Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beijing’s Burma Embrace

By James Burke
Epoch Times Staff

STRONG BACKING: Burmese military junta leader Gen. Than Shwe reviews a Chinese honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, last September. Than Shwe retired as head of the Burmese military earlier this month, but many believe he still maintains a grip on power inside the isolated country. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
BANGKOK—Off the coast of western Burma, local fishermen are being excluded from their traditional fishing grounds by a large fleet of Chinese trawlers that are supported by the Burmese military authorities.

Arakanese fishermen from the coastal town of Thandwe told exiled-Burmese media Narinjara that thousands of Chinese boats first arrived in October and that Burmese authorities have since restricted local fishing rights. Priority and open access to the sea, they said, has been given to the Chinese fleet and a local firm linked to the Burmese military.

“Now it is like our sea has become part of China, everywhere we look we can see Chinese trawlers fishing freely in the sea while we are being restricted to fishing in our own territory," an unnamed fisherman told Narinjara.

Burmese in exile media sites are peppered with similar stories reporting China’s expanding economic footprint and political influence upon the country.

Anti-Chinese attitudes are high in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military junta), especially in the country’s north, which in recent years has seen a large influx of cashed-up entrepreneurs crossing its northern border with China’s southern Yunnan Province.

“These are people moving into traditionally Burmese or ethnic areas and towns,” said Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic with the London School of Economics. “They are people with money; they are people who can buy local officials.”

The activities of unaccountable Chinese state-run resource companies—including damaging the environmental and forcing the displacement of communities—have advanced anti-Chinese sentiment in the local population.

“This has created not just resentment, it has created a massive and deepening popular hatred within Burmese society,” Maung says.

Large-scale energy projects involving Chinese state-run companies have also drawn international condemnation from human rights groups.

David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma with Human Rights Watch, said that China's energy policies in Burma undoubtedly contribute to human rights abuses, whether they are related to hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River or the massive gas and crude oil pipelines being built through Burma to southern China.

“Infrastructure projects like this often entail widespread abuses, often because the Burmese military is tasked with securing them, and that translates to forced relocations, which we're already seeing in Kachin State of Burma near the dam sites, and forced labor and other abuses by the army,” says Mathieson.

Beijing’s Support

Earlier this month, senior Chinese Communist Party figure, Jia Qinglin, visited the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw, to formalize a raft of deals with the military-dominated regime, including a soft loan and Chinese involvement in three copper mines.

Talks also reportedly covered security issues along the 2,200 km (about 1,370 miles) Sino-Burmese border.

Jia’s visit also highlighted Beijing’s support for Burma’s new so-called civilian government, which critics have described as a front for the junta following farcical elections held in November last year.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Jia is the highest-ranking Party official to visit Burma following a stopover by Premier Wen Jiabao last June.

For Beijing, a freehand in neighboring Burma is especially important for geo-strategic reasons, said John Lee, a foreign policy expert with the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.

“A trading passage through Burma allows future exports to bypass the Malacca Straits, which is a point of potential vulnerability for China,” said Lee.

Along with the gas and oil pipeline, a Burma-China rail link is in the cards and Chinese companies have won contracts to dredge important rivers through the country to allow better vessel navigation.

Genuine Allies

It is much easier to use economic largesse to win over autocratic governments since it is simply a matter of using dollar diplomacy to seduce political and military elites in those countries.

—John Lee, Hudson Institute
Burma is one of two genuine allies that China has, Lee said, adding that the other is North Korea.

“China is much more comfortable dealing with authoritarian regimes than democracies since democracies have to at least pay lip service to political freedom, human rights, rule of law, and transparency,” says Lee.

“It is much easier to use economic largesse to win over autocratic governments since it is simply a matter of using dollar diplomacy to seduce political and military elites in those countries,” he added.

Like other pariah states such as Sudan, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing have long supported Burma’s ruling generals internationally, especially at the United Nations.

During the junta’s violent crackdown on Buddhist monks and pro-democracy protesters in September 2007, both China and Russia used their veto power to diminish U.N. efforts to curb the junta’s excesses. Earlier the same year, both countries vetoed a U.S. resolution that urged Burma’s generals to stop persecuting ethnic minorities and opposition groups.

Thai-based Soe Aung, from the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said Beijing’s international support gives Chinese interests the upper hand in doing business with Burma’s generals.

“There’s evidence that Burma’s military regime favors China over India for some important economic concessions,” Soe said while adding that following Beijing’s support in the U.N. during 2007, Burma granted China a huge gas deal over India, despite India being willing to offer more money.

Mathieson said that Beijing's diplomatic cover has been crucial for the military in Burma to maintain power, not just for the support in multilateral forums, but also through extensive trade-investment and arms sales since 1988.

“I don't think Burma can avoid the criticism of its human rights record—the situation is too bad for that. But what China does is block, time and again, any stronger measures such as U.N. Security Council resolutions, and so far, the formation of a U.N.-led Commission of Inquiry,” said Mathieson.

Mathieson says China, along with Russia, North Korea and others, are why Western sanctions against Burma have been rendered ineffectual. While U.S., the EU, and Australia impose arms embargoes on the regime, those countries ignore them.

“In effect, Burma benefits from an unprincipled benefactor who wants only to preserve its own interests in Burma, not actually see positive change occur,” says Mathieson.

Massive Cash Flows

Maung from the London School of Economics said the massive cash flows coming from China, as well as other Asian nations such as India and Thailand, emboldens the military regime to carry on with a ‘business as usual’ attitude in Burma.

“They [Burmese military] will not see the need to do economic reform, they will see themselves as bringing in money to the country—but that is not development,” Maung said.

“China is not supporting Burma as a country. The Chinese leadership in Beijing is supporting the Burmese military junta and that needs to be clear. Without the Chinese support this junta would not be able to stay intransigent.”

According to the Financial Times, during the 2010–2011 financial year China invested US$10 billion into Burma, a sum which accounts for two-thirds of all foreign investment in the isolated country.

As well as being an important source of natural resources for China, Burma is an important market for its cheap Chinese products. With virtually no domestic manufacturing industry to speak of, consumer goods inside Burma are predominantly Chinese.  

Burma last year was ranked the second most corrupt nation in the world by Berlin-based Transparency International. This year’s national budget again shows that the military remains the regime’s priority.

According to Burmese exile media Mizzima, the military received the largest cut of 2011 budget at around 30 percent, compared to education that got around 4 percent, and health care 1 percent.

The U.S. State Department says that China is the Burmese military’s major supplier of arms and munitions.