Myanmar: The Tribal Truce Is Not Working


July 5, 2013: 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 January 2012 peace deal. This has led to a growing number of skirmishes, and in the last few weeks troops have forced monks out of their monastery (so it could be used as an army base) and artillery and mortars were fired at nearby villages as two battalions of infantry advanced. Over a thousand villagers have fled the violence. The army is trying to force the SSA-S out of bases that the army wants to occupy. There are only about 600,000 Wa people in the north but they are a tough bunch and are formidable opponents. Fighting them has become more expensive, as the Wa have prospered from the drug trade. Now some Wa want to establish an autonomous Wa territory in Shan State. Making peace work will be a major chore.

The army is definitely trying to interfere with the tribal drug operations up north. The SSA-S is allied with the neighboring UWSA (United Wa State Army) and these two groups are making a lot of money producing and smuggling drugs. 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 2012 peace deal and officially renew the fighting. Last year the government prosecuted over 5,000 people on drug charges, and in the north the army has ignored government orders to observe the truce. The army is accustomed to having its own way in the north and the government has not come up with a way to get the generals under control in the north.

In Shan state the UWSA complains that troops are blocking roads to anyone suspected of belonging to the UWSA. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has about 30,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic Chinese, and many other Wa live across the border in China. The Chinese have made it clear to the Burmese government that any attack on the Wa would not be appreciated. The government has resumed interfering with trucks (carrying food and other goods) entering Wa territory. The Wa can get what they need from China, but some Burmese Wa live closer to roads coming from the south, rather than those coming from China. The government would like to push all the Wa into China, but that is not likely to happen because of UWSA resistance and Chinese criticism.

The government is under growing international pressure to prosecute Buddhist clerics who encourage violence against Moslems. Because these clerics are so popular, the government is unwilling to take any action to halt the incitement. Most of the senior Buddhist clergy oppose the violence but have not been able to persuade the more radical Buddhist clergy to drop their support for attacks on Moslems. In general the Buddhist clergy believes the local and international media are distorting the role of Buddhist clergy in all this violence. The Buddhist clergy believe the violence springs from legitimate fears of Burmese Buddhists, not instigation by sympathetic clergy.

July 4, 2013: The government is recruiting another thousand riot police and will train them to “international standards” with the help of Australia. More riot police are needed to deal with the continuing violence between Buddhists and Moslems. The training standards are important because the police have been criticized for being anti-Moslem. 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. No one sees 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.

In northern Karen state, local Karen tribal militias have blocked mine clearing teams from removing some mines, which the gunmen of the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) are still using as part of their base defenses. Mine clearing began last year after the January 2012 peace deal.

July 2, 2013: In the far north (Shan State) troops forced 30 monks from their monastery, which was turned into a military base. This was part of a larger operation to force tribal rebels back from roads and population centers.

The United States has blacklisted Burmese general Thein Htay because he is believed responsible for buying weapons from North Korea (which is under international sanctions). A year ago the organization that Thein Htay took command of earlier this year (the Directorate of Defense Industries) was blacklisted for buying military equipment from North Korea. Burma denies it is buying military equipment from North Korea, but the U.S. says it has plenty of proof.

June 30, 2013: In Arakan State, on the west coast, over fifty Buddhists rioted (and burned down two buildings and wounded three Moslems) because of a rumor that local Moslems had attacked a Buddhist woman. In nearby Rakhine state similar violence left four buildings burned. Police dispersed the mobs in both cases. In the last year 237 people have died and over 150,000 driven from their homes. Most of the victims have been Moslem.

June 27, 2013: In Rakhine state police fired on a crowd of Moslem refugees who were complaining about bad treatment in the camp (holding about 4,400 refugees). Two Moslems were killed and four wounded by the gunfire.

June 19, 2013: In the far north (Shan State) tribal gunmen from the Taaung National Liberation Army (TNLA) ambushed soldiers advancing on a TNLA outpost and killed four of them. The TNLA has about a thousand armed members operating near the Chinese border. This clash brought in more troops and over a hundred Taaung villagers fled their homes.

June 14, 2013: For the first time in a year foreign aid groups have been allowed to bring food and other needed supplies to the tribal peoples in Kachin state.

June 13, 2013: Malaysia is sending home most of the 4,400 Burmese it recently arrested (after public violence between Burmese Buddhists and Moslems). The fighting was linked to the anti-Moslem violence in Burma. There are over a quarter million Burmese working in Malaysia, nearly 60 percent of them there illegally. There are also nearly 100,000 Burmese Moslems in Malaysia as refugees. Malaysia refuses to allow these refugees to settle permanently. 


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