Myanmar: The Untouchables

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February 8, 2018: The repatriation to Burma of Rohingya Moslems in Bangladesh was supposed to begin in January but did not because of continued army violence against Rohingya still in Burma and reluctance of many Rohingya in Bangladesh to return. Those Rohingya going back must do so voluntarily but there have been many reports of Rohingya refugee camp leaders putting Rohingya on the “will return” list even if the refugee does not want to return. This abuse of the lists may have to do with corruption or Rohingya politicis. It is unclear but there has been some violence in the camps over the issue.

Meanwhile the Burmese military is being accused of agreeing to allow repatriation while ordering its troops to interfere with that in subtle ways that were not obvious. Meanwhile Rohingya leaders are calling on the UN and Bangladesh to persuade Burma to renegotiate the repatriation agreement to add more guarantees that the Burmese military would comply. Burma is not willing to try that because the military has veto power over government decisions and China has been backing Burma (and the Burmese military) in the Rohingya matter.

Despite promising to halt their terror tactics against Rohingya in the northwest, Rohingya keep fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Although arriving in much smaller numbers the more recent Rohingya refugees report that Burmese troops continue to make life difficult for the Rohingya by blocking their movement as well as interfering with commercial traffic and the distribution of relief supplies. The soldiers continue to conduct frequent searches of Rohingya homes and businesses which is usually just an excuse to do some looting. Rohingya heading for the border, carrying possessions, are often stopped, searched and robbed of any valuables plus an occasional rape. Sometimes Rohingya are taken away for questioning, which turns out to be a kidnapping and only the payment of cash to the soldiers will get the captive released. This is, in effect, a less newsworthy way to forcing Rohingya to leave. Up to 800 Rohingya a week are fleeting into Bangladesh. The Burmese army has denied these reports but refuses to allow foreign (UN) investigators into Rakhine State to see for themselves.

Up until late 2017 the soldiers used rather blatant force to persuade the Rohingya to leave. This usually involved looting Rohingya settlements as well as killing or raping those too slow to move. Less than a third of the 1.1 nillion Rohingya are still in Burma and over half of them fled since August 2017. Surveys of the 680,000 Rohingya refugees in Burma indicate that the two month army operation killed about 7,000 of the fleeing Rohingya. Most (about 70 percent) of those deaths were directly due to army violence. Some 15 percent of these were burned to death when their homes were destroyed and another seven percent were beaten to death by soldiers. Some two percent died when they encountered landmines near the border. The army claims only 400 civilians died but the evidence shows otherwise, as it has throughout the north for decades. But the violence was never on such a scale. The elected government in Burma is limited in what it can do because the post 2011 constitution (where the army gave up half a century of military rule) gave the military veto power over what the elected officials could do to the military. There is an ongoing effort to change that and some Burmese see the increased army violence in the north as part of an effort to delay changes to the 2011 constitution. The next major struggle between the government and the military will be how the agreement to take back the refugees is carried out. The military is aided by Buddhist radicals, who started the Rohingya expulsion effort in 2012. While the Buddhist clergy oppose the scale of the army violence against the Rohingya they do not support taking the refugees back. Whatever happens the repatriation process will be carefully scrutinized in Bangladesh and Burma. So far the repatriation has not started and may never do so because of continued violence and Rohingya unwillingness to trust the military.

China Rules

China has a potentially advantageous (to China) disaster in Burma. China stands to gain influence in Burma if the Rohingya crises continues. Despite blocking UN resolution against Burma China is trying to make the best of a bad situation. This is about economics and politics. Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011, now agrees with the Chinese pragmatism. She also believes China is the best alternative (for investment and essential imports) if international economic sanctions are again imposed on Burma, as they were until the generals gave up some of their power and allowed the 2011 elections. Suu Kyi has visited China three times to discuss economic matters. Meanwhile the Islamic world is demanding UN action against Burma. 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 2017 agreement where China invests 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) the upgraded port. China had wanted 85 percent but backed down because most Burmese wanted China to have much less control. China has used similar tactics in neighboring Thailand, reducing their initial demands to get an agreement and then offering more help against sanctions (Thailand currently has a military government).

Meanwhile the more the rest of the world pressures Burma on the Rohingya the more power the Burmese military gets back and the easier it is for China to make corrupt deals (which helped weaken the military before 2011) and restore ones that had been halted. It has become easier for China to establish itself as the primary source of weapons and military equipment in Burma and the return of economic sanctions makes China even more indispensable to Burma. The military interest in the tribal areas is now largely economic as the generals got rich off all sorts of scams in the north, especially after China began investing.

February 6, 2018: Indonesia agreed to share intelligence and techniques it has for dealing with Islamic terrorism. Rohingya (Burmese Moslems) who afford it paid people smugglers to take them to wealthier Moslem countries like Malaysia or Indonesia. The illegal migrants are not welcome there and Indonesia has criticized Burma for not dealing with the problem. Nevertheless the two countries have a mutual interest in halting the spread of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other Islamic terror groups (like the Rohingya ARSA). Indonesia has been very successful in that respect and that is due, in part, because of its willingness to share intel and experience with other nations in the region be they Moslem or not.

February 5, 2018: In the north (Shan State) troops clashed with TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army) rebels. TNLA and KIA (Kachin Independence Army) rebels operate near each other and have long had 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 mining for gold and other precious items.

February 4, 2018: A UN report on North Korean efforts to violate economic sanctions detailed how North Korea managed to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 by evading export sanctions. One of the customers for this illegal trade was Burma (small arms and missiles). The Burmese military denies this and insists that any arms trade activities with North Korea ended in 2011 when elections replaced the military dictatorship with a new government. The UN allegations are apparently based on Chinese allegations that they intercepted (in 2014) a load of metal items used for ballistic missile construction and believed the shipment was headed to Burma. What the Burmese military may be doing is continuing to assist North Korea with its smuggling operations, for a fee. It’s just business.

February 3, 2018: In the north (Kachin State) the KIA rebels have launched counterattacks against the renewed army offensive into KIA controlled territory. This is a continuation of an army offensive that began at the end of 2017. Back then troops attacked in several areas and artillery fired on the KIA headquarters near the border. The army continued attacking into January and several thousand civilians fled their homes. This appears to be an effort to halt illegal (not paying a “tax” to the army) mining of amber and gold, which helps finance the KIA, which has refused to participate in peace talks. The KIA still controls large portions of Kachin state but the army has increased its attacks, apparently because most attention is on the Rohingya situation.

February 1, 2018: Representatives from the KIA and the Burmese military met in China (Yunan Province) at the invitation of China to try and negotiate a peace deal that would halt the constant fighting near the Chinese border. Occasionally this has sent bullets or shells into China but the major problem for China are the growing number of tribal refugees seeking safety in China.

January 31, 2018: ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) assured Bangladesh that it would not carry out any violent acts in Bangladesh. ARSA also pointed out that there were a number of criminal gangs that sometimes tried to represent themselves as part of ARSA. This is done to intimidate victims and confuse police if there is an investigation.

In the northwest (Rakhine State) tribal rebels of the AA (Arakan Army) have been accused of involvement with smuggling, kidnapping and murder, in addition using violence to block government operations in Arakan province. At least four men have been arrested and in a case of murder and a feud over efforts to block AA members from commemorating the fall of the Arakan Empire 233 years ago. This is a renewal of ancient feuds over who should control the northwest coast of Burma, an area with a long history as an independent Arakan state. For example in late 2017 ARSA called for Rohingya to join with al Qaeda to fight the Burmese army and establish Rakhine State as the independent Moslem state of Arakan. This refers to the Arakan region, which is the coastal area that includes Rakhine State and the coastal area along the Bay of Bengal from eastern Bangladesh down into Burma. Some 1800 years ago Arakan became an independent Hindu state but 500 years later Islam spread to the area in part became Arakan was one of the many branches of the ancient Silk Road from China. The population was largely Bengali and Burmese. In the 18th century the Burmese kingdom to the east conquered the area but lost it to the British a century later and most of Arakan became part of nation of Burma by the time the British left in the late 1940s. For Islamic radicals Arakan, like Spain, Portugal and parts of the Balkans are still considered part of the Caliphate (Islamic Empire) because they had once been ruled by Moslems. The current inhabitants of these “lost territories” are now largely non-Moslem and have no interest in becoming Islamic states again. Groups like al Qaeda see an opportunity in Burma. Islamic terrorists first showed up in late 2016 and August 2017 when there were attacks by a Rohingya Islamic terrorist group called ARSA. Its founder (a Rohingya expatriate) and 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 was openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received, especially since 2012. Until this new document appeared ARSA had denied any connection with al Qaeda but that has apparently changed. 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. Since August 2017 there have been no more large scale ARSA attacks but there have been some clashes with security forces.

January 21, 2018: In Bangladesh two Rohingya camp leaders have been murdered in the last three days, apparently by Rohingya who were angry at being listed as Rohingya who were willing to return to Burma. Many, if not most, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh do not want to return to Burma.

January 17, 2018: Burma went public about a dispute it is having with Bangladesh. In November 2017 Burma gave Bangladesh a list of 1,300 Rohingya men that Burma believed were involved with the ARSA and requested that Bangladesh check the refugee camps and if any of these men were found to arrest them and, according to the terms of the 1980 Myanmar-Bangladesh Border Agreement, turn the suspects over to Burma. Bangladesh has not done that and Burma is making an issue of it.

January 16, 2018: In the northwest (Rakhine State) police fired on a crowd of over 4,000 local Buddhists (Arakinese, natives of Arakan and Rakhine) commemorating the end of the independent Arakan kingdom 233 years ago. The violence left seven Buddhists dead and 13 wounded.

January 10, 2018: The Burmese military admitted that their soldiers had murdered some Rohingya last September, but not enough to account for the thousands of dead Rohingya during that period. The military said it would prosecute some of the soldiers responsible for proven murders. This is not going to involve many soldiers, no more than a dozen if the military gets its way.

January 8, 2018: In the north (Shan State) five villagers were wounded when they triggered two army landmines while out foraging for firewood near the Chinese border. The army uses the mines near the border to block smuggling routes or paths tribal rebels might use. The army also uses landmines to guard some of its bases.

January 5, 2018: In the northwest (Rakhine State) ARSA took credit for ambushing an army patrol and wounding six soldiers with a roadside bomb and gunfire.

 

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