The Kachin Borderlands
By Patrick Boehler, Le Monde Diplo 6/12 Patrick Boehler, Le Monde Diplo 6/12
Jun 20, 2012 - 9:27:01 AM
Two children played on the steep path that leads up to a temple in a sleepy Chinese border town: beyond the temple lies Burma. The children live in Burma, and go to school in China. From the temple hilltop, you can see a vast valley of fields between mountain ranges and banana plantations. There is no fence or guard, so crossing into Burma is just a leisurely walk downhill. The children said that crossing was a daily routine, as it is for thousands of others.
Chinese statistics put the crossings at the main border checkpoint of Ruili at more than ten million people last year. More are expected within the next three years as highway and railway projects are completed and a special economic zone is finalised on the Burmese side. The border areas have so far been mostly undeveloped with few asphalted roads and no linking railway lines. But on the Chinese side, there have been recent infrastructure projects in border towns, providing jobs to migrants from Burma and other parts of China. Chinese investors dominate vast areas on the Burmese side despite ongoing civil war there: peace would promote Chinese infrastructure projects which could provide the Chinese with alternative supply routes away from the contentious South China Sea. (Territorial disputes between China and its neighbours have the potential to cut off vital sea-lanes.)
Burma has been slowly moving towards peace and reconciliation, with national parliamentary by-elections and negotiations with ethnic rebels in the border areas. The Chinese authorities have taken a leading role in mediation with the guerrilla forces, most prominently the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). This has been fighting for self-rule for the Burmese ethnic Kachin community in Kachin State since 1961; the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) is its political wing. Their war for first independence and now autonomy was forgotten until very recently. It ended with a ceasefire in 1994, but Kachin State returned to war last June, with the Burmese army and the KIA accusing each other of breaking the ceasefire.
Newly dug trenches separate the Kachin rebels from Burma; China is their only window to the world. Relations between the Chinese authorities and the Kachin separatists are fragile at best, and secret. “We have to have a relationship with China, and a good one, because we share a border with them,” the KIA’s vice chief of staff S Gun Maw told me. The Chinese “just want stability along the border. So there has been some contact in regard to border stability, but no other contact apart from that.”
“The Chinese side has consistently adhered to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” said an official with the Chinese embassy in Rangoon. China “supports both sides solving their differences through peaceful negotiations,” he added, pointing to peace negotiations between the rebel movement and the Burmese government in the Chinese border town of Ruili. “Higher Chinese officials come, but only during the night and not through the official gate,” said a KIA official (1).
China has hosted the last three of five rounds of negotiations between the Burmese government and the KIO since fighting began again. On 10 March, a security official of the Yunnan provincial government for the first time publicly conceded that China was mediating in the conflict. The talks have so far failed to lead either to the ceasefire demanded by the Burmese delegation or the political dialogue demanded by the KIO delegation.
Chinese infrastructure projects in Burma — pipeline, railway line and dam construction projects — depend on peace in Kachin State. Two pipelines are expected to transport 12bn cubic metres of gas and 22m tons of oil a year from two Chinese-built ports near Kyaupkyu in the Bay of Bengal to China’s energy-hungry central provinces. The pipelines will “alleviate the risk in energy transports and enhance China’s ability to cope with the complex international situation,” said Qin Guangrong, then Yunnan governor and a leading figure pushing for the pipelines’ construction, in his 2010 report to the provincial People’s Congress (2).
State-owned hydropower giant China Power Investment Corp has been pushing for the construction of a hydroelectric dam — Burma’s largest — on the Myitsone confluence of two rivers in Kachin State: 90% of the electricity would go to China’s border province of Yunnan. There has been popular opposition, including the KIA, in Kachin State, which has led to the suspension of the project. But lobbying by the Chinese investors and authorities has continued, according to reports from Kachin State news outlets (3). China Power Investment Corp representatives have hinted to Chinese media that the KIA asked for a cut of the dam profits, but its demands were turned down. General Gun Maw denied the allegations.
The Kachin rebels depend on Chinese imports to survive. Since the fighting restarted almost everything — bank transfers, rice, cars, medicine — comes from China. After the failure of peace talks, any access to Burma means smuggling through China. Only twice since June 2011 have UN aid convoys been able to bring much-needed medical and food supplies through the front lines to the tens of thousands of refugees stranded in KIO-controlled territory.
Since 2005 Laiza, a town on the border that is the shallow Je Yang River, has been the KIA/KIO’s makeshift capital. Two guerrilla soldiers guard one side of a 10-metre bridge. On the other side is a Chinese border checkpoint with loudspeakers and cameras. Their checks are rigorous. “Five days ago, a friend came from Rangoon,” KIA Lieutenant Geng Du Awng told me. “He brought a book on Osama bin Laden. At the gate the Chinese saw the picture of Bin Laden on the cover and took away the book.” For a 5-yuan fee, the KIA immigration office issues daily visas to Chinese citizens. Few cars and people pass through; some are Chinese gamblers or petty traders.
Almost everyone else uses one of the two illegal crossings a few kilometres from Laiza. By day and night, trucks exporting teak line up to cross a bridge. “Eighty per cent of the trade happens illegally,” said a Chinese trader in agricultural exports. “There are a lot of restrictions on exports to China,” said a KIO official. “Except logging, because that is run by Chinese businessmen.”
Gun Maw’s right-hand man, a Kachin with Chinese citizenship, said he travelled frequently to Guangdong Province to sell jade. He drives a Chinese Buick minivan with Chinese number plates and listens to Chinese hip-hop. We met at a wedding, where a Chinese businessman came over to toast us: according to the jade-seller, the businessman ran satellite communications for the KIO. He worked for a company owned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. “They had unused channels on their satellite, so they sell them to us,” he said.
In 2008, Chinese telephone and internet landlines in Laiza were cut, but the satellite communications for the front lines and remoter areas remain Chinese. Chinese mobile phones are used for day-to-day communications; most Kachin officials have several numbers.
Banks, casinos and transvestites
The currency in Laiza is the Chinese yuan; Burmese kyat can be exchanged in several stores at the border. Just yards from the border crossing, the Rawt Jagt Bank advertises savings accounts in Chinese, Kachin and Burmese on its window. The KIA “use the bank to send money for people who go abroad secretly”, a KIA official said. A 2012 calendar for the Laiza Development Bank, noting Hong Kong bank holidays, hung in a nearby restaurant. Officials said the bank had closed down in 2005 and would say no more.
The KIO runs casinos in Laiza and nearby Mai Jayang, with hotel accommodation for 150 people, both for Chinese gamblers and their surrogates, who work through internet videophone. The casinos host Thai transvestite shows and even a troupe of Russian dancers. “Children of Chinese officials became a problem,” said a KIO official. “They borrow money from the [casino] owner to gamble, pay after a phone call to their parents. When parents stop sending money, we keep them in the hotel until parents pay up.” Keeping them is not kidnapping: “They get food and housing, they just can’t leave. We make a lot of money.”
Several officials confirmed the scarcity of food and medical supplies in Laiza. Chinese border controls do not allow imports of essential supplies and frustration pushes the KIA’s secretive minders to speak. “We have the money to buy food, but we are not allowed to import it,” said KIA lieutenant Geng Du Awng. “We cannot legally bring in Chinese food items,” said La Rip, 41, head of the Kachin Development Group, a KIO organisation for the thousands displaced by the fighting. “The Chinese don’t allow us to bring a lot of medicine. But we have to find a way to get it to the camps.” Medicine is smuggled in from China, according to Dr Zaw Bawk, 32, who trained at a college in Baoshan, a Chinese city near the border.
The fighting has displaced an estimated 45,000 ethnic Kachin. Roughly 7,200 live in nine camps on Chinese territory, mostly in Nongdao and Laying near Ruili, according to KIO estimates. Until last month, Chinese authorities and media reports denied their existence. In a first admission during the People’s Congress in Beijing in March (4), Yunnan Provincial Security Department Director Meng Sutie put their number at 2,000-3,000. Instead of “refugees”, he called them “border residents”. If they use the word refugee, La Rip said, “they have to allow refugee status. They don’t want international organisations to get involved.” Had the Chinese authorities provided any help to the thousands of Kachin refugees stranded on both sides of the border? “I don’t see any.”
A board in the administration hut of the Je Yang Camp for internally displaced people lists the origin of all 5,735 residents. The list also includes 16 volunteers from China, who provide basic medical care. They refused to be interviewed. A woman working with them said that they were Christians from Henan and feared arrest by the Chinese authorities.
La Rip knew of nine cases of girls being trafficked from the camps to China: “The local people and sometimes even parents do it.” Smuggling is easy given the shallowness of the river border, Sang Bu, 34, lived in the Wai Chyai camp until she was arrested for opium use in February: “I first used it against stomach ache and then got fond of it.” She bought the opium on the Chinese side of the border for 20 yuan a dose. She is now among 128 people in a single-storey detention facility.
The KIO Central Committee decided in 2010 to clamp down on drug use, according to the assistant secretary of the Drug Eradication Committee, Gam Ba. He blamed Chinese businessmen for bringing opium addiction to Kachin State. “In 1974-75 some Chinese came to our territory and started growing opium. We don’t know where they are from, but they are Chinese. Then after 1980, they became more and started trading methamphetamines.”
“We had our first big number of drug users in Pakang,” he said, referring to a KIO jade mining site. “Now, most drugs come from Shan State,” just south of Kachin State. “After the (1994) peace agreement, development brought drugs back. Drug sellers come to jade and gold mining areas.” Then “the KIO and military together tried to destroy opium fields, but it increased.” His office confiscated 276 plastic soapboxes stuffed with powdered heroin, 107 bottles with liquid heroin, 1.5 kilograms of pure opium and “42,699 pills” over the last year.
‘Of course it’s better in China’
Good things come from China too. The KIO invested in sending 35 students to the Baoshan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine for basic medical training, in 2007 and in 2009. The college had trained 71 Burmese students between 2003 and 2007 on a course for general practitioners. Dr Zaw Bawk studied there for three years, enough to be a GP in Laiza. Another GP, Jang Maw Lapa, 28, has been working in the ramshackle Laiza hospital for seven months: “I wanted to be a soldier, but the leaders told me to study.” The KIO covered his study and housing fees. He did not receive any financial support from China, but “they gave us clothes in winter”. Of his batch of students, 13 work in Laiza; the others serve on the front line.
Patients too ill to be treated at the hospital are taken to China. They are given a Burmese passport by Burmese officials for a 100-yuan bribe. Then they head to Mangshi, a town near Ruili, where four KIO staff accommodate them in an apartment and arrange for treatment by Chinese doctors. The closest Chinese hospital in Yingjiang has refused patients from KIA-controlled territory, according to the head of the Laiza hospital, Major Prang Mai.
I asked a saleswoman at a Chinese store near KIA headquarters if it was better to live in China. “Of course, it’s better in China. There is nothing here,” she answered, amazed at the stupid question. For young people, China can satisfy personal aspirations far better than distant Rangoon, Mandalay or the desolate Kachin state capital of Myitkyina, where “60-70% of [the] students take drugs,” said a KIO official. Since the fighting restarted, students from KIO-controlled territory have been barred from studying in other parts of Burma.
Laiza High School is one of four high schools in KIO-controlled territory. Since 2007, some students are allowed to study in China after extra training by Chinese teachers in Laiza. “Here we have contact with the Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming. They set up a branch here for teaching, then the students can study at the university,” said the secretary of the Central Education Department, Yaw Sau. Some students prepare for China with extracurricular language classes. While Burmese, Kachin and English are compulsory subjects, Chinese is not.
Gun Maw’s children live in China, a KIA official told me. We were at a bachelor party with Chinese Yanjing beer (and imported Budweiser beer), Yunnan cigarettes and Kachin patriotic war songs. A jolly Chinese businessman offered me a cigarette and a beer — and the claims that the KIA and the Chinese had “no other contact apart from border security” didn’t seem credible.
(1) Wary of retributions and being blamed for hurting Kachin business ties to China, most people interviewed for this article in Laiza did not wish to be identified.
(2) “Yunnan Provincial People’s Government Work Report 2010”, Yunnan, 22 January 2010.
(3) See kachinnews.com and kachinnet.net
(4) Yunnan News, Beijing, 6 May 2012.
Source: Ocnus.net 2012