By R.S. Kalha*
In early July the decibel pitch in Sino-Myanmar relations rose considerably higher as a result of a Myanmar Civil Court located at Myitkyina awarding Chinese loggers harsh sentences for illegal logging. Of the 155 Chinese loggers, sentenced 150 were given sentences up to 20 years in jail. As could be expected there was considerable heartburning within the Chinese establishment on the severe sentences handed out. Not unnaturally, there were ‘demands’ that the jailed Chinese should be quickly released and brought back home to China.
However, the Chinese authorities also realized that although the Myanmar government professed friendship, public opinion in Myanmar was decidedly turning against the Chinese. This perceptible change in Myanmar public opinion turning adverse against the Chinese had its origins in September 2011 when work on the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam was suspended due to public pressure, since the locals felt this dam was being built entirely to benefit the Chinese and not for Myanmar. Similarly, protests led to the closing of the Letpadaung copper mine in December 2014 that was Chinese funded. The situation reached its lowest point when elements of the Myanmar air force accidently bombed Chinese territory in an attempt to flush out local insurgents fighting Myanmar government troops. The Chinese government protested vigorously, but did not exacerbate the situation further knowing full well that Myanmar plays a unique role in China’s peripheral diplomacy and in its geo-political ambitions. There is no doubt that the China-Myanmar border areas are witness to numerous clashes between ethnic armed forces and government troops for regional dominance, and China in the past has also not played a completely altruistic role in the border regions whatever they may claim now.
In recent times, the Myanmar authorities, aware of the dangers of relying too heavily on the sole support of the Chinese, have tried to broad base their options by making determined overtures to the US, Japan and India. All three countries have reciprocated with enthusiasm that has alarmed the Chinese to the extent that a feeling has been growing in China that its options in Myanmar were being constricted. Several articles have appeared in the Chinese press urging the Chinese authorities to cater to Myanmar public opinion. In fact, one article even suggested a modification of Chinese policy by suggesting that Chinese authorities ‘promote’ Myanmar agricultural activities, since the largest number of Myanmar residents are dependent on agriculture rather than to go in for industrial projects. Certainly, the Chinese authorities are conscious of the need to fine tune their cooperation with Myanmar since they are now conscious that the Myanmar economic space is subject to competition from the US, Japan and India.
With the Myanmar elections due in November this year the Chinese authorities are also aware that any ham-handed effort to obtain the release of the convicted 155 Chinese loggers could easily backfire and put China-Myanmar relations on an irretrievable downward spiral. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities also could not let Chinese loggers stay indefinitely in Myanmar prisons for that too would be seen as a slap in the face of the Xi Jinping government that prides itself as the second most powerful country in the world. Chinese diplomacy therefore had to be quick, effective and outside the public domain particularly the print and visual media.
Fortunately for the Chinese authorities, the Myanmar President U Thein Sein came to their rescue. The Myanmar president has in the past often issued pardons at frequent intervals, and presumably just prior to the Myanmar elections this was one such occasion again. In an act of clemency President U Thein Sein pardoned over 6,000 convicts, including the recently incarcerated 155 Chinese loggers.
It is the Chinese reaction to these events that is most instructive. The rather hawkish English language newspaper The Global Times that is the mouth piece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a surprisingly mature reaction said in an editorial that the release of the Chinese loggers was not a ‘result’ of Chinese diplomacy; for to claim it as such would only amount to showing ‘disrespect’ to the Myanmar authorities. It also said that these Chinese loggers had ‘harmed’ the country’s reputation and that they should be investigated to see if they had violated any Chinese laws, and if they had they should be suitably dealt with in the context of the Chinese judicial system.
This is an instructive and a mature reaction of a government that is conscious of not hurting the sentiments of a smaller but a strategically located neighbor. The Chinese authorities achieved their objectives of obtaining the release of their incarcerated loggers, but at the same time did not give any offense to the Myanmar government. The key however remains as to how the Chinese authorities handle the still very sensitive situation that prevails all along the Sino-Myanmar border. Whether they show equal sensitivity and concern for the Myanmar government in that area remains moot.
*R.S. Kalha is a former Indian diplomat and author of book “India-China boundary issues; Quest for settlement”. He can be contacted at [email protected]