Myanmar: Unwanted By All


October 26, 2017: Not much progress is solving the Burmese Rohingya Moslem problem. Several hundred thousand more Burmese Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August and now only about 35 percent of the pre-2012 Rohingya remain in Burma and they are in danger. Burma refuses to take back any of the Rohingya who have left (usually to avoid being attacked) and that has left Bangladesh with a refugee crises with no easy solution. Many of the refugees in Bangladesh are trying to move on to other nations and over 40,000 have reached India, 100,000 Thailand and 40,000 Malaysia. All three of these nations are trying to get Burma to take back the Burmese Rohingya and Burma refuses because it does not recognize these Rohingya as Burmese citizens. The Islamic world is demanding UN action. That is not going to happen as long as China backs Burma and China has recently made it clear that the support is still there. One obvious example was the recent agreement where China will invest over seven billion dollars in upgrading Kyauk Pyu port in Rakhine State and the Burmese government agreed to let China control (via 70 percent ownership of the new port facilities) of the upgraded port. China had wanted 85 percent but backed down because most Burmese wanted China to have much less control.

Nobel peace prize winner and Burmese national hero Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully against the treatment of the Burmese Rohingya. But all politics is local and Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese Buddhist who sympathizes with the plight of the Rohingya but recognizes that most Burmese feel less certain about who is at fault here. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011 (with the removal of a military government) agrees with this “it is an internal problem” policy and has the support of India and China, two neighbors that have faced this problem themselves and are still dealing with it.

Colonial Complications

The problem here is a common one, especially in this part of the world. The Rohingya issue has been simmering since before Burma became independent in 1948. At the time the British colonial government was concentrating on the many tribes of northern Burma. Most of the Rohingya lived up there but the Rohingya were not an issue in the 1947 Panglong Conference because the Rohingya were not considered a tribe but an administrative error of the British that the British should fix before leaving. That did not happen as the negotiations held between the tribes and British colonial authorities just before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for the tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain 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 at the time was now is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The ethnic Burmese down south agreed to work this out and the issue of Rohingya citizenship was basically ignored in the British haste to dismantle its colonial empire in South Asia and leave.

The Burmese tribes in the north had no problem with the Rohingya but the majority (nearly 90 percent of all Burmese) ethnic Burmese did and it became an issue after 2011 when Burmese could vote again. Post-colonial independence came with persistent unrest as the northern tribes demanded more autonomy than the ethnic Burmese majority was willing to allow. The inability to settle this dispute led to a military dictatorship in the 1960s that lasted until 2011. With democracy revived politicians could seek solutions for the tribal demands for autonomy. That issue was negotiable. The citizenship of the Rohingya was not and a Buddhist majority (encouraged by nationalist Buddhist clergy) demanded that the Rohingya go back to Bangladesh, which denied that the Burmese Rohingya were Bangladeshi citizens.

The Rohingya controversy is not a unique situation but is part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large scale disorder in the last century. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations. This has become a more difficult problem since national states became the preferred form of government and it became common for there to be disputes over who belonged and who did not. The UN estimates that there are currently over ten million such stateless people.

Most of the stateless are that way because they don’t want to live where they, or their ancestors, came from. Thus there are at least a million Moslems in Burma who originally (often over a century ago) came from Bangladesh but don’t want to return there. They prefer to live in Burma, where most of the population is Buddhist. There is a similar situation in the African country of Ivory Coast, where 700,000 people (a quarter of the population) are migrants (or the descendants of migrants) from Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. Over the last half century Ivory Coast encouraged these people to come work on coffee and cotton plantations. Unfortunately Ivory Coast never agreed to offer citizenship and that led to a recent civil war between the migrants and the natives.

In the Middle East you have over 100,000 stateless nomads in Kuwait. Called the bedoon, these people were not considered Kuwaitis in 1962 (when Kuwait became independent) because the nomads came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the oil wealth grew interest arose. At that point Kuwait decided it was not making anyone else citizens. In Syria and Iraq there have been government attempts to punish rebellious Kurds by declaring some of them not citizens. That has not worked out well and the question of who the Kurds are and where they belong is still a problem.

In Russia and former (after 1991) states of the Soviet Union there are over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” are ethnic Russians who ended up outside Russia and liked being where they were but the locals did not want them. The other half were non-Russians who ended up in Russia but were not wanted. In Thailand there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.

In the Dominican Republic you have hostility towards migrants from neighboring Haiti which led to new laws making many migrants non-citizens. In Europe you have over 50,000 Roma (gypsies) who are nomadic and prefer to not register births with the state or leave any kind of paper trail. Many Roma have settled down, but enough have not to remain a problem.

There is a worldwide problem with illegal migrants going somewhere to find jobs, staying, not being detected for a while, if at all, and eventually their descendants demand citizenship. This often leads to violence and resists lots of solutions thus becoming long-term problems.

The Holy Warriors Join The Dispute

China is apparently assisting Burma in ways that don’t make the news. For example China has reduced the impact of Islamic terrorists joining the Rohingya dispute in order to “defend Islam” with “holy warriors” willing to kill and die for the cause. That fear became reality in late 2016 and became pretty obvious by August 2017 when there were more attacks. A month after the August violence it became clear that there was a Pakistani, and Saudi, connection with Rohingya Islamic terrorists showing up in Burma and getting involved. The Pakistan connection was via the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), its founder and why much of the cash came from Saudi Arabia. Burma prefers to call groups like ARSA Islamic terrorists but until ARSA and the Saudi cash showed up there had not been much, if any, religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. ARSA is now openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received since 2012. The ARSA leader; Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi (or just Ata Ullah) has received more attention now that Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda are calling for its members to help ARSA and the Burmese Rohingya any way they can.

In Pakistan government-backed Islamic terror groups admit that Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan (Karachi) in the 1980s but that he and his Rohingya parents moved to Saudi Arabia where there was more work and Ata Ullah did well in Saudi schools, particularly when it came to religious studies. Ata Ullah’s father was also a popular Islamic cleric and his son was noticed by Saudi religious establishment who saw to it that Ata Ullah got a good education in Saudi Arabia. Eventually Ata Ullah became an Islamic cleric and the religious leader for the 150,000 Rohingya living and working in Saudi Arabia. This was largely because Ata Ullah was popular with many wealthy Saudis and their families. Ata Ullah always condemned the poor treatment of Rohingya in Burma and after 2011 called for extreme measures (Islamic terrorism) to enable Burmese Rohingya to defend themselves. While that attracted financial support from wealthy Saudis and charities that supported Islamic terrorism, Ata Ullah says he was treated poorly when he went to Pakistan in 2012 to try and obtain assistance from government supported Islamic terror groups there. Saudis who support Islamic terrorism take it for granted that the best place for someone like Ata Ullah to get started was with Islamic terror groups in Pakistan that have been supported financially by Saudis and politically by the Pakistani military since the 1980s.

In 2012 China had become a major ally of Pakistan and one thing the Chinese demanded was Pakistani cooperation in dealing with Islamic terrorists that threaten China or Chinese interests. At the time China was making large investments in Pakistan as well as northern Burma. What Ata Ullah encountered in Pakistan was apparently partly the military (which controlled a lot of the Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan) telling local Islamic terror groups that doing anything that would displease China was to be avoided. So Ata Ullah got not cooperation in Pakistan. Ata Ullah apparently also ran into the rampant Pakistani corruption that is particularly active in the military and associated Islamic terror groups. Ata Ullah was lied to and deceived and had much of his Saudi cash stolen.

After that Ata Ullah then went into hiding and sought to recruit Rohingya wherever he could find them in Burma and Bangladesh. He slowly gathered more Rohingya who were willing to help build the ARSA. While most Rohingya are in Bangladesh and Burma there is a large overseas community (over half a million in Pakistan and the Persian Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia) where there are jobs and educational opportunities for able, ambitious and religions Rohingya. Via these expatriates Ata Ullah was able to establish contacts in Burma that were more reliable and less larcenous than those in Pakistan.

Ata Ullah and ARSA apparently devote most of their efforts to staying hidden and undetected inside Burma or Bangladesh (which is not only very hostile to Islamic terrorist groups but also very effective in dealing with persistent efforts by Islamic terrorists to establish themselves in Bangladesh.) The appearance of Islamic terrorists in Rakhine State has made life dangerous for all Burmese Moslems. About three million of 60 million Burmese are Moslem and in 2012 about 40 percent of those Moslems were Rohingya. By late 2017 there were only about 500,000 Rohingya left in Burma but there were over 1.5 million non-Rohingya Moslems and the appearance of Islamic terrorists has led to violence against all Burmese Moslems.

The Other Northern Refugees

In the northeast (Shan State) there are over 6,000 tribal refugees on the Thailand border who are going hungry because continued fighting in the area has blocked regular aid shipments. Tribal rebels believe the army is blocking a lot of the shipments in order to coerce tribal rebels to surrender. That is not working and that leads to more violence. There is a similar situation in nearby Kachin state but with fewer starving refugees (because most of the border is with China that does not tolerate refugees). At the same time government negotiators are still working with some of the other tribes like the NDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and Wa State Army to finally work out a peace deal for the north.

October 24, 2017: The United States has halted military-to-military cooperation with Burma because the Americans hold the Burmese military responsible for the current violence in the northwest Burma (Rakhine State). The U.S. action also blocks senior Burmese military personnel from visiting the United States.

October 22, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) Arakan tribesmen accuse ARSA gunmen of attacking them near the border and killing two of the four Arakan men who were hunting for wild pigs. Two of the Arakan hunters escaped despite bullet wounds and reported the attack.

October 18, 2017: In the north (Kachin State) five jade miners were shot dead and twenty others wounded by police who were guarding a jade mining site shut down because of corruption investigations. Several hundred unemployed jade miners had resorted be being scavengers who scoured abandoned (because the owners felt there was not enough jade left to be worth extracting) jade mining sites. Some more lucrative jade mines are shut because of legal problems that this is what the police were guarding. The police provide security for the jade mines mainly to keep scavengers away. That is important to prevent accidental deaths and more unwelcome publicity to the lucrative but embarrassing jade industry. The scavengers have few other employment options and are not deterred by armed guards.

For a long time the jade mines were ignored. Then there were some spectacular incidents at the jade mines many died in work related landslides. Since late 2015 (when a landslide killed over 200 miners) the government has threatened to suspend jade mining until acceptable environmental and safety procedures could be agreed on and implemented. Some work has been done on that but these new rules did not apply to the freelance jade miners who work illegally and are taking advantage of any mining bans to keep working. All the recent jade miner fatalities have been freelancers, usually inexperienced scavengers working in unstable areas that have already been scoured by professionals for nearly all the jade that was there.

The main reason the government wants to reduce miner deaths is to halt all the bad publicity, which has forced the government to at least pretend to do something about what had 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 2015 government threats caused unease among many of those involved in the largely illegal jade industry but did not slowe down production much. If anything jade mining increased during 20i6 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 was believed to be 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 fatal landslides occur 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 $30 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.

October 10, 2017: ARSA had declared a 30 day ceasefire on September 10th to make it easier to get aid to Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State. There have been no more ARSA attacks during the ceasefire but government forces and Buddhist mobs have killed hundreds (or thousands, depending on who you believe) of Rohingya civilians since late 2016. At the same time there is some evidence that Rohingya reprisal attacks, not all of them organized by ARSA, have left over a hundred non-Moslem civilians dead. Many of these are Burmese Hindus, who are often attacked by Islamic terrorists in other parts of the region. The Burmese military did not observe any ceasefire and apparently had orders to drive as many Rohingya into Bangladesh as they could and tolerate no resistance.


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