Category Archives: ethnic policy

Seeing Beyond the Visible: How Development Practitioners Should Think About Gender & Peacebuilding in Myanmar

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar's national election in 2015.

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar’s national election in 2015.

Peacebuilding practitioners in Myanmar should re-orient the way we look at peace and conflict processes, by viewing them through the experiences of women. Applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process—which is largely dominated by male elites and leaves out the voices of ethnic communities, will reveal a more complete picture of the strategies being enacted by civil society actors to mitigate the effects of armed conflict. This, in turn, could inform policies that are more likely to generate productive results.

Since the advent of Myanmar’s transition to democracy in 2012, bringing peace to conflict-ridden ethnic areas has become a focus for actors engaged in the country’s development. Western governments including the United States recently hailed the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 by a handful of ethnic Armed Organizations as an important, albeit nascent step toward the end of decades-long civil unrest. In addition, development practitioners at the national level have begun implementing peacebuilding initiatives of their own.

Much of this work is being done against a backdrop of caution: conflicts in Kachin and Shan, two of Myanmar’s largest states, have left over 120,000 civilians displaced in the last five years alone, making optimism about peace seem premature. Additionally, the presence of a plethora of international “experts” in this space has led to criticism on the goals of the peacebuilding agenda. Development practitioners, well-aware of these cautions, continue to hope that the recently-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government will usher in a new era of nationwide reconciliation, making Myanmar an exemplary case study for conflict practitioners around the world.

Despite this optimism, however, the lens through which many practitioners look at peacebuilding in Myanmar remains incomplete. In the rush to implement solutions, gender, a crucial factor in understanding the effects of armed conflict is often left out of key programming and policy initiatives. This is compounded by the fact that in national-level peace negotiations, women (especially ethnic women) are rarely allowed a voice.

Research has shown that beyond simply a being call for diversity, there are concrete benefits to integrating gender-sensitivity into development work. These include sustainability of programming and, in post-conflict situations, an increased likelihood of sustained peace. Therefore, rather than creating programs that are “gender blind,” practitioners should put gender at the center of the peacebuilding conversation. Seeing peace and conflict from “below” will provide a more complete picture of what is happening on the ground, and inform the creation of more productive policies.

 

The limits of visibility

Actors who call for applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process unanimously suggest that women’s circumstances in Myanmar will improve when the numbers of women in public life increase. Gender inclusion, representation and participation have surfaced as focal points in these discussions, with a host of civil society women’s organizations shedding much-needed light on the lack of women’s participation in formal peace negotiations. Instilling a gender lens onto governance, particularly during the advent of the Suu Kyi-led NLD, these groups suggest, is paramount to advancing Myanmar’s peace agenda. More women in power, the argument goes, will lead to sustainable peace on Myanmar.

As important as this argument is, I suggest that it is incomplete. Incorporating women into pre-existing structures of power, while arguably beneficial, can also replicate hierarchies dominated by elites, leaving out the experiences of ordinary women. The sheer accomplishment of instilling more women in political office doesn’t tell us, for example, how gendered cultural practices are supported by, or lead to the exacerbation of, armed conflict. It doesn’t tell us how certain women become authorized to take on leadership roles, while other women lack even the most basic understanding of gender equality. We don’t yet understand how gender dynamics at the village level authorize wars to remain entrenched, or how resistance to war and refuting gender stereotypes go hand in hand. Issues of access and power are as much a part of “gendering” peace as are questions of women’s visibility.

Development practitioners should widen the lens to look at places where gender and power intersect. This can be done by looking to the ground and examining cultural spaces where women are seemingly invisible: at the village level, in grassroots civil society, and in peacebuilding organizations themselves. We must ask how gender dynamics in these spaces inform social inequalities, keep women at a disadvantage, and cement the roots of conflict.

 

Broadening the lens: Gender and ethnic civilian ceasefire monitoring

One example of an area that can help us better understand the intersections of gender, conflict and peace is civilian ceasefire monitoring. In recent years, ethnic peacebuilding practitioners have begun implementing a new approach to monitoring the fragile ceasefire agreements between Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union of Myanmar Government. Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring, or CCM, began as an answer to the failed United Nations (UN) model of armed civilian protection in contexts such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia throughout the 1990’s. It differs from other peacebuilding approaches in that it engages the direct participation of communities working on the ground, rather than relying on “outside” actors (such as the UN) to monitor conflict. In the CCM approach, villagers themselves are trained to understand the ceasefire agreements in place, and monitor incidents that breach those agreements. Often included in this work is “unarmed civilian protection monitoring,” which engages villagers’ participation in reporting on broader human rights violations (i.e., land grabbing, sexual assault). Notably, civilian ceasefire monitors must remain neutral in their efforts—making a commitment to align with neither side of an armed conflict. They also, by definition, must remain unarmed.

Civilian ceasefire monitoring mechanisms in Myanmar are diverse in their practices, goals and capacities. While some draw from previous experiences monitoring conflict in their regions, others are only beginning to develop the tools and knowledge necessary to achieve their goals. Overall, though, the mechanisms are aligned in their mission to actively monitor violations that persist in ethnic conflict areas.

Recently, I conducted preliminary research for Mercy Corps Myanmar’s Supporting Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring program on the gender dynamics of civilian ceasefire monitoring in Myanmar. The research assessed CCM mechanisms in six ethnic states, where over two-hundred-and–forty-four monitors are working in twenty-four villages and townships.

The research took place in Kayah, a small state in eastern Myanmar that has suffered from decades of conflict with the Union of Myanmar (UOM) government, and where weak infrastructure and food insecurity remain rampant; Kachin, home to the Kachin Independence Organization which has been entrenched in armed conflict since 2011, resulting in the internal displacement of over one-hundred-and-twenty thousand civilians; Chin, a remote, isolated area of Western Myanmar with scant natural resources and little infrastructure and one of the poorest regions in the country; Shan, a state which has suffered from decades of civil conflict and reports the highest levels sexual violence in armed conflict; Kayin (Karen), where land confiscation, natural resource extraction, and foreign-led development projects are ongoing concerns of citizens, with armed actors often implicated as perpetrators; and Mon, whose governing body, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) abstained from signing the NCA out of protest around its non-inclusiveness of other EAOs.

Our team conducted interviews with ten men and eight women, in an attempt to understand the practices of CCM mechanisms in these areas, and what role gender inclusion (and omission) might play in their work.

The findings revealed that a correlation exists between gender inclusion strategies and network functionality. Formalized gender inclusion strategies were discussed by mechanisms in Kayin, Shan and Mon states, who demonstrated conscious efforts to include women’s voices in decision-making processes and leadership roles within the mechanism.

By contrast, mechanisms in Kachin, Kayah, and Chin demonstrated comparably less commitment to including women in their processes. It can be argued that this, in turn, affected the overall functionality of the mechanism. Women from these networks reported being silenced in meetings, excluded from decision-making, and discouraged from working as monitors. This negative feedback, they explained, came from the community, their families, and male members of the mechanisms.

In addition, the findings revealed that gender issues inform the way a mechanism approaches its ceasefire monitoring mandate—specifically, whether to monitor a given bilateral or nationwide ceasefire agreement, or whether to monitor issues of civilian protection –i.e., human rights abuses within the community. Women, we found, consistently requested that their mechanisms attend to problems of sexual violence in conflict, domestic abuse, land grabbing, and other issues of importance to women at the village level. These issues are, of course, pertinent to all members of a community, not just women. However, it was often women who brought them to the forefront of the discussion.

Above all, the research found that seeing the work of civilian ceasefire monitors through a gender lens helps us understand the way these mechanisms function, the strategies they undertake, and the challenges they face. Conversely, by not including a gender lens, we risk negating half of the conversation.

There are numerous other ways in which the “how” and “where” of gendering peace and development practice can intersect: Research on women and customary law, women’s forced labor (for example, trafficking, which I have discussed here), and issues of gender and ethnic nationalism could reveal how peace and conflict processes are informed by women’s experiences. These spaces, though not directly related to women’s participation in public life, are nevertheless worth examining.

As development practitioners, we should ask deeper questions about how peacebuilding can be more inclusive of, and responsive to, women’s needs. Changing the dynamics of firmly entrenched systems of power is not simply a matter of quotas. When we think about gender and peace in Myanmar, how we look is important as where we look. Viewing peacebuilding from “below” helps us see places where gender neutrality is often assumed, rendering women’s experiences invisible. By probing these spaces, we create a new type of visibility—one in which the structures of power that keep women at a disadvantage can finally be laid bare.

This article is the first in a three part series by Erin Kamler on gender, peacebuilding, and development in Myanmar. Read on to the second and third parts.

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Filed under ethnic policy, FEATURES, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER

SMEC’ed About the Head

What is it about No that SMEC doesn’t understand?

SMEC, an Australian based services company that morphed out of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, was recently handed a petition containing 23,7171 signatures opposing a dam that would effectively divide war-shocked Shan state in Myanmar in half.

They are the  public face of a consortium planning a giant dam on the Upper Salween river at Mong Ton in Myanmar.  It’s not the first time they have been told the idea stinks.  Maybe they are heroically taking one for the gang; the disaster prone Three Gorges Corporation,  the very shonky Sino Hydro, the Myanmar Electricity Power  Enterprise,  and state energy monopsony  Thai Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT).  Then there is a UK team of engineers Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, involved in dam building in Myanmar in the past and, because of human right violations on the sites, placed on UK’s Burma Campaign’s ‘Dirty Company’ list. SMEC might well soon be down there with them.

SMEC has been meeting the people of Shan state, seeking agreement for the Mong Ton dam to be built on the upper Salween in Shan State. They have faced serial rejection. Meetings have been cancelled due to local hostility. Old Shan women have risen to their feet, their voices rich and challenging, telling the SMEC representatives that having survived years of war, they refuse to let their ancestral lands be drowned to produce unneeded electricity for China and Thailand.

SMEC’s habit of giving gifts of cloth bags, bottled drinks and snacks to people they interview has as angered local villagers, who view these as bribes. They report SMEC repeatedly pushes the ‘positive’ impacts of the dam, appearing deaf to protests, while attempting to persuade them to sign documents they don’t understand.

On July 22nd, a group of villagers returned the bags they had been given by SMEC surveyors, and instead presented them with anti-dam posters. A Shan joint statement calls SMEC’s assessments process “simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess (sic)  the project’s actual impacts.”

In April this year the Australian Federal Police raided SMEC’s international’s headquarters in New South Wales ‘as part of an investigation into allegations of foreign bribery – it was unclear if this was associated with the Myanmar project.

‘Many of our highly respected stupas and pagodas, such as Ho Leung temple, will be destroyed.’ said Hkyaw Seng, whose village is close to the construction site. The 700 years old Ho Leung Temple, on the eastern bank of the Salween is famous throughout Shan State, with tens of thousands of pilgrims travelling there every March.

In the Australian context, this might be compared to submerging St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne  to power New Zealand.

Burma Battlers

Along with other ethnic states of Myanmar, Shan state suffered intense warfare for over 20 years and sporadic clashes since. It is the biggest of Myanmar’s seven ethnic states with population of around 8 million people, half of whom are  Shan.

During that long war many abuses were committed by the Burmese Army, include arbitrary execution and detention, torture, looting, rape, forced relocation and forced labour.

Shan and Karen representatives reported to this correspondent that SMEC’s work has been obstructed by political instability, increasing military presence and growing community resistance. In May Burmese Army tanks were photographed in Kunhing, whose renowned ‘thousand islands’ in the Pang tributary will be submerged by the dam reservoir. They fear opposition to the dam will trigger military violence.

Four SMEC officials went to the Wa capital in early July this year, seeking to survey the Wa Special Administrative Region. They were ‘advised’ to return at a later date by leaders of the China-backed United Wa State Army, possibly due to growing political and military tension between UWSA (notoriously linked with cross border drug trade) and Burmese government; tensions that erupted into fighting in Mong Ton township in early June 2015. SMEC is now effectively unable to carry out surveys in a large swathe of Wa-controlled territory along the eastern bank of the Salween above the planned Mong Ton dam.

The US$10 billion (2015 estimate) hydropower dam will flood an area nearly the size of Singapore, virtually bisecting  Shan state and destroying around a hundred communities. You can replace houses but not communities which are organic social structures built on trust mutual support and shared histories. It is the very strength of these communities that enabled their people to endure the hardships of war. Locals report that tanks are returning, as are armed guards. A Chiang Mai lawyer with connections to the Shan, told this correspondent recently ‘local media report that the project has started, and in a conversation we had… a few weeks ago, there is a camp of mostly Chinese engineers doing testing near the site. They said that the river near that area is off limits to all people and that warning shots were fired at a boat that got too close. The contact was not sure who fired the shots.’

The Burma river network (BRN) asserts that large dams are being constructed on all of Burma’s major rivers and tributaries by Chinese, Thai and Indian companies. The dams are causing displacement, militarization, human rights abuses, and irreversible environmental damage – threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions. The power and revenues generated are going to the military regime and neighbouring countries.

Role Play

So what is an Aussie company doing there?

‘It is not SMEC’s role to provide recommendations as to whether the Project should proceed. The findings of the EIA/SIA will be presented to the Government of Myanmar, who will decide (with other sources of information) whether to proceed with the Project.’ (Pro forma response from SMEC).

SMEC’s role has been to complete the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. The general idea is for both these studies to be submitted to the government to be signed-off (or, as happens too often, paid off) and plans for mitigation put to the villagers and agreed to before work can start. However a local council member in Mong Ton, seconding the lawyer’s report, said that despite the local people’s disapproval, earthworks were already underway along the ridge of the mountain, as was confirmed by Kai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan by phone from the Thai-Myanmar border.

‘Well you would expect that,’ said environmental consultant Dr Sean Foley in neighbouring Laos. ‘They borrow lots of money to build the dam and no doubt to pay off officials. The longer they delay, the more interest they have to pay, so it’s in their interest to get moving, and pay the necessary fees to ensure the EIA is agreed to. The ‘soft’ items like compensation to villagers and relocation construction are usually where all the cost savings are made.’

As for the social impacts, it should be obvious, when confronted with a room full of people who are largely farmers and whose land is about to be flooded, wearing ‘No Dams’ headbands, that maybe, just maybe, these people think the social and economic costs are not worth it. Despite SMEC’s claims to hold free and fair consultations the presence of local militias and pro-government representatives in meetings inhibited villagers from asking questions.

A message sent to SMEC’s local senior manager, Michael Holics, which asked how much forest was going to be destroyed, how many tonnes of concrete to be used was met with a pro forma response  (see above), the same response given to questions related to resettlement, land allocation, livelihoods, and fish stocks. Tropical dams are under scrutiny, found to emit as much greenhouse gas as coal fired power plants with similar energy output, while devastating huge areas of land.

SMEC’s job has already been done by International Rivers (IR) and other local groups who have listed the environmental and social factors mitigating against building the dam. Pianporn Deetes of IR told this correspondent that tens of thousands of ethnic people living on the floodplains near the dam site have already been forcibly relocated. ‘All dams planned on the Salween River will greatly disrupt the riverine ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of peoples living along the river.’

SMEC could hardly avoid the fact that in 2007, the dam consortium was given land on which to build an office, land confiscated from Wan Mai village. In the way of the then-incumbent military junta, landless villagers were forced to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for the dam. Further north, the Mekong, Salween and Yangtze rivers flow in parallel for at least 300 kms, creating a World Heritage listed biodiversity area that is being destroyed by megaprojects like hydropower dams. In short, SMEC whose office centred CSR principles would have this project in Australia booed off the field, seem undeterred.

Sai Khur Hseng reported that wars and forest destruction had taken its toll on mega-fauna like elephants but that  ‘Survivors habitat will be drowned by the dam.’ Myanmar’s laws have not been reformed in keeping with global standards and do not provide for compensation or relocation.

Paul Sein Twa, reported that business cronies of the regime have already been clear-felling formerly dense teak forests around the dam site. Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Twa told Mongabay that proposed multiple dams would do irreparable damage to the Salween Basin extending across, China, Myanmar and Thailand. The basin is “home to the world’s last great teak forest, to dry-season islands rich with crops, and to healthy fisheries upon which many people depend. This river is of vast ecological and cultural value, and it is worth preserving for present and future generations.’

Did the Earth Move for You

The Mong Ton dam wall, some 241 meters high, would be one of the highest in the region. The area is very prone to earthquakes and warning has been issued about impending risk of a serious movement of the nearby Sagaing fault after the Nepal ‘adjustment’. The collapse of such a dam would be disastrous.  Scientists have warned of additional  +7 scale adjustments in the next decade and have clearly advised against dam building. A dam this size could itself cause a seismic event, as happened in Sichuan China.

The Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers appear to be melting faster than earlier predicted, offering increased flows in the short-term but ‘dry ice’ in the future.

Twa agreed the dam also poses a threat of catastrophic flooding, should the region’s seismic activity lead to an earthquake-induced dam failure.

Asia is engaged in a orgy of dam building, pushed heavily by China and Thailand, whose urban elites stand to profit mightily from such investments. In this part of the world rivers are integral to life, providing food, transport and irrigation to countless communities.

Myanmar’s government has not publicly addressed villager’s complaints, but have praised the Salween dam projects as benefiting local populations, securing critically-needed electricity for Myanmar and leading to peace. But the opposite appears to be true, with the poor losing hard-won security and military build ups occurring daily. Maybe SMEC’s shareholders should understand the implications of the company’s activities and make their discontent clear.

The author of this article has chosen to publish anonymously.

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Filed under Current Events, Economic development, Energy, ethnic policy, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER

Yunnan’s Dulong minority isolated no more

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Recently, the Ethnic Dulong Survey Team conducted a week of anthropological observation and interview research based around the remote village of Dizhengdang (迪政当村). Under the leadership of Professor Gao Zhiying (高志英), an expert on ethnic Dulong culture and society, the 21 team members spent three days heading from Kunming to one of Yunnan’s most remote river valleys.

The survey team from Yunnan University found state-funded housing and road projects are transforming the culture of the Dulong people (独龙族), who have for centuries inhabited theDulong River area largely undisturbed. Now, with the opening of a tunnel and road in 2014, their traditional way of life has been changed and sometimes disrupted by a permanent link to the outside world.

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A bit of background

The town of Kongdang (孔当) sits on a plot of flat land by the Dulong River, and is also a stop on the Dulong River Road, which begins in Gongshan (贡山县). Dizhengdang is 42 kilometers further north of Kongdang and currently inhabited by 592 villagers comprising 158 households.

The narrow Dulong river valley is formed by an upstream tributary of the Irrawaddy River, which runs primarily through Yunnan before reaching Myanmar. Its course cuts across the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve. Seventy percent of the entire Dulong population — roughly 4,000 people — call this area home. A long history of isolation and poverty has for decades made the Dulong targets of socio-economic aid and government-funded ‘reforms’.

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The first of these began in 1964, with the establishment of the 65-kilometer People and Horse Track (人马驿道). This footpath was built largely by the People’s Liberation Army and opened a new avenue for the supply of everyday goods to inhabitants of the Dulong valley. The seven-day hike to Gongshan was cut to four, making the transport of commodities in both directions less cumbersome. A state-operated mule caravan later shuttled vital supplies such as grain and clothing back and forth over the mountains as well, ending the need for military parachute drops of supplies that preceded the path. In 1999, a 96-kilometer road from Gongshan to the Dulong River saw its first traffic, officially ‘opening up the last minority area in China‘.

Fifteen years later, a seven-kilometer tunnel opened along the Dulong River Road, reducing travel times further and making villages once unreachable during the winter months accessible year-round. Other branch roads are planned or under construction to even more distant hamlets. These include Dibuli (迪布里), Nandai (南代), and Xiongdang (雄当) near the Tibetan border — which are still only accessible by dirt paths, tiny suspension bridges and Yunnan’squickly disappearing ziplines.

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Anthropological observations

Traditionally, the Dulong practiced subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture while cultivating corn, millet, buckwheat, taro and several varieties of beans. However, the Chinese government has, since 2003, subsidized many villages with cash and handouts of rice in efforts to conserve forested hillsides. This has had multiple and often contradictory consequences. In addition to hunting and fishing, the joint cultivation of traditional agriculture is a core element of Dulong culture, relating not just to native ecological knowledge, but also to religion and social organization.

Thus, the implementation of grain and cash handouts has increased the Dulong people’s dependency on state subsidies, decreased overall agro-biodiversity, and threatened to make endemic bio-cultural knowledge a thing of the past. The extra time saved from less farm work also leaves room for some villagers to seek out timber and herbs in the mountains, which, while increasing incomes, also results in unintended natural resource depletion and a new form of deforestation.

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Between 2010 and 2014, the provincial government invested a further 1.3 billion yuan (US$203 million) in “improved housing, infrastructure, social development and environmental protection”. This included the building of several modern housing clusters not necessarily located near where their proposed inhabitants traditionally call home.

For example, the research team from Yunnan University observed in Dizhengdang that each household has its own house built by the state. However, the choice of the new village site only took into consideration road accessibility. The new compounds are convenient for villagers living nearby but for those living scattered in the mountains beyond road networks, a move to a new home without arable lands is problematic.

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Among the 40 households in the northernmost hamlets of Xianghong and Nandai, not one them have moved to the new compounds in Xiongdang and Dizhengdang. When asked why they had not taken advantage of government housing, many replied “We don’t have farmland nearby the new villages, and the elderly also prefer to stay in the places where they grew up”. All villagers interviewed expressed satisfaction and gratitude for government subsidy policies, but considering the high cost of daily supplies transported to this remote valley, most Dulong people still have to work very hard in the fields to lead modest lives.

Another major factor soon to affect Dulong culture is the expected inundation of tourists hungry for the opportunity to see an ethnicity most famous for tattooing the faces of its women. While this practice is no longer common, many of the older female residents do still bear the marks of this tradition.

During the researchers’ one-week canvas of the area, the fledgling tourist industry was apparent, with visitors from Kunming and Shenzhen being the most prevalent. Due to the policies listed above — as well as the opening of a permanent road — the Dulong people are undergoing radical changes to their society and culture. How they adjust to the rapid encroachment of the outside world remains an open question.

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This article written by Sun Fei was first published on 8/25 here on the GoKunming website. 

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Culture, Current Events, Economic development, ethnic policy, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Thailand deports Uyghur refugees to China, despite protests

Refugees on the way to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

Refugees being transported to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

After more than a year of waiting, almost 300 ethnic Uyghurs are leaving Thailand. On July 1, a group of 173 Uyghur refugees, mostly women and children, left Thailand for Turkey. A week later, another 109 Uyghurs were deported back to their home country of China. The decision on the fate of these refugees, who have remained in Thai custody since their arrests in March 2014, has sparked criticism from human rights groups and protests from the Turkish public.

These 282 Uyghurs are part of a group of almost 300 people taken into custody by Thai authorities in March 2014. Many were found in a human trafficking camp in Songkhla province. Since then, they have waited in detention centers in Songkhla, Trat and Rayong while an intense diplomatic battle over their fates raged between the governments of China, Turkey and Thailand.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim people from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest. In the last decade, they have left China in increasingly larger numbers, escaping religious persecution and political and economic repression.

On July 1, Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), confirmed through Radio Free Asia‘s Uyghur language service that the first group of 173 Uyghurs were able to “enter into Turkey safely” after arriving in Istanbul.

“They are mostly women and kids—around 120 kids and about 50 women. Hopefully, the men [still in detention] will be granted this kind of chance in the near future.”

Initial reports of bloodshed

The Uyghur men, however were not given such a chance. On July 8, 109 refugees were forcibly deported to China from Thailand. The group was made up of mostly men, however some women and children were also repatriated.

The World Uyghur Congress first reported that 25 men had been shot dead after resisting their deportation in Bangkok. Thai authorities, however, denied the story.

Thai government deputy spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak told Radio Free Asia in an interview that “there was no such thing as claimed by WUC.” Another, anonymous source in the Thai government confirmed Weerachon’s statement, saying, “It is not true. There was no killing as claimed by the WUC.” He added that video evidence confirming the refugees’ safety could be provided.

In the initial report published on their website, the WUC reported that a first plane of mostly women and children departed without incident. “The second plane, however, was intended to transport around 65 men, but authorities faced some resistance from the men in doing so.”

In the process of subduing the resisters, 25 men were shot and killed, the WUC originally reported. Hours after its publication, however, the paragraph concerning the killings was removed from the report.

Protests and condemnation

The move by Thailand to repatriate the refugees drew intense criticism from Uyghur organizations and human rights groups. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “shocked” by Thailand’s decision and considered the deportation “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of Thailand’s military government, seemed unconcerned with issues of international law, claiming that the matter did not concern Thailand.

“I’m asking if we don’t do it this way, then how would we do it?” he said. “Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”

Rights groups worry that the deported Uyghurs will face harsh penalties once on Chinese soil. Uyghurs that have been repatriated from Southeast Asian countries in the past have received long jail sentences and even capital punishment for illegally leaving China.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Chinese government would pursue legal action against the repatriated Uyghurs.

“China’s relevant departments will bring those who are suspected of committing serious crimes to justice according to law,” she told reporters. “As for those who are not suspected of committing crimes or who commit lesser offences, we will find proper ways to deal with them.”

The episode has also led to protests in Turkey, where many see Uyghurs as their Turkic-speaking “cousins”. On Thursday, both the Thai consulate in Istanbul and the Thai embassy in Ankara were attacked during pro-Uyghur demonstrations. Police in Ankara used tear gas there to disperse protesters.

Earlier in the week, the Chinese consulate was attacked along with  Chinese restaurants in Istanbul. Protesters were angry after reports emerged that local governments in Xinjiang region were prohibiting Uyghur schoolchildren and civil servants from fasting for Ramadan. Similar Ramadan crackdowns have been reported annually for over a decade In response to the protests, the Chinese government issued a travel warning to Turkey for Chinese tourists on  July 8.

A split decision

Despite closer ties between Turkey and China in recent years, the issues surrounding the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghur refugees have prevented the Sino-Turkish relations from moving forward. This week’s protests certainly marks a low point in the relationship and it will be interesting to see how things develop after this latest deportation episode. It is unlikely that China’s crackdowns nor Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghurs will end anytime soon.

Despite Thai Prime Minister Prayuth’s claims that Thailand was simply a third party actor, its role in the refugees’ deportation to Turkey and repatriation to China was key. How it navigated this tricky diplomatic issue says much about Thailand’s relations with China. Ties between the Southeast Asian state and China have improved in recent years and increased Chinese investment in Thailand’s infrastructure will only make the two countries closer. Therefore, it was never in doubt that Thailand would acquiesce to the PRC’s request to have the Uyghur migrants returned.

However, Thailand, with a proud history of resisting foreign pressures, still wishes to remain independent in the face of a rising China. Its decision to send 173 women and children, likely low-priority targets for China’s internal security forces, to Turkey instead of China is significant. It could be interpreted as a symbol that while China’s clout in the region is growing, it is not yet large enough to wholly influence diplomatic decisions.  Future cases of deportation involving Uyghurs in Southeast Asia will act as a barometer of China’s influence on the foreign affairs ministries in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other regional capitals. This episode may have reached its conclusion, but it is unlikely to be the last as long as Uyghurs continue to look for a better life outside China’s borders.

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Human trafficking, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Kokang conflict reveals ethnic strife unlikely to end after cease fire

Many things in Myanmar are changing – the economy, the government, infrastructure. Others, like violent ethnic conflict, seem destined to stay the same. For the past three months, the government of Myanmar has been fighting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic rebel army based on the country’s border with China. The MNDAA are predominantly made up of ethnic Kokang fighters. The Kokang are ethnically Han Chinese and the live in Kokang region, in Myanmar’s Shan state.

The MNDAA  initiated the conflict by storming Kokang’s largest city, Laukkai, on 9 February 2015. Over the past four months, the government has aimed to reassert control over the region and its agriculture, as well as disarm the MNDAA. The government of Myanmar extended martial law over Kokang region on 15 May 2015.

A rebel soldier of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) places a machine gun bullet belt around the neck of another soldier at a military base in Kokang region, March 10, 2015. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

The violence in Kokang has accompanied ongoing ceasefire talks between the government and 16 other ethnic armies, who agreed on a ceasefire draft on 31 March 2015. Previous agreements fell through because the language of the agreements weakened ethnic groups’ legal protection and the government had refused the other ethnic armies’ demands that the MNDAA be included in ceasefire talks, which began in 2013. Government forces continued operations in Kokang even after the MNDAA declared its own ceasefire on 11 June 2015, and on 24 June 2015 offered to begin discussing peace only if the MNDAA surrendered and gave up their weapons. This attitude suggests the government of Myanmar prioritizes undermining the MNDAA over negotiating peace. Moreover, history shows that a ceasefire or even a surrender may not end the violence.

CURRENT CONFLICT DISPLACES THOUSANDS

The MNDAA — along with two other ethnic armies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army, all of which are based in Shan state — positioned their forces in towns and outposts throughout Kokang months before they finally launched attacks on 9 February. MNDAA forces began their attack by shelling the targeted cities and outposts. The Myanmar Army (also known as the Tatmadaw) responded by moving its forces into the besieged cities, and used artillery and airstrikes to support their advance, outgunning the rebels. Nevertheless, Tatmadaw officials admitted MNDAA troops were better armed and seemed better organized on the battlefield than previous skirmishes.

More than 100,000 Kokang civilians fled to Yunnan province within the first few weeks of fighting. Tens of thousands of refugees settled in refugee camps along or across the border, but in early March, China began to evict refugees from camps near the border, either relocating them to other camps or forcing them to return to Myanmar.

The combat itself has also spilled over the border into Yunnan province. The Tatmadaw used artillery and airstrikes on MNDAA positions in which, Tatmadaw claimed, heavy forestation made acquiring accurate targets difficult. As a result their air force bombed Chinese territory twice. On 8 March, one bomb went off course and exploded in a field in Lincang, Yunnan, destroying property and causing a forest fire, but not directly killing or injuring anyone.

Medics rush the wounded away from a 2014 ambush. Photo by Silver Yang, used courtesy of VOA News.

On 13 March, the Tatmadaw was not so lucky in avoiding collateral damage, bombing a sugarcane farm and killing four and injuring nine Chinese citizens. Beijing swiftly rebuked Myanmar for the deaths of innocent Chinese citizens, and demanded an investigation into the bombing operation. Myanmar apologized for the incident and promised it would never again allow for Chinese nationals to be killed. Beijing agreed to not intervene in Myanmar’s fighting with the MNDAA, but has stepped up its security along the border between Kokang and Yunnan with ground patrols and fighter jet sorties.

Both the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw warn civilians that the opposing side will abuse any civilians they come across, and the accusations are not unfounded. Neither army, however does much to prevent or punish soldiers who harass, rob, shoot, or rape civilians. There is also a long history of the Tatmadaw committing war crimes, and both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armies are accused of using child soldiers. On 17 February the MNDAA ambushed a Tatmadaw convoy of soldiers, Red Cross personnel, and at least two journalists, wounding two. The MNDAA denied the attack, but has continued to target humanitarian aid operations and even fleeing civilians. The attack mirrored an ambush in 10 December 2014 that resulted in seven dead and 20 wounded, for which MNDAA also denied responsibility.

EARLIER CONFLICT SET THE STAGE

The MNDAA launched its attack in 2015 to regain control of the Kokang region, which the Tatmadaw has occupied since a short but politically significant series of battles in 2009. While the most recent skirmish before 2015 was the ambush in 2014, the 2009 offensive lay more of the foundation for this year’s conflict. Tensions that led to the 2009 conflict began when the Myanmar government urged ethnic armies — which it refers to as “ceasefire groups” when negotiating — to assimilate into the Tatmadaw as border patrol divisions. Most ethnic armies vehemently opposed this because it would have completely undermined ethnic groups’ autonomy. Aside from losing political control of its soldiers, the MNDAA also did not want to allow the Myanmar government to expand its ownership of agricultural land in Kokang.

The 2009 conflict began to escalate on 8 August of that year, when Burmese forces raided a factory in Kokang suspected to be a drug lab and surrounded the residence of Peng Jiasheng, the leader of the MNDAA.

Image from a Kokang resident, courtesy of Radio Free Asia.

Thousands of Kokang residents fled the area as soon as MNDAA seized Laukkai, the capital city of the Kokang region, on 20 August. After the MNDAA advised residents to “prepare” as Tatmadaw forces closed in on the city, more refugees followed, to the point of Laukkai being virtually abandoned. The next few days saw an apparent schism within the MNDAA over whether to support the 2008 Myanmar constitution and assimilate into the Tatmadaw. The splinter group allowed Burmese forces to enter Laukkai unopposed, and then assisted them in fighting from then on.

The schism reveals that limited negotiations, as opposed to ending violence in lasting way, are the priority for some rebels. Each conflict is a way to potentially get better treatment or concessions, and this gambit has a long history. Kokang fighters and their fellow Burmese Communist Party (BCP) rebels — who later became part of MNDAA — were among the first to agree to the last major ceasefire between the Myanmar government and many ethnic armies in 1989. The 1989 ceasefire guaranteed ethnic groups could keep their weapons and land, as well as continue their illegal drug, weapons, and human trafficking operations.

Now, the violence has likely destroyed any progress the 1989 ceasefire created. The MNDAA has attempted to participate in the newest ceasefire negotiations by joining two inter-faction organizations, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), but the Myanmar government refuses to allow the MNDAA to sit at the negotiation table.

Even the recent agreements did not address many controversial issues, and was mostly an overture for future meetings. Moreover, a new national constitution drafted in 2008 caused severe discord between Myanmar and most ethnic groups because of the language concerning the degree of autonomy ethnic minorities will be afforded, and it has yet to be officially accepted by the MNDAA and other groups. If the Myanmar government refuses to allow ethnic armies military autonomy and affords them more freedom over land ownership while extending them development aid, there is a chance negotiations can move forward, but if it demands rebel groups accept the 2008 constitution, nothing will change.

BLOOD IS THICKER THAN BORDERS

The Kokang region has a long history of bridging the cultural gap between China and Myanmar. During the fall of Ming Dynasty, Ming loyalists fled to Yunnan and Kokang, which was almost beyond the reach of the ascendant Qing Dynasty during the 1600s. After the Communists took power in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang forces fled to Kokang to regroup and prepare to reclaim China from the Communists, which never happened. Before the current conflict, many Chinese conducted legal business in Kokang.

The fact that the Kokang are ethnic Han Chinese gives the MNDAA more opportunities to curry favor with Chinese nationals living nearby. Some Kokang refugees are even able to live with their Yunnanese relatives. The MNDAA leader, Peng Jiashaneg,  is attempting to rally support from Beijing or at least nationalist Chinese by exploiting Chinese insecurities about Myanmar opening up to the rest of the international community. Peng claimed Myanmar’s violence against the Kokang and other ethnic groups are actions encouraged by the United States.

Peng may be ineffective at changing the course of official Burmese-Chinese relations, but his rhetoric is enough to maintain sympathy from Chinese citizens who voluntarily smuggle in money or supplies, and to attract mercenaries with promises of earning about 30,000 RMB a month, which is roughly five times the income of the average farmer in Yunnan and other nearby provinces. MNDAA denies the use of hiring Chinese nationals as mercenaries, but there is evidence of the practice. Myanmar also accuses the Yunnan government of assisting MNDAA forces with funds and supplies, but Beijing denies providing any official military support to the MNDAA. That doesn’t mean that all officials follow Beijing’s orders. One Chinese official named Huang Xing, former senior strategist for the People’s Liberation Army, faces charges of leaking state secrets and diverting funds to MNDAA in Myanmar since 2009.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the outpouring of moral and financial support from individual Chinese citizens, Beijing does not consider the continued fighting to be a strategic benefit to China, nor the plight of the Kokang people to be worth expending resources on. On the contrary, instability in Myanmar presents an economic, and now human, cost to China and complicates Burmese-Chinese relations. Myanmar is meant to be a trade partner and a link between other countries along China’s proposed Silk Roads. Because China prefers to do business with governments, the ethnic groups cannot offer China anything that the Myanmar government isn’t already providing. But as much as China blames the rebels, not the government, for causing the strife, China is getting more frustrated with Myanmar’s apparent inability or unwillingness to end its conflicts and reach harmonious political resolutions.

Both the current conflict and the 2009 conflict took place mere months before general elections. The Myanmar government and the MNDAA both have reasons to fight so soon before the elections. If the Tatmadaw successfully quells the ongoing rebellion, it will reflect positively on the government in its path toward establishing a unified Myanmar that is under the control of one effective military. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party won the 2010 election, which most of the international community considered fraudulent, but the Myanmar government still considers maintaining an image of strength to be a top priority. If the MNDAA at least continues to put up a fight during and after the elections, it will earn more political sway and bargaining power in regards to ensuring that the implementation of ceasefires provide equitable rights to ethnic minorities. It is possible the MNDAA would sue for peace some time around voting day in hopes of getting MNDAA members into government positions and achieving representation for Kokang at the ceasefire negotiations. The MNDAA and most other ethnic armies, including the 16 groups included in the recent ceasefire agreement, all want Myanmar to be a politically unified state but want to exercise autonomy.

KING OF THE HILLS

Beyond political capital and bargaining chips, all factions desire the tangible source of power in Myanmar: land. Control of land and the production of opium, rubber, bananas, and timber is central to the power dynamic between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups. Kokang was declared opium-free after a ban was enacted in 2003, but the region continues to produce large amounts of opium because it is more lucrative and easier to transport than most other crops. Ethnic armies make most of their money from opium and methamphetamine production, prostitution and human trafficking, gun smuggling, illegal logging, gambling, and extorting locals.

Volunteers destroy a poppy field near Loi Chyaram, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

After the Tatmadaw took control of Kokang, many military elites took ownership of vast plots of land and converted most of the fields to mass production of rubber. Myanmar supplies China with rubber, which is in high demand in China, as well as timber, which is in such great demand that an epidemic of illegal logging is spreading throughout Southeast Asian countries. The rubber Myanmar produces is of lower quality and efficiency than other rubber-producing countries, however, because their cultivation practices are less advanced. Moreover, the price of rubber crashed around the world because of the overproduction that followed so many countries prioritizing rubber cultivation

Myanmar’s rubber industry reveals how smoothly the revolving door swings for Tatmadaw officials who become government policy-makers or private land barons. In 2009, upon the Burmese army securing Kokang, the government confiscated many peasants’ land and gave insufficient compensation or none at all. This was a reversal of MNDAA’s gains in the 1989 ceasefire. Land was either given to companies to develop infrastructure or grow rubber, or owned by individual military elites. Myanmar is able to confiscate so much land because most peasants do not have formal titles to their land. The only documentation they might have are land tax receipts; but the slash-and-burn agriculture that most ethnic minority people in the hill regions practice is not considered a legitimate use of land, and so their receipts are not accepted by the Myanmar government when officials move in.

The glut of rubber production doesn’t seem to be dissipating in the near future; therefore, if Myanmar continues to dump a large portion of its money into mass-production of poor quality rubber, the country’s economy will suffer. However, one should not consider the MNDAA to be nobler stewards of the land. They continue to prioritize lucrative yet illegal business, particularly producing and trafficking opium and methamphetamine, which contributes to the region’s drug abuse epidemic and puts farmers at risk of losing everything if Tatmadaw troops come through and destroy or confiscate their illicit agriculture.

PREDICTIONS

It is unlikely that the MNDAA will be able to wrest full control of Kokang away from the Burmese government purely through military force, but it could use political means to secure its autonomy. If the MNDAA continues to fend off Tatmadaw troops until it can win more political sympathy near election time, it stands a chance of cementing its interests in the discourse of Myanmar and the international community. Pressure from China will most likely make Myanmar nervous about further escalating the conflict, although they have been slow to retreat from the border with Yunnan. If another bomb accidentally kills Chinese citizens or if violence reaches refugee camps, China would increase its border security even more and strengthen its rhetoric against Myanmar, but it would not intervene on behalf of MNDAA. Beijing’s cares more for increasing cross-border trade and thus China’s  interest in the conflict is only in its swift resolution . Individual Chinese citizens, especially in Yunnan, will continue to watch the conflict carefully. While Chinese citizens have no input in Beijing’s actions or priorities, Myanmar has an interest in not allowing the refugee crisis to worsen, lest it anger the Yunnanese provincial government and citizenry.

As the elections approach, Suu Kyi’s democratic rhetoric may help apply pressure to the Thein Sein administration to negotiate with rebels. While Suu Kyi herself does not champion all ethnic minority movements in Myanmar — she has been surprisingly tight-lipped about the Rohingya crisis for some time — having anyone challenge the ruling party could give MNDAA a better chance in gaining from the election process.

Any resolution to the conflict will involve the Myanmar government accepting ethnic groups’ demands to revise the 2008 constitution, but negotiations will most likely not affect the economic regime of Myanmar’s periphery. Moreover, the previous several decades have been a roller coaster of conflict and ceasefire in which the Burmese army seizes ethnic minority communities’ land and then returns it after bloody fighting and meager compromises. Such cyclical violence makes every ceasefire less valuable in contributing to substantial social and economic growth. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the MNDAA will accept the government’s offer to surrender as the only way to negotiating peace, as this would gravely reduce people’s ability to resist the Tatmadaw’s bullying in Kokang. The only solution to long-term problems like drug production and illegal logging is to include ethnic minorities in the post-conflict economic development of the country. If the international community wants to participate in Myanmar’s societal recovery, it should demand more equitable agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic minorities and more humane treatment of civilians, or else the cycle of unequal ceasefires, violence, and land confiscation will continue to disastrous effect.

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In China’s hinterlands, a new life for Myanmar’s Rohingya

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

On February 12, 2015 Myanmar President Thein Sein, prompted by protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon, reversed a decision made ten days earlier to give voting rights to the country’s Rohingya population. The reversal, while surprising to some, was only the latest in a series of events to befall the Muslim minority who call western Myanmar’s Rakhine state home.

The Rohingya of Myanmar (also known as Burma) have lost more than voting rights in the past. Regarded as one of the world’s most oppressed peoples, the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group that speak a dialect of Bengali and are thought to be descended from Arab and Persian traders.

Persecuted at Home

Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for most of the latter half of the 20th century and the current, nominally civilian government, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered chronic poverty, food insecurity, harassment and forced labor, among other human rights abuses. Following Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were denied citizenship and are still referred to as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by government officials. They are neither allowed to travel outside their hometown nor marry without official approval.

Poor relations between the Muslim Rohingya and their neighbors have only made things worse. Tensions between Rakhine state’s Muslim population and the majority Rakhine ethnicity, who are Buddhist, boiled over in 2012, leading to anti-Muslim riots that spread throughout the country. In Rakhine state alone, over 200 people were killed and whole villages were burned to the ground. Conditions have not improved for Myanmar’s Rohingya population since then. The current boat crisis of thousands of Bengali and Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is a consequence of awful conditions at home.

The Rohingya, however are certainly not the only group struggling in Myanmar. Despite what appears to be a nascent democracy, a civil war between the government and an array of armed ethnic groups along the country’s periphery has flickered continuously since the 1950s. The reasons for the conflicts are many, though issues of ethnic autonomy and control of precious resources like jade and timber loom large.

The conflict’s latest iteration began in February 2015 and is still ongoing. A flare up of tensions between the Myanmar Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, Shan State, has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into China.

Many Rohingya have also left Burma in the past decades. Tens of thousands of them reside in ill-equipped refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, though others have escaped to new lives abroad. Their final destinations vary, but the majority resides in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Of these Rohingya living overseas, who may number over one million, most work low-wage jobs in the construction and service industries. There are some, however, that have chosen a different path in a land closer to home.

Abdullah's storefront in Jinghong

Abdullah’s storefront in Jinghong

Eight hundred kilometers east of Rakhine state in Jinghong, China, Abedullah owns a small jewelry shop. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon he hasn’t sold a thing.

Abedullah, like almost one million of his compatriots in Rakhine state, is a Rohingya, but he has not lived there in thirteen years. Instead, he’s settled in Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, along with almost 600 other Rohingya. All of them sell jade.

According to Abedullah, who only agreed to give his first name, Rohingya merchants first came to Jinghong almost forty years ago. Following the end of the bloody Bangladesh Independence War in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring Burma. Marginalized by the Burmese and eventually disavowed by the Bangladeshi government, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled overseas. A handful made it to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

Stories of Jinghong’s first Rohingya are hard to find and by all accounts, the number of émigrés remained small until the 1990s. It was then that the Chinese economy began to truly open up to the international market. As trade increased and more Chinese became wealthy, the country’s jewelry consumption level grew as well, skyrocketing over 4000% in a decade.

While all gemstones have grown in popularity in recent decades, none hold the place in Chinese culture that jade does. Regarded as a stone of mystical qualities since antiquity, jade is the king of gemstones in China and it is in Myanmar that the world’s highest quality jade is found.

As a result, jade shops are ubiquitous in dozens of towns along the China-Myanmar border. Jinghong is one of the largest. Straddling the Mekong River, this once sleepy town has grown into a city of six hundred-thousand and now hosts millions of tourists each year. Many of these tourists come looking to buy Burmese jade. As travelers have flocked to Jinghong in greater numbers in recent years, Rohingya merchants with connections to the Burmese jade trade have followed to keep up with demand.

A New Life

One of the recent arrivals is Xiao Fei, a 21 year-old who prefers his new Chinese nickname to his given name. Xiao Fei, like many other Rohingya in Jinghong, came at the behest of his family; his grandfather first arrived in the city almost thirty years ago. After saving enough money for a passport, Xiao Fei was able to leave his home in Yangon and help his grandfather set up the family’s second shop.

Xiao Fei had to save up for his passport because getting such a document is often impossible for many Rohingya in Myanmar. Since they are officially considered to be foreigners by the Burmese government, Rohingya can only obtain passports after paying expensive bribes to the right people. That is why, as Xiao Fei explains, “Only rich Rohingya can make it to China.”

Once in Jinghong, new arrivals find an environment altogether strange and inviting. The forest of newly-built apartment complexes and hotels certainly dwarfs anything found in Rakhine state, however the hundreds of established Rohingya businessmen form a tight community that provides everything from religious services to a lunchtime delivery service of halal Burmese cuisine.

It is the mosque that is the heart of the community, says Waynai, a trader living in Jinghong for six years. The Jinghong Mosque, located not far from the banks of the Mekong was first established decades ago by the city’s existing community of Hui, a distinct ethnic group of more than ten million people that practice Islam and speak Mandarin Chinese.

When the Rohingya began to move to Jinghong in greater numbers in the late 1990s, they became a part of the congregation, eventually joined by a small population of Uighurs from China’s northwest. Together, these three groups of Muslims manage the congregation. Despite disparate geographic and cultural backgrounds, the mosque is thriving with a healthy number of members, daily prayers held in Arabic and discussion groups where participants speak in Standard Mandarin.

The Jinghong Mosque

The Jinghong Mosque

However both Waynai and Abedullah agree more with the mosque’s Uighur members on theological questions. When asked whether or not he had any non-Rohingya friends from the congregation, Abedullah answers, “Yes, but not the Hui. They’re fake … they don’t have Allah in their hearts.” Instead, it is the Uighur community that he feels closer too. “[The Rohingya] are similar to the Uighurs because neither of us are free … we both have to struggle to survive.”

This struggle is why Ba Hlaing, a 31 year-old jade dealer, came to Jinghong eight years ago. At the time, his family lived comfortably in a suburb of Yangon but as he came of age, conditions for young Rohingya grew more difficult. “I would’ve liked to stay with my family, but there wasn’t anything to do, no money to make.”

“It’s because of [the government] that we’re so backwards now,” he says in a whirlwind of English, Mandarin and Jinghong dialect, slapping the table after each word.

Just then a Han Chinese couple enters Ba Hlaing’s shop. He greets them using his best Mandarin, standing, “Welcome to Ba Hlaing’s Jewelry! We have the finest jade from Myanmar! Would you like to look at a bracelet?”

After five minutes of browsing, the wife still has not decided on a piece and the husband, fidgeting, suggests heading back to their hotel. The couple leaves and Ba Hlaing sits down to light a cigarette. “That’s how it goes,” he sighs. Just like Abedullah, business is slow for Ba Hlaing, even during tourism’s high season.

Ba Hlaing believes the drop in jade sales is a consequence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on corruption. Once-popular ostentatious displays of wealth, like jade pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars are now frowned upon and officials that might frequent jade shops like Ba Hlaing’s are staying away.

Burmese jadeite

Burmese jadeite. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The jade, however, keeps flowing from Myanmar. Most of it is mined in a strip of remote jungle in Kachin State, in the country’s northeast.  Conditions in Myanmar’s jade mines are notoriously dangerous and the towns that spring up around them are known as much for their drugs and guns as they are for their jade. However bad mining conditions are though, the money can be worth it for those who can make it. Official figures from Myanmar’s government put jade exports at $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2014. Analysts from Harvard University’s Ash Center disagree, estimating jade sales – both official and off the books – at $8 billion for 2011 alone.

Once the raw jade has been extracted, it is sent to processing centers. The majority are located within Myanmar, in urban centers like Mandalay and Yangon, where the jade is polished and crafted into a final product. The next step is to get it into China, where the market is.

Most traders interviewed for this article admitted that the majority of the jade they sold was actually smuggled into Yunnan. A few well-placed bribes on both sides of the border can get shipments of jade, transported in trucks, into China reliably. Once the jade is in Yunnan, it usually makes its way to Ruili, a major border crossing between China and Myanmar.

According to Ba Hlaing, many Rohingya traders in Jinghong have a contact in Ruili, usually family, that buys the jade. Others, however, are directly connected to processing centers, most often in Yangon. For more valuable pieces, with sale prices upwards of $50,000, many traders will use air transport to ensure their safe arrival. While import taxes must be paid in these cases, the extra cost is often worth the peace of mind.

 A Tough Decision

Peace of mind, however, is getting harder to come by. With a slowdown in business and mounting issues back in Myanmar, many members of Jinghong’s Rohingya community are facing a tough decision whether or not to return home.

Ba Hlaing, for one, is planning on going back to Myanmar. Sales have decreased for the past two years and he fears that a protracted crackdown on corruption in China will keep jade sales low and prevent his shop in Jinghong from making a profit.

Despite the dire situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ba Hlaing is choosing to remain positive. “I think things will get better for us,” he says guardedly. “We have [this year’s parliamentary] election and the world paying attention to us so democracy is a good thing.”

Abedullah, on the other hand, does not share Ba Hlaing’s optimism. He does not want to return to Myanmar and sees little hope for democracy delivering the Rohingya from oppression.

“Things are a mess in Myanmar right now, everything is a mess,” he says. “The economy is bad and the government and [the armed ethnic groups] are still fighting.”

When asked his thoughts on the country’s armed conflicts, Abedullah pauses before exhaling heavily. “You know, we want to go to war too. At least [the armed ethnic groups] have guns. We don’t have anything,” he laments. “The government even took the knives from our houses … But then they still call us terrorists.”

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Myanmar fighting escalates, tens of thousands flee into China

mynamar fighting

As fighting in Myanmar grew more intense near the Sino-Burmese border during Spring Festival, media reports became increasingly confused and alarming. Clashes between rebels and government forces in Shan State reportedly claimed the combined lives of more than 100 combatants on both sides. The ramp-up in hostilities has also forced tens of thousands of Burmese civilians to flee their rural villages for refuge in China.

Fighting that first broke out on February 9, and included air and artillery strikes by the Burmese army in Kokang, have led to protracted bouts of guerrilla warfare. Estimates place the number of dead in the violence between 70 and 130, and media reports are unclear how many of these are soldiers or civilians.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo, wasquoted in the Hindustan Times as saying “the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents”. Red Cross officials have also said humanitarian workers in the region have been attacked twice in the past week. The Burmese military has declared three months of martial law in Kokang, although how well such a policy can be enforced remains unclear.

Skirmishes have been most intense near the Burmese town of Laukkai, or Laogai. The village, now described as a “ghost town”, is located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. The refugees sought shelter in Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture and were first thought to number a few thousand. However, Red Cross workers in Myanmar now claim at least 30,000 people have made the crossing, raising fears both inside and outside China of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The embattled Kokang region is a semi-autonomous part of northeastern Myanmar. Although the national government in Naypyidaw asserts titular control of the area, 90 percent of the local population claim Chinese descent and identify ethnically as Han Chinese. The rebel army now fighting Burmese troops is called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and is headed by former members of the country’s defunct Communist Party.

No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence in Kokang, although it seems likely connected to December ambushes by guerrillas that killed at least seven Burmese soldiers and injured 20 others. As the conflict continues, both sides have presented their own narratives. Burmese military spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse the rebels of employing Chinese mercenaries in an attempt at complete self rule — a charge the guerrillas and Beijing have vociferously denied.

Also at stake for both the Kokang and Burmese authorities are lucrative, if unofficial, trade routes in the area. China’s border with Myanmar is extremely porous, and around Kokang is notorious for booming illicit trafficking of illegally logged timber, rare animals, jade and narcotics.

This article by  was first posted on the GoKunming on 

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A Tibetan Christmas in Yunnan

Brendan 1

Nestled on the banks of the Upper Mekong River — or Lancang (澜沧江) as it is known in China — are several Tibetan villages of mixed religion where Buddhist and Catholic families live together and often join in each other’s festivals. While engaged in research on the history and budding economy of winemaking in this region, I was able to take part in the annual Christmas mass and festival in the village of Cizhong (茨中). Here, celebrations are a two-day event and the largest festival of the year for the area.

First, a very short primer on the history of Catholicism in Yunnan’s northwest, and how the religious observance of Christmas became a major festival for local Tibetans: Yunnan’s official renaming of the nearby Zhongdian region as Shangri-La — based on James Hilton’s classic 1930’s novel Lost Horizon — actually gains a small bit of credence as the real location of Hilton’s story thanks to Cizhong and its nearby villages. In the book, the fictional Shangri-la is a mixed monastic community where Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese, and western Catholics all live peacefully in together. This is largely true in Cizhong today, though Catholicism historically faced a somewhat violent reception from some in the region, while other peopele openly welcomed it. French Catholic missionaries first arrived in northwest Yunnan in the nineteenth century, and viewed their work as a gateway to expanding their teachings across greater Tibet.Brendan 2

Never being able to reach very far into this isolated and at times violent country — often due to resistance from local Buddhist lamas — the French would eventually manage to set up a community of churches and convert many Tibetan communities in northwest Yunnan along both the upper reaches of the Lancang and Nujiang rivers. They were never quite able to penetrate much farther into Tibet. Even in these areas, religious crusaders at times faced violent repression from local religions leaders and in many cases even death.

Yet the French persisted in their missions, and were later joined in the early to mid-twentieth century by request by a group of Swiss from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice high up in the Alps. These priests had already become quite famous for providing mountain rescues and services to Catholic pilgrims crossing the Alps en route to Rome. Their expertise in mountain travel and high-altitude living were crucial in helping to continue and eventually take over the work first begun by the French in Yunnan.

Today in Cizhong, where the original cathedral built by the French in 1905 still stands, about 80 percent of villagers still actively practice Catholicism. They are led by a Han Chinese priest from Inner Mongolia who arrived in 2008, sent by the Catholic Association of China. Prior to this time, the village had no priest, and so no formal masses were held after 1952 when the remaining French and Swiss Christians were expelled. Villagers nonetheless maintained their religion and began to openly pray together in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping lifted bans on organized religion put in place during the Mao era.

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2014 Christmas observance

Christmas today in Cizhong is a major event, and the non-religious portions of the festival are in fact celebrated by both Catholics and Buddhists alike. Major preparations and community events for the festival began on the morning of Christmas Eve, when many villagers gathered together at the church to clean the building and decorate it for the festival. Lunch was made for those working through the afternoon, and then everyone returned home before dusk.

The decorations set up in the church were predominantly what one might equate with a Western Christmas celebration: Statues of Mary and Joseph in shrines on each side of the altar were surrounded by strings of lights, and a similar statue of Christ was placed high up on the wall behind the altar for all to see. Several plastic Christmas trees which grace the inside of the church year round were also cleaned and redecorated with Christmas lights.

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A very elaborate nativity scene was set up to one side of the altar, decorated with pine boughs, with lights on its roof. In addition to the boughs, the areas in the front of the church are also decorated with branches from a local broadleaf evergreen tree with red berries from the genus Photinia. Local elders say they have called this plant shengdan shu — or ‘Christmas Tree’ — since the time of the French and Swiss fathers.
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Around 7pm, villagers slowly began to arrive and file into the church for the evening mass, which began this year around 8:30. It should be noted that Christmas seems to have become quite a publicized event in Cizhong, perhaps due to the attention it receives in tourism materials. The mass not only included Cizhong villagers but many foreign — particularly French — and Chinese tourists, photographers, and other academics including myself. Christmas Eve mass continued for just under two hours, after which everyone returned home until the next morning. Both Christmas masses, and particularly the morning mass, were much more extravagant than a typical Sunday service. Large numbers of villagers showed up from all over, dressed in their full traditional Tibetan regalia. This drew even more tourists.

The Christmas morning mass — which actually didn’t begin until almost noon despite villagers arriving around 9am — also included a full processional composed of the priest and his assistants walking into the church in their robes, with candles, a cross, and incense censer. None of this is normally used for weekly services.The language of the mass in Cizhong is peculiar.  Many familar Catholic songs sung by villagers are sung in Tibetan using the translations originally created by the French and Swiss. Conversely, the mass and bible readings themselves are conducted by the priest in Mandarin Chinese, so the service is quite syncretic and eclectic being Chinese with Tibetan chanting.

Later an engaged couple walked down the aisle to receive a special Christmas blessing from the father. They were followed by a procession of children in traditional Tibetan clothing and Santa hats, followed by traditionally dressed women bearing gifts for Christ. The priest and his village assistants accepted the gifts and then placed them in front of the nativity scene that had been set up below and to the side of the altar.

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The Afterparty

Following the Christmas morning mass, everyone — villagers, tourists, and anyone else in attendance — gathered in the courtyard in front of the church and began the afternoon festivities of drinking and performing traditional Tibetan dances and sings. During this portion of the day, Buddhist locals also arrived to join in the festivities.

To begin, everyone first simply found a spot in the courtyard to enjoy the sun, the company of others and cake donated by all the village families. It was served followed by a choice of barley liquor — known as qingkejiu — mixed with meat, or a locally made rice wine called mijiu mixed with egg.

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After a short time, traditional circle dancing began, accompanied by singing and several men playing traditional string instruments called piwang. The singing is always done as a back-and-forth exchange, with men and women each singing separately while dancing on opposite sides of the circle which rotates around as more people join.

While the merriment ensued, a lunch of several Chinese-style dishes was served in a small museum room next to the church. Here, several tables were set up and groups of locals and visitors rotated through to sit down and be served. After they finished, the tables were cleared and a new group welcomed in to eat.

Dancing continued, and by this time many of the villagers had joined in. The men particularly all seemed to be sporting a bottle or can of beer. By around 5pm things began to wind down with most people returned home, while the tourists and other visitors headed back to their guesthouses. And with that, my Tibetan Catholic Christmas on the Upper Mekong came to an end.
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Meet the Salween

salween

I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.

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South Thailand’s Muslim Insurgency is not Global Jihad

solider guarding Muslims

A Thai soldier guards a group of Muslims during prayer. Photo courtesy of The Nation.

Introduction

In the early morning of January 4, 2004, a group of armed men raided an army depot at the Rajanakarin Camp in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat. They walked away with hundreds of military-grade weapons, and left four Thai soldiers dead in their wake. Around the same time, arsonists set alight 20 provincial schools and two unmanned police posts. A series of similar incidents followed in neighboring Yala and Pattani provinces, prompting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to declare martial law in volatile areas within Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—on top of his already high-handed brutality in the region.

Further angered and suppressed, belligerents in this area escalated violence to new intensities. At the core of this conflict is a separatist movement active among the Thai Malay Muslim community since the 1960s. While the term “Malay” refers only to an Austronesian ethnic group, ethnic Malay identity cannot be divorced from Malay traditions, Malay language, or adherence to Islam. This has pitted Malay identity in direct competition with the Thai identity cultivated under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This conflict of identity and consequent alienation from the Thai community has prompted violence to erupt in Thailand’s majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, collectively referred to as Patani.

Since a renewed surge of violence in 2004, the South Thailand Insurgency, as it is know, has incurred over 6,000 fatalities and over 11,000 injuries and has significantly impeded development in the region. The Thai state, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the ethno-national and ethno-political grievances at the heart of the conflict, hindering an effective solution to the violence and prompting international organizations—including the Malaysian government and the United Nations Development Programme—to become increasingly involved in the problem-solving effort. Effective dialogue between belligerents and the Thai state is the only way to resolve the South Thailand Insurgency, but this will remain out of the realm of possibilities if Thailand continues to deny the identity issues fueling this conflict.

Patani map

Map of Patani region. Source: http://books.sipri.org/files/PP/SIPRIPP20.pdf

Patani Region

Patani is a historical region located on the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In the modern day, this region is transnational: Patani includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, as well as the Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Patani was an independent Muslim city-state until the sixteenth century when it became a vassal state of Siam, and came under increasingly direct Siamese rule during the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. Following resistance and a series of rebellions in response to this shift, Patani fractured into seven separate regions. These seven regions existed until the Bangkok Treaty of 1909, in which the British (who at that time controlled Malaysia and were creeping northwards) acknowledged Thailand’s sovereignty over the seven regions of Patani. In return, Thailand relinquished the southern territory of Kelantan to British control. By 1933, Thailand had consolidated the seven Patani regions and renamed them Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Today, the Patani region is home to roughly 1.8 million Thai citizens, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining 20 percent are almost all Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists.

 

Rise of “Nation, Religion, King”

In the post-colonial, increasingly globalized world, the Thai monarchy saw the need to reinvent itself for the modern era. In the process of reinventing the monarchy, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s relationship with the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks—the sangha—became intertwined with the prosperity of the nation. Thus, the role of the sangha was given a national component, and became integral to a healthy state of internal affairs. In later years, King Bhumibol was emboldened to transform the sangha. Guiding Bhumibol in this process was Vajiravudh (Rama VI)’s three pillars of nation, religion, and king. These pillars linked King Bhumibol inextricably to the nation through religion, and served to strengthen the king’s intertwinement with the sangha. In practice, the pillars meant that Buddhism was to facilitate the deification of King Bhumibol. Accordingly, a variety of rituals and holy days were presided over by the king, and royally endorsed public works projects were under taken in the countryside. Rural temples, controlled by the sangha and hence the king, became a link between the village and the national consciousness, thus providing the Thai people with a common experience with king, and laying the framework for a common Thai identity.

 

“Thainess” vs. “Otherness”

A standardized practice of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, has historically been employed as the ideological underpinning for the civilization and unification of all Thais. It was not just the practice of Buddhism that was standardized, but also the ethnic composition of its adherents. Promotion of the Thai language, too, was used to standardize Buddhist practices. This standardization provided a specific group of people within Thailand’s borders with a collective goal and a common sense of duty towards the advancement of the nation. The goal was to “make them realize [that they belong to] the same nation, religion and king, pledging loyalty to the king and the nation as their refuge and worship Buddhism.” A Thai identity based in these precepts resulted. This is known as “Thainess.”

It is the standardization of the sangha that has facilitated the construction of otherness. Confronted with globalization and modernity, Western notions of nationhood and rigid borders began to change the Thai attitude on who is entitled to benefit from the state. In order to determine this, an identity binary developed: “Thainess” arose situated opposite to “otherness.” Thainess is defined by a collective duty to Vajiravudh’s three pillars as previously discussed, and holds little in common with Western notions of individualized national identity. This group alone is allowed to benefit from the Thai state.

“Otherness,” by contrast, encompasses everything Thainess is not. Because the three pillars define the Thai conception of nationhood, any deviation from these three pillars disqualifies an individual or group from integrating to and benefiting from Thai society. The South Thailand Insurgency is one particularly aggressive response to this identity binary. In southern Thailand, Malay Muslims cannot integrate because they do not practice Buddhism; those who do not practice Buddhism are not viewed as Thai. Simply put, to be a part of Thailand is to be quintessentially Buddhist. Standardization has changed meaning of religion from one of personal choice to that of identity signifier.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

The effects of otherness extend beyond the inability to integrate into Thai society: otherness is often viewed as a threat to national stability. King Bhumibol has cultivated a sense of fear and animosity towards those who do not identify with the three pillars, and has convinced each individual Thai that his or her fate is tied up with the state, and that the state’s fate is tied to the monarchy. If the monarchy falls, Thai prosperity will falter. This common understanding has provided the monarchy with masses directly aligned with its ideology, thus protecting the monarchy from threats of otherness. The South Thailand Insurgency attests to the lengths to which many Thais are willing to go to protect their monarchy—the foundation of their identity—and to prevent the fracture of the state. This conflict is also a testament to the difficulty of building a national identity in Thailand—the process is hindered by porous borders, multiple ethnic minorities and religions, and a complicated citizenship process. This means that language spoken, religion practices, and ethnicity do not line up as the Thai state insists they do.

 

Conflict Overview

Many consider the current violence in the “Deep South” to be a renewed version of the older liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was a reaction to Thai state control. Lack of state legitimacy due to rigid ethnic identifiers then as well as now is at the core of the conflict. King Bhumibol’s continued standardization policies and centralization of the Thai state have alienated those who do not subscribe to the “nation, religion, king” trifecta, resulting in a “legitimacy deficit” of the Thai government in minority regions. In Patani, Bhumibol’s policies have transformed Patani’s political and Islamic educational and legal structures into a “quintessentially Thai” system. Because Malay Muslims in this region cannot identify themselves within this structure, grievances and resistance movements have materialized to address the government’s failure to provide Malay Muslims with a niche in Thai society.

Grievances are brought to the attention of the Thai state by a number of Patani liberation movements, with most fighting carried out by small groups of fighters consisting of young men aged 17 to 25. Violence occurs in open areas during the day, and takes the form of drive-by shootings or bombings, and sometimes larger, organized attacks. This has meant that most casualties are civilians. The most active groups are the BRN-C (BarisanRevolusiNasional-Koordinasi), its alleged armed wing the RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), the BBMP (BarisanBersatu Mujahidin Patani), and the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization). As opposed to the conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s in which insurgent groups were sharply divided, today’s insurgent groups share a common Islamist agenda, ideology, and goals. Above all, the liberations movements demand the creation of a Malay Muslim state separate from the rest of Thailand. This united front has made the modern iteration of the conflict more difficult to fracture and quell than the last.

 Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Following the 2004 raid on the Rajanakarin Camp depot, violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has increased dramatically. The 2004 Krue Se and TakBai incidents have become synonymous with the recent resurgence in violence, and have fueled grievances among liberation groups in recent years. Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s unapologetic response to the incidents served to heighten violence towards Thai forces on the part of the liberation groups. Since then, violence has escalated steadily. Because the conflict is ongoing, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of injured and killed. In a July 2014 report, Deep South Watch released the most up-to-date information on number of killed and injured by religious affiliation. Some sources speculate that death tolls have climbed to 8,000 or more.

 

Insurgency, Not Global Jihad

This conflict cannot simply be described as Buddhism versus Islam, religion versus religion. At this core of this conflict is an issue of identity that happens to have a religious component. The main reason the South Thailand Insurgency cannot be considered part of the global jihad is because the conflict is more strongly contextualized as one of Thai vs. other. And while the conflict undeniably has a religious component, that religious component is only one piece of a larger identity issue. To date, there has been no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings in the Patani region. The South Thailand Insurgency is ethno-political and ethno-national at heart, and centers on a local historical claim to the Patani territory. As Islam garners more and more negative press around the world, we must be careful to assume that all conflicts that involve Islam are fundamentally jihadist in nature.

Fatalities and Injuries 2004-2014

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

 

Human Development Indicators

Poor development is both a cause and effect of the South Thailand Insurgency. Development in the area has been particularly hindered since heightened violence emerged in 2004. A comparison of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators (UNDP HDI) from the years 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2014 reveals that the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have consistently failed to match the national development average. HDI ratings experienced a marked decreased following the violence of 2004. Education, income, family and community life, and participation in political and community activities are areas of particular concern.

HDI Yala

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Pattani

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Narathiwat

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

It has been suggested that poor development is heightening regional grievances and exacerbating the conflict; development is then further hindered, fueling further dissent. But while development averages in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat remain below the national average, UNDP HDI data reveals improving development indicators in 2014. This could be due to the increased involvement of international organizations in the region, discussed in the section below.

 

Solutions

A number of solutions have been implemented to facilitate resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Thailand, however, has taken a back-seat role in the problem-solving effort. The two most comprehensive peace processes, the Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project and the Ramadan Peace Initiative, were organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Malaysian government, respectively. The STEP Project, implemented in March 2010, seeks to address grassroots development issues in Patani as a way to increase interaction with the local government and pave the way for national-level advocacy. STEP has progressed to its second and final phase, and is slated to be completed by December 2017. The Ramadan Peace Initiative, meanwhile, provided a neutral forum for talks between Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) and the BRN-C. The talks were held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and ended in the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process on February 28, 2013. The two parties met again in March, April, and May 2013, vowing to keep the dialogue channels open and actively work towards peace in the region. But since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the domestic political situation has not been conducive to furthering the peace process.

Violent Attacks in Patani Jan13-April14

On November 3, 2014, Thailand’s military government vowed again to end the violence in the three southernmost provinces, this time within one year. Questions have arisen around the feasibility of this plan considering the lack of confidence in Thailand’s new government, and the fact that peace talks started during the Ramadan Peace Initiative have stalled. And despite the violence plaguing the region and the reorganization of government, Narathiwat is still slated to be become a Special Economic Zone in 2016. The Thai government’s hope is that by developing the economy, security issues will be resolved and the violence will be quelled as the economy grows. But because this solution still does not address the fundamental issue of the conflict—identity—it holds a high potential for failure.

According to International Crisis Group, “a highly centralized administrative structure, the persistence of rigid conceptions of national identity and an old-fashioned bureaucratic outlook” inhibit resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group these influence analyses of the problem as well as policy formation and implementation, thus making it difficult for Thai leaders to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict. To do so would call into question state legitimacy based on the three pillars or nation, religion, and king. These misguided priorities have seriously inhibited the peace process in southern Thailand. Government spending in the region reveals that the focus remains on counterinsurgency and military capabilities rather than community and infrastructure development: as the violence escalates, so does counterinsurgency spending. Since 2005, counterinsurgency spending in the Patani region alone has fluctuated between 9.9 and 17.5 percent of total military spending. Some reports indicate that average per-capita military spending in Patani is around twice as much as average per-capita military spending nationwide.

 

Source:  http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Looking to the Future

The nature of the solutions proposed by the Thai state suggests that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government (as well as prime ministers who came before him, and particularly Thaksin Shinawatra) refuse to acknowledge the ethno-political and ethno-national components to South Thailand Insurgency. In other words, there are no signs that Thailand is adjusting its adherence to the mantra “nation, religion, king” in order to accommodate minority groups. Some speculate that if the Thai government did adjust its definition of Thai identity or even allowed Patani to secede, other suppressed groups—both domestic and regional—would follow with their own liberation movements. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. First, the trifecta championed by the Thai state provides a direct contrast to minority identity that does not exist in other countries. Other minorities (like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group) may find it difficult to similarly contextualize their conflict as one of “state identity” vs. “other” because this rigid framework does not exist. Secondly, Malay Muslims constitute the second largest minority in Thailand (the first being ethnic Chinese) and are concentrated in a region on Thailand’s fringes. This has allowed the Malay Muslim community to over time create a united front against the Thai state. Other minorities in Thailand lack the same ability to unite due to their smaller and geographically fractured populations.

Although the South Thailand Insurgency is unlikely to threaten the existence of the Thai state, the conflict presents a severe humanitarian and national security issue and therefore deserves to be dealt with promptly and effectively. Dialogue is the most effective problem-solving tool in this situation, but there are few indications that the new Thai government is willing to cooperate in this way. In mid-November, 2014 a program to arm villagers against insurgents went into effect in southern Thailand, highlighting once again the government’s focus on weapon-based counterinsurgency. Thai authorities distributed approximately 2,700 military grade weapons—reportedly HK-33 assault rifles—to civilians in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Scholars as well as sources on the ground with knowledge of local opinion believe that the plan is bound to backfire and increase violence in the region, not quell it. This kind of “problem solving” must end. The Thai government instead must demonstrate flexibility and inclusion by supporting Muslim representatives in government and easing its assimilationist policies in the south. Only when a political space for discussion and the airing of grievances is created and maintained can the violence plaguing the Patani region end.

 

Further reading: 

Abuza, Zachary. “A Breakdown of Southern Thailand’s Insurgent Groups.” The Jamestown Foundation. 8 Sept. 2006. Web.

Advancing Human Development Through the ASEAN Community: Thailand Human Development Report 2014. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2014.

Bean, James. “Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process.” The Diplomat. 31 July 2013

BTI 2014 – Thailand Country Report. BTI. Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2014.

Boontanondha, Thep. King Vajiravudh and the Making of his Military Image. 2013. Web

 Decludt, Florian. “The Cause of Unrest in Thailand: ThaksinShinawatra.” International Affairs Review. The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, 20 Jan. 2014. Web 

Handley, Paul M. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s BhumibolAdulyadej. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

 How Can the Peace Process Be Taken Forward?Deep South Watch. 28 Feb. 2014.

 Human Security, Today and Tomorrow: Thailand Human Development Report 2009. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2010.

Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

 Jitpiromsri, Srisompob. An Inconvenient Truth about the Deep South Violent Conflict: A Decade of Chaotic, Constrained Realities and Uncertain Resolution. Deep South Watch. 2 July 2014.

Jitpiromsri, Srisompob, and PanyasakSobhonvasu. “Unpacking Thailand’s southern conflict: The poverty of structural explanations.” Critical Asian Studies 38.1 (2006): 95-117.

Karaman, Bahar. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in Muslim south.” Thailand Business News. 4 Nov. 2014.

Lefevre, Amy Sawitta. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in insurgency-hit south.” Reuters. 3 Nov. 2014. Web

National Security Council of Malaysia. “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process.” Agreement between Lt Gen ParadornPattanatabut and Ustaz Hassan Taib. 28 Feb. 2013.

“Massacre of Thai Muslims remembered.”Al-Jazeera. 25 Oct. 2012.

Mateus, Sofia Diogo. “More guns to increase ‘tit-for-tat violence’ in southern Thailand.” DW. Deutsche Welle, 11 May 2014.

McCargo, Duncan. Situation Report: Thailand. Tony Blair Faith Foundation.Tony Blair Faith Foundation, n.d. Web.

Melvin, Neil J. Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency. Stockholm: Stockholm .

“Rohingya: Stateless and Unwanted.” Al-Jazeera. 2014..

Shadbolt, Peter. “Explainer: Thailand’s deadly southern insurgency.” CNN. 19 Feb. 2013.

Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project: 2010-2012. 2010.

“Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project.” United Nations Development Programme. Web.

“Thailand begins peace talks with southern rebel group.” BBC. 28 March 2013.

Thailand Human Development Report 2007. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2007.

Thailand Human Development Report 2003. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2003.

“Thailand Islamic Insurgency.” Global Security. 22 June 2014.

“Thailand/Malay Muslims (1948-present).” University of Central Arkansas.

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South. International Crisis Group. International Crisis Group, 11 Dec. 2012.

“Thailand military seizes power in coup.” BBC. 22 May 2014.

“Thai mosque killings criticised.” BBC. 28 July 2004.

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research. International Boundary Study. Rept. no. 7 1965. The Florida State University. Web.

 

 

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