Myanmar: How To Survive Your Dragon

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September 21, 2016: The government and various tribal groups are in general agreement about continuing with the regular (twice a year) “Panglong Conferences” in an effort to negotiate a long term peace deal. Fighting between government forces and tribal rebels has, since 1948, left about 200,000 dead and and crippled economic growth in the border areas being fought over. Officially known as the “Union Peace Conference 21st Century Panglong” conferences this is a long sought effort to update the original 1947 Panglong Conference held between the tribes and British colonial authorities just before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for the tribal territories to officially be incorporated into Burma rather than be a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor (in this case former British colonies India and Burma) would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal now is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea is to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement.

There are two major problems with this. First there are the many complex disagreements between the Burmese government and the tribes in general. Then there are the many disputes between various tribes. Many of the tribal coalitions are held together mainly by the need to unite for mutual defense from the army attacks and sometimes other tribes as well. Peace with the national government leads to more factionalism among the tribal coalitions. This is already happening in those areas that have been a peace for a year or so. As democracy returned to Burma in 2011 the army was forced to reduce their operations against the tribes. That process is continuing and with comes more opportunities for tribes to revive ancient feuds.

In addition to the new fighting between tribes there is the fact that some major tribal militias are not quite ready to negotiate. Most of these groups were allowed to observe the recent Panglong Conference but not participate. These observer groups are the MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) and AA (Arakan Army), which all have serious territorial and economic disputes with the army. In Shan state, for example, the army and tribes are fighting over lucrative coal mining operations. In Kachin state the army violence is connected with the illegal gold mining.

One reason for the new attitudes by the military is that more rebels are resisting. That, in part, is because the new government has also passed laws allowing northerners to legally start and operate their own radio stations and this has brought more people up there together in opposition to the various outlaw operations they must deal with daily. Most of those illegal operations are made possible by corrupt politicians and illegal foreign investments (mainly from China) and Burmese generals paid off to keep the angry tribal rebels from interfering.

Enter The Dragon

One thing the tribes and the government can agree on is the threat posed by an increasingly aggressive China. For thousands of years ambitious Chinese referred to themselves as “dragons” and that term entered the slang of neighboring countries when threatened by Chinese. Many of the northern tribes are ethnically Chinese and settled in northern Burma after fleeing Chinese imperial rule or yet another civil war. China is surrounded by such dissident groups, which is always a side effect of empire building. China is wealthier and militarily stronger now than it has been for over two centuries and Burma is feeling the heat. China is now demanding several things from Burma and is willing to pay, but not enough to satisfy all Burmese. This is causing growing friction between China and Burma. Burma did agree to support (by not criticizing) China regarding the South China Sea dispute but that only calmed down the Chinese a bit.

Historically China has preferred to win its disputes with neighbors without resorting to invasion or threats of that. This is still being practiced, although China is deploying more and more military forces to the South China Sea to back its illegal (according to international law) claims. Burma is another matter. In early September Aung San Suu Kyi, the most powerful Burmese politician, visited China in an effort to negotiate terms for China to restart work on the $3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric dam complex in northern Burma. These negotiations did not go well but negotiations continue.

The dam project has been largely shut down since 2011 because of corruption charges (largely true) and armed resistance from local tribal rebels. China says it is willing to make concessions to save the dam project but now accuses Burma of asking for too much. China needs the 6,000 MW of electrical power generated and 90 percent of it will go to China. There are many similar Chinese hydroelectric dam projects in northern Burma as well as new mines and lots of road and bridge building to support it all.

Burma is willing to let it all happen 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, wants more than just the electrical power and profits from these investments. China also wants some diplomatic assistance. Details on those negotiations are less likely to be publicized. China is 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.

Some concessions are easy to make. For example a major anti-corruption effort going on in China since 2012 has resulted in illegal jade jewelry and expensive imported lumber from Burma becoming a featured covered story in the Chinese media. This is an issue because China has openly accused corrupt Chinese officials (and by implication their Burmese counterparts) of profiting from this illegal trade. Both the jade and the illegal lumber are major, untaxed, Burmese exports. The smuggling operation is dominated by Chinese because most of the demand is in China. Jade and rare timber no longer have much of a market in China because of the crackdown on corrupt officials and the collapse in demand is being felt in northern Burma. When it comes to stuff like this, China prefers to negotiate. But in the case of the dams and other investments in northern Burma China is applying pressure by demanding that Burma pay for the delays. That is a reasonable demand but the way China calculates it Burma owes China $800 million and that increases at least $50 a year. Both China and Burma remember that, historically, China demanding a large debt be repaid is often a prelude to war if payment is not made.

September 19, 2016: In the northwest (Arakan State) police seized 6.2 million methamphetamine pills. This stuff has a street value of about $11 million and this represents nearly 80 percent of what has been seized in Arakan so far this year. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most locally produced methamphetamine is smuggled out via Thailand but more of it is being moved across the Indian and Chinese borders as well. Since 2010 production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. But only as long as they can get the industrial chemicals required to make meth. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. India has agreed to shut down the illegal chemical smuggling. China is also trying to shut down the corruption that enables drug gangs to bribe chemical shipments past border security. Burma know it is the center of all this illicit drug activity and has been more willing to cooperate with neighbors to

September 15, 2016: In the north (Kachin state) the army resumed ground and artillery attacks on KIA tribal rebels. This is a renewal of fighting that has been going on since mid-August.

September 8, 2016: In the far south (Taninthayi) KNU (Karen National Union) tribal rebels are fighting with those of the MNLA (Mon National Liberation Army) over control of this area and access to smuggling routes. The Karen and Mon have been feuding and fighting over control of Taninthayi since the 1980s.

September 3, 2016: In the north (Karen State) DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) rebels clashed with border guards and accused the army of harassing DKBA patrols. This violence was not supposed to happen because DKBA has been a pro-government group since 1997, when it broke away from the larger KNU. This is apparently more about local politics than anything else and is common in the largely tribal border areas. KNU has been skirmishing with the army for most of 2016 because troops has been increasingly aggressive with its small movements into territory long held by tribal rebels in the north and Thai border areas.

August 31, 2016: Up north the second Panglong Conference began (the first one was in 1947).

August 30, 2016: Because of the national and global blowback from several well publicized fatal accidents at illegal jade mines up north the government has decided to suspend jade mining in Kachin State until acceptable environmental and safety procedures can be agreed on and implemented. All the bad publicity forced the government to do something about what had long been going on illegally in the north for decades. Efforts to enforce existing laws banning such activities and more forceful efforts to curb illegal jade mining did not work. Until now government threats caused unease among many of those involved in the largely illegal jade industry but had not slowed down production much. If anything jade mining has increased during 2106 with some 300,000 workers, mostly manual laborers (and often illegal migrants) working in a 700 square kilometer area that, from the air, looks like a wasteland with dozens of hills leveled and the debris left in unstable heaps that cause most of the landslides. This is a good time for the government to try and reform the jade business. Demand and prices are way down in China and the jade producers have to increase production to make any money at all. That means the jade mining is more visible from the air (which the government controls) and space (where even commercial satellite photos show the jade operations). The tribes involved in the jade trade would normally fight hard to oppose any government crackdown but because many of the people killed in the jade mining incidents are from the north there is less justifications for the tribal militias to get involved.

Most jade mining activity is 650 kilometers north of the Burmese capital. The recent fatal landslides occurred because the jade mining often involves removing most of the vegetation on a hillside. With the trees and shrubs gone there is nothing to hold soil together when there are heavy rains. All this has brought a lot of unwanted publicity to the jade trade. Burma is the main source of jade on the planet and is a $31 billion a year operation in Burma. Yet only about one percent of that is taxed and half of the jade is found by illegal mining operations and is quietly sold to Chinese traders. Most of the illegal jade trade is controlled by Burmese military officers who have connections inside China. The rest is controlled by tribal rebels, mainly the Wa of the UWSA (United Wa State Army). Most of the jade is in the northern tribal territories and the army is constantly fighting with tribal rebels who are seeking to make some money in the jade producing areas. The corrupt Burmese generals and businessmen and their Chinese counterparts are not eager to give up the jade profits but they are now in a weak position. A lot of the current fighting in Kachin State is a continuation of this decades old “Jade War.” Local tribes have long complained that all the illegal jade and gold mining ruins many water supplies (streams and lakes) but since outsiders (military and tribal warlords) dominate and protect the illegal mining, no one cares about some bad water except a few locals. But that has changed since 2011 because all the publicity has forced the Chinese government to at least recognize that the problem exists, mainly because of Chinese demand for jade and Chinese providing the cash and access to Chinese made earth moving equipment and corrupt border guards who let the illegal cash and equipment into Burma and the valuable (and untaxed on either side of the border) jade out. The Chinese are now willing to help crack down on the jade and other smuggling because it involves items popular with many corrupt Chinese officials.

August 29, 2016: India and Burma signed four economic development agreements. These involve improved border access (69 new bridges and expansion of existing main roads that cross the border). In a separate set of agreements India will equip Burmese forces stationed on the Indian border with modern weapons and increase joint training and coordination of border security efforts. India is trying to make it easier for Burmese troops to drive out, and keep out, Indian tribal rebels who have, for decades, used the Burmese side of the border as a safe haven.

August 23, 2016: In the north (Kachin state) the army used two armed helicopters support ground troops in an attack on a KIA base. The KIA tribal rebels had been skirmishing with soldiers since the 20th.

 

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