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Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.Stringer ./Reuters

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.

When Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing shut down his country’s fragile democratic experiment in a coup in February, he did so to bolster the economic and political power of the country’s military rulers. In August, he claimed for himself the position of prime minister, and this month, former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi – leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – was sentenced to detention for two years, officially for appearing at a rally in breach of COVID-19 regulations. She faces many more bogus charges that could carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

But Min Aung Hlaing’s real reasons for arresting Ms. Suu Kyi, as well as Myanmar’s president and other senior associates, likely had more to do with her democratically elected party becoming genuinely popular. The NLD dominated the 2020 parliamentary elections over the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a political vehicle for many of Myanmar’s former military leaders. That threatened the power of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces are collectively called – but her NLD administration also looked poised to deprive Min Aung Hlaing and fellow military officials of their lucrative Chinese side hustles.

Online gambling is illegal inside China, but is nevertheless much enjoyed there. According to investigations conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), the Karen State Border Guard Force – which operates under the Tatmadaw – has partnered with Chinese investors to construct casino-centric megacities in the state, and along its borders with Thailand, Laos and the Yunnan province of China. These developments are led by investors who often present themselves as central to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, even though some of them allegedly have shady triad ties; at least two Chinese state-owned enterprises have also signed contracts to build infrastructure in the cities. As the USIP report’s authors write: “It is curious, at best, that Beijing remains silent about the involvement of fairly high-profile, official or semi-official Chinese actors.”

No one knows how much illegal money will flow through, but the take will be considerable. Some experts claim that it will ultimately benefit mainland Chinese triads, while a share will allegedly go to the Myanmar junta in exchange for access to the land. But in June of 2020, Ms. Suu Kyi’s government announced a tribunal to investigate “irregularities” in one of the projects.

Meanwhile, amid China’s domestic crackdown on the diversion of pharmaceutical ingredients to produce fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, Chinese companies have imported precursor component chemicals into Myanmar’s Shan state. There they are mixed and refined, then exported as highly processed methamphetamines and fentanyl around the world. Militias and other paramilitary units – both allied with and opposed to the Tatmadaw – allow this business to flourish in exchange for hefty bribes, according to a 2019 International Crisis Group report.

The Tatmadaw were widely known for their corruption, their aggrandizement of corporate opportunities and their wars against armed ethnic groups in order to remove competition for illegal jade and opium export profiteering – and that was even before the coup that led to Ms. Suu Kyi’s imprisonment. Now that the powerful Chinese state is constructing ports, pipelines and roads in Myanmar, and is renewing efforts to finance a massive dam athwart the source of the Irrawaddy River (though the vast majority of the electricity it generates would be sent to China), Myanmar’s junta has many reasons to facilitate illicit activities along its borders.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 protesters have been killed and thousands wounded since the February coup. Soldiers frequently fire live ammunition into crowds that are silently and peacefully opposing the oppressive junta. Protesters in major cities and towns are still finding ways to march quietly, to stay away from work, to strike at hospitals and universities, and to shut down schooling at all levels – but so far, they have been unsuccessful in persuading large numbers of soldiers to defect and thus deprive the junta of its firepower.

But promising alliances are being formed between younger protest leaders and the minorities whose territories ring central Myanmar, and whose peoples comprise about 40 per cent of the country’s population. The protest leadership now includes many who are from the Karen, Shan, Kachin, Karenni and Wa states – people long marginalized by governments of Myanmar, including by the NLD. They are not Buddhists (as most of the ethnic-majority Bamar are), and many are Christians. If this new alliance of democrats can somehow oust the junta, Myanmar could emerge from its current autocratic reversion – and also leave its history of warring ethnic enclaves behind.

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