MYANMAR IN THE MIDDLE China embrace too strong for Naypyidaw
By Bertil Lintner
This is the first
article in a four-part series. Tomorrow:
India-Myanmar: a half-built gateway
JIEGAO, Yunnan province - This tiny enclave south of the Shweli river belongs
to China but is completely surrounded on land by Myanmar. Its unique position
has given rise to a boomtown like no other in western Yunnan province, a
bustling exit point for Chinese goods destined for Myanmar and beyond.
Shops in Jiegao sell everything from electronic goods, household appliances,
motorcycles, garments, medicines, fake DVDs and bizarre sex toys. One shop
displays two huge, 12-wheel trucks in a glassed showroom facing one of the
town's broad new boulevards. Jade and precious stones from Myanmar are on sale
here as well.
Burmese jade sold in a Chinese
market. All pictures by Bertil Lintner
The cross-border trade, however, weighs heavily in China's favor.
In 2009, the last year for which official statistics are available, Chinese
exports to Myanmar amounted to US$2.3 billion while imports were a mere $646
million. Some projections put the current export figure closer to $4 billion.
Jiegao's exports are not confined to Myanmar, with local markets in
northeastern India and as far as Bangladesh flooded with cheap Chinese consumer
Considering that only two decades ago Jiegao consisted of little more than a
cluster of bamboo huts, this has been no mean achievement. A new, wide bridge
connecting the enclave with the rest of Yunnan north of the river was first
built in 1992. At the same time, before high-rise buildings and shopping
complexes were built, a giant monument was erected near the bridge, showing
three figures pushing what looks like a circular object between them with their
determined faces pointing south.
The Chinese monument in
"Southeast Asia, here we come!" a local resident joked when this correspondent
first visited Jiegao in late 1994.
Yet it hasn't been as easy to push that wheel south as the Chinese likely first
expected. For more than two decades now, Chinese companies have plundered
northern Myanmar of its natural resources, including timber, which has led to
massive deforestation especially in the country's northern Kachin State.
Rampant logging by Chinese companies in the area have led to floods, landslides
and other natural disasters never before experienced in that part of the
According to a report by the international environmental watchdog Global
Witness, this trade continues despite an official Chinese ban imposed in 2006
on the importation of timber from Myanmar. "Half of China's timber imports from
all countries are probably illegal," the investigative report stated. Timber
depots in western Yunnan and shops selling processed wood products are still
widely available in China-Myanmar border areas. "They're buying everything,
small trees, big trees, even the roots," laments a local Myanmar resident on
the border referring to still active Chinese importers.
A truck carrying Chinese goods across the
Chinese ambitions for northern Myanmar have since grown. On June 16, 2009,
Myanmar's Beijing ambassador Thein Lwin and the president of China Power
Investment Corporation Lu Qizhou signed a Memorandum of Agreement for the joint
"Development, Operation and Transfer of the hydropower Projects in Maykha,
Malikha and Upstream of Irrawaddy-Myitsone River Basin". The biggest of these
dams at Myitsone, or the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers, which the
local ethnic Kachins call N'Mai Hka and Mali Hka, was scheduled to cost $3.6
billion and flood more than 700 square kilometers of forestland. Around 90% of
the electricity generated by the massive dam was to be exported to China.
The Burmanization of the names of the two main rivers in Kachin State was not
the only insult to the local population. "Myitsone" is a new Burmese name which
means "river junction", or the confluence of two rivers. Previously, a Kachin
village known as Tanghpre was located there but its inhabitants were forcibly
evicted before the Chinese construction crews moved in. It was renamed by the
central Myanmar government and an entirely new settlement was built around a
Buddhist pagoda in a predominantly Christian part of the country.
In April 2010, a series of bomb attacks were launched against the site. No
culprits were caught but local sources say disgruntled local Kachin residents
were behind the attacks. The Myitsone dam controversy later grew from a local
to national issue, fuelling nationalistic sentiments even among the majority
Burman population. This led to Myanmar President Thein Sein's stunning
announcement on September 30 that the entire China-backed project would be
suspended because it was against "the wishes of the people". Ten days prior,
Myanmar police had arrested a lone protester who had demonstrated against the
dam outside the Chinese Cultural Office in the old capital Yangon.
The Chinese were stunned by the official decision. If they had followed recent
developments more carefully and had a better grasp of Myanmar history they
wouldn't have been. Casual conversations with local residents in the border
areas reveal a deep distrust of China - and anger at its designs for Myanmar.
But Chinese officials have displayed an astounding naivete in their analyses of
A typical example of that shallow understanding is a paper titled "Sino-Myanmar
Relation and its Prospect" (sic) by Wang Jun-fu, vice president of the Chinese
military's International Liaison Department of the General Political
Department, publicly known as the China Association for International Friendly
Contacts. (The department prepares political and economic information for
China's top leaders.)
Written and presented in May 1995, just as the Chinese had penetrated Myanmar
to the extent that they believed the situation was irreversible, Wang writes
about a fictitious "joint struggle" of the "two peoples" against "imperialism
and colonialism". The writer lists numerous visits to Myanmar made by Chinese
officials and states among much empty language that "two-thousand years" of
history "proves that friendly cooperation is the melody of Sino-Myanmar ties".
What Wang conspicuously failed to mention was the vicious, anti-Chinese riots
that rocked Yangon's Chinatown in 1967, which were followed by two decades of
massive Chinese support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma. He also
failed to note that the Chinese government at that time branded Myanmar's then
strongman military leader Ne Win as a fascist and Red Guards surrounded the
Myanmar embassy in Beijing shouting anti-Myanmar (then known as Burma) slogans
day and night over loudspeakers.
In more recent years, Myanmar has seen a huge influx of immigrant workers,
black market traders and gamblers from China. According to Global Witness, 30%
to 40% of the population of the northern Myanmar city of Mandalay is now
Chinese. As early as 1988, a local author, Nyi Pu Lay, wrote a short critical
story titled The Python which highlighted the influx of Chinese to
Mandalay, the old royal capital of Myanmar. Nyi Pu Lay was subsequently
arrested and released after spending several years in prison for his writings.
Nyi Pu Lay is the youngest son of Mandalay's perhaps most famous literary
couple, the late Ludu U Hla and Daw Ahma, lending local weight to his
reputation and message.
Chinese economic penetration of Myanmar began in the early 1980s and was
facilitated, but not caused, by Western isolation of the country after the
military's brutal suppression of a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
But it should have been clear to observers that it was an uneasy relationship
from the beginning. The recent turnaround, epitomized by the stoppage of the
Myitsone dam, was not as assumed by many driven by the 2010 elections and the
shift towards a nominally democratic government made up mainly of former
As one Myanmar observer put it, Myanmar's "new look" government was designed to
give the regime a more friendly international face and provide a convenient
opportunity to unveil policies that had been in store for several years -
policies which ironically have been promoted by staunchly nationalistic,
hard-line army officers. When asked if Myanmar army officers had simply changed
their uniforms for civilian clothes, one local Yangon resident recently
quipped: "No! They have put their suits on over their uniforms."
According to several sources, the first bilateral blow against China came in
October 2004 when then prime minister and former intelligence chief Lt Gen Khin
Nyunt was ousted, charged with corruption and given a stiff prison sentence
which was later converted to house arrest. Khin Nyunt was considered "China's
man" in Myanmar and a well-placed source with access to inside information says
that the Chinese could not at first believe he had been ousted. Both sides
managed to smooth things over and bilateral relations later appeared to return
to normal after the internal purge.
The next big blow to bilateral ties came in August 2009 when the Myanmar Army
moved into the Kokang area of northeastern Shan State. Populated mainly by
local ethnic Chinese, Kokang had received a considerable influx of residents
from across the border. Given the similarities between Kokang Chinese and
Yunnanese Chinese, it was not difficult for the latter to obtain local Myanmar
ID papers for a fee. While many began to do business in the area, others moved
to cities such as Mandalay as legal Myanmar citizens.
The Myanmar Army offensive into Kokang drove more than 30,000 people across the
border into China. Chinese authorities allowed only Kokang-based Chinese
nationals to cross into China and many ethnic Kokang-Chinese refugees were
stopped at the border.
On the Myanmar side, government soldiers beat up Chinese nationals, stole their
property and an unknown number of people were killed in the melee. There were
also reports of rape of Chinese women. Chinese authorities were outraged by the
violence against their citizens but then did nothing, probably hoping that the
situation would once again return to normal.
The military operation in Kokang was masterminded by Lt Gen Min Aung Hlaing,
then head of the Myanmar military's Bureau of Special Operations 2. The
commander on the ground who ordered his soldiers to beat up the Chinese was the
head of the 33rd Light Infantry Division, Brig-Gen Aung Kyaw Zaw. Both soldiers
have since been promoted for their work.
Min Aung Hlaing has been elevated to joint chief of staff of the defense
services - the army, navy and air force - replacing General Thura Shwe Mann,
who is one of the top "civilians" in the new setup in Naypyidaw. Aung Kyaw Zaw,
meanwhile, has been promoted to a major general and commander of the
Northeastern Command of the Myanmar Army based in Lashio. In that new capacity,
he is in charge of most of the border areas which are under the government's
control, including the economically and strategically important trading post at
Myanmar's move towards a new China policy thus more clearly began in 2004, not
after the 2010 election. An important internal document compiled by Lt Col Aung
Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Myanmar's Defense Services Academy, seems to have set
the stage for this policy shift. His 346-page confidential thesis, entitled "A
Study of Myanmar-US Relations", outlines specifically many of the policies now
being implemented, including strategies for improving relations with the US and
how to mitigate Myanmar's dependence on China.
Sources with access to inside information about Myanmar's military leadership
assert that there is no "power struggle" inside the new government between
alleged "hardliners" and "moderates" over democracy and human rights, as
suggested by many Western pundits. Many foreign news reports have presented
Thein Sein as a reformist leader battling against entrenched forces linked to
the previous ruling junta.
Rather, there is a consensus among the military top brass that Myanmar has
become too dependent on China and that the country has deviated from its
traditional, neutralist foreign policy - a cornerstone for survival for a
country squeezed between Asia's two giants, China and India, and with
Western-allied Thailand on its eastern flank.
To be sure, these new "democratic" policies seem to be working well. Myanmar
has been able to leverage them to strengthen its position within the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which recently agreed to allow
it to chair the regional bloc in 2014. The country is also reaching out to new
power players in the region in a bid to diversify its trade and investment
reliance on China.
In particular, Myanmar has recently cemented important ties with Indonesia,
seen by many as ASEAN's new anchor. In May, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono held high-profile discussions with Thein Sein in Jakarta, while in
June and July two Indonesian deputy ministers with economic portfolios,
Mahendra Siregar and Edy Putra Irawady, visited Myanmar. They pledged to
increase trade and investments in Myanmar's energy, food production and
More significantly, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who was appointed commander-in-chief
of Myanmar's military in March, took his first foreign trip in mid-November to
Vietnam - Beijing's traditional adversary - rather than China. Myanmar and
Vietnam share similar fears of their powerful northern neighbor and so it is
reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had much to discuss with his
Relations with the US are also improving. On December 1, Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton will visit Myanmar, the first such visit by a high-ranking US
official in decades. But, as cynics point out, while paying lip service to
human rights and democracy, there is little doubt that the status of
China-Myanmar relations will be high on Clinton's diplomatic agenda.
On a visit to Canberra in November, US President Barack Obama stated that "with
my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping
up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region". The United States is a
Pacific power, Obama said, and "we are here to stay". He added: "The notion
that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China
The last statement was as unconvincing as Thein Sein's claim that the Myitsone
dam project was suspended because he was concerned about "the wishes of the
people". Myanmar and the US, two long-time adversaries, may now be on the same
side in the emerging regional power struggle with China.
Yet the monumental wheel at Jiegao - China's gateway to Southeast and South
Asia - has certainly not stopped turning as Chinese trade and influence
continue to grow in Myanmar and beyond. But more friction and perhaps even
hostility could color future relations between China and Myanmar, an antagonism
that could help the military regime shake its pariah status and isolation from
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including the forthcoming
Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile
Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.
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