Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Coils of Custom

The Irrawaddy News

As tourism drops, many Padaung abandon the tradition of putting bronze coils on the necks of their daughters

Though likened to “human zoos” whose residents are seemingly caged like exotic birds, the Padaung tourist villages of Mae Hong Son Province used to be relatively prosperous.

U Ladu, the Padaung headman of Ban Nai Soi, said they can no longer count on tourists coming to see their “long neck” women, who are famous for the bronze coils wound around their necks, since the numbers of foreign visitors coming to the province has dropped sharply.

Padaung women are a major tourist attraction in Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand.

“The tour companies have stopped contributing to the individual monthly incomes of 1,000 to 1,500 baht (US $30-$45) received by our women,” said U Ladu. “They no longer provide food rations of beans, pulses and cans of fish.

“We’ve got enough rice for six or seven months, but we no longer get any regular income or food donations. We haven’t been provided for on a regularly basis for almost eight years. Sometimes supplies come, and sometimes they don’t. The worst is when we get sick—we can no longer afford medical care,” he said.

A sub-tribe of Burma’s Karenni people, the Padaung were among almost 200,000 refugees that left Burma for Thailand by 2005, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Driven from their homes in the Demawsoe area between Loikaw and Kyaphogyi in Karenni State by economic distress and military oppression, they migrated to Thailand over a 20-year period.

The 500 Padaung who settled in Thailand came as a windfall for Thai businessmen and provincial authorities, who placed them in three fenced-off villages—Ban Nai Soi, Ban Sua Thao and Huai Pu Keng—near Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand. The Padaung were not given official status, but they were free to leave the villages provided they did not go too far, though in practice this was discouraged.

Foreign tourists wanting to see and photograph the Padaung women wearing their iconic bronze coils had to pay 250 baht ($7.30) to enter the villages.

During the boom years of Thailand’s tourism in the 1990s business was good. The Padaung women could earn up to 3,000 baht ($120 at that time) per month by having their photographs taken and selling handicrafts. A 2008 report in the The Irrawaddy said Ban Nai Soi, the largest Padaung village, attracted around 1,200 tourists annually.

Travel writers observed that the Padaung were better off in the tourist villages in Thailand than they would have been in Burma. The local authorities who promoted them as a tourist attraction and the tour operators were happy.

In 1998, however, a scandal broke out when a Thai businessman was charged with luring some Padaung to Thailand, promising to take them to their relations in Mae Hong Son Province, but allegedly forcing them to live as virtual prisoners in a camp in Thaton, a small tourist town in the north of Chiang Mai Province.

The scandal died down when they were sent to join their relatives in Mae Hong Son, but the taint of “human zoos” tarnished Thailand’s reputation.

In 2008, the Thai government was accused of denying exit visas to 20 Padaungs who were being offered opportunities for resettlement in Finland and New Zealand. Observers accused the Thais of keeping the Padaungs because they did not want to lose tourist business.

The Thai authorities were reluctant to give an explanation for denying the Padaungs exit permits, but according to U Lay Maung, the chairman of the Karenni Refugee Committee, the Thais are now saying the Padaung can qualify for resettlement provided they live in a UNHCR camp. A UNHCR source said that to get an exit permit the Padaung women must also remove their neck rings.

“Even though they are not providing regular food, the Thai authorities are giving them [the Padaung] a choice: they can move into the refugee camp, in which case they must hold a UNHCR refugee card, or they can get legal permits to stay in Thailand. If they stay in Thailand, the Thai authorities are saying their children will be able to enroll at the village schools,” U Lay Maung said.

With regional competition, political disturbances and the global economic crisis causing a dramatic decline in numbers of tourists entering Thailand—in the first four months of 2009 numbers fell by almost 20 percent from the same period in 2008—the Thai offer may not be enough to keep the Padaung.

“Only 20 tourists came to the village in the last 10 days,” said U Ladu, adding that these had been the busiest days all month. As he spoke, three Chinese tourists were wandering around and taking photographs. “The villagers will only get money if they can sell their handicrafts,” he said.

U Lay Maung said, “Many of the villagers have been totally without income for the whole year,” adding that they had to eke out an existence by farming small plots. When the Padaung villagers asked for food from the Karenni refugee camp, they were refused because supplies were already insufficient and there was no additional budget, he said.

The children, however, can get an education. “Many of the village children go to the school in Karenni Refugee Camp-1, which is an hour’s walk from the village,” U Lay Maung said, “and more and more Padaungs are no longer putting the coils on their daughters’ necks if they go to school.”

U Ladu’s wife, Ma Hu Htee, wears the bronze coils, but she says they are not putting them on their daughter, a 9th grade student at the school in the refugee camp.

“Originally, about 50 of us wore coils in this village,” Ma Hu Htee said, “But now only 23 still wear them. The older ones can deal with the looks when we go out, but we don’t want our children to suffer when they go to school.

“We don’t really know how we came to wear them. My parents began putting them on my neck when I was 6-years old, just as their mothers and fathers had done before,” she said.

Some think the coils made the women look more beautiful and were a display of wealth, others that the coils protected them from abduction by other tribes by making them look ugly. A tribal myth suggested that the coils protected the women from tigers, but whatever the reason for wearing them, the coils are injurious to the wearer.

As a child grows, more coils are added each year, pushing down the collarbones and squashing the vertebrae, and making the neck look longer. A full set worn by an adult may have more than 20 coils and weigh 5 kilograms.

In the three Padaung tourist villages, fewer women wear the traditional coils, according to U Lay Maung.

“In times of robust tourism, private Thai companies used to take care of [Padaung] education and provide scholarships for their children,” U Lay Maung said, adding that every tourist brochure for Mae Hong Son Province would have a picture of a Padaung woman wearing coils in it.

“But many of the younger generation want to abandon the coils to get an education,” he said, saying that some of the young girls were adept at learning languages and could make money working as tourist guides.

A few Padaung families live outside Mae Hong Son Province in at least three small tourist villages in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. How long they will be willing to stay remains to be seen, however, especially when they hear their kin in Mae Hong Son are being resettled in third countries.

U Ladu knows what he wants for his daughter. “She could marry someone from around here in the next three or four years and be stuck here,” he said, “but I want her to resettle in a third country where she can continue her education.”

READ MORE---> The Coils of Custom...

The Grass is Greener

The Irrawaddy News

Despite the difficulties and challenges facing Shan migrants seeking work in Thailand, their numbers are increasing

I feel my life in Thailand is more secure than in Burma. It is easier to make a living here,” said Sam Htun, a 56-year-old Shan construction worker, who said he left Burma because of oppression, dangerous working conditions and dismal economic circumstances.

Many Shan migrant workers in Thailand live in makeshift camps. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

Sam Htun earned 10,000 to 20,000 kyat (about US $9 to $18) a month—barely enough to get by—working on construction sites in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. For this, he risked injury daily from hazards like falling objects, exposed wiring and unsafe scaffolding.

“Safety standards on Thai building sites can vary from poor to very high, but in Burma safety is a joke,” Sam said.

In Thailand, Sam can earn around 4,500 baht ($130) a month, from which he usually manages to send back 17,000 kyat ($15) every month to his family.

Some Shan workers do relatively well. Sai Maung, who works as a building subcontractor in Chiang Mai, said he transfers about 100,000 baht ($1,940) each year to his parents in Lang Kho in Shan State.

Of the 2 to 4 million Burmese migrants currently living in Thailand, 500,000 are thought to be ethnic Shan living and working in northern Thailand, according to Burmese and regional labor rights groups.

The Shan in Thailand are one of the largest groups remitting money to their families in Burma. How much they are sending back home is hard to estimate as they tend not to use hundi agents—go-betweens who transfer money to workers’ families in Burma—preferring to entrust their savings with close friends who go back, or take it themselves.

Jackie Pollock, a founder of the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP), a Chiang Mai-based NGO, said migrant workers leave Burma because of poor economic prospects and human rights abuses committed by the Burmese regime.

Sam Htun, center, at a workshop for migrant workers in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

“Even though the migrants are paid less than the minimum daily wage (about $4.75) and do not have very much freedom in Thailand, it is still more than they would earn in Burma.

“In Thailand, if you get a decent employer, then you may make quite a reasonable salary. There is no chance of this in Burma,” she said.

Migrants have the chance to complain and can resort to the Thai legal system, but if they are exploited and abused by their employers in Burma, “they can do nothing,” Pollock said, adding that abuse in Burma can include extortionate taxes, forced labor and land confiscation.

Labor rights observers say that, while Shan workers want to escape oppression in Burma, the availability of work and the higher wages offered in Thailand are major incentives, and migrants are prepared to pay considerable amounts to get across the border.

Sai Maung said four relatives who had arrived in Chiang Mai in late 2008 had to pay 100,000 kyat ($90) each to authorities and militias for their trip to Thailand.

Sein Kyi, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald Agency for News, said at least 200 Shan migrant workers with border passes cross daily into Thailand, using the bridge between Tachilek in Shan State and Mae Sai in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province. Many others, however, cross illegally.

Illegal migrant workers not only have to bribe the Burmese army, but also the armed groups whose territories they must cross on their journey to Thailand. Both the Shan State Army and United Wa State Army are said to be involved in the smuggling process. A one-way trip reportedly costs around 10,000 to 11,000 baht ($290 to $320). When they get to Thailand the migrants then have to pay the Thai authorities.

Andy Hall, the migrant justice program director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which focuses on migrant safety in the workplace, said, “The migration will surely go on as Thailand still needs workers—perhaps another 2 or 3 million more.”

Culture also plays a role. “Shan migrant workers are very special for Thai employers because their language is similar to Northern Thai, and their culture is very close to the Thai culture,” Hall said.

However, once the migrants have arrived in Thailand, their troubles are far from over.

“Some of the riskiest work for migrants in Thailand is in the construction industry, where substandard safety procedures often lead to accidents,” said Hall, adding that little if any compensation is paid in such circumstances.

Sai Leng, who is the chairman of the Kuang Gor camp for Shan refugees in Chiang Mai’s Wieng Heng District, said Shan migrants take jobs that Thai people do not want because the work is difficult, dirty and dangerous, and the pay is low.

Kuang Gor camp is home to more than 600 Shan who are not officially refugees, but who are allowed to work outside the camp. Kuang Gor is assisted by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which supplies basic foods such as rice, cooking oil, salt and yellow beans to the migrants.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the TBBC, said the camp’s Shan occupants do not have proper protection and risk arrest and repatriation.

Unlike refugees in the nine other camps along the Thai-Burmese border, the Shan in Kuang Kor are not treated as refugees and have no chance of resettlement in third countries because they are not registered with the Thai Ministry of Interior and the UNHCR, Thompson said.

“They aren’t just vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation at any time. Unlike properly registered refugees, they have no access to health care, and their children don’t get any education,” said Thompson.

Jackie Pollock described how MAP had helped a Shan migrant after he was caught in a police sweep at a building site in Chiang Mai.

“First, his wife had to go to her husband’s employer to get his papers, but he wouldn’t give them to her unless she paid him 2,000 baht [$60]. When she showed them at the police station, the police weren’t interested.

“They kept him in jail for 48 days, which is the legal maximum they could hold him without charges, before releasing him—and he was a registered migrant worker, not an illegal,” said Pollock.

Pollock described how it was common practice for the police to round up all workers in a sweep, whether registered or not, and put them in jail. The migrant workers are encouraged to pay “fines” if they want to get back quickly to their families and work.

Sai Leng said arrest is a big threat facing migrant workers in daily life. If arrested, they have to pay relatively large amounts of money to be released.

“We want the Thai authorities to make it easier for the migrant worker to travel from one place to another. If they treated us migrants better, they would get more work out of us,” he said.

Despite enjoying a better life in Thailand, Sai Leng said he still hoped to go back to his hometown in Burma when conditions improve.

READ MORE---> The Grass is Greener...

Cracks in the Castle Wall

The Irrawaddy News

Loopholes in the new Burmese constitution could be exploited by opposition groups to win influence after next year’s election

In politics, a direct, frontal attack is rarely wise; co-opting the opponent’s game plan for one’s own purposes is a more powerful ploy. Opponents of Burma’s military junta should bear this in mind as they consider their strategy for dealing with next year’s election.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism. A longer version of this article is available on www.irrawaddy.org

Most mainstream opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and major ethnic ceasefire groups, have announced that they will not take part in the 2010 election unless the constitution is revised and the political process is made more inclusive. They say they can’t accept the constitution as it stands because it denies fundamental ethnic rights and allows the military to seize power again “if there arises a state of emergency.”

A closer examination of the junta’s constitution reveals, however, that it is not the impregnable fortress that it at first appears to be. There are a number of weaknesses in the castle battlements that opposition groups can exploit if they are prepared to take a multi-pronged approach.

The first vulnerability lies in the fact that after the 2010 election, there will be two power centers, the military and the government, which will inevitably be at loggerheads over the command structure and personal interests. No matter who pulls the strings, this new power arrangement will lead to either a serious internal split or the inefficiency of the ruling body.

Another Achilles’ heel is the constitution’s de facto demotion of regional military commanders. Although the constitution enshrines ultimate power in the commander in chief of the military, it fails to provide similar authority to regional commanders in their localities. As key pillars in the military regime’s power structure, the regional commanders are like warlords in their domains. However, under the new constitution, they are under the control of the chief ministers of the regions or states, who in many cases may be civilians. This could result in a situation where regional commanders oppose not only local power arrangements but also Naypyidaw’s control.

The third loophole in the constitution is that if non-military parties sweep to victory or win a clear majority of the 75 percent of seats not reserved for the military, a non-military candidate could become president. Failing this, non-military parties could gain control of the legislative agenda, giving them influence over everything from defense and foreign affairs to the economic and social sectors. Thus Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who leads the ruling junta, appears to be determined to fill the remaining parliamentary seats with members of a military-backed political party based upon the membership of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass organization formed by the junta in September 1993.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe votes in the referundum election on the new constitution.

However, this leads to the fourth problem facing the regime. As a political party, the USDA’s existing nationwide organizational structure (and its thuggish reputation, which could be used to intimidate voters) would give it a great advantage in the 2010 election. The problem is that the new constitution bars parliamentary candidates from receiving any support directly or indirectly from the state. As the USDA currently enjoys such advantages, it would run afoul of the regime’s own constitution if it sought to field candidates in the election. Therefore, if the military wants to create a new political party or parties, it must ensure that they do not bear any resemblance to the USDA in terms of name recognition, resources or intimidating power.

Perhaps these concerns are the reason the regime keeps delaying the promulgation of the electoral law, which was reportedly ready to be published early this year: Than Shwe wants more time to secure his bet for more power. Meanwhile, however, the credibility of the election and the legitimacy of the new power arrangement it is intended to put in place have already been hurt by the likely non-participation of the NLD and the refusal of several ethnic ceasefire groups to disarm or participate.

In fact, the opposition could create leverage by remaining outside the regime’s election process while opening a new proxy front within the regime’s game plan. Even if opposition groups don’t take part in the election using their current organizational identities, they could set up proxy political parties to participate in the 2010 election. Through these proxy parties, the opposition could attempt to maximize civilian control of the post-election parliament.

At the same time, opposition groups such as the NLD, the New Mon State Party and others must stand strong in opposing the “illegitimate” constitution and election and continue their fight for genuine reconciliation. Just because they loathe the undemocratic constitution, the opposition should not consider total disengagement from mainstream politics. The opposition must be savvy in combining both inside-out and outside-in strategies to usher in political change.

In fact, the formation of proxy parties and participation in the 2010 election will help prevent a split within the opposition groups. Otherwise, policy disagreements between moderates and radical activists within the NLD as well as individual ethnic groups might lead to open splits when the election law comes out and the junta plays more rounds of divide and rule. Proxy tactics could also help bring new recruits to the opposition movement.

However, no one should harbor any illusion that the presence of opposition proxy parties in the 2010 election will spark a magical power shift to civilian control. That will happen only if there is sufficient public pressure to challenge the military-dominated status quo, forcing the military to negotiate with the opposition, which would then be in a position to push for a genuine transition to democratic rule.

Another factor that could determine the success or failure of the approach outlined here is the ability of non-military MPs to maintain a sense of common purpose. There is a danger that parochial interests will blind non-military MPs to broader issues, or that self-interest will lead them to compromise their reform agenda. Non-military MPs would not necessarily form a monolithic bloc or be unanimous in their approach to the military’s domination. Vote rigging and intimidation in the election could further undermine the chances of a genuine opposition presence in the parliament.

That said, however, the contradictions embedded in the constitution will provide unprecedented opportunities for those who seek to break the military’s hold on power. If a moderate military leadership emerges in a post-Than Shwe era, those proxy MPs and ministers who are in the mainstream can work with them for gradual reform. In the event of mass demonstrations on the streets, proxy parties will be well-placed to play a role.

The opposition should be creative in opening a new proxy front as part of a multi-pronged strategy to exploit the cracks in the junta’s fortress.

READ MORE---> Cracks in the Castle Wall...

The Yunnan Connection

The Irrawaddy News

Closer ties between Burma and China’s southwestern province raise concerns in Beijing

Yunnan, China’s southwestern province bordering Burma, has always taken the lead in forging closer relations with its neighbor, usually with Beijing’s blessing. But in recent years, this special relationship has caused some irritation among China’s political leaders in the north.

In the past, China’s political supremos were happy to leave trade to those based in the southwestern region, while taking responsibility for all political issues. This relationship between Burma and China’s border areas has a long history.

The Joint Check Centre of Ruili on the northern Sino-Burmese border is an important economic zone where trade is increasing. (Photo: Kyaw Zwa Moe/The Irrawaddy)

Long before becoming chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization in 1975, Brang Seng moved thousands of Kachins into Yunnan for safety after declaring war on the Burmese government.

The Wa leaders, who formed a significant section of the Burma Communist Party, were all trained in the Yunnan capital, Kunming, and fondly remember those times.

At the start of Mao Zedong’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” in 1958, more than 100,000 Chinese fled across the border into Burma for safety, according to a senior Chinese official. Most of them may never have returned, he added. In the past 10 years more than 200,000 Chinese have crossed into northern Shan State in search of work and financial opportunities. In Panghsan, the Wa capital, the local authorities run a casino school which trains young Chinese from across the border how to become croupiers.

Around 50 pupils at a time pay the school 300 yuan (US $45) for one month’s training; they qualify for jobs on graduation in the casinos along the border and some even find work in Cambodian casinos along the border with Thailand.

A quarter of Panghsan’s population are Chinese who have settled in the Wa area since 1997, according to a senior Wa leader. An entire Chinese Wa village even relocated in Burma six years ago to take advantage of the UN’s rice cultivation scheme—part of the organization’s support for alternative crop programs intended to replace opium production. In Mong La, further along the border, more than one in eight residents within the city limits are recent Chinese arrivals, according to the city’s mayor.

The business life of hundreds of small towns and villages along the Burmese border with China is dominated by Chinese immigrants who migrated to the area in the last 10 years.

Families often send their children across the border to China for education, and many of the Wa leaders’ sons and daughters study in Kunming. The daughter of the former Mong La mayor recently graduated from a university in Shanghai. Many others are receiving higher education in Chengdu, Guilin and Kunming.

While traditional links have helped fuel this close cross-border relationship, in the past 25 years it has been trade that has been the main locomotive.

Since 1993, according to local Chinese officials, cross-border trade has mushroomed. Trade between Yunnan and Burma represents around half of the total bilateral trade between the two countries. Official Burmese government figures put this at $2.4 billion in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, almost double the previous year’s.

This trade, however, has primarily benefited the Chinese—almost all the increase has been the result of the massive rise in the volume of Chinese imports, as the value of Burmese exports has remained relatively constant since 1988.

As part of plans to further promote trade between the two countries, special economic or free trade areas are also being set up. The border crossing between Muse and Ruili is the biggest trade route at present. The Yunnan provincial government has recently proposed setting up a Ruili cross-border economic cooperation zone, while the Dehong zone county government, in which the area falls, proposes to construct a Ruili-Muse free trade area. The Burmese government is also in favor of the plans, so the project is expected to move ahead in the near future.

Burma agreed more than three years ago in principal to establish a tax-free trade area near Muse. Nearly 300 square kilometers have been designated for the zone, known now as “Muse 105 Ma.” Chinese exports are free to enter Burma through Muse, Jiugu and Nankang, and are processed in the zone. Although yet to be officially announced, according to Chinese officials, this has already made Muse and Jiugu a very special economic zone, which offers Chinese goods extremely preferential treatment.

A border export processing base has also been established at Kunming, Honghe, Dali, Baoshan and Dehong, forming the main trade hubs in the zone. Many enterprises which produce export products have set up offices and factories near the border areas to directly benefit from the growing border trade.

The Yunnan authorities understand that protecting the growing trade with their neighbor is extremely important to the province’s long-term economic future. The provincial government recently drew up detailed plans to further promote border trade with Burma. This has included favorable customs and visa procedures, and streamlined bureaucracy. But there are fears that because of the low level of trade, there may be central government interference in the future.

“The preferential policies protecting cross-border trade [which had been approved by Beijing in 1996] are vitally important to Yunnan Province, although the trade is relatively small,” a senior Kunming customs official told The Irrawaddy.

“Yunnan would be seriously affected should the preferential policies be removed by the central government,” he said.

The central authorities are currently concerned that the system may contravene World Trade Organization rules. But local officials at the Yunnan commerce department reject this view, pointing out that the US and Mexico, adjacent to each other, have preferential policies.

While Beijing may not be concerned about the official trade between the province and Burma, the central government there is more concerned about the unofficial and illegal trade that is taking place, in the form of drugs, timber, wildlife and human trafficking.

Local Chinese merchants once benefited from the abundant supply of high grade timber imported from Burma. “We love Myanmar [Burmese] timber because it is good quality,” a businessman in Fujian province, on China’s southeastern coast, told a Chinese academic. “We can process it into furniture and then sell it on to Japan and the US.”

Between 2001 and 2005, imports of timber represented around one-fifth of the volume of Burma’s bilateral trade with Yunnan. But that ended abruptly when Chinese President Hu Jintao intervened after several Chinese loggers were arrested in Burma. If Chinese lives are at risk, national and political considerations overrule local economic business interests. Illegal logging has been effectively banned by the Chinese and very little now makes its way across the border, timber merchants in Kunming told The Irrawaddy.

Fears that unofficial cross-border trade—especially in arms, drugs and people—was getting out of hand a few years ago also prompted the central authorities to intervene. In late 2003, in a move to tighten border controls, Beijing assigned the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to replace the border police along the Sino-Burmese border. In December 2004, the Burmese junta’s No 3, Gen Thura Shwe Mann, and Gen Ge Zhenfeng, the PLA’s deputy chief of staff, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that established a mechanism of meetings, talks and contacts between the Chinese and Burmese armies to deal with border affairs.

This seems to be the new pattern. Yunnan and other border areas may be pushing for greater trade and contacts between Burma and China, but Beijing wants to limit anything that may be unintentionally promoting corruption and crime, including drugs smuggling and human trafficking.

The overall concern in Beijing is that Chinese policy in practice should not indirectly make the border areas unstable and insecure. The divergent interests of Kunming and Beijing may yet be put to the test if the Burmese military government’s attempts to disarm the ethnic rebel ceasefire groups, especially the United Wa State Army, and form a force of guards on the Burmese side of the border fail and the danger arises of renewed armed conflict.

READ MORE---> The Yunnan Connection...

China’s Troublesome Little Brother

The Irrawaddy News

Behind displays of friendship, Beijing is showing signs that it is losing patience with Burma’s politically inept ruling generals

When Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the second most powerful figure in Burma’s ruling junta, led a high-level delegation to Beijing in mid-June, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency dutifully reported that the visit—the general’s third in six years—was aimed at strengthening friendly and cooperative ties between the two neighboring countries.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, left, holds a welcoming ceremony in honor of Gen Maung Aye, right, vice-chairman of Burma’s ruling junta at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 16, 2009.
(Photo: www.english.cpc.people.com.cn)

Behind the scenes of the outwardly amicable visit, however, the story was not so simple. According to businessmen close to the regime in Naypyidaw, before departing for Beijing, Maung Aye complained that China was meddling in Burma’s affairs. A former commander of the Burmese army’s northern region who once fought several fierce battles against the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s and 1980s, Maung Aye has never really trusted Beijing. Now, he grumbled, Chinese leaders were trying to tell Naypyidaw how it should deal with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was facing imprisonment on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest.

On the Chinese side, too, feelings were far more ambivalent than the Xinhua report would have us believe. Since the 2004 ouster of former Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt, Beijing’s relations with the Burmese regime have been on a less secure footing. Unlike the relatively open-minded Khin Nyunt, the current leadership in Naypyidaw consists entirely of dyed-in-the-wool xenophobes. Even a friendly word of advice was likely to strain the relationship carefully built up over the past two decades.

In the end, Maung Aye’s visit passed without incident. Although Beijing had earlier joined Burma’s other neighbors in calling for the release of Suu Kyi, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Burmese regime’s No 2 that he hoped the military would help to promote democracy in Burma, the pro-democracy leader herself was not mentioned directly in discussions between the two sides. Significantly, however, news of the international outcry over the trial of Suu Kyi aired on Beijing television during Maung Aye’s visit, perhaps sending a message that world opinion could not be ignored, even in Communist-controlled China.

Despite such subtle hints, however, it is clear that Beijing is not about to depart from its long-held policy of noninterference in Burma’s political affairs—a policy that it has maintained even under more trying circumstances.

Chinese workers seal the pipeline along the 1,272-kilometer transnational natural gas pipeline in Luoyang in central China’s Henan Province on Dec 11, 2008. China’s demand for oil and gas has expanded rapidly in recently years to fuel its double-digit economic growth, as the country imported nearly 200 million tons of oil in 2007, up more than 10 percent from 2006. (Photo: AFP)

When Burmese troops and security forces were killing monks on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007, provoking international outrage, Beijing made it clear that it wasn’t going to join in the chorus of criticism. Instead, it reacted by issuing an anodyne statement calling on all parties to exercise restraint—and for the rest of the world to mind its own business. Soon after the dust settled, the Burmese regime’s leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, returned the favor by sending an envoy to Beijing to explain the situation. And so the whole episode was reduced to a mere bump in the road of Sino-Burmese relations.

It came as no surprise, then, that when a Burmese court sentenced Suu Kyi to a further 18 months under house arrest on August 11, Beijing did not deviate from its script.

“International society should fully respect Myanmar’s [Burma’s] judicial sovereignty,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, adding that Beijing would not back any calls for UN action against the Burmese regime. Two days after the sentence was announced, the UN Security Council, of which China is a permanent member with veto powers, expressed “concern” over the court’s ruling and reiterated its call for a “genuine dialogue” aimed at achieving national reconciliation.

During Maung Aye’s visit to China, Burma’s state-run press noted with evident satisfaction that Beijing is the regime’s staunchest defender on the international stage. But why has China remained such a faithful patron of this miscreant regime? The answer, quite simply, is that Burma is a resource-rich country with the means to help China satisfy its hunger for energy and raw materials.

Maung Aye’s visit highlighted this key aspect of the bilateral relationship. While he was in China, the two countries signed three documents—an agreement on economic and technical cooperation, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the development, operation and delivery of electricity from hydropower projects in Maykha, Malikha and upstream of the Irrawaddy-Myitsone river basin, and an MoU relating to the development, operation and management of the Burma-China crude oil pipeline project.

Around the same time as Maung Aye’s trip, Burma’s Ministry of National Planning and Development released a report showing that foreign investment in Burma had jumped from $172.7 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to $984.9 million in 2008-2009. The ministry said 87 percent of the total invested in Burma came from China.

China’s investment in Burma is focused mainly on energy and natural resources—hydropower, mining and oil and gas projects. Construction of the pipeline, which will transport gas and oil from the port town of Sittwe on the Arakan coast to China’s landlocked southwestern province of Yunnan, is set to begin in September.

In exchange for access to Burma’s resources and strategically important ports, China provides not only diplomatic cover, but also soft loans for the regime and weapons for its oversized army. It hopes in this way to ensure that Burma remains a part of China’s long-term strategy for economic growth. Although Beijing professes to refrain from interfering in Burma’s political affairs, it is clearly determined to protect its interests by providing the regime with the military means to maintain stability. If the junta proves incapable of containing unrest, Beijing will reconsider its backing; but until then, the generals can count on Chinese support.

China has little interest in promoting Burma’s democratization, but it has been happy to play along with UN efforts to end the country’s political stalemate. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Naypyidaw in June, Chinese officials said they welcomed the move. But when the regime refused to allow Ban to meet with Suu Kyi, China’s deputy UN ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, said it was “understandable” under the circumstances. He also said that the Burmese regime should be treated with less arrogance and prejudice, and ruled out any possibility of Beijing using its influence to persuade the regime to change its ways.

By the time Maung Aye returned from his visit to China, his misgivings about Beijing’s reliability as an ally appeared to have vanished. Soon after his trip, he visited the Sino-Burmese border and announced plans to build an international airport there. He also reportedly told local businessmen and accompanying ministers that if Burma’s relationship with China continued to grow, Burma would have no need for Western—particularly US—assistance.

This must have been music to Beijing’s ears, but it seems to have done little to allay Chinese concerns about potential US rivalry for influence in Burma. Despite its policy of isolating the Burmese regime, Washington has played a very active role in Burma, primarily through its support for Suu Kyi and pro-democracy groups inside and outside the country. Chinese officials who regularly travel to Thailand to meet exiled Burmese groups often ask them questions about the support they receive from the US.

To offset Washington’s role as the primary sponsor of the democratic opposition, China has expanded its network of contacts within the exiled dissident community. Chinese officials from various government departments based in Yunnan Province, which borders Burma, have been meeting with exiled Burmese groups in Thailand with increasing frequency. More remarkably, they have even allowed conferences and seminars on Burmese issues to take place in China. This is something the Chinese have learned from watching exiled Burmese civil society groups operating in Thailand.

For their part, Burmese dissidents realize that although they already have strong political backing from the West, they also need to lobby China to reconsider its policy toward the repressive regime. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, has sent several letters to the Chinese embassy in Rangoon, signaling that it sees China as a potentially positive influence. However, there has been no official response to these letters, which were signed by NLD Chairman Aung Shwe, and which expressed a desire to forge a “fraternal relationship” with China and asked for Beijing’s support in Burma’s stalled national reconciliation process.

This lack of a response contrasts starkly with China’s overtures to the NLD in 1990, when the party had just won a landslide victory in Burma’s last democratic elections.

Chinese leaders were among the first to congratulate the NLD on its convincing win and called on the Burmese regime to release Suu Kyi from house arrest. But when it became clear that the junta had no intention of honoring the results of the election, China changed its tune, remarking on the military’s role in winning Burma’s independence from colonial rule—implying that this gave the junta a mandate to hold onto power.

Nearly 20 years later, Beijing may have few regrets about its decision to throw its weight behind the junta, but it is growing increasingly wary of the cost of backing a regime that has failed to resolve any of the potentially explosive issues that continue to threaten stability on China’s doorstep. As Chinese analyst Wen Liao wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Burma is an unreliable client for China. The fact that the Burmese regime is morally reprehensible is not an issue for Beijing, but the overwhelming evidence of the ruling generals’ incompetence is a serious cause for concern, Wen wrote.

Beijing is not only worried about being dragged through the mud every time Burma’s rulers commit a new outrage. Naypyidaw’s secret missions to Pyongyang and its shady nuclear ambitions are emerging as a new threat to regional stability, and Burma’s restive ethnic ceasefire groups, many based along the Sino-Burmese border, are becoming a major headache for Beijing. As Wen wrote, despite Burma’s importance as part of China’s so-called “string of pearls” policy, which attempts to build naval and intelligence bases around the Indian Ocean, the benefits of those strategic assets have come at a price.

While Washington’s review of US policy on Burma has attracted considerable attention in recent months, perhaps it is time to ask if Beijing is also re-examining its approach. According to Wen, Chinese leaders are now considering the possibility that Suu Kyi’s party may be a more reliable partner for long-term bilateral cooperation after all.

It seems unlikely at this stage that Beijing will actually make another dramatic shift like it did in the 1980s, when it withdrew its all-out support for the Communist Party of Burma. But don’t be surprised if Beijing begins to introduce subtle policy changes that could undercut the alliance that has been the junta’s main lifeline for the past two decades.

READ MORE---> China’s Troublesome Little Brother...

Is China Two-timing the Generals?

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s military junta has to compete with ethnic groups such as the Wa, the Kokang and the Shan to win Beijing’s favor

China is the Burmese military junta’s most influential partner—economically, politically and militarily. But despite the close relationship, Beijing has long enjoyed a discreet affair—a private relationship with the ethnic groups along Burma’s northeastern frontier.

As far back as the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary government armed and funded several Shan, Kachin, Kokang and Wa ethnic armies, drawing them into the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and backing their struggle against the socialist government of Gen Ne Win.

The United Wa State Army is among the strong ethnic armies in northern Burma that Chinese officials are courting.
However, the anticipated opening in 2012 of a gas pipeline from Burma to China, which will traverse many of the ethnic areas, and the regime’s need to consolidate its power over unruly factions before next year’s election, might force the generals in Naypyidaw to confront the superpower about its relations with the ethnic insurgents.

Many Chinese businessmen, for their part, would rather continue to enjoy the profits they are able to generate from the mostly illegal trade—such as narcotics, jade, exotic animals and timber—from Shan and Kachin states.

And Beijing has shown recently that it is willing to exert a subtle—and not so subtle—influence on behalf of the ethnic groups.

On August 8, about 10,000 villagers fled to the Sino-Burmese border to escape a possible skirmish between the Burmese army and the Kokang troops of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Tensions had been brought to a head when a unit of Burmese government soldiers attempted to raid a warehouse—probably thought to be an arms cache—belonging to Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng.

When Chinese and Burmese officials met the following day to discuss the issue of the fleeing villagers, the Chinese delegation reportedly scolded their Burmese counterparts and told them it was their responsibility to resolve the matter peacefully.

It was a slap in the face for the Burmese generals who, more than ever, needed their friends in Beijing to stand on their side.

In the last few months, Burmese military commanders have been busy traveling to the mountainous jungle terrain of Kachin and Shan states to meet the leaders of the ethnic armies deemed least likely to conform to the junta’s plans to transform their soldiers into “border guard forces”— the MNDAA, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Shan State Army-North.

Although the five ethnic armies are among 17 groups that have signed ceasefire deals with the junta, they have refused to accept the border guard role, which would include placing their troops under the control of Burmese regional commanders.

A deadline for the ceasefire groups to respond to the regime’s border guard plan went unanswered at the end of June.

“On July 29, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut and his deputy, Brig-Gen Hla Myint Aung of the Northeast Command went to the Kokang region [home of the MNDAA] and two days later, traveled to Wa territory,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst on the Sino-Burmese border. “However, they failed to convince the ethnic leaders to join them.”

In an attempt to intimidate the ethnic armies, the junta sent three additional battalions to areas near the Wa and Kokang territories in late July.

However, with an estimated 20,000 armed men, the UWSA is a force to be reckoned with. As a standoff continued into August, the matter of Chinese favoritism came significantly into play.

In December 2008, Wa and Kachin leaders wrote a joint letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao requesting their support in the struggle for autonomous rights for ethnic groups on the Sino-Burmese border.

“We solemnly ask the Chinese government to relay our request to the Myanmar [Burmese] government: first, we support the constitutional reform. When the new government forms in 2010, the leadership based on national public elections should promise to leaders of the autonomous states that they will be part of the high leadership of the new government… and build upon the method of management of China’s autonomous regions,” they wrote.

The Burmese junta, in turn, also reportedly asked Beijing to help resolve the tension with the ethnic groups. Chinese negotiators sat in the privileged position of being able to hold separate meetings with representatives of both camps.

One ethnic leader who asked not to be identified said Beijing had assured him that his group will not have to disarm.

However, China well understands that the generals in Naypyidaw are their highly valued and consistent business partners, and they hold the key to strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand, many of the commanders of the armed ethnic groups, in particular the Wa, the Kokang and the NDAA, have long been allies of the Chinese Communist Party and, in some cases, fought alongside the Chinese People’s Liberation Army decades ago.

When the Wa, Kokang, the NDAA and other ethnic troops split from the CPB in 1989, Communist insurgency came to an abrupt end in Burma.

The UWSA, the MNDAA and the NDAA signed ceasefire agreements later that year with the Burmese regime, which was fronted by former spy chief Gen Khin Nyunt.

Then, in 1994, another major armed faction, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese generals.

In hindsight, the Burmese leaders may feel that their ceasefire agreements with the Wa and Kokang in particular were too focused on temporary strategies rather than being based on political agreements aimed at long-term stability.

However, it seemed at the time that the traditionally pro-Chinese ethnic insurgents were being lured into Rangoon’s sphere of influence.

The Burmese regime has often turned a blind eye to the trafficking of heroin and opium from the northern states. With the freedom to conduct a trade in narcotics, many warlords in Shan state modernized their operations by shifting production to amphetamines and methamphetamines, the drugs of choice for the younger generation.

The proliferation of the drugs trade has forced Beijing to rethink its drugs policy along the Yunnanese border because drug addiction has exploded in the past decade in its southwestern province.

Beijing introduced its Green Drug Prevention Plan to encourage opium farmers in the Golden Triangle area of Burma, Laos and Thailand to grow alternative crops. In 2006, the Chinese State Council approved 250 million yuan (US $36.5 million) for a plan that widened its support for opium farmers in Laos and Burma.

In response to Beijing’s anti-narcotics policy, the Kokang followed suit by suppressing poppy farming in 2003 while the Wa declared their state an opium-free zone in 2005.

China proudly declared that—thanks to its initiatives—poppy farms had been reduced in the Golden Triangle region from 36,000 hectares in 2004 to 13,000 hectares in 2006.

However, according to an official report from Yunnan Province, between 2005 and 2008, Chinese police seized 12.9 tons of heroin, 4.5 tons of opium and 9.3 tons of crystal methamphetamine (known on the street as “ice”), which had been smuggled from Burma.

Chinese officials and experts recognize that the Sino-Burmese border issues have wider implications.

Although Chinese diplomats had steadfastly repeated at the United Nations Security Council that the Burma issue was an internal affair, they began criticizing the junta leadership privately during bilateral talks in 2007.

“Decades of turmoil in Myanmar have shown that the problems the country have today are not only political, but also economic, and above all, ethnic,” said Xiaolin Guo, the author of “Towards Resolution: China in the Myanmar Issue.”

“The Chinese government, which itself completed the necessary steps of state-building within half a decade after the founding of the PRC [People’s Republic of China], now sees the imperative of national reconciliation in Myanmar as a necessary step in achieving political integration,” she said.

According to an official statement, China’s current policy on Burma is specifically oriented toward three goals—stability, development and national reconciliation.

What Beijing’s strategists are undoubtedly weighing up at the moment is whether their traditional allegiance to the ethnic groups along their Burmese border is worth jeopardizing the relationship with their fickle mistress in Naypyidaw.

READ MORE---> Is China Two-timing the Generals?...

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