu (one percent), and various others (two percent). In some cities and towns Moslems are 10-30 percent of the local population. Relations are not always harmonious between ethnic (Buddhist) Burmese and Moslems (who are often not ethnic Burmese). Islam is the most intolerant religion in the region and Hindus and Buddhists have long reciprocated. This has caused centuries of tension that occasionally breaks out into deadly violence. The Moslems in Burma have a higher birth rate than ethnic Burmese and there is a fear that, long-term, Moslems are trying to force ethnic Burmese out of Burma. While the Hindu, Christian, and other religious minorities strive to get along with the Buddhist majority the Moslems are less inclined to do this. Then there have been several decades of increasing Islamic terrorism worldwide. Some local Buddhist religious and political leaders have exploited the anti-Moslem feelings to expand their own power. The government study group did not see any quick solution to the problem. Shutting down anti-Moslem media activity by Buddhist religious and political leaders cannot be done openly because most Burmese agree that the Moslems are a problem. Foreign governments from the West and the Islamic world urge the government to crack down but since Burma is now a democracy, making such a move would be political suicide and result in politicians getting elected who are even more anti-Moslem.

April 23, 2013: The government announced it was freeing about a hundred prisoners, most of them jailed for political activity (against the former military dictatorship). This was apparently in response to the EU (European Union) dropping trade sanctions against Burma. The government had released over 800 political prisoners in the last two years, as an elected government replaced the military dictatorship. 

 April 22, 2013: The EU agreed to lift economic sanctions against Burma, although arms sales are still prohibited by EU members.  


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