Undercurrents issue on rubber boom in northeast Burma

The current issue of Undercurrents, the bulletin of the Lahu National Development Organisation, deals with changes in the economy of northeastern Burma, largely as a result of contacts with Yunnan.

The issue can be downloaded here. The editors write that Chinese agents have been handing out traps, poison, and skinning tools in Lahu and Akha villages in Shan State while contracting trappers to look for various wild animals. “These days in every village either the headman of an agent of a Chinese boss keeps a certain amount of cash” to buy animals and forest products, as well as gemstones from villagers (p. 4). This is reminiscent of the networks of Chinese tax farms in remote villages in the colonial era, when they served as both collectors of primary products, providers of consumer goods and of cash loans (as well as collectors of taxes and suppliers of opium). Souchou Yao writes about this in his ethnography of Chinese shopkeepers in North Borneo, but the situation was similar in the Russian Far East at the turn of the 20th century. Incidentally, today, similar accusations of poaching of endangered species, ginseng, trepang etc. are again being made against Chinese in the Russian Far East.

According to a report by the Yunnan Hongyu Group to the Yunnan Province Narcotics Control Commission, the group plans to plant 100,000 ha of rubber in Shan State (notably in the ethnic Chinese-run Special Region No. 2) in 2004-2014 under the Chinese government’s opium eradication provisions (p. 9). Much as in Laos, these large plantations coexist with smaller ones owned by various army and militia commanders, as well as with villagers planting rubber trees under contract to Chinese entrepreneurs, who provide seedlings and some cash (3 Thai baht per tree planted). As in Laos, Akha villagers in particular see rubber as a lucrative crops because they associate it with the higher incomes of Akha in China.

What is different from Laos is that both the Burmese army and the various former rebel armies have used a mixture of paid and corvee labour to clear the forest for their own as well as Hongyu’s plantations, according to the report. Also, because of the lack of a civilian administration, land confiscation is far more arbitrary. The United Wa State Army, which controls the essentially ethnic Chinese-run Special Region No. 4 in Mong La, has promoted rubber as an opium substitution crop and has benefited from Chinese policies supporting this. The commander of the region, Lin Ming Xian (like his colleague in the No. 2 region, a former drug lord), ordered his officials to grow rubber but was later disappointed with the production. Some Wa commanders have forbidden villagers to cut forest for rice fields but allow it for rubber plantations. The report points to the dangers of rubber monoculture for food security, especially in the short term, before the rubber trees mature.

Finally, the report mentions the opening of new mines, usually as cooperative ventures between local armies, Chinese, Thai and/or Japanese investors, and individuals linked to the ruling elites (such as family members of the Burmese junta and of the former Shan drug lord, Khun Sa). Some of these mines employ some Chinese workers. There are also freelance Chinese miners, poor farmers who cross the border to prospect for ore on their own.

One effect of Chinese involvement, then, appears to be the strengthening of local military elites who can now command more resources, and the relative further marginalisation of powerless highland groups, a situation similar to Laos and Cambodia. Yet, clearly, individual Akha and Lahu do benefit, or hope to benefit in the future. China has become a more attractive market not just for endangered wildlife but also for other things, such as water buffaloes, which fetch higher prices there.

The Lahu National Development Organisations seems to have a partnership with the Burma Rivers Network. I don’t know what kind of organisation it is, but it writes in the language and with the imagery of professional Western environmental activists. On the other hand, there are Wa and Shan groups that write in Chinese, in a language very close to that of the Chinese state. I suppose that in Burma’s border areas, there are all sorts of client groups/client polities, or simply groups that espouse varying development agendas. Perhaps it is lowland groups, which stand to benefit more from the export of Chinese development, that embrace Chinese models, while highland groups remain under the protection of Western NGO patrons. If so, this would create interesting political tensions over time (not unlike those that played out in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War).

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