International Crisis Group’s new report on China-Burma relations

Following the conquest of Kokang by Burmese government troops and the reported flight of tens of thousands of refugees to China (described as Chinese businessmen in Chinese media; see earlier entry), the International Crisis Group has published a new report entitled China’s Myanmar Dilemma. The report suggests that there is a conflict of interest between Peking, which supports the Burmese government, and the Yunnan provincial government, whose primary interests lie in maximizing profits from border trade and which hence prefers to deal with the so-called “ceasefire armies” and keep the Burmese government at arm’s length. Many Burmese border towns rely on China for electricity, water, and telecommunications, which of course also provides China a powerful weapon: thus, after a series of abductions of gamblers in early 2009, the Yunnan government cut off utilities to the casino town of Maijayang to pressure the local authorities to shut down the casino. The closest relations are maintained with the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army: in March, a Yunnan Province official participated in the 20th century celebrations of the UWSA’s victory over the Communist Party of Burma (!), and its political leader, Bao You-Xiang, epxressed its thanks to China for its support. At the end of last year, both Kachin and Wa leaders wrote a letter to Hu Jintao appealing for investment and aid.

The report also details Chinese involvement in hydropower projects (at least 63, including the Tasang Dam on the Salween, which is to be the largest dam in Southeast Asia) and mining (the latest and largest project, the Tagaung Taung nickel mine, was approved in 2008 with an investment of $800 million). Official Burmese figures say that 99% of the foreign investment in 2008, or about $900 million, came from China.

While the authors of the report seem to have had privileged access to officials in China, parts of it — particularly those describing on-the-ground sentiments — appear to be based on flimsy evidence. Thus, in reporting on anti-Chinese sentiments in northern Burma, statements like “Burmese feel that they are being pushed out” and “It has been estimated that 60 per cent of Myanmar’s economy is in Chinese hands” are based on a single interview.

It is tempting to see the “special zones” in Northern Burma as a return to the “overlapping sovereignty” of precolonial times when many of the principalities in the region paid tribute to China but were under the loose military control of Burma. What continues to interest me is the role and conceptualisation of Chinese ethnicity in these borderlands today. Do people like Bao You-Xiang see themselves as Chinese, Wa, or both? And how are they seen by others?

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