Page 1 of 2 China behind Myanmar's course shift
By Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - Recent developments in Myanmar, including talks between new
President Thein Sein and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, a relaxation of
media censorship and the release of some political prisoners, have stunned many
foreign observers and sparked speculation that the historically military-run
country is on the verge of a new era of democracy and openness.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has published optimistic reports
claiming that fundamental changes are under way in the country's political
landscape, while Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide recently
exalted after a mid-October whistle-stop to the country: "I almost left the
thinking they're moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that
After decades of broken promises and fake reforms, Myanmar's population has
been tellingly less enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Zarganar,
Myanmar's most famous comedian, said in an interview shortly after his release
from prison on October 11: "Originally, I was encouraged by the new government.
But not anymore, not since I was released. We [jailed dissidents] are like
hostages in the hands of Somali pirates. It now begs the question, for what
ransom was our freedom secured?"
Indeed, what was the behind-the-scenes "ransom" paid for the release of
approximately 200 political prisoners, and what is the reality behind recent
seemingly daring moves by Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under
the old military junta?
As an army commander and later government leader, he was not known for his
initiative, boldness or liberalism. In May 2001, for instance, while serving as
chief of the Myanmar army's Golden Triangle Command, he said in a speech before
local leaders in Mong La on the Chinese border: "I was in Mong Ton and Mong
Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa group are real
Wei is named in several US drug reports as the kingpin of the Golden Triangle
narcotics trade and both American and Thai law enforcement authorities have a
bounty on his head. Both of Thein Sein's "real friends" have been indicted by
US courts for their involvement in the Golden Triangle's narcotics trade.
There are also questions about the foreign company the supposedly reformist
president keeps. On August 1 last year, the Pyongyang's official news service,
the Korea Central News Agency, reported on a visit by Thein Sein, then prime
minister of the previous military junta, where he "noted with high appreciation
that the Korean people have made big strides in strengthening of the military
capability and economic construction under the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il
... The government of Myanmar will continue to strive for strengthening and
development of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two
These are less the statements of a reform-minded liberal and more of a puppet
leader who takes and exercises obediently orders from above.
It is becoming clear that there are serious disagreements within the military
over relations with North Korea, and more importantly Myanmar's heavy
dependence on China. This became evident on September 30 when Thein Sein
announced that he had decided to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion
joint-venture Myitsone dam project in Myanmar's far north Kachin State.
However, the official explanation that the project was "against the will of
people" is hardly credible in a country where popular sentiments have long been
ignored and popular calls for political change met consistently with brute
The dam would have flooded an area bigger than Singapore, 90% of the
electricity was scheduled for export to China, and once online would have done
grave harm to the Irrawaddy River, the nation's economic and cultural artery. A
massive popular movement against the dam was gaining momentum and an escalation
of anti-China tensions could have led to riots even more serious than in 1967,
when angry mobs ransacked businesses and homes owned by ethnic Chinese in
Yangon, then the national capital.
China's commercial presence is more pronounced nowadays, as tens of thousands
of Chinese merchants and migrants have recently settled in the country, mainly
in the old royal capital of Mandalay. China's domination of local commerce and
rising ownership of local lands has stoked Myanmar nationalist sentiments and
risks potentially destabilizing splits inside the still ruling Myanmar
It is this dynamic that is mainly driving Thein Sein's political course shift,
not a newfound desire for democracy and human rights.
My friend, my enemy
The controversial dam project reflects the strained relationship Myanmar has
always had with its powerful northern neighbor. From the establishment of the
People's Republic of China in 1949 until Myanmar's 1962 military putsch,
Beijing maintained a cordial relationship with the non-aligned democratic
government of prime minister U Nu.
Myanmar, then known as Burma, was in fact the first country outside of the
communist bloc to recognize the new regime in Beijing. Trade was negligible,
but the common border was demarcated and relations were friendly.
After General Ne Win's 1962 coup, the Chinese, long wary of the ambitious and
sometimes unpredictable general, began to prepare for all-out support for the
insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The 1967 anti-Chinese riots in
Yangon, orchestrated by military authorities to deflect public anger at a
rapidly deteriorating economy, provided a convenient excuse for China to
intervene directly in Myanmar's internal affairs. On New Year's Day 1968, the
first armed CPB units entered northeastern Myanmar from China's southwestern
During the decade spanning 1968-78, China poured more aid into the CPB effort
than any other communist movement outside of Indochina. Assault rifles,
machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, radio equipment, jeeps,
trucks, petrol, area maps, and even kitchen utensils were sent across the
frontier into the CPB's revolutionary base area.
Thousands of Chinese "volunteers" also streamed across the border to provide
additional support to the CPB. Mao Zedong's death in 1976, and more importantly
the return to power of the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping a year later, marked the
beginning of the end of massive Chinese aid to the CPB.
It was no longer seen to be in Beijing's interest to support revolutionary
movements in the region, but neither could the Chinese completely cut off the
CPB, which still controlled most of the strategic border areas inside Myanmar.
Chinese support continued, albeit on a much reduced scale, until the hill tribe
rank-and-file of the CPB's army rose in mutiny in 1989 and drove the entire
Maoist Burman leadership into exile in China.
The CPB subsequently split along ethnic lines into four different regional
armies. All of them soon entered into ceasefire agreements with the government,
which also made cross-border trade possible for the first time in decades.
It was also clear that China coveted Myanmar's forests and rich mineral and
natural gas deposits, as well as its hydroelectric power potential. In fact,
China first mooted its intention to build Myitsone in an article in the
official Beijing Review in September 1985.
Entitled "Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion", the officially written
article outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade for China's
landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan through Myanmar to the
Indian Ocean. It also mentioned that the Myanmar railheads of Myitkyina and
Lashio in the northeast and the Irrawaddy River as possible conduits for
At the time those trade links were a remote dream, but the 1989 CPB mutiny
ushered in a new, more cordial era in Sino-Myanmar relations. Apart from
supplying Myanmar with vast quantities of military hardware at a time when the
West shunned and sanctioned the military regime's abysmal human-rights record,
Chinese experts also assisted in a series of infrastructure projects to
rehabilitate Myanmar's poorly maintained roads and railways.
Chinese military advisers formally arrived in 1991, the first foreign military
personnel to be stationed in Myanmar since Australia dispatched a contingent to
train the Myanmar army in the 1950s. Soon after the Chinese officials arrived,
cross-border trade between China and Myanmar began to boom.
By the late 1980s, China had begun to penetrate the Myanmar market through an
extensive economic intelligence reporting system. This network monitored the
availability of domestically produced Myanmar products as well as the nature
and volume of trade from other countries in the region such as Thailand,
Malaysia, Singapore and India.
When the border was opened for trade in the early 1990s, more than 2,000
carefully selected items were reported to be flooding the Myanmar market -
among them bicycles, sewing machines, beer, soap, cigarettes, cheap textiles,
stationery, spare machinery parts, radios, medicines, and petrol. These goods
were priced deliberately cheaper than those from other neighboring countries
and Myanmar-made products.
In March last year, China's official People's Daily Online reported that
bilateral trade between the two countries hit US$ 2.9 billion in 2009, an
increase of 10% over the previous year and up from virtually zero in the late
1980s. The trade balance weighed heavily in China's favor: in 2009, Chinese
exports amounted to $2.3 billion, while its imports from Myanmar totaled a mere
$646 million. More current trade figures are not publicly available, but are
believed to be even higher and still weighted in China's favor.
While Myanmar has been denied access to international monetary institutions due
to US and European Union sanctions, China has provided Myanmar with low
interest loans and major investment capital. That is particularly true of the