In the northwest (Rakhine State) over 3,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the last two weeks to escape another crackdown on what many Buddhist Burmese call Islamic terrorists. Rohingya believe the people the troops are looking for belong to a known group of Rohingya rebels who have organized and armed themselves like so many other ethnic groups in the north, and fought back against the government (dominated by the ethnic Burmese majority that is nearly all Buddhist) violence. Some government officials have admitted that there are Rohingya rebels but that doesn’t matter to most Burmese Buddhists who agree that the Rohingya don’t belong in Burma. The government did invite the UN to study the matter and prepare a report (delivered yesterday) on the situation. The immediate reaction to the report (which largely reported what everyone already knew) was a call for more discussions.
The army believes that someone is supplying cash to buy arms and otherwise support Rohingya rebels. The army prefers to call them Islamic terrorists but so far there has not been much, if any, religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. The army has responded with continued searches for rebels or supporters and applied its usual methods of persuading northern minorities to cooperate. This includes lots of random violence and frequent blockades to keep out food and other essential supplies.
What is happening in Rakhine State is a side effect of the current worldwide outbreak of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Burmese Hindu nationalists have used the threat of Islamic terrorism to revive a decades old effort to expel most of its Moslem minority because many Burmese fear the Rohingya Moslem minority will be a source of Islamic terrorists. While Moslem majority neighbor Bangladesh has arrested a few Pakistan trained Rohingya Islamic terrorists the Rohingya in Burma have largely avoided Islamic terrorism. Bangladesh borders Burma’s Rakhine State which contains most of the Burmese Rohingya. Burma insists the Rohingya are Bangladeshis who are in Burma illegally. Bangladesh has never agreed with that. This is a dispute that goes back to the 19th century and is still unresolved.
The current violence (mostly by the security forces) in Rakhine State began in October 2016 when Rohingya fought back in a particularly shocking way. Over 500 Rohingya were arrested (and many more are still being sought) in the aftermath of the October 9th attack on three guard posts along the Bangladesh border. Apparently over 200 Rohingya men armed with a few firearms and, for most of them, swords, spears and clubs were involved and they killed nine border guards. At least four soldiers died during operations immediately after the attacks. All the weapons (fifty firearms and 10,000 rounds of ammo) and equipment at guard posts were taken as the attackers fled. Army and police reinforcements were sent to Rakhine State and the border area where the attacks took place.
The government says that October security operation was over by February 2017 but that was not entirely true. Violence in general had declined by then but large parts of Rakhine State were still under what amounted to military occupation. Foreign journalists (and foreigners in general) were kept out of the area. This was supposed to be temporary, for as long as it took to find the rebels. But that search has never really ended. This led 75,000 more Rohingya to flee the country (so far). This is largely because threats towards Rohingya, mainly by Buddhist vigilantes, also continued. Whoever the Rohingya terrorists are, they are not taking credit for the violence or identifying themselves. One of the few visible (at least on the Internet) Rohingya militant groups, the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) denies any connection with the violence and there is no evidence to contradict that claim.
Meanwhile there are still Rohingya terrorists (the Islamic angle is not yet established) in action and they have so far (since last October) been responsible for than sixty Rohingya being murdered or kidnapped. These actions are apparently directed at Rohingya seen as collaborating with the government. That includes local Rohingya leaders and Rohingya who work for the government or foreign aid organizations.
Since 2012, when the anti-Rohingya violence began, over a 200 Rohingya have been killed by Buddhist vigilantes and nearly a thousand more by Burmese security forces during their counter-terror operation. That sort of thing has diminished but not disappeared while the Rohingya vigilante violence against other Rohingya has become a larger problem. Meanwhile over 400,000 Rohingya have fled the country, mostly to Bangladesh, which is pressuring Burma to deal with the problem.
The Rohingya, who trace their origin to Bangladesh, have suffered increased persecution in Burma since the 1980s, and especially since the 2011 elections that restored democracy and got lot of anti-Moslem Buddhist nationalists elected. 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). Foreign criticism, especially from Moslem majority nations is largely ignored, in part because Burma depends on non-Moslem nations (like China, Thailand and India) for most of its trade and foreign investments. What is happening with the Rohingya is not unique and has happened frequently in South Asia over the last few centuries, even during periods of colonial rule.
Dealing With The Dragon
One thing all Burmese 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 since the 1700s 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. Negotiations continued.
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 2016 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 that did not halt efforts to work something out. .
The dam project was the result of studies done in the late 1990s to develop the border areas and control flooding. Originally scheduled to be operational by 2017 the Myitsone project has been shut down since 2011 because of corruption charges (largely true) and armed resistance from local tribal rebels. China was always willing to make concessions to save the dam project but has been unable to agree with Burma on terms. Meanwhile conditions in China have changed. Originally China needed the 6,000 MW of electrical power generated by Myitsone and 90 percent of it was going to China. But in the last few years Chinese economic growth has slowed and with that the need for additional electric power. Actually there are now electricity surpluses in parts of China bordering Burma and the Chinese have been offering to export some of that electric power to northern Burma (which still has an electricity shortage). Because of this many similar Chinese development projects in northern Burma (other dams, new mines and lots of road and bridge building to support it all) are no longer as important to China.
Burma is willing to let Chinese development projects to go forward in the north 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, wanted more than just the electrical power and profits from these investments. China also wants some diplomatic assistance, apparently (regarding North Korea, South China Sea and other sensitive matters. 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. As a result jade and exotic timber joined the dams and other investments in northern Burma which are no longer considered vital by China. But China wants something in return for this cooperation. Both China and Burma remember that, historically, China demanding a debt be repaid is often a prelude to war if payment is not made. You can make deals with the dragon as long as you never stop fearing the dragon.
August 22, 2017: In the northwest (Chin State) two tribal militias clashed. The pro-government ALA (Arakan Liberation Army) saw its headquarters attacked by the rebel Arakan Army. Four ALA militiamen were killed. The two groups last clashed in 2015 and then arranged a ceasefire which appears to have collapsed. These two militias also operate in Rakhine state (south of Chin) and have long feuded with each oher.
August 12, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) several hundred more troops began arriving to deal with the threat of increased violence. The UN, alerted by contacts it had in the government, texted 300 UN officials and aid workers in the area to prepare for more violence. Those who received it showed the text to other aid workers, foreigners or journalists as well as Rohingya they worked with. The warning were essential because foreigners are often not familiar with how the Burmese military operates in the tribal north. Basically the soldiers will shoot (or loot and rape) first and maybe ask questions later. This is why there are so many heavily armed tribal militias in the north. If foreigners disappear or get killed during one of these operations the government will try to blame it on the rebels (who are rarely guilty of such bad behavior, unless, occasionally, when the foreigners are Chinese).
August 11, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) soldiers and tribal rebels from the KIA clashed again. This forced about a thousand villagers to flee and these civilians were not able to return for about ten days.
August 9, 2017: India announced that it was going ahead with its plans to forcibly send 40,000 Rohingya back to Burma because those Rohingya had entered India illegally and become a political liability. The UN has been trying to persuade India to not do this. India points out that many nations worldwide do this because of local politics and to discourage more illegal migration. India is willing to accept refugees, but on Indian terms, not those dictated by foreigners.
August 5, 2017: In the north (Shan state) fighting broke out between TNLA rebels and soldiers and continued over the weekend. One civilian died from army artillery shells landing near a village. Some soldiers and rebels may have been wounded but no additional deaths were reported.
August 4, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) troops, while searching for six suspected members of a Rohingya rebel group, found themselves surrounded by hundreds of angry Moslem civilians. The Rohingya rebels (or Islamic terrorists, as many Burmese believe) were believed responsible for six local Buddhists being killed recently (and two more missing). This encounter escalated until by the end of August the army was again actively, widely and violently looking for Rohingya rebels.