Myanmar: Unwanted Chinese Imports

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June 1, 2020: Today is the beginning of much reduced quarantine rules throughout the country. All government and most non-government employees are to return to work. There are still some distancing rules but not much fear of a major outbreak of the virus. So far there have been 228 confirmed cases of covid19 in Burma, with six deaths. That’s four cases per million people and 0.1 deaths. Most of the known cases have come from China. Elsewhere in the region, Bangladesh has 287 covid19 cases per million and four deaths per million. In Thailand, it’s 44 cases per million people and 0.8 deaths. India has 138 cases per million and four deaths while Pakistan had 329 cases per million and 7 deaths per million people. Malaysia has 242 cases per million and four deaths while 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 “Wuhan 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.

May 31, 2020: In the north (Rakhine and Shan states) drug raids, based on tips, led to the seizure of drugs (mostly methamphetamine pills) valued at over $13 million. Most of the drugs were seized in Rakhine state, where the pills were going to be smuggled into Bangladesh.

May 29, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state) over a hundred AA (Arakan Army) gunmen attacked a border post at 2 AM. Four defenders were killed and some of the outnumbered border guards fled to a nearby army base. Nine border guards and three civilians (related to border guards) were missing when security forces recaptured the compound at dawn. The border post had been looted. This attack was not just about stealing some weapons and other gear from the border guards, it was more about intimidating the border guard force into backing off on border security. A major source of income for the AA is getting illegal drugs from nearby Shan State, where most illegal drugs in the country are produced, into Bangladesh. The AA works with Burmese Rohingya refugees just across the border in Bangladesh. The drug smuggling gangs in the refugee camps are outlaws in both countries and one of the reasons the refugees have overstayed their involuntary presence in Bangladesh. While the refugees were welcomed 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 the 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.

Burma recently warned Bangladesh to expect some Burmese drug gangs to try and smuggle fentanyl into Bangladesh. Burmese police raids on Shan State drug producers earlier nearly 4,000 liters (990 gallons) of liquid fentanyl. This synthetic drug is fifty times more potent than heroin and is usually added to heroin to increase potency. That potency is often so high that it kills heroin users. Most fentanyl is manufactured in China and this chemical has become a major source of illegal drug deaths. Despite the danger, it is popular with heroin addicts because of the more intense effect.

In neighboring Shan State, the TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), an ally of the AA, ambushed an army convoy with roadside bombs. Several trucks were damaged.

May 25, 2020: The covid19 epidemic has hit the Burmese tourist industry hard. Tourism is big business in Burma and accounts for seven percent of GDP. Most of those tourists are from China and so far in 2020 there have been very few Chinese tourists. While the military wants to maintain strong economic and military relationships with China, most Burmese would rather depend on the West and nearby economic giants like Japan, Australia and South Korea.

May 24, 2020: Parliament cut a military budget request by $7.6 million, or five percent less than what the military wanted. The 2019-20 military budget of $2.5 billion largely spent and the military wanted additional funds to cover unanticipated expenses. Parliament members considered some of the military spending had nothing to do with national defense. Since democracy returned in 2011 the military has received whatever they wanted out of the government budget. This accounts for up to fifteen percent of the national budget each year. Over the past few years, the military has been getting less and the current military budget is only 11 percent of total government spending. The agreement that replaced decades of military rule with a democracy gave the military more influence in parliament. The military did not have an automatic veto but they only needed a few non-military members of parliament to get their way. That has been more difficult each year and this small cut in a military budget request was another example of that.

May 16, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine state) troops retaliated against AA attacks by burning down much of a local village. Nearly 200 structures were destroyed. The army denied it and would not allow journalists to visit the village. That backfired because commercial satellite photos of the area showed the damage. The military cannot keep the commercial satellites from recording what goes on in areas that are not verified military installations. Publishers can pay for the satellite photos and publish them.

May 14, 2020: The government revoked an eviction order for Buddhist families who had occupied buildings and other property abandoned by Burmese Moslem Rohingya who were forced into Bangladesh as refugees because of attacks by Buddhist nationalist mobs and eventually the army as well. The anti- Rohingya violence began in 2012 and by 2017 at least a million Rohingya had been driven from their homes. Under pressure from Bangladesh and the UN Burma agreed to keep squatters out of the abandoned Rohingya property. Political pressure from Buddhist nationalist groups eventually prevailed.

May 9, 2020: The military announced a unilateral ceasefire with rebel groups. In the north the very active NA (Northern, or Brotherhood Alliance) tribal rebels had also agreed to a ceasefire on the 3rd. The military said it would respond to any rebel attacks during the ceasefire. These truces are part of ongoing negotiations that, in late 2019, worked out some initial agreements, including a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. Those last two items have not worked out so far. No long-term peace deal yet but this is more progress with the NA than ever before. Some NA members are still engaged in combat with the army. The NA consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA, MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). Most of the current clashes do not involve the KIA. The NA exists because its members refused to sign the 2015 Burmese Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the Burmese government and military. The army, which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north, is the primary cause for violence. China is also involved because Northern Alliance members survive via their access to China. The access is tolerated as long as these Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma. This includes the BRI project, which NA members do object to.

 

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