April 03, 2008
Burma: The Chinese Connection
BY Orlando de Guzman
Chinese military transport trucks on the China-Burma border awaiting delivery to the Burmese Army.
Watch a video interview with a Burmese prostitute forced to leave Rangoon after the military crackdown last September and find work in the boomtowns on the Chinese side of the border.
Here at the Chinese town of Jie Gao, on the Burmese border, a fleet of military trucks waits to cross into Burma. For many, the long lineup of vehicles is further evidence that China continues to undermine U.S.-backed sanctions against Burma's military junta. The approximately 100 drab green, light-transport vehicles are designed and built by the Chinese-owned Tongfeng Company. The vehicles -- in addition to more than 400 delivered last year -- are destined for Burmese army units across the country. Trucks from the 2007 delivery, according to Burmese bloggers, moved troops into Rangoon to crush a popular uprising led by Buddhist monks last September.
Jie Gao lies along the historic Burma Road, a 717-mile highway built by the Allies during the Second World War. The artery winds through the rugged mountains of Burma's northern Shan State. Today, the road is the Burmese military regime's lifeline to China, its second largest trading partner after Thailand.
Today, the Burma Road is the Burmese military regime's lifeline to China, its second largest trading partner after Thailand.
A narrow strip of Chinese territory along the Ruili River in Yunnan province, Jie Gao is officially a free trade zone, allowing businesspeople from both countries to exchange goods tax-free. It is not difficult to differentiate which products are coming from which side of the border: Jade, timber, scrap metal, exotic animals and drugs arrive from Burma; cheap electronics, plastic chairs, fan belts, tires, motorcycles and other manufactured goods from China.
According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, China sent $1.21 billion worth of goods to Burma last year, and the country imported about $220 million of Burmese goods. Those are official trade figures, which lack information about the vast network of illicit or ad hoc trade between the two countries.
"Sixty or seventy percent of all border trade here is based on illegal businesses," says Aung Kyaw Zaw, former anti-government Burmese rebel and longtime resident of the border region. He took me on a tour of Jie Gao, along its newly paved streets, which have been given utilitarian names. There's Street Number 1, Street Number 2, and so on. We stopped at Street Number 4 to take a look.
"Street Number Four is famous because it is the favorite place for dealers selling Number 4," Aung Kyaw Zaw laughs, referring to Burmese heroin, purified to the injectable "fourth" stage.
The Chinese police have mostly turned a blind eye to what goes on in Jie Gao. In this vast free trade zone, China and Burma meld together -- shops advertise in both Burmese script and Chinese characters, and businesspeople seal deals over cups of sweet Burmese tea.
"The trade in Jie Gao seems to be increasing every year, and most of it is from illegal narcotics," says Aung Kyaw Zaw. "There are three kinds of drug dealers here. The first kind moves the drugs by the ton; the second kind moves half a ton or less at a time; the third kind of dealers are the ones you see in the street here, who sell to the local addicts." Authorities, he adds, mostly go after the small-time pushers.
Ei Ei So arrived in China after the Burmese military imposed a curfew in Rangoon. She works in this brothel, earning about $2 per customer.
Along the Burmese frontier, Chinese boomtowns are sprouting up, bankrolled in large part by the trade in narcotics, jade and timber from Burma. One such town is Ruili, just over the river from the Jie Gao Free Trade Zone.
I first visited Ruili four years ago. Back then, the construction boom brought a volatile mix of men, cash, drugs and sex. China's first AIDS cases were discovered here in the early 1980s.
These days the atmosphere in Ruili is less frenetic. It feels like a town that is finally settling into its self, after going through a spasm of growth. The thousands of Chinese construction workers, who'd come for the building boom, have left. Many of the Burmese prostitutes who flocked here during the boom are also gone.
"In the past, you could see men and women shooting heroin openly in the streets," a longtime Ruili resident tells me. "But today, Ruili is much cleaner, more modern."
But the town has not fully shaken its sleazy reputation. Heroin trade has decreased slightly, but amphetamines -- another Burmese export -- are flooding the streets along the China-Burma border. There are still dozens of brothels, advertising both Burmese and Chinese women.
The Kachin, an ethnic group that signed a ceasefire deal with the Burmese military, has opened up its land for business and launched plans to build massive casinos, which are illegal in China.
Last October, I met Ei Ei So, (see accompanying video) a young Burmese woman on the outskirts of Ruili; she had just arrived from Rangoon in search of work as a prostitute. She said the curfew imposed by the government after the September 2007 demonstrations closed down the city's nightlife, and it became harder for her to survive. She joins several million Burmese migrants who've left their country for places like China, India, Malaysia and Thailand, often working in high-risk jobs for very low pay.
Ruili also boasts a large jade market, where uncut stones, some worth tens of thousands of dollars, are laid out on plastic tables.
Imperial jade, only found in the mines of Burma's northern Kachin State, comes in different shades of green. Most of what is sold here comes through the black market, smuggled out of Burma via the northern city of Mandalay, along the Burma Road.
"At every stage of the way, someone is involved," says a jade trader, who preferred not to reveal his name because he travels to Burma for business.
Ruili's story is being repeated in many other places along the border. The construction boom has moved, I was told, to a small village called Mai Ja Yang, on the Burmese side of the border. The Kachin, an ethnic group that signed a ceasefire deal with the Burmese military, has opened up its land for business and launched an ambitious plan to build massive casinos, which are illegal in China but in great demand among Chinese residents who regularly come over the border to gamble for the day.
A drug addict smokes amphetamines in Ruili. While the sale and use of heroin has decreased, there has been a significant rise in the use of amphetamines produced and shipped over the border from Burma.
Huge hotels, built by armies of Chinese workers bivouacked into Burma, are sprouting from farmland. I had visited Mai Ja Yang when it was nothing more than a farming village, and now I wanted to see how it was changing. But days before my scheduled trip, a local Chinese official played his cards wrong in one of the casinos and squandered vast sums of public money. In response to the scandal, Chinese authorities, which cannot close casinos on sovereign land, stopped people from crossing the border into the Burmese gambling oasis.
So instead, I met with a resident of Mai Ja Yang, who came to see me in Ruili. "Our village has grown up very fast," she says. (To protect her identity, I am not using her name.) Chinese police and intelligence agents do not look kindly upon foreign journalists poking around this sensitive border region, and our meeting had to be arranged secretly. "There are so many casinos now, as well as brothels," she tells me.
The ethnic Kachin living along the border have for years watched a steady convoy of Chinese trucks rumble past their villages, carrying precious hardwoods logged from their homeland. A Chinese ban on logs imported from Burma has reduced the timber trade significantly, but the illegal logging exports still line the pockets of both Chinese businesspeople and the Burmese military, according to local residents.
"If the Chinese want to carry out the logs, they have to give a bribe to the Burmese army, and so the Burmese army will say, 'OK, tonight you can pass,' and 100 to 200 trucks will pass in one night," says the resident of Mai Ja Yang.
"All this growth on the Chinese side is generated from the natural resources of Burma," she says, pointing at Ruili's cluttered skyline from my hotel window, "and what have we gotten back?"
Orlando de Guzman is a freelance radio and video journalist who has been covering Southeast Asia since 2000. His radio reports are regularly broadcast on Public Radio International's The World, and his television documentaries on Indonesia and the Philippines have aired on FRONTLINE/World. Both stories are available to watch online.
More FRONTLINE/World Coverage on Burma
Burma: State of Fear
Watch our report from October 2006, when FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams travels undercover to Burma to expose the violence and repression carried out by Burma's government against its own people.
Burma: No Turning Back
Watch dramatic video footage shot in Rangoon on September 27, 2007, the day the Burmese military violently cracked down on unarmed democracy protesters. The reporter who captured the footage was the only Western journalist in the middle of the crowds throughout. Also read his eyewitness account.