Myanmar: China Gets The Wrong Answer

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July 23, 2016: There is general agreement that there should be a major effort to expand the 2015 NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement) to include all rebel groups operating along the northern and eastern border areas. To that end another meeting of all groups involved (government, army, most rebels) will be held in August. The NCA effort has been going on since the 1990s but has had problems with finding ceasefire terms that everyone can agree to and, more importantly, that the army can be trusted to abide by. Decades of military rule ended in 2011 but many of the rebel tribes didn’t believe it meant soldiers would behave in tribal areas. They were right because in the border areas the military still did as they pleased. The elected government has made some progress in curbing the military misbehavior and the August NCA meeting is supposed to take advantage of that. This is not a sure thing as there have been NCA meetings in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and none of those deals were completely effective. That said, since 2011 there has been more peace and less army misbehavior in the border areas where lawlessness was long the norm. This is costing corrupt army officers a lot of money as they got rich by “taxing” or controlling a lot of illegal activities (mining, lumbering, smuggling in general). The corrupt officers also arranged for the illegal removal of tribes on land that had been “sold” to the Chinese for major development projects (mines, hydroelectric dams, pipelines). A new and improved NCA doesn’t make the Chinese happy either but officially they can’t express that because the official Chinese attitude is that they are doing everything legally.

Much of the continued unrest is in the north is in Kachin and Shan States and is all about tribal rebels resisting the army efforts to limit territory and roads controlled by these tribal militias. Much of this army activity is in violation of ceasefire agreements. The army keeps the media out so news of what is actually going on there takes weeks, if ever, to get out. While many of the arracks are against rebel checkpoints or bases, the troops continue to employ their tactics of attacking (with gunfire, air strikes and artillery) villages believed to be pro-rebel (or at least anti-army). Troops are apparently under orders to burn the bodies of any civilians found in the villages along with everything else. The most recent outbreak was in Shan state and involved factions of the SSA (Shan State Army). The fighting is often with tribal rebel groups that the military won’t negotiate with for various reasons as well as some, like the UWSA (United Wa State Army) and MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) that have agreed to talk but have not agreed to anything yet. The army has been fighting the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) since April.

Now the army is protesting some rebel groups holding a pre-NCA conference on July 26-27. The army fears that this Mai Ja Yang Summit will result in a more effective rebel alliance. The Mai Ja Yang Summit will include 21 tribal rebel groups plus most of the tribe-based political parties. The government has refused to outlaw the Mai Ja Yang Summit, which is another embarrassing defeat for the military.

Major Fail For China

Japan has quietly stepped up and replaced China as Burma’s largest foreign investor. This has made it practical for the elected government to oppose China. In the case of the South China Sea dispute, Burma, much to the dismay of China, did not denounce the recent international court ruling that China was acting illegally. China saw this coming and was trying to avoid it. Since early 2016 China has been conducting a “charm offensive” with the new, non-military government of Burma. This soon led to agreements that allowed China to resume some unpopular (with the locals) but major construction projects in the north. In late May there was a military cooperation agreement that might lead to better border security, or improved concealment of lucrative, and illegal, cross border activities (usually involving jade and timber). Although Burma is now a democracy, which means officials have to at least pay attention to popular hostility towards the pervasive and destructive corruption, actually doing something about the corruption is another matter. The leaders of the former military government have been preparing for efforts to curb their power and take down their corrupt business empire.

The new (2015) parliament has, in theory, the power to undo all the laws the generals put in place during 2011 to preserve that wealth and provide immunity from prosecution. For half a century the military ran the country as a dictatorship that mainly benefitted the generals and their cronies. The majority of Burmese made it clear during the 2015 elections that something must be done about the corruption. China was the major foreign partners of the military government, especially when it came to investing in Burma when the rest of the world would not. Chinese economic projects in the north were not only unpopular with the tribes there but also with most Burmese because the Chinese paid the generals well (with bribes and business opportunities) to keep the tribal rebels and unarmed civilians from interfering up north in projects that mainly benefit China and do little for Burma. That protection was not always effective and many of those multi-billion dollar Chinese projects have been stalled since 2012 and the Chinese have made it clear they will to do business with new government on whatever terms the new government wants. Some kind of deal was made regarding a large Chinese copper mine, whose construction resumed in April. Local opposition had shut this project down in 2013 and while the deal that let work resume contained a lot of safeguards many local people did not trust the Chinese (who have ignored earlier agreements to operate legally) and have been demonstrating in larger and larger numbers. Burma cannot ignore Chinese economic investment and the new government admits that and encourages Japanese and Western investment. The trick is revising existing Chinese deals without killing them. Northern concerns must be addressed but many northerners just want a fair deal that compensates them for lst land and does not ruin the water supply (as major mining projects often do). Currently China is eager to buy some regional allies (especially Thailand, Burma and Malaysia) to get some support for Chinese expansion efforts in the South China Sea. China is willing to pay a lot for such support. But Burmese officials knew that most Burmese feared China and backed cracking down on illegal economic activity on the Chinese border and punishing Chinese firms that behave badly while building large new mines and power plants in thinly populated rural areas.

July 21, 2016: The government released the results of the 2014 census, the first since 1983. It showed that the country had 51 million people and that most (87.9 percent) were Buddhist. The largest religious minority were Christians, who were now 6.2 percent of the population (compared to 4.9 percent in 1983). Moslems went from 3.9 to 4.3 percent. Actually that is misleading as the government recently declared the million Rohingya Moslems in the north (Arakan state) to be Bengalis and thus not citizens. Subtract the Rohingya from the census data and Moslems are 2.3 percent of the citizen population. Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. The military took away that citizenship but at least prevented religious violence against the Moslems by nationalist Buddhist clerics. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 over a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists. Most Rohingyas 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, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45). Any kind of peace deal with the Rohingya is unlikely as far as most Burmese are concerned. 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 long insisted that this could 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. As more Western nations joined in with the demands for granting citizenship for Rohingya the government checked the opinion polls and did nothing. Burmese officials are standing by their belief that granting Moslems citizenship would result in more anti-Moslem violence.

Many Buddhist and Christian Burmese oppose the treatment of the Rohingya and have been holding protests in most major cities against the decision to deny the Rohingya citizenship and classify them as Bengalis. But this is a minority attitude as most of the voters will not back any pro-Rohingya moves.

July 20, 2016: Another sign that the army is not a law unto itself anymore was the announcement today admitting that soldiers murdered five villagers up north. The soldiers had picked up over a dozen civilians for questioning and tortured to death five of them. A senior general said the guilty soldiers would be prosecuted.

July 19, 2016: In the north (Kachin state) a villager out collecting bamboo shoots was killed by a landmine while another civilian nearby was wounded. The continued violence in the north has made it impossible for mine-clearing teams to operate in in many areas. Worse, you never know if there are any old, but still functional, mines anywhere up there as records were not kept on where all the mines were placed. The rebels and the military both use the mines to defend their bases. The military will allow many mines to be cleared in areas they control. But in most of the north there are still thousands of old mines out there that cause several hundred casualties a year, mostly to unwary civilians. Since the 1960s over 100,000 landmines were planted by the military. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and government controlled towns. The rebels appear to have used nearly as many. 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. In many areas 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 by massive (usually Chinese controlled) construction projects.

 

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