Tag Archives: Sino-Burmese relations

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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Yunnan’s governor looks to smooth relations with Myanmar

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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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Mr. Thein Sein Goes to Washington… Mr. Abe Goes to Naypidaw

This past week saw big foreign policy news from Myanmar (Burma). Just days after meeting with US President Obama in Washington, Burmese President Thein Sein returned to Naypidaw to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both visits saw improvements in Burma’s respective relations with the two countries, but which of the two relationships remain closer? From whom did Burma gain the most, and vice versa? The clear answer is Japan.

President Thein Sein visited Washington at the beginning of last week, becoming the first Burmese leader to visit the US since Ne Win in 1966. The visit was a largely symbolic one, lacking many of the tangible economic benefits that are usually associated with these sort of state visits. Aside from agreements to strengthen bilateral trade relations with two US agencies, most of Myanmar’s benefits can be found in the language of US officials. Before the President arrived, US Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to the country as Myanmar, not Burma. Myanmar is the name used by the military junta since 1989, while Burma is an appellation preferred by opponents of the regime. President Obama also referred to the country as ‘Myanmar’ and while it does not mark an official policy change, it does reflect a change in attitude.

During his meeting with President Thein Sein, Obama raised the perennial issue of human rights, but at the same time expressed strong support for the leader. Also of note, US Senator Mitch McConnell, a long-time champion of sanctions against Myanmar, said he was no longer in support of continued sanctions against the country, paving the way for smoother relations in the future. The Burmese president’s visit to the US came without multi-million dollar contracts and major US investment in the country will have to wait, but Thein Sein’s visit did represent a further thawing of the relationship, and offers hope for the future.

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Myitsone: A road block for Sino-Burmese relations?

A year and half ago this past March, one of the more the surprising events in recent Sino-Burmese relations took place. With a short letter delivered to the Burmese legislature, President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone Dam until 2015, the end of his term. The dam, a $3.6 billion project that would sit at the confluence of the Irrawaddy’s two main tributaries, was the centerpiece of a series of seven dams on the upper reaches of the river. The project was the result of a joint venture between the Burmese government and China Power Investment (CPI) beginning in 2006 and appeared to be of great importance to both sides. However, a nationwide protest campaign against the construction of the dam supported by Aung San Suu Kyi ultimately won out.

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The Kachin Conflict and China: No More Non-Interference?

While peace hasn’t been an easy thing to come by in Kachin State these past few years, peace talks actually have. Since tensions between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military erupted again in 2011, the two sides have held multiple rounds of informal talks, often to no avail. Last month’s talks, while not bringing an end to the conflict, were still important for another reason – they weren’t held in Myanmar, but instead in the border town of Ruili, China. This was the first time such talks have been hosted by China and raises questions about what significance they could have for the future of Chinese diplomacy.

As is already well known by now, China claims non-interference in other states’ domestic affairs as a guiding principle of its foreign policy. With this recent round of talks between the KIA and the Burmese government, however, we seem to see something different. Is China willingly taking up the mantle of responsibility associated with being a “global power” or is there a different motivation behind hosting these talks?

From my perspective, the latest round of negotiations has much more to do with China’s national security than any grand policy shift. China hosted these talks, which some might see as an involvement in Burmese domestic affairs, because they have a significant interest in seeing the Kachin conflict come to an end. China’s interests are intertwined in two ways. Continue reading

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