Category Archives: Myanmar/Burma

Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations

burmese logging

Chinese demand for prized woods like teak has led to an illegal logging epidemic in eastern Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the trial of over 150 Chinese workers has sparked yet another diplomatic row and has raised questions about the stability of the Sino-Burmese relationship.

Last week Wednesday, a local court in Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging. In addition, another two Chinese minors were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the same offense.

The sentences were handed down in the Myitkyina district court, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. The 155 Chinese nationals, most from neighboring Yunnan province, were apprehended in January of this year by members of the Myanmar army, along with a number of Burmese citizens. At the time of arrest, the loggers were found with 436 logging trucks, along with drugs and around 12000 Chinese Yuan (around 2000 USD) in currency, according to a report from Phoenix News.

“We tried to make the sentences as fair as possible, but we had to consider the environmental point of view,” district deputy magistrate Myint Swe told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service.

“If you look at the number of vehicles, and machinery and the equipment [they were arrested with], you can imagine the amount of environmental damage they’ve done.”

The criminals were convicted  under a 1963 law carrying a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment for abusing or stealing public property. However,  life sentences are commonly only served for 20 years under Myanmar’s legal system, according to the Associated Press.

Searching for an explanation

The trial marks a new low in Sino-Burmese relations. Since the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower project in 2011, the two neighbors’ relations have steadily deteriorated. The relationship was further strained in March when fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel group based in Myanmar’s Kokang Special Region, spilled over the border and killed five Chinese civilians.

The life sentences in this case could simply be the result of a local magistrate’s decision, however the recent downturn in bilateral relations has led some to wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the verdicts given to the loggers. One explanation is that the sentencing was given in response to Beijing hosting  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in June. Despite the Burmese opposition leader speaking Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting of political parties (Daw Suu heads the National League for Democracy and Xi is the Chinese Communist Party leader), the significance of the visit was not lost on Naypidaw and the government might have taken offense at Beijing’s meeting with the opposition leader. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has met with world leaders before, including US President Barack Obama and Indian PM Nahendra Modi, and neither visit provoked such a controversial response from Naypidaw. It is unlikely that Daw Suu’s meeting with Xi is an exception.

Another possible explanation for the harsh sentences is that the Myanmar government wants some sort of insurance against aggressive actions from their neighbor. If the current trend in Sino-Burmese relations is to continue, Myanmar may be looking for some sort of bargaining chip in any future interactions with China. One can imagine that a further escalation of the ethnic conflict along the China-Myanmar border prompts the Chinese to send its military into Myanmar. The Burmese could use the release of the Chinese loggers as an incentive for Beijing to withdraw its troops. While Sino-Burmese relations have indeed reached a nadir in 2015, the Burmese would have to have an extremely cynical view of the relationship to make so shrewd a move.

A third view of the trial invokes a discussion of the so-called “Dream of the Golden Land,” one of the popular frameworks of the nation of Myanmar. Like China’s national humiliation discourse or US President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” the “Dream of the Golden Land” is the Burmese nation’s story about itself, according to Yale University’s Josh Gordon. In the narrative, Myanmar is a land endowed with abundant natural resources, highly desired by foreigners. One has only to look at the colonial period for evidence of this. It is then the duty of the majority ethnic Bamar to protect their “Golden Land” from these covetous outsiders and since independence from the British in 1948 this has been done by expelling Chinese and Indian immigrants from the country in the 1960’s, remaining non-aligned through the Cold War and fighting off a host of ethnic insurgencies for almost six decades. The military junta’s attacks against Daw Suu as a tool of the West, the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and the results of this trial could also be interpreted using this narrative. In this view, by sentencing 153 Chinese loggers to life in prison, Myanmar has once again protected itself from the thieving hands of outsiders and is making an example of the offenders to avoid similar incidents in the future.

There are also sovereignty issues at stake in the trial. Kachin state has long been contested by ethnic armed groups, namely the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA has been known to issue permits for resource extraction projects, including logging, in the areas it controls, despite the Myanmar government’s protests. This appears to be the case here.

According to a report from Phoenix News, the workers in question were found with logging permits issued by the KIA. Moreover, the Chinese workers arrested in this case claimed they were unaware that they were breaking the law and believed that their permits were valid.

As parts of Kachin and Shan states have switched hands between rebel groups and central government control over the past decades, Chinese and Thai businessmen have taken advantage by signing shady  logging and mining contracts with insurgent armies and local Myanmar army commanders. In this case, it appears that Myanmar’s long-running civil war may have moved from the battlefield to the court room. By prosecuting Chinese workers for logging with illegal permits issued by the KIA, the Myanmar government is sending a signal that it, not the KIA is the final authority on who gets to extract resources in the country. It is a significant move, especially considering the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Naypidaw and a number of ethnic armed groups.

“Highly concerned with the verdict”

News of the verdicts last Wednesday provoked protests from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that Beijing is “highly concerned” with the sentences and urged the Burmese to consider Chinese concerns and “properly” handle the case, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

On Thursday, Xinhua published a commentary on the matter, condemning the sentences and calling for the loggers to be treated in a “reasonable and sensible way.” The piece noted that China “respects laws and customs of other countries,” but also called the mass sentencing “abnormal,” questioning the impartiality of the verdict.

While the Chinese government has been vocal in its displeasure with the sentencing, it has not yet gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of its citizens. Following the announcement of the verdict, some analysts wondered whether Beijing would involve itself in the legal process, a move which could challenge China’s existing foreign policy principles. Since its founding, non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has been a pillar of the PRC’s foreign policy. Intervening  strongly on the Chinese loggers’ behalf could trigger an evolution in China’s non-interference and would mark an important transition in the country’s foreign policy.

Until now, however, it appears that China will not take such extreme measures to see its citizens freed. Officials from China’s Foreign Ministry were in attendance for the reading of the verdict on Wednesday but there was no evidence of any further involvement.

According to a lawyer familiar with the case, the loggers can file an appeal with the Kachin state judiciary and then to the Supreme Court in Myanmar’s capital, Naypidaw.

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Filed under China, Foreign policy, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Kokang conflict reveals ethnic strife unlikely to end after cease fire

Many things in Myanmar are changing – the economy, the government, infrastructure. Others, like violent ethnic conflict, seem destined to stay the same. For the past three months, the government of Myanmar has been fighting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic rebel army based on the country’s border with China. The MNDAA are predominantly made up of ethnic Kokang fighters. The Kokang are ethnically Han Chinese and the live in Kokang region, in Myanmar’s Shan state.

The MNDAA  initiated the conflict by storming Kokang’s largest city, Laukkai, on 9 February 2015. Over the past four months, the government has aimed to reassert control over the region and its agriculture, as well as disarm the MNDAA. The government of Myanmar extended martial law over Kokang region on 15 May 2015.

A rebel soldier of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) places a machine gun bullet belt around the neck of another soldier at a military base in Kokang region, March 10, 2015. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

The violence in Kokang has accompanied ongoing ceasefire talks between the government and 16 other ethnic armies, who agreed on a ceasefire draft on 31 March 2015. Previous agreements fell through because the language of the agreements weakened ethnic groups’ legal protection and the government had refused the other ethnic armies’ demands that the MNDAA be included in ceasefire talks, which began in 2013. Government forces continued operations in Kokang even after the MNDAA declared its own ceasefire on 11 June 2015, and on 24 June 2015 offered to begin discussing peace only if the MNDAA surrendered and gave up their weapons. This attitude suggests the government of Myanmar prioritizes undermining the MNDAA over negotiating peace. Moreover, history shows that a ceasefire or even a surrender may not end the violence.

CURRENT CONFLICT DISPLACES THOUSANDS

The MNDAA — along with two other ethnic armies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army, all of which are based in Shan state — positioned their forces in towns and outposts throughout Kokang months before they finally launched attacks on 9 February. MNDAA forces began their attack by shelling the targeted cities and outposts. The Myanmar Army (also known as the Tatmadaw) responded by moving its forces into the besieged cities, and used artillery and airstrikes to support their advance, outgunning the rebels. Nevertheless, Tatmadaw officials admitted MNDAA troops were better armed and seemed better organized on the battlefield than previous skirmishes.

More than 100,000 Kokang civilians fled to Yunnan province within the first few weeks of fighting. Tens of thousands of refugees settled in refugee camps along or across the border, but in early March, China began to evict refugees from camps near the border, either relocating them to other camps or forcing them to return to Myanmar.

The combat itself has also spilled over the border into Yunnan province. The Tatmadaw used artillery and airstrikes on MNDAA positions in which, Tatmadaw claimed, heavy forestation made acquiring accurate targets difficult. As a result their air force bombed Chinese territory twice. On 8 March, one bomb went off course and exploded in a field in Lincang, Yunnan, destroying property and causing a forest fire, but not directly killing or injuring anyone.

Medics rush the wounded away from a 2014 ambush. Photo by Silver Yang, used courtesy of VOA News.

On 13 March, the Tatmadaw was not so lucky in avoiding collateral damage, bombing a sugarcane farm and killing four and injuring nine Chinese citizens. Beijing swiftly rebuked Myanmar for the deaths of innocent Chinese citizens, and demanded an investigation into the bombing operation. Myanmar apologized for the incident and promised it would never again allow for Chinese nationals to be killed. Beijing agreed to not intervene in Myanmar’s fighting with the MNDAA, but has stepped up its security along the border between Kokang and Yunnan with ground patrols and fighter jet sorties.

Both the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw warn civilians that the opposing side will abuse any civilians they come across, and the accusations are not unfounded. Neither army, however does much to prevent or punish soldiers who harass, rob, shoot, or rape civilians. There is also a long history of the Tatmadaw committing war crimes, and both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armies are accused of using child soldiers. On 17 February the MNDAA ambushed a Tatmadaw convoy of soldiers, Red Cross personnel, and at least two journalists, wounding two. The MNDAA denied the attack, but has continued to target humanitarian aid operations and even fleeing civilians. The attack mirrored an ambush in 10 December 2014 that resulted in seven dead and 20 wounded, for which MNDAA also denied responsibility.

EARLIER CONFLICT SET THE STAGE

The MNDAA launched its attack in 2015 to regain control of the Kokang region, which the Tatmadaw has occupied since a short but politically significant series of battles in 2009. While the most recent skirmish before 2015 was the ambush in 2014, the 2009 offensive lay more of the foundation for this year’s conflict. Tensions that led to the 2009 conflict began when the Myanmar government urged ethnic armies — which it refers to as “ceasefire groups” when negotiating — to assimilate into the Tatmadaw as border patrol divisions. Most ethnic armies vehemently opposed this because it would have completely undermined ethnic groups’ autonomy. Aside from losing political control of its soldiers, the MNDAA also did not want to allow the Myanmar government to expand its ownership of agricultural land in Kokang.

The 2009 conflict began to escalate on 8 August of that year, when Burmese forces raided a factory in Kokang suspected to be a drug lab and surrounded the residence of Peng Jiasheng, the leader of the MNDAA.

Image from a Kokang resident, courtesy of Radio Free Asia.

Thousands of Kokang residents fled the area as soon as MNDAA seized Laukkai, the capital city of the Kokang region, on 20 August. After the MNDAA advised residents to “prepare” as Tatmadaw forces closed in on the city, more refugees followed, to the point of Laukkai being virtually abandoned. The next few days saw an apparent schism within the MNDAA over whether to support the 2008 Myanmar constitution and assimilate into the Tatmadaw. The splinter group allowed Burmese forces to enter Laukkai unopposed, and then assisted them in fighting from then on.

The schism reveals that limited negotiations, as opposed to ending violence in lasting way, are the priority for some rebels. Each conflict is a way to potentially get better treatment or concessions, and this gambit has a long history. Kokang fighters and their fellow Burmese Communist Party (BCP) rebels — who later became part of MNDAA — were among the first to agree to the last major ceasefire between the Myanmar government and many ethnic armies in 1989. The 1989 ceasefire guaranteed ethnic groups could keep their weapons and land, as well as continue their illegal drug, weapons, and human trafficking operations.

Now, the violence has likely destroyed any progress the 1989 ceasefire created. The MNDAA has attempted to participate in the newest ceasefire negotiations by joining two inter-faction organizations, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), but the Myanmar government refuses to allow the MNDAA to sit at the negotiation table.

Even the recent agreements did not address many controversial issues, and was mostly an overture for future meetings. Moreover, a new national constitution drafted in 2008 caused severe discord between Myanmar and most ethnic groups because of the language concerning the degree of autonomy ethnic minorities will be afforded, and it has yet to be officially accepted by the MNDAA and other groups. If the Myanmar government refuses to allow ethnic armies military autonomy and affords them more freedom over land ownership while extending them development aid, there is a chance negotiations can move forward, but if it demands rebel groups accept the 2008 constitution, nothing will change.

BLOOD IS THICKER THAN BORDERS

The Kokang region has a long history of bridging the cultural gap between China and Myanmar. During the fall of Ming Dynasty, Ming loyalists fled to Yunnan and Kokang, which was almost beyond the reach of the ascendant Qing Dynasty during the 1600s. After the Communists took power in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang forces fled to Kokang to regroup and prepare to reclaim China from the Communists, which never happened. Before the current conflict, many Chinese conducted legal business in Kokang.

The fact that the Kokang are ethnic Han Chinese gives the MNDAA more opportunities to curry favor with Chinese nationals living nearby. Some Kokang refugees are even able to live with their Yunnanese relatives. The MNDAA leader, Peng Jiashaneg,  is attempting to rally support from Beijing or at least nationalist Chinese by exploiting Chinese insecurities about Myanmar opening up to the rest of the international community. Peng claimed Myanmar’s violence against the Kokang and other ethnic groups are actions encouraged by the United States.

Peng may be ineffective at changing the course of official Burmese-Chinese relations, but his rhetoric is enough to maintain sympathy from Chinese citizens who voluntarily smuggle in money or supplies, and to attract mercenaries with promises of earning about 30,000 RMB a month, which is roughly five times the income of the average farmer in Yunnan and other nearby provinces. MNDAA denies the use of hiring Chinese nationals as mercenaries, but there is evidence of the practice. Myanmar also accuses the Yunnan government of assisting MNDAA forces with funds and supplies, but Beijing denies providing any official military support to the MNDAA. That doesn’t mean that all officials follow Beijing’s orders. One Chinese official named Huang Xing, former senior strategist for the People’s Liberation Army, faces charges of leaking state secrets and diverting funds to MNDAA in Myanmar since 2009.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the outpouring of moral and financial support from individual Chinese citizens, Beijing does not consider the continued fighting to be a strategic benefit to China, nor the plight of the Kokang people to be worth expending resources on. On the contrary, instability in Myanmar presents an economic, and now human, cost to China and complicates Burmese-Chinese relations. Myanmar is meant to be a trade partner and a link between other countries along China’s proposed Silk Roads. Because China prefers to do business with governments, the ethnic groups cannot offer China anything that the Myanmar government isn’t already providing. But as much as China blames the rebels, not the government, for causing the strife, China is getting more frustrated with Myanmar’s apparent inability or unwillingness to end its conflicts and reach harmonious political resolutions.

Both the current conflict and the 2009 conflict took place mere months before general elections. The Myanmar government and the MNDAA both have reasons to fight so soon before the elections. If the Tatmadaw successfully quells the ongoing rebellion, it will reflect positively on the government in its path toward establishing a unified Myanmar that is under the control of one effective military. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party won the 2010 election, which most of the international community considered fraudulent, but the Myanmar government still considers maintaining an image of strength to be a top priority. If the MNDAA at least continues to put up a fight during and after the elections, it will earn more political sway and bargaining power in regards to ensuring that the implementation of ceasefires provide equitable rights to ethnic minorities. It is possible the MNDAA would sue for peace some time around voting day in hopes of getting MNDAA members into government positions and achieving representation for Kokang at the ceasefire negotiations. The MNDAA and most other ethnic armies, including the 16 groups included in the recent ceasefire agreement, all want Myanmar to be a politically unified state but want to exercise autonomy.

KING OF THE HILLS

Beyond political capital and bargaining chips, all factions desire the tangible source of power in Myanmar: land. Control of land and the production of opium, rubber, bananas, and timber is central to the power dynamic between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups. Kokang was declared opium-free after a ban was enacted in 2003, but the region continues to produce large amounts of opium because it is more lucrative and easier to transport than most other crops. Ethnic armies make most of their money from opium and methamphetamine production, prostitution and human trafficking, gun smuggling, illegal logging, gambling, and extorting locals.

Volunteers destroy a poppy field near Loi Chyaram, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

After the Tatmadaw took control of Kokang, many military elites took ownership of vast plots of land and converted most of the fields to mass production of rubber. Myanmar supplies China with rubber, which is in high demand in China, as well as timber, which is in such great demand that an epidemic of illegal logging is spreading throughout Southeast Asian countries. The rubber Myanmar produces is of lower quality and efficiency than other rubber-producing countries, however, because their cultivation practices are less advanced. Moreover, the price of rubber crashed around the world because of the overproduction that followed so many countries prioritizing rubber cultivation

Myanmar’s rubber industry reveals how smoothly the revolving door swings for Tatmadaw officials who become government policy-makers or private land barons. In 2009, upon the Burmese army securing Kokang, the government confiscated many peasants’ land and gave insufficient compensation or none at all. This was a reversal of MNDAA’s gains in the 1989 ceasefire. Land was either given to companies to develop infrastructure or grow rubber, or owned by individual military elites. Myanmar is able to confiscate so much land because most peasants do not have formal titles to their land. The only documentation they might have are land tax receipts; but the slash-and-burn agriculture that most ethnic minority people in the hill regions practice is not considered a legitimate use of land, and so their receipts are not accepted by the Myanmar government when officials move in.

The glut of rubber production doesn’t seem to be dissipating in the near future; therefore, if Myanmar continues to dump a large portion of its money into mass-production of poor quality rubber, the country’s economy will suffer. However, one should not consider the MNDAA to be nobler stewards of the land. They continue to prioritize lucrative yet illegal business, particularly producing and trafficking opium and methamphetamine, which contributes to the region’s drug abuse epidemic and puts farmers at risk of losing everything if Tatmadaw troops come through and destroy or confiscate their illicit agriculture.

PREDICTIONS

It is unlikely that the MNDAA will be able to wrest full control of Kokang away from the Burmese government purely through military force, but it could use political means to secure its autonomy. If the MNDAA continues to fend off Tatmadaw troops until it can win more political sympathy near election time, it stands a chance of cementing its interests in the discourse of Myanmar and the international community. Pressure from China will most likely make Myanmar nervous about further escalating the conflict, although they have been slow to retreat from the border with Yunnan. If another bomb accidentally kills Chinese citizens or if violence reaches refugee camps, China would increase its border security even more and strengthen its rhetoric against Myanmar, but it would not intervene on behalf of MNDAA. Beijing’s cares more for increasing cross-border trade and thus China’s  interest in the conflict is only in its swift resolution . Individual Chinese citizens, especially in Yunnan, will continue to watch the conflict carefully. While Chinese citizens have no input in Beijing’s actions or priorities, Myanmar has an interest in not allowing the refugee crisis to worsen, lest it anger the Yunnanese provincial government and citizenry.

As the elections approach, Suu Kyi’s democratic rhetoric may help apply pressure to the Thein Sein administration to negotiate with rebels. While Suu Kyi herself does not champion all ethnic minority movements in Myanmar — she has been surprisingly tight-lipped about the Rohingya crisis for some time — having anyone challenge the ruling party could give MNDAA a better chance in gaining from the election process.

Any resolution to the conflict will involve the Myanmar government accepting ethnic groups’ demands to revise the 2008 constitution, but negotiations will most likely not affect the economic regime of Myanmar’s periphery. Moreover, the previous several decades have been a roller coaster of conflict and ceasefire in which the Burmese army seizes ethnic minority communities’ land and then returns it after bloody fighting and meager compromises. Such cyclical violence makes every ceasefire less valuable in contributing to substantial social and economic growth. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the MNDAA will accept the government’s offer to surrender as the only way to negotiating peace, as this would gravely reduce people’s ability to resist the Tatmadaw’s bullying in Kokang. The only solution to long-term problems like drug production and illegal logging is to include ethnic minorities in the post-conflict economic development of the country. If the international community wants to participate in Myanmar’s societal recovery, it should demand more equitable agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic minorities and more humane treatment of civilians, or else the cycle of unequal ceasefires, violence, and land confiscation will continue to disastrous effect.

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Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam

In China’s hinterlands, a new life for Myanmar’s Rohingya

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

On February 12, 2015 Myanmar President Thein Sein, prompted by protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon, reversed a decision made ten days earlier to give voting rights to the country’s Rohingya population. The reversal, while surprising to some, was only the latest in a series of events to befall the Muslim minority who call western Myanmar’s Rakhine state home.

The Rohingya of Myanmar (also known as Burma) have lost more than voting rights in the past. Regarded as one of the world’s most oppressed peoples, the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group that speak a dialect of Bengali and are thought to be descended from Arab and Persian traders.

Persecuted at Home

Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for most of the latter half of the 20th century and the current, nominally civilian government, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered chronic poverty, food insecurity, harassment and forced labor, among other human rights abuses. Following Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were denied citizenship and are still referred to as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by government officials. They are neither allowed to travel outside their hometown nor marry without official approval.

Poor relations between the Muslim Rohingya and their neighbors have only made things worse. Tensions between Rakhine state’s Muslim population and the majority Rakhine ethnicity, who are Buddhist, boiled over in 2012, leading to anti-Muslim riots that spread throughout the country. In Rakhine state alone, over 200 people were killed and whole villages were burned to the ground. Conditions have not improved for Myanmar’s Rohingya population since then. The current boat crisis of thousands of Bengali and Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is a consequence of awful conditions at home.

The Rohingya, however are certainly not the only group struggling in Myanmar. Despite what appears to be a nascent democracy, a civil war between the government and an array of armed ethnic groups along the country’s periphery has flickered continuously since the 1950s. The reasons for the conflicts are many, though issues of ethnic autonomy and control of precious resources like jade and timber loom large.

The conflict’s latest iteration began in February 2015 and is still ongoing. A flare up of tensions between the Myanmar Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, Shan State, has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into China.

Many Rohingya have also left Burma in the past decades. Tens of thousands of them reside in ill-equipped refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, though others have escaped to new lives abroad. Their final destinations vary, but the majority resides in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Of these Rohingya living overseas, who may number over one million, most work low-wage jobs in the construction and service industries. There are some, however, that have chosen a different path in a land closer to home.

Abdullah's storefront in Jinghong

Abdullah’s storefront in Jinghong

Eight hundred kilometers east of Rakhine state in Jinghong, China, Abedullah owns a small jewelry shop. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon he hasn’t sold a thing.

Abedullah, like almost one million of his compatriots in Rakhine state, is a Rohingya, but he has not lived there in thirteen years. Instead, he’s settled in Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, along with almost 600 other Rohingya. All of them sell jade.

According to Abedullah, who only agreed to give his first name, Rohingya merchants first came to Jinghong almost forty years ago. Following the end of the bloody Bangladesh Independence War in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring Burma. Marginalized by the Burmese and eventually disavowed by the Bangladeshi government, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled overseas. A handful made it to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

Stories of Jinghong’s first Rohingya are hard to find and by all accounts, the number of émigrés remained small until the 1990s. It was then that the Chinese economy began to truly open up to the international market. As trade increased and more Chinese became wealthy, the country’s jewelry consumption level grew as well, skyrocketing over 4000% in a decade.

While all gemstones have grown in popularity in recent decades, none hold the place in Chinese culture that jade does. Regarded as a stone of mystical qualities since antiquity, jade is the king of gemstones in China and it is in Myanmar that the world’s highest quality jade is found.

As a result, jade shops are ubiquitous in dozens of towns along the China-Myanmar border. Jinghong is one of the largest. Straddling the Mekong River, this once sleepy town has grown into a city of six hundred-thousand and now hosts millions of tourists each year. Many of these tourists come looking to buy Burmese jade. As travelers have flocked to Jinghong in greater numbers in recent years, Rohingya merchants with connections to the Burmese jade trade have followed to keep up with demand.

A New Life

One of the recent arrivals is Xiao Fei, a 21 year-old who prefers his new Chinese nickname to his given name. Xiao Fei, like many other Rohingya in Jinghong, came at the behest of his family; his grandfather first arrived in the city almost thirty years ago. After saving enough money for a passport, Xiao Fei was able to leave his home in Yangon and help his grandfather set up the family’s second shop.

Xiao Fei had to save up for his passport because getting such a document is often impossible for many Rohingya in Myanmar. Since they are officially considered to be foreigners by the Burmese government, Rohingya can only obtain passports after paying expensive bribes to the right people. That is why, as Xiao Fei explains, “Only rich Rohingya can make it to China.”

Once in Jinghong, new arrivals find an environment altogether strange and inviting. The forest of newly-built apartment complexes and hotels certainly dwarfs anything found in Rakhine state, however the hundreds of established Rohingya businessmen form a tight community that provides everything from religious services to a lunchtime delivery service of halal Burmese cuisine.

It is the mosque that is the heart of the community, says Waynai, a trader living in Jinghong for six years. The Jinghong Mosque, located not far from the banks of the Mekong was first established decades ago by the city’s existing community of Hui, a distinct ethnic group of more than ten million people that practice Islam and speak Mandarin Chinese.

When the Rohingya began to move to Jinghong in greater numbers in the late 1990s, they became a part of the congregation, eventually joined by a small population of Uighurs from China’s northwest. Together, these three groups of Muslims manage the congregation. Despite disparate geographic and cultural backgrounds, the mosque is thriving with a healthy number of members, daily prayers held in Arabic and discussion groups where participants speak in Standard Mandarin.

The Jinghong Mosque

The Jinghong Mosque

However both Waynai and Abedullah agree more with the mosque’s Uighur members on theological questions. When asked whether or not he had any non-Rohingya friends from the congregation, Abedullah answers, “Yes, but not the Hui. They’re fake … they don’t have Allah in their hearts.” Instead, it is the Uighur community that he feels closer too. “[The Rohingya] are similar to the Uighurs because neither of us are free … we both have to struggle to survive.”

This struggle is why Ba Hlaing, a 31 year-old jade dealer, came to Jinghong eight years ago. At the time, his family lived comfortably in a suburb of Yangon but as he came of age, conditions for young Rohingya grew more difficult. “I would’ve liked to stay with my family, but there wasn’t anything to do, no money to make.”

“It’s because of [the government] that we’re so backwards now,” he says in a whirlwind of English, Mandarin and Jinghong dialect, slapping the table after each word.

Just then a Han Chinese couple enters Ba Hlaing’s shop. He greets them using his best Mandarin, standing, “Welcome to Ba Hlaing’s Jewelry! We have the finest jade from Myanmar! Would you like to look at a bracelet?”

After five minutes of browsing, the wife still has not decided on a piece and the husband, fidgeting, suggests heading back to their hotel. The couple leaves and Ba Hlaing sits down to light a cigarette. “That’s how it goes,” he sighs. Just like Abedullah, business is slow for Ba Hlaing, even during tourism’s high season.

Ba Hlaing believes the drop in jade sales is a consequence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on corruption. Once-popular ostentatious displays of wealth, like jade pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars are now frowned upon and officials that might frequent jade shops like Ba Hlaing’s are staying away.

Burmese jadeite

Burmese jadeite. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The jade, however, keeps flowing from Myanmar. Most of it is mined in a strip of remote jungle in Kachin State, in the country’s northeast.  Conditions in Myanmar’s jade mines are notoriously dangerous and the towns that spring up around them are known as much for their drugs and guns as they are for their jade. However bad mining conditions are though, the money can be worth it for those who can make it. Official figures from Myanmar’s government put jade exports at $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2014. Analysts from Harvard University’s Ash Center disagree, estimating jade sales – both official and off the books – at $8 billion for 2011 alone.

Once the raw jade has been extracted, it is sent to processing centers. The majority are located within Myanmar, in urban centers like Mandalay and Yangon, where the jade is polished and crafted into a final product. The next step is to get it into China, where the market is.

Most traders interviewed for this article admitted that the majority of the jade they sold was actually smuggled into Yunnan. A few well-placed bribes on both sides of the border can get shipments of jade, transported in trucks, into China reliably. Once the jade is in Yunnan, it usually makes its way to Ruili, a major border crossing between China and Myanmar.

According to Ba Hlaing, many Rohingya traders in Jinghong have a contact in Ruili, usually family, that buys the jade. Others, however, are directly connected to processing centers, most often in Yangon. For more valuable pieces, with sale prices upwards of $50,000, many traders will use air transport to ensure their safe arrival. While import taxes must be paid in these cases, the extra cost is often worth the peace of mind.

 A Tough Decision

Peace of mind, however, is getting harder to come by. With a slowdown in business and mounting issues back in Myanmar, many members of Jinghong’s Rohingya community are facing a tough decision whether or not to return home.

Ba Hlaing, for one, is planning on going back to Myanmar. Sales have decreased for the past two years and he fears that a protracted crackdown on corruption in China will keep jade sales low and prevent his shop in Jinghong from making a profit.

Despite the dire situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ba Hlaing is choosing to remain positive. “I think things will get better for us,” he says guardedly. “We have [this year’s parliamentary] election and the world paying attention to us so democracy is a good thing.”

Abedullah, on the other hand, does not share Ba Hlaing’s optimism. He does not want to return to Myanmar and sees little hope for democracy delivering the Rohingya from oppression.

“Things are a mess in Myanmar right now, everything is a mess,” he says. “The economy is bad and the government and [the armed ethnic groups] are still fighting.”

When asked his thoughts on the country’s armed conflicts, Abedullah pauses before exhaling heavily. “You know, we want to go to war too. At least [the armed ethnic groups] have guns. We don’t have anything,” he laments. “The government even took the knives from our houses … But then they still call us terrorists.”

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Trade, Yunnan Province

Yunnan’s governor looks to smooth relations with Myanmar

IMG_20130721_102713

One of the top government officials in Yunnan is spending time this week in Naypyidaw, capital of neighboring Myanmar. Provincial governor Chen Hao (陈豪) began a three-day diplomatic trip May 6 by meeting with Burmese president Thein Sein to discuss a litany concerns on both sides, as well as ways to promote the increase of legitimate bilateral trade.

At the center of the talks is stability along Myanmar’s 2,000-kilometer shared border with Yunnan. The most high-profile concern is a three-month war raging between the Burmese military and ethnically Chinese Kokang guerrillas in Myanmar’s Shan State. What started as an internal Burmese issue in February quickly changed into a cross-border crisis when tens of thousands of refugees sought safety in Lincang Prefecture in Yunnan.

Already angered by the humanitarian situation, Beijing was positively incensed when Burmese warplanes bombed rural Yunnan villages not once but twice. Although the initial bombing caused only minor property damage, the latter claimed the lives of four Chinese farmers, leading Beijing to angrily summon the Burmese ambassador to China for a tongue lashing.

Chen’s trip is no doubt a delicate attempt to repair strained relations between Myanmar and China. Civil war, refugees and errant explosives are enough to make any relationship tenuous, but Chinese leadership is also concerned with the huge shipments of heroin, opium and methamphetamines that routinely leak across the porous Yunnan border.

And the concerns are not one-sided. Thein Sein’s government charges that illegal trade out of his country — especially in jade, gold, endangered species and old-growth timber — is promoted and financed by unscrupulous Chinese businessmen operating illegally in Myanmar. However, the touchiest issue may be that of human trafficking in women.

Already this year, Chinese authorities have made several notable stings, arresting dozens of people involved in buying, transporting and selling Burmese women to perspective Chinese husbands. The largest of these occurred in March, when police made 35 arrests and repatriated 177 women and girls to Myanmar after raiding a Yunnan company advertising “Myanmar women [who] cost you only 20,000 yuan”.

Chen has only officially been in power since January, and his province’s western border snakes along endless mountain ranges, beside lush river valleys and through dense jungle that are nearly impossible to properly patrol. The one possible bright spot, and something he will undoubtedly bring up repeatedly during his Naypyidaw visit, is bilateral trade and the third annual China-South Asia Expo opening June 12 in Kunming. But what can be accomplished regarding the lawless and sometimes dangerous border between Myanmar and Yunnan remains a giant question mark.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on GoKunming. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with permission from the author.

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China summons Burmese ambassador after bomb kills four in Yunnan

China has summoned Myanmar’s Ambassador to China following a Burmese air raid that led to the deaths of four Chinese citizens.

The Burmese military is currently engaged in an armed conflict with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), centered on the Kokang region. Kokang lies on the border of Burma’s Shan State and China’s Yunnan Province.

According to a report from state-run Xinhua News Agency, four villagers from Yunnan’s Gengma County were killed Friday afternoon while working in their sugarcane fields. Nine others were injured.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin expressed strict condemnation of the incident in a statement. Late Friday night, Liu urged Burmese Ambassador to China Thit Linn Ohn to fully investigate the incident and report the investigation’s outcomes to Beijing.

In addition, the Vice Minister asked for severe punishment for those involved and for the Burmese to take steps to ensure security in its border regions.

The incident on Friday was the second of its kind in just a week. On March 8, an errant shell fired from Burmese territory landed on a house in Gengma County. No one was injured.

While the Chinese press has pointed its finger squarely at the Myanmar Air Force, the question of blame is not so clear cut on the Burmese side.

An official with the office of the Myanmar president claimed that Burmese forces had informed the Chinese side of their air operations, which were carried out “strictly adhering to the information we told them”.

“The targets of all our aerial attacks were inside our territory,” the official, Zaw Htay, told Reuters in an interview.

“It’s possible that those fighting with us purposely created these attacks with the intent of causing misunderstanding between China and us … We plan to explain it to Chinese diplomats after summoning them.”

The 2015 Kokang Conflict began last month when MNDAA forces launched an offensive against the Burmese military. They attacked in an effort to retake territory lost in 2009 during a similar conflict with government forces. Like the 2009 conflict, this latest flare up has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee across the border into Yunnan.

Before hostilities broke out in 2009, Kokang, a region largely populated by ethnic Han Chinese, had enjoyed a twenty year ceasefire.

MYANMAR-POLITICS-MINORITIES-UNREST

MNDAA soldiers in Kokang region. AFP image, February 13, 2015

Myanmar has repeatedly accused the Chinese government of  aiding the MNDAA with troops and materiel. Beijing has categorically denied such claims.

The MNDAA was formed in 1989 after the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma, an armed group which Beijing supported for decades.

This latest iteration of the Kokang conflict has done much to strain relations between China and Myanmar.  Despite historically close ties between the two governments, Naypidaw’s efforts to defeat simmering rebellions in its border regions have had consequences for bilateral ties. The 2009 Kokang conflict and the refugee crisis it created drew condemnation from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, Burmese shells landed in Chinese territory during 2012 and 2013 as a result of Myanmar’s ongoing conflict with the Kachin Indepence Army.

Long Myanmar’s only ally in the region, China has had to compete with other countries for Myanmar’s favor following its implementation of reforms starting in 2011. However, whereas many have claimed Myanmar was distancing itself from China, the opposite may be true following this latest iteration of the Kokang conflict.

Additionally, these threats to China’s border security could test its commitment to non-interference, a key part of its foreign policy. Will another incident provoke China to deploy troops to the region? Will China seek to mediate a ceasefire agreement in Kokang? Does this all mark a significant turn in Sino-Burmese relations? China’s response in the coming days and weeks will help to answer these questions and more.

Update 7:07pm, March 14: According to new reports from China Central Television, China Eastern Airlines has decided to cancel six flights to three cities in Myanmar: Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Naypidaw. In addition , it is now reported that China has deployed fighter jets to the border region opposite Kokang.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Foreign policy, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Myanmar accidentally bombs China, worsening tense relations

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

Fighting between ethnically Chinese Kokang rebels and the Burmese military spilled over the border into Yunnan on March 8. China Central Television reports a plane from Myanmar’s air force mistakenly dropped bombs on a Chinese village in Gengma County (耿马县), near the prefectural capital of Lincang.

The house of a civilian surnamed Luo was destroyed by one of the bombs, but no casualties or injuries were sustained. Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, confirmed the accident during a March 10 press conference, saying, “The Chinese side has expressed grave concerns to the Myanmar side, asking them to get to the bottom of this incident as soon as possible and take effective measures to ensure that such [an] incident will never happen again.”

Indeed, a similar mishap happened two years ago, when three errant mortars fired by Burmese troops exploded in a different Yunnanese village. On that occasion, Burmese troops were fighting against the Kachin Independence Army, which is in Myanmar’s Kachin State.

On Sunday, the Burmese military’s intended target was Kokang guerrillas fighting for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). A slow-burning civil war between the Kokang and Myanmar’s government has been ongoing for decades, and although a ceasefire was agreed to in 1989, hostilities resumed again in 2009.

The most recent flare-up in violence began last year when rebels ambushed and killed seven Burmese soldiers at an outpost along the Chinese border. The conflict has escalated further over the past month, causing at least 10,000 Burmese civilians to flee across the border into Yunnan to escape ongoing airstrikes.

The refugee situation, combined with the accidental bombardment of Chinese territory, has strained already difficult Sino-Burmese relations. Spokesman Hong voiced concern at his press conference, saying:

Conflicts in the Kokang region in northern Myanmar have been raging on for more than a month, disturbing the stability and normal order of China-Myanmar border areas. China once again urges relevant parties to exercise restraint, calm things down on the ground at an early date, and restore peace and stability in northern Myanmar.

Despite Mr Hong’s rather moderate tone, an accident such as this could seriously challenge China’s stance of non-interference — a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. As journalists writing in The Diplomat recently pointed out, “It may be China’s state policy not to get involved, but that doesn’t mean individual actors from China are following suit”.

Making things more confused, China has been accused by members of the Burmese military of supplying Kokang rebels with weapons and other supplies. The allegations, which were categorically rejected by Beijing, are based in part on historical assumptions. In the past, before the 1989 ceasefire was signed, Chinese officials openly supported the pro-communist MNDAA, who are ethnically Han Chinese and speak Mandarin.

In addition to the official denials emanating from China’s capital, Kokang rebels have also disavowed receiving any military support. Nonetheless, Chinese authorities recently launched an investigation into the actions of Huang Xing, a former senior strategist from the People’s Liberation Army. He stands accused of corruption and leaking state secrets to Burmese rebels as long ago as 2009.

This article was written by Chiara Ferraris and originally published on GoKunming. It is reprinted here, with permission, in its entirety. 

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Myanmar fighting escalates, tens of thousands flee into China

mynamar fighting

As fighting in Myanmar grew more intense near the Sino-Burmese border during Spring Festival, media reports became increasingly confused and alarming. Clashes between rebels and government forces in Shan State reportedly claimed the combined lives of more than 100 combatants on both sides. The ramp-up in hostilities has also forced tens of thousands of Burmese civilians to flee their rural villages for refuge in China.

Fighting that first broke out on February 9, and included air and artillery strikes by the Burmese army in Kokang, have led to protracted bouts of guerrilla warfare. Estimates place the number of dead in the violence between 70 and 130, and media reports are unclear how many of these are soldiers or civilians.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo, wasquoted in the Hindustan Times as saying “the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents”. Red Cross officials have also said humanitarian workers in the region have been attacked twice in the past week. The Burmese military has declared three months of martial law in Kokang, although how well such a policy can be enforced remains unclear.

Skirmishes have been most intense near the Burmese town of Laukkai, or Laogai. The village, now described as a “ghost town”, is located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. The refugees sought shelter in Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture and were first thought to number a few thousand. However, Red Cross workers in Myanmar now claim at least 30,000 people have made the crossing, raising fears both inside and outside China of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The embattled Kokang region is a semi-autonomous part of northeastern Myanmar. Although the national government in Naypyidaw asserts titular control of the area, 90 percent of the local population claim Chinese descent and identify ethnically as Han Chinese. The rebel army now fighting Burmese troops is called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and is headed by former members of the country’s defunct Communist Party.

No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence in Kokang, although it seems likely connected to December ambushes by guerrillas that killed at least seven Burmese soldiers and injured 20 others. As the conflict continues, both sides have presented their own narratives. Burmese military spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse the rebels of employing Chinese mercenaries in an attempt at complete self rule — a charge the guerrillas and Beijing have vociferously denied.

Also at stake for both the Kokang and Burmese authorities are lucrative, if unofficial, trade routes in the area. China’s border with Myanmar is extremely porous, and around Kokang is notorious for booming illicit trafficking of illegally logged timber, rare animals, jade and narcotics.

This article by  was first posted on the GoKunming on 

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Report: Thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing into China

Renewed fighting between the Burmese military and a guerrilla army in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State erupted once again this week. The violence has caused civilian refugees — by some estimates more than 10,000 people — to flee across the border into rural areas in China’s Yunnan province.

Hostilities broke out on Monday in Kokang, a self-administered zone with a population estimated at 150,000. An article posted on Burmese news website The Irrawaddy reports fighting was most intense near the town of Laukkai, located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. Refugees were headed to the opposite side of the river to the village Nansan (南傘) in Lincang Prefecture.

The location of Myanmar’s Kokang region shown in green. Shan State in Yellow (Wikipedia)

The Burmese military attacked areas held by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the armed wing of the Kokang ethnic group — 90 percent of whom are of Han Chinese ancestry. Bombing has been concentrated nearby Laukkai using Russian-made jet fighters and helicopters during the day and artillery during the night, according to MNDAA general secretary Htun Myat Lin.

He also claimed the number of refugees fleeing into China was approaching 10,000 as of Tuesday, most of them Burmese villagers, with a small minority made up of Chinese merchants. Chinese media have so far not estimated the number of displaced but Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying was quoted by CCTV as saying:

China is concerned about the Myanmar situation. During the past two days, some Myanmar border residents, because of safety considerations, have entered China. They have been looked after. China will continue to pay close attention to how the situation develops, and maintain the peace and stability of the China-Myanmar border. We also believe that the Myanmar side should also work hard for this.

State-backed Burmese news outlets have yet to release reports regarding casualties from the fighting. No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence, although it seems likely the actions by the Burmese military are connected to December ambushes by Kokang guerrillas that killed at least seven soldiers and injured 20 others.

The current situation along the border closely mirrors a monthlong period in 2009 when an estimated 30,000 Burmese civilians from Kokang crossed into Yunnan in the wake of fighting. China dealt quietly with those displaced by fighting six years ago, instituting a near media blackout of its humanitarian actions.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on GoKunming on February 12, 2015 .

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Filed under China, Current Events, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Oil pipeline connects Kunming to Andaman Sea

pipline map

Map of Sino-Burmese oil and natural gas pipeline. (Image via Stratfor)

 

A 771-kilometer long oil pipeline linking refineries in Kunming to oil fields off the western coast of Myanmar began shipments over the weekend. Built over six years, at a cost of 9.37 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion), the project was marred by controversy in China and, at times, violence and threatened cancellation in Myanmar.

An opening ceremony held in the Burmese city of Yangon on January 29 marked activation of the above-ground crude pipeline. It travels from the Andaman port of Kyaukpyu, through the Chinese border town of Ruili and on to Anning just west of Kunming. The inauguration was attended by Liao Yongyuan, general manager of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), and U Nyan Tun, vice president of Myanmar, according to a report by website The Nation.

The pipeline is jointly owned by Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and CNPC, with the latter controlling a majority stake of 50.9 percent after having financed most of the construction process. When operating at full capacity, the pipeline is designed to transport 22 million tons of crude oil into China each year, a total nearly double that reported when work on the energy conduit first broke ground in 2009.

Named after seabed fossil fuel deposits off the Myanmar coast, the Shwe pipeline runs parallel with a similar natural gas conduit that went online in 2013. First proposed in 2004, the twin pipelines were conceived in China as a way to bypass oceangoing tanker shipments of crude oil and natural gas from not only Myanmar, but also the Middle East and Africa.

Now that both pipelines are open for business, Southwest China will receive fossil fuels from countries to its west much more directly. Sea-bound shipments not only take significantly longer than those through the pipeline, but must also pass through the nominally United States-controlled Strait of Malacca — one of the busiest ocean shipping lanes in the world.

As with many Sino-Burmese infrastructure projects, the twin Shwe pipelines were not guaranteed to ever be finished. Construction was nearly halted in 2012 when Burmese parliamentarians threatened to mothball the project over environmental concerns, reported labor strife and claims of forced village relocations. On the Chinese side, well-publicized Kunming rallies against a refinery-related petrochemical factory also brought the future of the pipeline into question, at least momentarily.

This article was written by  and originally published in GoKunming.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Energy, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Yunnan Province