The government has ordered a major offensive against growing unrest in Rakhine State, not only against suspected Rohingya Islamic terrorists but also more numerous tribal rebels like the Buddhist AA (Arakan Army). It’s a messy situation up there with the expulsion of over a million Rohingya Moslems and recent ARSA violence. Fighting near the Bangladesh border that caused at least 5,000 civilians to flee their homes. Such outbreaks of violence are nothing new in this area, long known as “the Arakan coast” and similar names. In recent years there have even been calls for the restoration of the Arakan Empire (which ceased to exist 233 years ago). This was 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 (the relatively new Islamic terror group in Burma) 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 deep into Burma. Some 1800 years ago Arakan became an independent Hindu state but 500 years later Islam spread to the area in part because 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 colonial forces a century later. After that most of Arakan became part of the post-colonial nation of Burma. When the British left in the late 1940s they had created a Burma with unique borders and many citizens who were not ethnic Burmese. 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 the 2017 announcement, 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.
For most of 2018 Rakhine State was the scene of soldiers fighting the Arakan Army rebels for control of territory. Along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states) the fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal logging by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance.
The Arakan Army had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in early 2016 as troops moved into territory where Arakan Army rebels were known to operate. All this was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case the Arakan Army had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the Arakan Army and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military now working with police to find and arrest the many Arakan Army supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the Arakan Army was never given official recognition, in large part because the Arakan Army was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity is unpopular but at least it is less arbitrary and lawless as in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but not violators are prosecuted.
The government (at the behest of the army) continues to block more foreign aid groups from operating in Rakhine State. The army accuses some foreign aid groups of aiding rebels and Islamic terrorists as well as contradicting government reports of what is going on in the area. There are still a lot of Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State living in camps and supported by local and foreign aid.
Meanwhile, in nearby Kachin State, a four-month December ceasefire with tribal rebels is holding, for the moment. That may not last because recently the Chinese ambassador visited Kachin State and bluntly told local officials that if China were not allowed to resume work on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project there would be serious consequences for Kachin state and Burma in general. 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 are 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. China has been 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. The Kachin tribes don’t trust the Chinese or their own government.
Another Chinese complaint has more widespread support. Shan state in northern Burma remains the largest source of illegal drugs in the region. China wants something done about all the drugs coming out of northern Burma, specifically opium, heroin and methamphetamine. The Burmese methamphetamine production (about 250 tons a year) is a major regional problem that is worth $40 billion a year and that is a tremendous incentive for tribal drug gangs and corrupt government officials to help keep it going, The meth (usually in pill form) is called yaba locally and is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and southern China. There are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand alone, plus many tourists who indulge. Most (nearly half) of yaba goes to China, followed by Thailand. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business.
The neighbors are aware that the Burmese drug gangs have local security forces on the payroll, which is why these clashes with Burmese drug smugglers only seem to happen in Thailand. China plays down the fact that the smugglers don’t have much trouble on the Chinese side of the border because of the corruption. Moreover, the drug trade in this area goes back a long time. The area was a known source of opium for many centuries. First as a valuable and expensive medicine (pain killer) and eventually, for wealthy Chinese, a recreational drug. In the 1700s the Chinese tried, with some success, to ban opium exports to China. The northern tribes of Burma have maintained their armies of well-armed, well trained and very motivated soldiers for generations because of the drug income. Soldiers going after the drug armies are offered a choice; bribes or bullets. The bribes are the more popular choice.
Rohingya Refugee Realities
The UN demands that the return of Rohingya refugees to Burma be sped up. Burma refuses to cooperate and many nations where Rohingya refugees have gone are expelling the Rohingya illegals. That includes India, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the majority of nations Rohingya refugees find themselves in. Burma considers the UN demands a form of bullying and the Burmese government has a lot of popular support when the UN demands are rebuffed or ignored.
January 19, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine State), ten ARSA gunmen attacked a truckload of border guards near the Bangladesh border and wounded six of them. The police noted that ARSA had a camp in the same rural area as the Arakan Army and the two groups might be cooperating even though the government had warned the Arakan Army not to get involved with ARSA. The government ordered a major crackdown on the Arakan Army throughout the northwest and near the Bangladesh border.
January 18, 2019: The government reported that trade with China dipped nearly $600 million in the last three months of 2018. Part of that has to do with stricter border controls (to curb smuggling) but is mostly about the economic recession China is experiencing. Some of the trade decline may also be China trying to persuade Burma to allow major Chinese projects in the north, like mines and dams, to resume.
January 16, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine State), soldiers captured an Arakan Army rebels camp and seized some weapons and equipment left behind by the fleeing rebels. In recent operations, the army claims to have killed as many as 13 Arakan Army rebels.
January 4, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine State), some 250 Arakan Army rebels attacked four police outposts killing 13 policemen and wounding nine. In some cases, the outposts were looted as well. This enraged the security forces and set off a series of efforts against the Arakan Army that keeps escalating. The army has sent more troops and aircraft to the areas as well. January 4 is Independence Day from British colonial rule. That independence deal did not work out well at all for the northern tribes. The Arakan Army is about a decade old and the most recent armed tribal resistance movement formed. It has about 3,000 armed members, most of them in Rakhine State which, the AA points out, used to be called Arakan State until the 1990s. Many of the founding members of the Arakan Army were smugglers or those involved in other types of criminal behavior. That gives the Arakan Army special abilities, like having an easier time establishing safer bases in Bangladesh and India.
December 27, 2018: In the north (Shan State), a border crossing to China was closed for security reasons. This cost local farmers and other exporters of perishable goods a lot of money. The crossing remained closed until January 10th.
December 24, 2018: In the north (Shan State), several days of fighting between rival tribal militias (over territory) left several dead and more wounded plus about 600 local villagers forced to flee the area until the fighting subsides.
December 21, 2018: In the northwest (Rakhine State), a missing policeman was found dead in a remote area. The dead policeman had disappeared after an ambush of police near the Bangladesh border. On that same day, two local Buddhist civilians were killed (their throats slit) by unidentified attackers. The Arakan Army is believed responsible for some of this. Another suspect is ARSA.