Myanmar, (TFC)— The war in Myanmar is a complicated one, charged with the demonic omen of “ethnic cleansing.” However, something else is bumping around the background. A factor even more obscure than the possibility of a proxy-conflict between the US and China. Natural resources, minerals, and massive oil projects may be closer to the true motives of this horrific conflict than most realize.
The conflict in Myanmar has seen increasing coverage, especially in independent outlets such as Democracy Now. Half a million people have been displaced in recent months with countless others slaughtered by clashes between Burmese government forces, and rebel groups like the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Arm.
MNDAA is essentially a communist-inspired rebel group backed by China. Due to that fact, the Myanmar war is sometimes viewed as a proxy-conflict between the US-backed Burmese government, and Chinese-backed rebels. Numerous other militias also walk the bush, seemingly one for each region of the country. While some have been tamed by recent peace accords, a select few have rejected the agreements with a violent outcry.
More recently, after thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of Myanmar’s government, Rohingyan militias organized counter-strikes. Prior months have also seen reports of massacres of women and children emerge from the murky horrors of the war.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army took responsibility for attacks on government positions in the name of self-defense. Representatives of the armed group called Myanmar’s assault on the Rohingyan people “state-sponsored terror”, Reuters reports
Once it became apparent the Rohingyan Muslim minority was being targeted and flushed out, the international community really took notice. A massive humanitarian crisis has gripped the region, with neighboring countries unable to handle the scale of mass migration.
A War For Oil, Jade, and Resources
Much of the fighting is concentrated in the northern regions of the country like Kokang, throughout the Rakhine region, and Kachin state. Those areas, it turns out, are ground zeros for Myanmar’s rich natural resources, including highly coveted Jade, and several massive Chinese pipeline projects.
Chinese oil ambitions in Myanmar go back several years, always low profile. The project, Forbes reports, is a daring one using Myanmar as a shortcut. Although the pipeline project goes through some very rough terrain, the Chinese chose to steer away from pirate-infested waters. Strategic geo-political decisions also went into the project, such as ensuring a US fleet couldn’t blockade the oil. It’s a $25 billion investment for giant national Chinese oil companies, but what about the Burmese people?
Past centuries have seen Burma’s vast and in some ways unique natural resources plundered. Everything from oil and gas to highly prized Burmese jade is smuggled out of the country regularly. To the Burmese people, the Chinese government is another entity siphoning their valuable resources while not giving adequate compensation. Not everyone feels that way though, especially in the poorest parts of the country.
Most of these people are locals who see easy money in tapping natural resources like oil. However, once the material obtained is normally sold on the black market, often ending up in rebel hands.
According to Guardian, companies like Halliburton recognized the opportunity as well and held oil summits around four years ago. Burma, however, is a dodgy and fickle country. Locating oil reserves, or any natural resource for that matter, is a gamble. In a country with not a whole lot of money, local enraptures risk buying useless land hoping they might hit black gold.
While some companies were turned off by the unreliable and oftentimes illegal market, others hopped on board. The short-term gains far outweighed long-term costs that mostly play out on the local level.
According to a report on Myanmar’s natural resource market on page 25, it’s estimated that 16 foreign companies are operating in various capacities harvesting Myanmar’s oil. As it stands, the government of Myanmar has been promised $53 billion in oil royalties by China, 30 years from now. Another $25 million is set to fund Myanmar’s schools, though only 10% of the gas and none of the oil extracted by China will stay in Myanmar. In other projects, such as a dam which faced local protests, locals near the proposed sites are being relocated.
In the meantime, the government is challenged with a violent civil war sparking widespread destabilization. While rebel forces are reputedly receiving Chinese aid, the Burmese government is backed by the US.
According to Geopolitical Feature, some of 2016’s worst fighting occurred near the town of Muse. That area is home to at least two Chinese pipelines, positioned alongside the Chinese border. Every area key to the Myanmar conflict, it seems, is home to either Chinese oil operations or a plethora of natural resources.
One of the major players in the rebel black market is the Kokang Army, a group which rejected recent peace accords. The faction consists primarily of ethnic Chinese, and is the only such rebel group in the world. For the Chinese government, that also makes the Kokang Army a good candidate to trade minerals, funds, and supplies.
Conflict in Kokang goes back decades with numerous characters populating the storyline including Chinese business people, militia commanders, and drug lords. According to Asia Times, local government rewarded warlords who’d fought alongside them by relocating opium operations to Thailand. It was a favor which resulted in the mass production of heroin for the first time into the international market.
Another group, the Kachin Independence Army, once controlled a region with a vast jade supply. It placed the group at the center of a $40 billion largely black market industry, funneling copious profits to China. However, According to ABC, KIA had been pushed out by another milita—the Tatmadaw—which is engaging Rohingyan militas.
For decades, mining the gems has been slowed by localized lack of equipment and infrastructure. Large machines have been provided in recent years, though from exactly where can be tricky to determine. Many of the miners are heroin addicts using the drug the cope with the long days of work, little payback, and overall local devastation.
Bringing It All Together
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Chinese connections to the plunder of Myanmar’s natural resources is that it’s mirrored in other countries. Parts of the world struggling with the same omens of war leading to ethnic cleansing, and mass migration. Countries which, like Myanmar, have vast natural resources producing billions in international profits which never come back to the local people.
VICE did a documentary piece on what effect Chinese ambitions for oil in Sudan had on the country. Specifically, the media company went to the infamous Darfur region. For years, Darfur has been subject to a war and what the international community called ethnic cleansing. The story everyone knew was a majority-Muslim death squad, the Janjaweed, arrived and began killing ethnically African Sudanese. Years of bloodshed, hut burning’s and rape would follow and force hundreds of thousands of people to leave.
When VICE sent a crew to the country including one of the founders Shane Smith, they realized the locals had a completely different perspective. Not only in Darfur, but also in southern Sudan, the discovery of oil always escalated the violence. Locals feel the idea of the Darfur conflict as ethnic-based is ridiculous, as many of the black Africans being forced out were also Muslim. Refugee after refugee, camp after camp all said the same thing: paramilitaries like the Janjaweed are tools for clearing scores of people from land that is valuable for oil, cattle, and other resources.
Just like in Myanmar, the Chinese government has a lot invested in Sudan’s oil. In fact, according to African Arguments, South Sudan accounts for 10% of all Chinese oil imports. Reports also suggest connections between the Sudanese arms trade and Chinese suppliers. It’s a disturbing mirror of the Myanmar conflict masking the bloodshed as ethnic-based, and distracting from the true causes. In various parts of the planet proxy-battles over natural resources, not abstract ideas or black-and-white bigotry, is quietly carried out. As the future unfolds, we’ll all be left to ask “at what cost”?