KATHMANDU, Nepal, 5 September 2016
The modern history of Burma is dictated by vast forests of precious teak, rosewood, and golden camphor, covering almost half the country, jadeite deposit supplying 70% of the world’s requirement of high-quality jade, copper and other metals, mineral and precious stone deposits, hydro-power potential of 100,000 mw, proven reserves of 50 million barrels of crude oil, and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Endowed with such a treasure trove of natural resources one would expect the Burmese to wallow in riches, but no, they live lives of abject poverty. Burma is one of the poorest nation in Asia, ranked 149th among the 183 nations rated by 2013 UNDP Human Development Report. One of the main reasons for such a sorry state of affairs being the 1370-mile-long border they share with China, and from where came political instability through a continuous state of internecine war, exploitation of Burma’s natural resources, and grabbing of locations of strategic interest to China.
For the West, the Orient has always been a mystery, and remains so even in this age of digital information and intelligence-gathering satellite technology. A national flag, a national currency, national passports, international treaties, and images of the Red army triumphantly marching into Tibet etc has failed to impress the West that Tibet was a independent sovereign nation. The same myopic view has sown the seeds of miseries for the Burmese people. They failed to appreciate the fiercely-independent nature of the Burmese people and the fears they harbor of being swamped by their greater neighbor China and the extent they would go save their country. This was misread by the West as totalitarian, undemocratic behavior leading to them being imposed with sanctions and thereby unfolding the story of a courageous nation who alone stood tall under the shadow of its mighty neighbor.
The rise to power and entrenchment in Burma’s polity of the much-maligned Military Junta was a result of many internecine wars engineered by China. After gaining independence from the British in 1948, Burma did adopt a foreign policy of neutrality to enable them to devote their efforts towards nation-building, but here they were stumped by the Communist Party of Burma. They had to contend with armed uprisings of various factions of CPB organized, armed, trained and supported by China. The Burmese army did manage to keep them at bay and successfully eliminated a number of leaders, but it was not until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping came to power in Beijing that the death knell for CPB in Burma was sounded. CPB had made the grave error of criticizing Deng a decade earlier when out of power, and he took his pound of flesh by withdrawing all support from China.
In 1950 Burma was invaded by the fleeing Chinese National Army, Kuomintang, and a big swathe of Burma’s northern territory was occupied by them from where they waged war with Communist China in Yunnan. The US and CIA actively supported Kuomintang, and Burma was unnecessarily dragged into international controversy. Burma stood firm to protect its sovereignty and took up the matter in right earnest at the UN, with USA and Communist China and used their own army to drive out the intruders in 1962.
At the time of independence, overseas Chinese constituted about 3% of the population of Burma, but they held the majority of the posts of profit and profession and native Burmese were deprived of opportunities. Also they were viewed with suspicion as ‘fifth columnists’ to aid Communist China in infiltration and expansion in Burma. There was widespread resentment and General Ne Win, himself an overseas Chinese, took several measures to curtail the rights of the overseas Chinese. The country was rocked through the 1960s and 70s with anti-Chinese riots, and some 100,000 Chinese were forced to emigrate.
Burma’s famous ethnic wars in the areas bordering China began soon after independence, with the Karen people demanding independent state. Other ethnic tribes in the state of Kachin, Kayah, Rakhine, and Shan soon followed suit and joined the fray, now dubbed as the ‘world’s longest running civil war’. Many warring groups had historical ties, blood ties and last but not the least commercial ties with the neighboring Chinese province of Yunnan. Ethnic Burmese fed with the intoxicating brew of identity, freedom, autonomy, independence etc gave up their lives and limbs, hearths and homes in the war with their own national army. The Chinese supplied arms and ammunitions to the ethnic groups to keep the war going and used it many a times to arm twist the Burmese government to supplicate to their demands. The famous Konkang incident of 2014 is worth noting. Konkang militia, freshly recruited and armed by the Chinese, crossed over from the Chinese province of Yunnan and captured the Burmese town of Lagoi. In the counter attack, the Burmese air force bombed Chinese territory leading to several Chinese deaths and injuries. The Burmese government did apologize to subside the fury of the Chinese, but on the same day Burmese official media carried the life story of His Holiness the Dalai Lama after more than 20 years.
The ethnic warlords along with the Chinese traders of Yunnan utilized the war for indulging in looting spree. Burma’s jade trade valued at $ 40 billion is labeled the ‘biggest natural resource heist in modern history’ with 80% smuggled through rebel controlled Kachin state to Yunnan province by Chinese traders for stupendous profits while native Burmese eke out a living scavenging for jade from mining wastes. Drug addiction is rampant in these areas and people die daily buried under the landslide of mountains of mining waste. Another equally big heist is rampant destruction of Burma’s forest through illegal logging and smuggling of valuable hardwoods, especially teak and rosewood, to Yunnan province. In 2004 it was estimated at one million cubic meters per year constituting 90% of Burma’s timber exports with loss of $250 million to the state exchequer.
The year 1988 was a pivotal one in the history of Burma. The pro-democracy movements of this year made the West isolate and abandon Burma and pushed it into the arms of China. China capitalized on this opportunity to build its strategic infrastructures in Burma like the road along the Irrawaddy river to link Yunnan province with the Bay of Bengal, and naval communication facilities in Burma’s Great Coco Island just 18 kms from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. China also built the 771-km 22-million-tonne-per-year-capacity crude oil pipeline from Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan. This overland route would enable oil imports from Middle East to avoid the security hazards of the Strait of Malacca, and gain huge savings in cost and time through avoidance of sailing distance of 5000 km to Chinese ports. China also wrangled the contracts to build a deep sea port, special economic zone, and $20-billion railroad to link Kyaukpyu with its Yunnan province to extend the benefit of the overland route through Burma for its other sea imports. These contracts would also serve its strategic interests, as Kyaukpyu being close to India’s Kolkata port would form part of its ‘string of pearls’ around India.
To maximize its hold over Burma’s natural resources, China built a 900-km gas pipeline to transport 13 billion cubic meter annually natural gas from Burma’s Shwe Fields in the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan. This would reduce China’s coal consumption by 30.72 million tonnes, and CO2 emissions by 52.83 million tonnes. It also finalized a contract of the 6000-mw Mytiosone hydro power project, with 90% of electricity produced to be exported to China, and the Letpadaung Copper Project expected to produce 100,000 tons of copper per annum.
These numerous Chinese mega-projects brought hordes of Chinese workers, traders, and businessmen into Burma. Native Burmese having lost their land and livelihood to these projects and suffering its environmental degradation were left in the streets to protest. Energy resources were being siphoned off to China while Burmese had to survive with just 4 hours power supply a day. Myitsone dam would be swamping the Irrawaddy area, considered the cradle of Burmese civilization, and could prove to be an earthquake disaster as it is located close to the fault line in the Sagaing Region. The financial review of Letpadaung Copper Mine Project showed only 4% of profits was allocated to the Government of Burma, while the rest 96% were appropriated by the Chinese and Burmese military. Burma’s President Thein Sein, sensing extreme public resentment, suspended the Myitsone Dam Project, the $20-billion railroad linking Kyaukpyu with Yunnan and the Letpadaung copper Mine Project before handing over power to the pro-democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and himself shaved his head and disappeared into the Buddhist order.
The West has now triumphed in Burma and restored democracy, but the new-found freedom is enjoyed more by the Chinese than the Burmese. Around 2 million Chinese from Yunnan have moved into Burma. Central areas of major cities of Burma are now occupied by Chinese, the Burmese living in the outskirts. Aung San Suu Kyi, who got international fame and support and rode to power in Burma as an icon of freedom, democracy, and human rights values, appears to have made a volte face. She has naively ingratiated herself with China with Burma’s recognition of Tibet being a part of China, thereby giving fresh impetus to China to perpetuate unabashedly the reign of terror and grossest form of human rights abuse in Tibet. She is being warmly chaperoned by China to restart the suspended projects, and is in fact chairing the Letpadaung copper Mine Project commission. She had given the go-ahead to restart the project subject to certain conditions but was roundly heckled by the villagers in her visit to the project site.
About the author
Laden Tshering Samdup is a retired businessman, living in Kathmandu. He has MA (Hons) economics from Birla Institute of Technology and Science from Pilani, Rajasthan, India. He can be reached c/o Boudha Peace School, Phulbari, Kathmandu, Nepal.
More articles by Laden Tshering Samdup on Tibet Sun.