Myanmar: We Just Want To Be Friends

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April 25, 2019: Bangladesh and major foreign aid agencies are improving living conditions for the Rohingya refugees from Burma who are apparently not going home and currently living near the Burma border. The UN sought nearly a billion dollars from aid donors to pay for supporting the 900,000 Rohingya still stuck in Bangladesh refugee camps. The donors are apparently responding and upgrades to the camps are underway. Despite considerable efforts to persuade Burma to take the Rohingya back, it was pretty obvious at the end of 2018 that previous plans had failed. One glitch was the failure to persuade Rohingya Moslems to leave Bangladesh and return to Burma. This effort has been suspended with Burma and Bangladesh agreeing to work towards trying again before 2020. Not much progress so far. The fundamental problem remains; Burma does not want to take back the refugees and the Rohingya are unwilling to return as long as Burma continues to tolerate hostile public attitudes towards the Rohingya. The Burmese Buddhist nationalists who started all the violence in 2012 were reviving a decades old hostility towards the Rohingya. The hostility was made worse by the upsurge in Islamic terrorism worldwide since the 1990s. Finally, the military commanders who had given up most of their power in 2011 and allowed democracy to return after half a century of military rule saw the Rohingya violence (which the army participated in) as a possible way to regain more of their political power. That could happen because Western nations are now considering reviving economic sanctions for Burma because of the unresolved Rohingya refugee problem. China is hoping for the worst because that would mean Burma would be more dependent on China for trade and investment. It would make Burma a Chinese dependency (sort of like North Korea) and the Burmese don’t care for that but that the army leadership is comfortable with it.

The Chinese need some help because the Chinese operating commercial (rather than Chinese government) enterprises in northern Burma (Kachin and Shan states) are a major source of complaints in Burma. There seems to be no end of illegal schemes the Chinese come up with that profit at the expense of Burmese in the north. Two of the recent rackets is enticing or kidnapping Burmese women to China and selling them to Chinese men to be wives. There a growing shortage of Chinese women has created a market for young foreign women. China's "one child" policy of the last few decades and the ability to determine the sex of the child before birth led to more (20 percent more) boys than girls being born in China. There's a growing shortage of potential brides, and desperate Chinese men are willing to buy a kidnapped tribal girl from northern Burma (or anywhere else).

And then there are the Chinese banana plantations. Some are legitimate and registered to operate. But nearly all these Banana operations break the law in one way or another, usually by illegally expanding into state or locally owned forests and illegally using pesticides and fertilizer. For the northern tribes, China has rarely been a good neighbor and Burma is the current best example of the worst behavior by a larger neighbor.

That bad behavior recently manifested itself in Kachin State when 8,000 people demonstrated against the Chinese Myitsone dam project, a $3.6 billion project that began in 2009 but has been stalled by local resistance since 2011. In the last year, China has threatened Myanmar with economic retaliation and withdrawal of protection in the UN (over criticism of the mistreatment of Rohingya Moslems) unless the dam project resumes. Opposition to the dam has become a national issue with most Burmese angry at Chinese attempts to bully Burma into accepting the dam project. Because Burma needs China more than the other way around Burmese leaders are still working on ways to get the Chinese projects moving again. Meanwhile, the official Chinese policy is an ominous “We just want to be friends.”

April 24, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), three of 27 civilians arrested two weeks ago on suspicion of supporting the AA (Arakan Army) were found dead alongside a road.

In the north (Shan State), the army revealed that over the last few days troops had taken at least seven KIA (Kachin Independence Army) outposts in contested areas. Peace negotiations with the KIA continue to be stalled by disagreements on the extent of KIA controlled territory.

April 22, 2019: In the north (Kachin State), 54 jade miners died during a landslide that took place at night while everyone was sleeping. About 40 vehicles also disappeared into what, when it was all over, was described as a “mud lake.” There is more risk of this thing because unemployed jade miners become scavengers who scour abandoned (because the owners felt there was not enough jade left to be worth extracting) jade mining sites and work these sites without much regard for safety. Some lucrative jade mines are shut down because of legal problems and those sites have armed guards and police to provide security for the jade mines mainly to keep scavengers away. But many old mines that still have some jade left in them are not guarded or monitored by safety engineers in order 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 or the danger.

For the third time this year ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) rebels attacked police. This time they planted a mine in a road that damaged a police van, wounding one policeman. There were actually two mines planted in the area but the other one caused no casualties. There are rumors, but little evidence that Islamic terrorist group ARSA is growing and becoming a threat. In mid-2017 there were rumors, but little proof, that ARSA had attacked 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. Since 2018 ARSA has also apparently begun coordinating its operations with the AA (Arakan Army) rebels. The AA has been much more active and their clashes with the army have left nearly a hundred dead (most of them AA gunmen) so far this year.

For the moment ARSA is more of 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.

April 17, 2019: In the north (Shan State), the autonomous Wa government celebrated the 30th anniversary of the treaty it signed with the military government to bring peace to the “Wa State.” In 1989 the government agreed to allow nearly 4,000 square kilometers along the Chinese border in Shan State to have some autonomy as long as the Wa militias no longer fought the army and the Wa leadership consulted with the government on matters of mutual importance. The government actually agreed to six of these “self-administered zones” in Shan State. Together they comprised less than five percent of the area in Shan State but a larger share of the organized tribal population. Some ten percent of all Shan State residents live in Wa territory.

Over the last three decades, the Wa have done the most (economically and diplomatically) with this autonomy. The 30th anniversary celebration was held in the Wa State capital Hopang which, in 1989 was a small village near the Chinese border with no electricity or paved roads. Now it is the largest town in the region with high rise buildings, paved roads and traffic jams. Wa policemen direct traffic during rush hour. The Wa zone has a population of nearly 600,000 and it is generally closed to tourists and entry is via checkpoints operated by UWSA forces. For decades before the 1989 agreement, the Wa were the major producers of illegal drugs. The Wa say they have moved away from that but the Wa are still the major supplier of methamphetamine. Production of meth, mainly in Burma, has gone from 30 tons in 2016 to over a hundred tons in 2018 and is still growing. Shan state, which is on the Chinese border, remains the largest source of illegal drugs in the region. Opium and heroin used to be the major source of income but those old staples are being displaced by methamphetamine. The Burmese methamphetamine production is a major regional problem that is worth billions of dollars a year to the tribes 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 China. 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 and the Wa State is basically untouchable.

To protect all they have the UWSA (United Wa State Army) has 30,000 full time uniformed and trained troops. Most are conscripts but the pay is good and neither the Burmese military nor other tribal militias in the region want to take on the UWSA. The military parade at the celebration showed why. There were over 7,000 uniformed personnel marching or driving in the parade. The USWA showed off new (over the last few years) Chinese weapons and vehicles. Not all USWA weapons (like the helicopters and 122mm artillery) were shown off but there were new twin barrel 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine-guns and new model shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. These troops also have modern military radios, combat helmets and all manner of commercial gadgets (GPS and quadcopter UAVs). USWA is negotiating to obtain larger Chinese military UAVs.

The UWSA is clearly the leading tribal militia and unlike most other tribal militias in Burma is not at war with Burma. The Burmese army tends to respect UWSA military capabilities. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has 50,000 armed men available. This includes 20,000 organized reserves. The Wa are related to the ethnic (Han) Chinese, and many other Wa live across the border in China. The Burmese Wa use Chinese as a second language and do most of their business (legal, illegal and semi-legal) with Chinese. As a result, the Chinese government makes it clear to the Burmese government that any attack on the Wa would not be appreciated and have pressured the Burmese on behalf of the Wa in the past. The Wa have long been recognized as the leader of a loose coalition of tribal rebels in the north who have, like the Wa, refused to sign any of the peace deals the army has offered. The Wa insist that they do not need to sign any new agreement because their 1989 ceasefire agreement is still in force. The Wa coalition includes the KIA, the MNDAA, the SSA-N, the Arakan Army and the TNLA. Without the cooperation of this powerful coalition there can never be peace in the north. Thus there has been nearly continuous fighting in Shan state for years. This led to a ban on voting in much of Shan state. The fighting has been rather low level but there have been several thousand casualties each year and over 100,000 more refugees fleeing their homes since 2014. The Wa State works with the Burmese government to try and work out peace deals with other tribes. There has been some success with this but there are still tribal rebels who are still at war with the Burmese (although not the Wa).

April 9, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state), hundreds of AA rebels attacked army and police facilities before dawn. Police and army reinforcements soon arrived, including air support (helicopters and warplanes) and the rebels dispersed. There appeared to have been about a hundred casualties but an accurate count was impossible because the rebels took their dead and wounded with them.

April 5, 2019: In the northwest (Rakhine state,) the army said six AA rebels killed during a recent airstrike (using a helicopter gunship) were Rohingya Moslems or, as many Burmese call Rohingya, “Bangladeshis”. The AA is largely composed of Burmese Buddhists from Rakhine but in this tribal warfare, you are always on the lookout for allies. In any event, locals insist the six dead Rohingya were civilians out cutting down bamboo. The army insisted the six had fired on the helicopter.

 

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