Myanmar: Alarming Arakan Antics

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April 29, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state) fighting between the AA (Arakan Army) rebels and the army 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 over 100,000 civilians have been driven from their homes by the violence. In the last week at least 30 civilians were casualties, giving others all the incentive needed to flee. The rebels suffer few casualties while most of the dead and wounded are civilians in villages that the army attacks with artillery to deal with rebels who are usually not present.

Soldiers have been fighting the AA 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 have become an unexpected problem for the military because these rebels 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.

As a result of the new tactics, AA has been able to block commercial traffic on some key roads for extended periods. This has made it difficult to get food and other essential items to some northern areas, like China state. Burmese politicians are nearly unanimous in calling for the AA insurrection to be eliminated.

April 27, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state) 3,200 Burmese have returned from China via the Lweje Town crossing during the last ten days. Returnees are checked for covid19 and about fifteen percent are held in quarantine 14 days just to be sure. So far there have been 150 confirmed cases of covid19 in Burma, with five deaths. That’s three cases per million people and 0.09 deaths. Most of the known cases have come from China. In neighboring Bangladesh, there have been 39 cases per million and 0.9 deaths per million. India has had 23 cases per million and 0.7 deaths. Thailand has 42 cases per million and 0.8 deaths. China, where the virus began, stopped releasing covid19 cases and deaths data as part of a government program to try and blame the U.S. for the virus. Few (Chinese or foreigners) believe that and it is taken for granted by neighbors of China that the “Wuham Virus”, as it was first known, indeed came from China. By now it has also become known that covid19 is not much more dangerous than one of the deadlier annual influenza epidemics. The flu is taken for granted and it is unclear if covid19, which is genetically almost identical to the 2013 SARS virus, another Chinese corona (trans-species) virus, will be an annual event or disappear like SARS and similar diseases. Covid19 is unique in that it attacks the lungs and is often mistaken for pneumonia. As such it is particularly dangerous to the elderly or anyone with a weakened immune system or other illnesses. Most healthy adults and children do not notice covid19 at all even if exposed to it.

April 25, 2020: In the northwest (Sagaing Region, west of Kachin State) two NCSN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) based in Kachin state crossed the border and were arrested by an Indian army patrol. Indian and Burmese Naga rebels continue to maintain bases on the Burmese side of the border. The Sagaing region has long been used as a refuge for Indian rebels but since early 2019 Indian and Burmese forces have been coordinating efforts to shut down the border camps for good, or at least for a long time. Indian and Burmese troops swept both sides of the border for weeks but later discovered that, while this hurt the Naga rebels it did not destroy the rebel groups, who returned to the border area once the troops had ceased their activity. In response Burmese troops began to patrol the area for several months, or as long as it took for India to certify that the Naga rebels have suffered serious and long-term damage. Indian troops were also active on their side of the border to ensure that the Naga rebels, both the Indian and Burmese ones, have nowhere to go and that situation will last so long (several months) that many rebels will desert and return to their villages. Other rebel groups will be cornered by Indian or Burmese troops and destroyed. It did not work exactly as expected and the NSCN members are still active.

Most of the Naga people are Indian but some live in the Burmese far north Sagaing Region and belong to the NSCN which wants to form an independent Nagaland including Indian and Burmese territory and Naga people from both countries. Many of the camps being sought in Sagaing belong to the NSCN-K faction of the NSCN. At the start of 2019, there were believed to be about 5,000 active rebels in NSCN with about ten percent of them Burmese Naga. Operation since then sought to reduce the size of NSCN by a significant amount. These operations are not just going after the NSCN but also smaller groups like the Ulfa-I, NDFB and Manipur rebels.

The Naga are actually about two million people from a collection of tribes that share many ethnic (Burma-Tibetan) characteristics and traditions. About ten percent of the Naga live in Burma but most of the rebel violence occurs in Indian Nagaland. For years the Naga rebels have used bases in Burma to train and rest before returning to fight in India. After much diplomatic pressure, the Burmese army finally went after the Naga rebel camps and have now shut most of them down or at least made them very difficult to maintain. The Naga rebels do not fight the Burmese soldiers but always retreat. For this new operation, Burmese soldiers have orders to pursue and capture or kill any rebels they encounter. If the rebels head for India the Indian Army is alerted and moves troops into position to confront any rebels crossing the border to escape Burmese troops.

April 24, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state), across the border in Bangladesh the Burmese Rohingya refugees have overstayed their involuntary presence in Bangladesh. While the refugees were welcomes when they arrived in large numbers during 2017, after about a year the presence of nearly a million displaced Rohingya in an already crowded country became a problem. Most of the Rohingya refugees are in an area called Cox’s Bazaar and their presence tripled the local population. At first, the locals were eager to help fellow Moslems, for a few months at least. But that expected short visit has gone on for three years and there is no end in sight. The appearance of the covid19 virus has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages.

These situations are increasingly common worldwide. First, there is a strain on local resources in an already overpopulated area. The locals grow resentful and then angry. This is accelerated by the loss of jobs to refugees who are willing to work, illegally, for less. The refugees have food and medical aid which is more than many of the locals have, especially those who lost their jobs to refugees, who are forbidden to take jobs, and got them anyway. Complaints to local police often become another opportunity for the police to enrich themselves with another bribe.

Many of the idle refugees seek solace in drugs, usually cheap Burmese methamphetamine pills. Production of this stuff is a major regional problem that is worth billions of dollars a year to the northern Burmese tribes and that is a tremendous incentive for tribal drug gangs and corrupt Burmese 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 United Wa State militia, which dominates meth production, is basically untouchable. Bangladesh is seen as a new market opportunity and entrepreneurs among the refugees organized meth smuggling operations. Refugees are hired to smuggle the yaba in and distribute it to refugees and locals. Police efforts to curb the yaba trade leads to gun battles, arrests and more reasons to want the refugees gone. The refugees have nowhere to go and situations like this rarely end well.

April 20, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state) a foreign aid worker was killed and another wounded when they came under fire from soldiers who demanded they stop and not try to drive through the checkpoint with their UN vehicle. The two victims were in the area to collecting covid19 test swabs and taking them to be analyzed.

March 15, 2020: The Bangladesh coast guard found and rescued a people smuggling ship that ran out of fuel and food while trying to reach Malaysia with over 400 Rohingya refugees. The ship had been at sea for two months and 32 passengers had died. The ship was turned away from several ports because of fear it was carrying covid19 victims.

March 10, 2020: In the south (Chumphon Province) the Thai army completed mine clearing operations in a portion of the Thai/Burma border that had once been the scene of fighting by Burmese Karen tribal rebels against Burmese, and sometimes Thai troops. That fighting had been, at times intense and extensive in some border areas. This left thousands of landmines and unexploded munitions (dud shells as well as grenades), usually concentrated in a few border areas. The army mine-clearing troops recently completed clearing 200 old mines and over a hundred other unexploded items from 3.5 square kilometer border area. These clearance operations make border areas safe once more the locals as well as Thai and foreign tourists.

 

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