Burmese military preparedness along the country’s land and sea borders with Bangladesh was stepped up this week, although the reason for the latest increase in tension is not clear.
Bangladeshi border troops were put on alert on March 16 after reporting unusual movements by Burmese forces, who also began to build a barbed wire fence along the 200 km frontier between the two countries.
Local Burmese authorities said the fence was being built to deter smuggling and human trafficking. Illegal immigration has been a problem for this border region of Burma’s Arakan State since colonial times.
Although the Burmese explanation for the fence is credible, Bangladesh military officials have told Dhaka newspapers that Burmese ships had been mobilized in the Bay of Bengal, increasing tension along the sea border.
Warships of the two countries were involved in a border standoff late last year when the Burmese regime attempted to drill for natural gas in a disputed area of the Bay of Bengal. Some reports from Rangoon suggested that the latest tension between Burma and Bangladesh is being orchestrated by the Naypyidaw regime as a diversion in the run up to the 2010 election. It is suggested that problems with Burma’s Muslim neighbor are being provoked as a way of making “scapegoats” of Arakan State’s Muslim minority.
Anti-Muslim books and other publications are reportedly being distributed in Rangoon and towns in Arakan State. The military regimes ruling Burma since 1962 have a history of creating false rumors against the country’s Muslim and Chinese minorities. Bloody riots sometimes resulted.
One common rumor accuses a Muslim man of raping a Buddhist woman, according to a Burmese political observer in Rangoon. “Many Burmese are not very tolerant of different religions and cultures,” he said.
There have been high-level visits by Burmese junta officials to the border region recently. Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein travelled there in late January and inspected government projects in the region.
Among the projects are highways connecting Rangoon and the Arakan towns of Sittwe and Kyaukphyu and a railroad between Arakan State and the west bank of the Irrawaddy River.
The junta’s number 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, also travelled recently to Arakan State., but the purpose of his journey was not made public.
Other key Burmese ministers, including Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, Construction Minister Maj-Gen Khin Maung Myint and Post and Telecommunication Minister Brig-Gen Thein Zaw also visited Arakan State in February. Kyaw Hsan opened TV transmitter stations and libraries.
“I think ruling generals made many trips to Arakan State recently because the anti-junta movement there is quite strong,” Aye Thar Aung, an Arakan leader, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
Aye Thar Aung said that although the authorities were distributing anti-Muslim papers in Arakan State, they would not influence public feeling. “The Arakan people see the issues of the Rohingyas and military rule as separate ones. Anti-Muslim propaganda will not make the people of Arakan State pro-junta.”
Western Burma is not only an important region for the Burmese junta but also of geopolitical and strategic interest for the junta’s closest ally, China. Beijing is scheduled to construct oil and gas pipelines from Arakan State’s Kyaukphyu Port to Yunnan Province in Southwest China in 2009. The US $2.5 billion project, which includes upgrading Kyaukpyu Port, is scheduled for completion by April 2013.
The pipelines will carry 85 percent of China’s Middle East oil imports, as well as Burmese natural gas from the Bay of Bengal.
The Chinese-financed projects were believed to have figured prominently in talks in Naypyidaw on Wednesday between junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, who is currently visiting Burma.