Myanmar: Disunited States


March 9, 2020: The UN has hit a wall of resistance during efforts to resolve the problems with Burma refusing to take back nearly a million Burmese refugees stuck in Bangladesh refugee camps. The first Burmese refugees arrived in 2012 as anti- Rohingya violence got started and grew. Despite over two years of diplomatic efforts and UN pressure, few of the Rohingya Burmese refugees in Bangladesh have returned. This has caused a diplomatic problem but is otherwise ignored by most Burmese. No compromise seems possible and with a powerful ally like China (and its UN veto and economic clout) to block major UN action, Burma can afford to just let the situation simmer and concentrate on the other ethnic problems it must cope with.

All this is the result of how the modern state of Burma was created after World War II. That process was messy and made worse because no one had done it before. This was all about the relentless spread of nationalism over the last few centuries. This eventually became a European effort to ensure that everyone belonged to some kind of nation. Before that large portions of the world were inhabited by people but there was no large scale (national) local government or ownership. By the 20th century that was no longer acceptable, at least to the European nations that had taken, or simply assumed control over the many remaining blank spaces where there was no government that claimed to own, or simply control an area. Bringing education, modern medicine and the industrial revolution to these areas proved to be more expensive than anticipated. Then there was a growing number of locals who become more aware of nationhood and demanded it for themselves. So between the late 1940s and 1960s, most of the colonial areas were turned into sovereign states.

Deciding who belonged to what new government was often difficult and an example of this was in northern Burma and along the Burmese borders in general. To address this mess, in 1947 the Panglong Conference was held between the many tribes in the border areas and British colonial authorities to decide who would join what nation before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreements for many tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. The tribes realized that life was harder and more precarious if you were a blank space on the map. Nearby nations or independent operators (warlords, gangsters or worse) could more easily make life miserable because you were “nobody”.

World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces during World War II. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor, in this case former British colonies India and Burma, would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal in the 21st century is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. In Burma, the new government sought to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there was a general agreement on how government should be run in areas with many tribal organizations. In Burma, there continue to be problems between the central government and many of the tribes.

India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels. In Burma, many of these tribal and ethnic disputes were put on hold for decades by a military dictatorship that ruled from 1962 until 2011. This is also a common situation. When all the communist police states of East Europe and Russia collapsed between 1989 and 1991, the result was many new nations along with ethnic and even tribal disputes long suppressed by totalitarian rule.

Such was very much the case in Burma after democracy returned in 2011. The border tribes were now more willing to work out peace deals with the government. The Rohingya were never violent like the tribes but had always been an obvious minority in largely ethnic-Burmese Burma. The Rohingya are ethnic Bengali (an Indo-European group) while the ethnic Burmese and the tribal minorities are all East Asian, of which the Han Chinese are the largest faction. This meant the Rohingya were the most obvious minority in Burma and that is not a good thing historically. Expelling unwanted minority groups has been a common practice in this part of the world, and many other regions, but is not considered acceptable behavior since the late 20th century.

The new Burmese democratic government did not have a lot of control over its military, which had retained a lot of autonomy as a condition for allowing the return of democratic government. So when the Buddhist nationalists began attacking Rohingya in areas near the Bangladesh border, the army resisted orders to restore order. In 2017 the army took an active role in driving many Rohingya out of the country. Burma then agreed to allow the Rohingya back, but with conditions regarding citizenship and demands for reparation payments. Given all the complications progress is slow.

March 6, 2020: In the north (Shan state), the army completed raids on three major methamphetamine production operations that were in well-guarded and remote rural locations. The raids seized 43 million recently produced meth tablets worth $100 million to the producers. Also seized were tons of chemicals used to produce the meth and stamp out the tablets. All that material is worth millions of dollars to replace. These raids and seizures will disrupt meth exports for weeks or months, depending on whether or not these raids continue.

Before these major raids, the most recent anti-drug efforts were about controlling drug smuggling routes from northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia. Military and police pressure persuaded Burmese drug producers to switch to Laos and Vietnam as their main export route. What prompted the change was Thailand also sending more soldiers and police to the borders and intercepting more drug smugglers from Burma, even the ones who are armed and willing to use violence to get past the border. In southern Thailand, border guards checking cargoes of trucks headed for Malaysia have been finding more and more methamphetamine from Burma and headed for Malaysia. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it had long been smuggled out of northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia. Laos and Vietnam are not as convenient for getting the yaba to more distant markets but it is seen as a lot safer than Thailand and Malaysia.

Burma is under increasing pressure from neighbors, especially China, to shut down the meth production in Shan state. That is difficult because meth production brings in several billion dollars a year to the criminal gangs and tribal rebel groups that control production and smuggling. It required a major intelligence effort to find functioning meth labs and raid them before they could shut down and moved. The meth producers pay tens of million a year in bribes to local, state and regional officials to prevent such raids as well as any major disruption of smuggling efforts. Burma has to find army commanders who can be relied on to follow through on anti-meth efforts despite the bribe offers, and death threats that often follow refusal to take bribes or do what the bribe was for. The local police and officials are thoroughly compromised by the bribes (mostly) and occasional death or kidnapping threats. Even the army is crippled by corruption. To deal with anti-corruption efforts, which are becoming more frequent and effective, army commanders go after tribal rebels, usually the ones who are disrupting drug production or smuggling.

March 5, 2020: In parliament a week of debate over constitutional reform again criticized the constitutional powers granted to the military as the price of ending decades of military rule in 2011 and restoring democracy. The army warned of “consequences” if a serious effort were made to remove the constitutional privileges the military obtained as the price of their not trying to oppose the democracy movement with force. Such threats from the military have been a problem for Burma since the nation went from a British colony to an independent nation in 1948. That first democracy only lasted until 1962 when the army took power because minority groups, like the border tribes, demanded autonomy and a federal form of government. That problem remains unresolved, despite nearly fifty years of military rule. Efforts to remove the military privileges were expected and are resistant to military threats. A year ago parliament defied the military by officially discussing ways to break the veto power over constitutional changes the military held. That effort had been underway for nearly a year. In March 2018 the newly elected Burmese president said he would work to change the constitution that grants the army a lot of political power and bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. The 2011 constitution gives the military control of all the security forces (police, border patrol and so on) as well as 25 percent of the seats in parliament. A few other items were added as well, like barring Aung San Suu Kyi (a key leader in the effort for forces the generals from power) from high office. Changing the 2011 constitution was not expected to be easy, even if such a move is supported by most Burmese. The military will not surrender their constitutional privileges willingly and have been cultivating their relationship with the Chinese. But the Burmese generals really have few friends as the Chinese will do business with whoever is in power.

March 4, 2020: In the north (Shan State), the United Wa State said it would allow its 600,000 residents to participate in the 2020 presidential election.

February 29, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state), fighting between AA (Arakan Army) rebels and the army left five civilians dead and eight wounded. This time the fighting was triggered by a rebel landmine halting an army convoy and disabling one of the trucks. This violence has occurred several times in February, leaving 18 civilians dead and 71 wounded in addition to casualties suffered by the army and the rebels. This violence has been a regular occurrence for over a year because army efforts to suppress the tribal resistance have not only failed but the fighting has spread to most of the state. So far this year nearly 100,000 civilians have been driven from their homes by the violence.

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 AA rebels are more of a problem for the military because they are more mobile and less interested in controlling territory in the traditional sense. Many tribal rebels seek to maintain long-term control over towns and villages and even build military bases and headquarters. These become targets for the army artillery and armed helicopters. The AA dispenses with all that and emphasizes remaining mobile and forcing the more road-bound and inflexible army units to spend a lot of time just moving to new areas that require army attention.

February 28, 2020: The leaders of Burma and India concluded two days of meetings by signing ten new cooperation agreements. One of these had each country pledge to not allow any group on its territory to do harm to the other country. This is mainly about various terrorists, rebel or criminal groups operating bases in one country in order to cross the border and commit illegal acts. The other nine agreements had to do with trade and regularly exchanging certain kinds of information.

February 24, 2020: China ordered border crossings closed until further notice as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the covid19 virus. This disrupts trade along the northern border but that is not an emergency, except in a few areas in Kachin state where some remote villages normally rely on food and other imports from China because local roads going south from the Chinese border are few and not very useful for truck traffic and trade in general. So extraordinary efforts have been made to arrange for temporary transport of essential goods over the less adequate roads from the south.

February 3, 2020: In the north (Rakhine and Chin states), blocked Internet and cell phone service to four more towns. This makes nine towns in these two states that have been hit with these service shutdowns since mid-2019.

January 26, 2020: In the north (Shan State), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) admitted that it had purchased a four-seat Chinese civilian helicopter in late 2019 and had been using it since December 2019 to move key people and cargo quickly in the remote areas of Shan State that the Wa have long controlled. USWA purchased some military helicopters (Mil-17s) from China back in 2013 but these have not been seen lately and made have been retired or lost in unpublicized accidents.

Over the last three decades, the Wa have done the most (economically and diplomatically) with this autonomy, earned when the Wa agreed to get out of the opium and heroin business. An example of this was visible a year ago when the United Wa State held a 30th anniversary celebration (of autonomy) in the Wa State capital Hopang. Back in 1989, Hopang 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 controlled by uniformed UWSA forces. For decades before 1989 the Wa were the major producers of illegal drugs, usually in the form of opium and heroin. The Wa 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 nearly 200 tons in 2019 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 have been displaced by methamphetamine.

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 2019 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 several major tribal rebel groups. 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).

January 17, 2020: The Chinese leader began a two-day state visit to Myanmar. This was mainly about discussing 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. This state visit was to try and get Burmese leaders to be more cooperative with Chinese investors. That did not happen. There were some token concessions but Burma remains wary of Chinese investments.

Before the local 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 obviously 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 a few 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 Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. 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.


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