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Poor suffer as Myanmar military pushes its agenda

The army is suspected to be involved in the production and trafficking of drugs

Thibaut Bara, Yangon

Thibaut Bara, Yangon

Updated: May 28, 2020 08:00 AM GMT
Poor suffer as Myanmar military pushes its agenda

Vendors sit in their shop as they wait for customers in Yangon on May 26 following the lifting of restrictions on the economy to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

As Myanmar's civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi is busy preparing an economic recovery plan to save her country from the impacts of Covid-19, the "return to normalcy" is gradually taking center stage in debates. But the Myanmar army and its generals are pursuing their own agenda.

The beginning of May was marked by violence in Rakhine state, where the army continued its offensives. The military also offered its assistance to certain rebel groups there. The commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army, General Min Aung Hlaing, announced donations of medical equipment to two armed groups — the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army.

These two groups have been negotiating their autonomy since 1989. They are accused of keeping thousands of men armed and using them for drug trafficking. The army offered the aid to just two rebel groups out of at least some 15 such groups, making its motivation questionable.

The military on May 9 announced a nearly four-month unilateral ceasefire to allow the conflict-torn nation to fight Covid-19. But the rebel groups that signed the national ceasefire agreement have not benefited from the army's aid. On the contrary, a medical checkpoint dedicated to the prevention of Covid-19 held by the Karen National Union was even dismantled by the military, angering this group of several thousand men and signatories of the national ceasefire.

The military's ceasefire declaration excluded Rakhine state and the southern part of Chin state. The generals are engaged in a violent offensive against the Arakan Army.

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According to analyst U Aung Zaw, the four-month ceasefire prepares for "more bloodshed and an extension of the conflict" as the armed forces can now focus on the Arakan Army. To date, it is mainly the local population that has been paying the high price. The Paletwa region, near the border with India and Bangladesh, already reports food shortages.

On May 20, Myanmar media reported that 200 houses were burned in the Mrauk-U region of northern Rakhine state after gunfire exchanges between rebels and soldiers. The villagers hold government soldiers responsible for the destruction. The army has long used the "four cuts" strategy of cutting funds, food, intelligence and recruits to fight the rebellion. It results in the burning of villages and the installation of rebels, creating widespread fear.

It also results in civilian casualties. A video was widely circulated on social media. Shot on board a military ship, it showed soldiers torturing civilian prisoners suspected of being supporters of an Arakan state.

Surprisingly, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the army spokesman, acknowledged the soldiers' responsibility and said the guilty officers would be punished.

The army's desire for justice is dubious considering that its men violate rights with impunity, particularly regarding Rohingya refugees. The new-found love for justice could be attributed to renewed international pressure.

International sanctions

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is investigating accusations of genocide against the Rohingya, asked Myanmar early this year to protect ethnic Rohingya Muslims in its interim order. The United Nations Security Council met on May 14 to discuss developments.

The European Union and the United Kingdom are particularly concerned about the Myanmar army denying access to health care to people in Rakhine state. They have also announced that they will maintain sanctions against 14 army officers. The sanctions include freezing financial assets in the territories under their control and imposing travel restrictions.

In February, Germany also announced the suspension of its development aid until efforts are made to repatriate Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh. The European Union has also just added Myanmar to its blacklist of countries posing a "systemic financial risk" to the European bloc, mainly because of "money laundering" and "terrorist financing."

Asia's largest drug seizure

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on May 15. It documents the ever-increasing production of methamphetamine from Myanmar, and the central role that the Golden Triangle (comprising parts of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand) region now occupies in Asia's overall drug trafficking.

Myanmar has become the world's largest producer of methamphetamine. International media on May 20 reported that Myanmar police had carried out the largest drug seizure in Asian history.

The recovery included 200 million methamphetamine tablets and more than 500 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine. Police also recovered 35.5 metric tons and 163,000 thousand liters of other chemicals needed to produce the drugs, besides nearly 3,750 liters of liquid fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more potent than heroin.

Even more disturbing is the background of this historic seizure. The drugs were found in the modern buildings of a militia controlled by the Myanmar army itself. The drug seizure came after the army allegedly chose to dismantle the militia following suspicions of potential economic cooperation with the Arakan Army.

The insurgent group's rapid rise to power and modern weaponry raise suspicions of drug financing along new routes through Myanmar to India and Bangladesh. The drug seizure raises concerns about the military's possible involvement in drug production and trafficking, using militias.

The seizure reveals the proximity between the generals and the trafficking. Dozens of other militias exist in Myanmar, and there is little doubt about the nature of their funding. One member of the militia, interviewed by The Irrawaddy, questions the army's interests, asking: "Why has the army only acted now despite years of drug production in the area?" According to a report by Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor published on April 21, the Myanmar military has "almost certainly" profited from drug trafficking.

An impotent government

The media overindulgence on the Covid-19 outbreak has not changed the Myanmar military's priorities. The contrast between the military continuing violent actions and the impotence of the civilian government is clear.

As the nation struggled with the health and economic crisis of the virus, the military did not associate itself with the administration or people. The generals are acting with impunity. Aung San Suu Kyi was busy organizing a fabric mask contest on her Facebook page when villages were being burned down in Rakhine and hundreds of workers were dying of drug overdoses in Thailand and Bangladesh.

The announcement of new European sanctions is notable for its symbolic effect but is not enough to weigh against the military. More severe penalties, such as the suspension of development aid announced by Germany or sanctions for the textile industry envisaged by the European Union, may have an impact.

Unfortunately, the poor will become the primary victims of the fallout of the sanctions, long before it reaches the generals.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.

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