Failed Chinese rubber planters’ experiences in Burma

November 19, 2011

The recent killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Golden Triangle section of the Upper Mekong led to China’s suspension of shipping there and recriminations against Thailand on the Chinese Internet. In an article published on QQ’s finance page, Chinese rubber planters on the Burmese side of the region — Special Region No. 2, controlled by the United Wa State Army — reported on previous encounters with violence.

One of them planted 5,000 mu in 2002 but, in 2006, UWSA commanders forced him at gunpoint to sign what he describes an extortionate lease contract. He fled to China and was later persuaded to sign the land over to Wa. Another planter, who first invested in Burma in 1998, had two plantations taken over in similar ways by Wa soldiers.

Meanwhile, as part of the media coverage that has followed Burma’s suspension of the Myitsone Dam project, a power industry website published an article about how electricity companies in Dehong Prefecture have been providing power across the border, starting as early as 1985 — that is, when the Burmese Communist Party still controlled the region. An employee would go across the border once a month to take electricity readings. He got himself into dangerous situations but assured the reporter that the company provided the same service to cross-border customers as to domestic ones.

This is a reminder of the complicated power relations in the region. The local ceasefire armies, particularly UWSA, are not simple victims or co-perpetrators of Chinese exploitation: they can also be adversaries. Chinese investors, for their part, can be victims or service providers trying to “act normal”.

Nomen est omen: portrait of Han Dajun, an Anhui planter in Burma

May 18, 2011

An article in Hefei Evening News profiles one of four “peasants” from the city of Fuyang 阜阳, Anhui, who, in January, signed an agreement with Burma’s Special Region 2, under the control of the United Wa State Army, to rent 8,000 acres of farmland (the duration is not specified in the article) to plant rubber and tea and raise livestock. The total investment is 3 million yuan. The man, 47, is called Han Dajun 韩大军, “Han Big Army.” Another fitting name after that intrepid pioneer of Chinese farming in Africa, Liu Jianjun (Liu Army-Founding).

 (Photo from

Han started as a poor peasant but began a small business reselling produce in 1989, and later became a shipping entrepreneur with 5 lorries. In 2009-10, he met some Chinese farmers who were planting rubber in Burma and said it made a lot of money. The agricultural machinery office 农机局 of 颍州区, one of Fuyang’s districts, gave Han a grant of 150 thousand yuan to purchase machinery to take to Burma (see photo).

The article describes the hardships faced by Han and his mates in Burma, and touts him as an example of how that with enough determination, “peasants too can change their fate.”

Report on contract sugar cane planting in Kokang

May 13, 2011

云南糖网 (Yunnan Sugar Net) has published a feature article on contract sugar cane planting in Kokang, a now-defunct Special Region 1 of Burma’s Shan State. The article does not mention the occupation of the region byBurmese  government forces in 2009, and the figures it gives suggest that contract farming has not been affected.

Yunnan’s Zhenkang 镇康 County signed an agreement with Kokang on the joint development of 30,000 mu (2,000 ha) of farmland in 1996 under a Chinese government “opium substitution” subsidy scheme. 13 thousand mu was actuallyplanted, of which 9 thousand with sugar cane. In Kokang’s Minzu Township 民族乡, for example, most of a population of 14 thousand now derive their livelihoods from sugar cane. At current prices, one mu of sugar cane results in 1,900 yuan of net annual revenue. One household made 40,000 yuan last year and bought a car.

The Kokang representative of 镇康南华南伞糖业, a Zhenkang sugar mill, recalls that locals met the — presumably more or less forced — “sugarification” with suspicion. The company provided the cash, seedlings, technology, and management, and collected the crop; the Zhenkang County government “mediated”, and the Kokang government organised the distribution of seedlings and fertilizers. In 2010-11, Kokang sugar cane made up 60% of the cane used by the company’s mill. By March 2010, it had invested 17 million yuan in the scheme, including road construction.

In 2008, at the time of the commodity price boom, two other companies from Zhenkang signed agreements to plant 100 thousand mu of walnuts and rubber, respectively, in Kokang. The article does not mention if these plans are now going ahead. The Zhenkang government also designated an industrial park next to the Kokang border.

Undercurrents issue on rubber boom in northeast Burma

April 17, 2009

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).

ASEAN rubber conference

December 19, 2008

There will be an ASEAN conference on rubber later this year in Vientiane. The link is here. It will be interesting to hear the discussions about Chinese projects and about the future of the plantations in the shadow of the recession.