Burma is threatened by trade sanctions if the Rohingya refugees are not returned to Burma and their property and jobs restored. Given the anti-Moslem attitudes in Burma and the fact that the West (EU and U.S.) account for less than ten percent of Burmese exports there is no economic incentive here. Moreover China stands ready to step in and provide whatever the boycotting nations are now withholding. At the same time the outrage of the Moslem world strikes Burmese as more hypocrisy than sincerity because similar situations are quite common in the Moslem world. The economic impact of sanctions is estimated to reduce GDP growth from 6.9 percent to 6.2 percent.
In Burma there is outrage but it is largely reserved for the corrupt and unrestrained Burmese military. While it was Buddhist nationalists who were behind the revival of anti-Rohingya violence the military sided with the outlaw Buddhist violence and not the rule of law. This support for mob rule backfired on the military making the generals even more unpopular to Burmese in general. The military are feeling the growing popular pressure to reform or suffer the consequences. For example the generals face the possibility of being indicted for “crimes against humanity” for their role in how most of the Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh. Without some popular support in Burma the generals are in big trouble here. After all many Burmese would like to see their own military leaders tried for similar crimes against Burmese during decades of military rule.
While Burma has approved 8,000 Rohingya refugees for return to Burma, along with promises to help with rebuilding homes and businesses it is unlikely that many or most of these 8,000 will actually go back. The basic problem here is Bangladesh cannot get Burma to take their
Rohingya Moslems back on terms the
. Bangladeshi officials regularly meet with their Burmese counterparts to discuss the issue. So far nothing has been accomplished in all these meetings but both sides declare that “talks will continue.” Talk is cheap and Burma will discuss the issue indefinitely without agreeing to take nearly a million of its colonial era population back. That’s the key to this as it was British colonial administrators that encouraged the Rohingya Moslems to move from what was then British ruled India (which was Hindu and Moslem) to the largely Buddhist Burma. Once independent the Burmese resented the presence of these alien looking Bengalis who were always good citizens but were never accepted. The Burmese are pretty confident they can get away with expelling t
he Rohingya because that is not a unique situation.
Such expulsions are part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large scale disorder during the last century. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations and it is quite common in this part of the world and Bangladesh has produced more of these illegals than anyone else. Illegal migrants have become a more difficult problem since national states became the preferred form of government as that led to 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. India has a similar problem in its northeast tribal territories, especially Assam, where four million Bengali migrants (most of them or their ancestors entered illegally) are being denied citizen status. The tribal locals have long resented the illegal migrants, more so than the legal migrants. India sees this citizenship crackdown as a way to reducing support for local tribal separatist rebels. There are similar problems on every continent and no one has found an easy solution to these deadlocks.
The Rohingya dispute has claimed some high profile victims and the most prominent is Nobel peace prize winner and Burmese national hero Aung San Suu Kyi. She is being blamed by a growing number of foreign admirers for not doing more to solve the Rohingya problem. 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. Another problem foreign critics overlook is that the Burmese military (which ruled from the 1960s to 2011) still has a lot of clout in Burma and were the first ones to make an issue of the Rohingya citizenship status, and also put the issue on hold in the 1980, when they were in power because a refugee dispute with neighboring Bangladesh was not in their interest. Now it is. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy restored in 2011 (after negotiating with the military dictatorship) agrees with this “it is an internal problem” policy and has the support of India and China, two neighbors that have faced similar problems that are still dealing with.
Aung San Suu Kyi also agrees with the Burmese military that that 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 most of their power and allowed the 2011 elections. Suu Kyi fears the Burmese military trying to seize control of the government more than she fears foreign media and diplomatic criticism. The military coup possibility is more important to most Burmese than the fate of the expelled Rohingya or how Burmese courts treat foreign journalists. The only one benefitting from the anti-Rohingya violence (which was instigated by nationalist Buddhist religious leaders) is the military, which was forced to give up a lot of their power in 2011 and agree to a restoration of democracy. But now the threat of international sanctions gives the military more power in Burma to resist corruption investigations and interference with their profitable, but illegal, activities in the north. China prefers to work with the Burmese military, which makes Burmese democrats uneasy. The military leaders (but active and those retired and in politics) find that they are losing more and more popular support in Burma because of the Rohingya mess and are actually quite willing to make a deal, as long as it does not involve allowing a lot of Rohingya to return. That is one thing most Burmese agree on.
The Phantom Menace
In the northwest (Rakhine State) and across the border in Bangladesh (where nearly a million Burmese Moslems now live) there continue to be rumors, but little evidence that Islamic terrorist group ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) is growing and becoming a threat. In mid-2017 there were rumors, but little proof, that ARSA and had attacked several Hindu villages in Burma and killed at least 99 Hindus. There have been persistent reports but not a lot of conclusive evidence that ARSA sought out and murdered Hindus. Islamic terrorists tend to take credit for their attacks, not deny them, so it’s unclear what is going on with this. Rakhine State 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. For the moment ARSA is largely a force on the Internet, not on the ground. The same can be said for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which was never able to establish itself in Burma or neighboring Thailand (which actually has a minor Islamic terrorist problem in the far south). Burma and Thailand are both Buddhist majority nations that have always allowed Moslem minorities but have responded violently if the local Moslems got aggressive or radicalized.
October 16, 2018: In two separate incidents air force F-7 fighters crashed. One was weather related while the other was equipment related. One pilot died as did a civilian on the ground. The air force still operates its aging F-7s because the more modern alternative is too expensive. In late 2009 the air force ordered more MiG-29s from Russia, as part of a plan to retire its fifty or so F-7s. Nine years later there are only 16 (of 31) MiG-29s flyable and the effort to obtain the more MiG-29s, train the pilots for them and to replace all the F-7s have stalled. There are still about twenty F-7s in service. They are cheaper to operate than the MiG-29s but more dangerous. The F-7 is a Chinese copy of the 1950s era Russian MiG-21. The more capable and expensive MiG-29 (a 1980s design) never did replace all the Mig-21s and F-7s still in service. This is particularly the case in nations like Burma who do not face a real aerial threat.
October 15, 2018: Facebook continues to find and remove accounts it believes are run by the Burmese military to spread false information, especially about the treatment of Burmese Moslems. This is the second time Facebook has done this.
October 12, 2018: After 18 months of negotiations Burma and China have reached an agreement on how to finance and manage the new port China wants to build in northwestern Burma (Rakhine State). The original proposal was for China to take an ownership share of 85 percent of the new port being built at Kyaukpyu. The Chinese have agreed to reduce their share to 70 percent and expand the capacity of Kyaukpyu in line with demand, not all at once. Burma would be able to control the growth of the Kyaukpyu economic zone and this prevent Burma from getting stuck with more debt than it can handle. The Chinese are financing and building the port facilities there and offered to convert what was originally a $9 billion loan into an ownership stake. This would give China control of yet another newly built port near India. This proposal was not unexpected and became more likely after the completion (in 2015) of a 770 kilometer oil pipeline from China. The pipeline can move about 4.5 million barrels of oil a day. Back in 2013 a 2,500 kilometer natural gas pipeline from Burmese gas fields into China was completed and began operation. About a third of the pipeline is in Burma, the rest is in China. This pipeline delivers 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year. This is equivalent (in terms of energy) to 15 million barrels of oil. The Burmese gas replaces the more expensive liquefied natural gas in three provinces of southwest China as well as eliminates the need for 30 million tons of coal a year (a major source of air pollution). The success of the pipeline deal led to a January 2016 agreement that had Chinese firms investing over $9 billion to develop a SEZ (Special Economic Zone) around the pipeline terminal that will include the Kyaukpyu deep water port and a huge (1,000 hectare/2,500 acre) industrial park. China offered an additional inducement to allow the port ownership. If this was permitted China would abandon construction of an unpopular dam in Kachin State. This dam destroyed much land long used by local tribes and sends over 80 percent of the electricity generated to China. Burma was willing to negotiate and now there is a deal.
October 11, 2018: The ten tribal rebel groups that have signed the NCA (nationwide cease-fire accord) have agreed to meet with the groups that have not signed to discuss expanding the number of NCA members and implementing peace and development in the tribal areas. Most of the tribesmen in the north do not trust the military but are willing to work with the elected government.
October 1, 2018: In the north (Shan State) an army patrol shot dead a local farmer they encountered on a road after dark. The farmer was riding his motorbike down the road when he saw the soldiers and turned around rather than risk the violent interrogation troops often administer in such situations. The troops opened fire after the farmer ignored orders to stop and one of the many bullets killed him. In a rare move the army later apologized and paid compensation. But in accepting the compensation that family must agree not to take the matter to court. The army is also returning land it had confiscated from tribal owners.
September 17, 2018: In Bangladesh police commanders are complaining that NGOs (non-government organizations) and the UN are discouraging Rohingya refugees from returning to Burma. That’s not hard to do but the accusations are disputed by the UN and NGOs, What is undisputed is that the NGOs do often have their own foreign policy and a tendency to try and work the mass media to persuade or coerce governments to work for them. This has led Bangladesh to impose restrictions on what the 41 NGOs operating in the Rohingya refugee camps.