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

September 19, 2009

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?


Shan organisation reports fighting around dam site in Burma

September 2, 2009

According to 1 September press release by the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, disseminated on the International Rivers mailing list,

Shan activists are calling on China to immediately halt all investment in dams on the Salween River following the recent heavy fighting between the Burmese military regime and the Kokang ceasefire army near the site of the Upper Salween Dam planned by Chinese companies in northern Shan State.

Heavy clashes have taken place just east of the town of Kunlong, about 15 kms from the planned dam site. Fighting broke out on August 27, 2009, after the regime deployed thousands of troops to seize control of the Kokang territory, shattering the 20-year ceasefire and causing over 30,000 refugees to flee to China. Kokang forces have sought to repel the Burma Army troops.

Plans to build the Upper Salween Dam, also known as the Kunlong Dam, were announced in April 2007 by two Chinese companies, Hanergy Holding Group (formerly Farsighted Investment Group) and Gold Water Resources Company. Since then a team of Chinese and Burmese technicians have been conducting feasibility studies for the 2,400 MW dam, 25 kms from the Chinese border.

The Kunlong Dam is one of five mega dams being planned on the Salween in Burma by the SPDC and Chinese and Thai companies, to produce electricity to be sold to China and Thailand. The Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, together with the Salween Watch coalition of environmental groups from Thailand and Burma, has been monitoring the controversial dam plans for ten years and advocating for their immediate halt.

“The renewed fighting and the flood of refugees into Yunnan should be a wake-up call to China about the risks of investing in Burma,” said Sapawa spokesperson Sai Khur Hseng.   “Not only is there no free and informed consent to these dam projects, but they are being built over the dead bodies of our people.”

The other mega dam being planned in Shan State is the giant 7,110 MW Ta Sang dam, 100 km from the Thai border. In early August, the regime renewed a scorched earth campaign in townships close to the Ta Sang dam site, torturing and killing civilians and driving 10,000 villagers from their homes.

In an earlier post, I noted the cooperation (or perhaps sometimes multiple identities) between environmental and ethnic organisations in northern Burma, how they represent a certain potential form of sovereignty in that highly contested terrain, and how the ethnic Chinese enclaves (like Kokang) represent another, more real form. What is particularly interesting in this news release is the claim that 30,000 refugees have fled the fighting to China. China is not a state that officially allows refugee flows across its border, so if this is true it raises additional questions about the nature of sovereignty and border in Kokang and the other “special zones.” Or are these people who possess Chinese citizenship?


VU student’s critical book on development aid in Cambodia

March 2, 2009

In her new book, somewhat mysteriously titled Swimming in a New Aquarium, Gea Wijders, a PhD student at the Culture, Organisation and Management department of the VU and until recently an advisor to Cambodia’s Ministry of the Environment, concludes that Western development aid to the country has failed. More generally, it is a critique of the idea of “doing good” in a “different culture” (or a new aquarium, in her metaphor). Gea is now engaged in a project looking at the role of Cambodian returnee migrants, most of them Sino-Khmer. I am looking forward to discussions with her about China’s position in the process.