In northwest Burma, Rakhine state is turning into a war zone. Army efforts to suppress the tribal resistance have not only failed but the fighting has spread to most of the state. Soldiers have been fighting the AA (Arakan Army) rebels in the area since mid-2019 and periods of active combat have been more common in the last few months. Not a lot of casualties but enough armed men shooting at each other to make life miserable and the economy weaker.
The traditional (for decades) army tactics are not working in Rakhine and neighboring Shan states. The usual approach was to use a combination of artillery fire and advancing infantry to push AA rebels away from roads or other areas the army wants to control, at least temporarily. The rebels have adapted to that and taken advantage of growing anger throughout Rakhine state at the army. This is the result of several years of increased violence that is largely the fault of the army. Part of this is due to the army campaign to drive hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Moslems into Bangladesh. Nearly a million Rohingya were pushed out of Rakhine in the past five years and the government is not cooperating with Bangladesh and the UN to allow the Rohingya to return. That means Rakhine state has lost about 30 percent of its population and nearly all its Moslems. Before all the anti-Rohingya violence started in 2011 Rakhine state had long been the poorest state in Burma. The economic situation got worse and worse through 2018 as the economy of Rakhine state was hurt badly by the population losses and disruption of economic activity in general. While the rest of the country saw an improved economy since democracy returned in 2011, it’s been quite the opposite in Rakhine and the remaining tribal militias have shown a preference for fighting the army rather than just submitting to the growing poverty and chaos.
The violence in Rakhine never escalates into what might consider heavy combat. It is a war of skirmishes. There have been a lot more skirmishes over a wider area in the last year. In that time over 100,000 civilians, mostly rural villagers, have been driven away by the fighting and the army reliance on lots of firepower. Rakhine state only has about two million people so that many refugees is a heavy burden. The escalation began in mid-2018 as the army increased its efforts to impose control on territory along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states). A major reason for all this army effort is the army attempts to control (tax) illegal enterprises established 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. So the army decided to try more emphasis on brute force. This posed some special problems in Rakhine state because of the AA rebels
Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the AA was never given official recognition, in large part because the AA was more of a gangster operation than just tribal rebels. All this police activity was unpopular but at least it was less arbitrary and lawless than what the army does. Soldiers tend to torture and kill people they pick up or kidnap. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but now some violators are prosecuted. AA leaders believe they are winning and have established a base camp and headquarters in Rakhine state. The AA and their ally the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) have joined forces to recruit and train local men to resist the army. Together the two rebel groups have over 10,000 armed men. This force is expensive to maintain and the rebels pay for it with all manner of legitimate, and/or mostly illegal money-raising schemes.
January 12, 2020: In the northwest, across the Indian border in Assam about fifty Indian tribal rebels of the NDFB-S (Bodoland) entered India from Burma and surrendered. These rebels had refused to take part in an earlier peace agreement between Assam tribal rebels and the Indian government and were apparently persuaded to return to India because of the years of cooperation between India and Burma to eliminate rebels and outlaws from both sides of the border. In 2016 Indian and Burmese troops began joint patrols along with parts of their mutual border. This was one result of a mid-2015 agreement to cooperate with India to prevent Indian rebel groups from establishing bases inside Burma. In mid-2015 the Burmese army sent several thousand additional troops to the 1,643 kilometer long Indian border. Burma admits it is responsible for detecting and expelling these illegal visitors but most of the border area is thinly populated forests and mountains and it is very difficult to get troops into the area and very expensive to support them as they seek out and deal with any intruders. India believed it was a matter of priorities. The cooperation with India went beyond sharing intelligence and coordinating security operations on both sides of the border. To help with this India also sent a few more battalions to areas the rebels seem to prefer to cross at and increased patrols on the Indian side of the border. This makes it more difficult for the rebels to move to their Burma sanctuaries but does not stop them. This intense interest in border security began with a June 4th 2015 ambush inside India where Indian rebels operating from Burmese bases inflicted heavy casualties on Indian troops. This led to an Indian cross-border commando raid a few days later that destroyed the rebel camp Burma insisted did not exist. This was clear evidence that despite Burmese promises in 2014 to shut down such camps the rebels were still there. In mid-2015 India believed there were at least 25 such camps in northern Burma, with precise locations given for 17 camps. Some are as close as six kilometers from the border while others are up to 40 kilometers away. The rebels got the message and most packed up and moved back to Assam on the Indian side of the border.
January 11, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state), an AA roadside bomb damaged two police vehicles but did not injure any of the police in them.
January 10, 2020: Burma and Bangladesh worked out a joint border security agreement for their mutual border. This is similar to the 2015 agreement between Burma and India. On the Bangladesh border the main problem drug or people smugglers. The agreement specifies how suspects arrested on either side of the border will be treated and which ones will be returned to the other side for prosecution. Without this agreement the problem of who to send where was complicated by the many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh working for the smugglers and getting caught by security forces on either side of the border. Bangladesh considers these Rohingya refugees Burmese citizens and Burma disagrees.
January 9, 2020: China revealed that its leader would make a state visit to Myanmar on January 17-18 and discuss matters of mutual interest with Burmese leaders. There a lot of things to discuss, including the Rohingya refugees, tribal rebel violence on the Chinese border and Chinese investments in Burma. China has been protecting Burma in the UN, where there are calls for punishing Burma over the Rohingya mess. The tribal rebels are largely an internal Burmese matters. Burmese negotiations with the tribal rebels have been heavily influenced by China. That is because China is part of the problem.
Before the military gave up power in 2011 Burmese officers had made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. This continues to cause problems as China tries to maintain many of these economic projects by including them in the new CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) agreement China and Burma signed in late 2018. That agreement called for both countries to begin detailed negotiations on where a 1,700 kilometer long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukpyu SEZ (Special Economic Zone) will be built and what it will consist of. The corridor would improve roads, railroads and build, as needed, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. This would be financed by China and built mainly by Chinese construction firms.
CMEC paid special attention to the risk of a “debt trap” where Burma might find itself with debt it could not repay unless it turned over new facilities to Chinese ownership or control. This has happened in other nations, most recently in Sri Lanka. Burma needs the investment and since 1988 China has been the major foreign investor in Burma with projects totaling $20 billion so far. Burma told China it was working on special “debt trap” provisions and the main one is for China to allow foreign nations to provide some of the loans needed for the CMEC work. Details of this deal are still being negotiated. This explains why only nine of the 38 projects that comprise CMEC have so far been approved by Burma. Reaching agreement on the rest of those projects gives Burma some leverage over China.
CMEC is the Burma component of the massive Chinese Obor (One Belt, One Road) effort. Also called BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), Obor is all about China building roads, railroads, pipelines and ports to make it easier for Chinese imports and exports to move around, from East Asia to Europe, Africa and more. Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka and Burma are all BRI participants that are seeing billions of dollars in construction Chinese projects taking place and the terms of these deal tend to favor China, not the country where the construction takes place. Not surprisingly many people in these BRI countries see the Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. The Burmese tribes have long depended on Chinese cash and diplomatic influence to survive. China is working that angle as much as it can to get their costly development projects operational and want long-term peace with the tribes to keep the Chinese investments safe and profitable. Many of the tribal people are more willing to trust the Chinese than their own government which puts it all on China to make this work. While these Chinese projects often displace tribal people, usually without any compensation, the Chinese are more willing to make long-terms deals with the locals. For the Chinese it is just business while the Burmese see the tribes as potential rebels and long-term antagonists.
All the disagreements over border security and CMEC have not slowed down the growth in trade with China. In 2019 that trade increased 38.5 percent over 2018 to $17.7 billion. That is huge considering that the Burmese GDP is $67 billion.
January 8, 2020: In the north (Shan state), the army attacked a KIA (Kachin Independence Army) training base and were repulsed. The AA and the KIA are long-time allies and have joined forces to recruit and train local men to resist the army. Together the two rebel groups have over 10,000 armed men. This force is expensive to maintain and the rebels pay for it with all manner of legitimate, and mostly illegal money-raising schemes. The two groups also maintain a number of rural training bases that are well defended and the army has yet to try a major operation to shut down these bases.
January 2, 2020: In the southeast (Karen State), soldiers moved into territory controlled by Karen tribal rebels and were fired on. That led to the use of artillery and two nearby civilians were wounded. One soldier died and the troops halted their advance. The rebels involved belong to the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Unlike many other tribal rebels, the troops were up against the 5th Brigade of the KNLA and its 3,000 armed men and strong enough to handle most anything the army can throw at them. The army says it is merely trying to build new roads to improve the economy. The KNLA believes the army wants better access to KNLA controlled areas in order to carry out more attacks against the KNLA. The Karen have a peace deal with the government and accuse the army of regularly violating that agreement.