When officials first turned up demanding Chen Ching-feng remove the Chinese sign above her clothing shop in Myanmar’s biggest northern city, she ignored them.
“When they came back a few days later and asked why the Chinese was still there, I said I had been busy,” the ethnic Chinese resident of Mandalay said, speaking in Mandarin. “They made me take them down immediately and sign an undertaking not to put them back.”
Other ethnic Chinese shop-owners report similar requests, though enforcement is patchy.
Government officials in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, say there is no official ban on Chinese advertisements, but demands to pull them down in Mandalay, a city dominated by Chinese merchants, illustrate mounting unease over Beijing’s expanding influence.
As Myanmar pursues dramatic reforms, its relationship with China — the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest investor and second-biggest trade partner — is changing. In some cases, long-festering resentment is flaring into the open.
During decades of isolation, the former Burma relied on China as its closest diplomatic and military ally. Wide-reaching Western sanctions put in place after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 forced Myanmar to deepen economic ties with China.
However, as Myanmar embarks on the road back to democracy, a once-muffled debate about China’s role is growing louder. The reforms are also taking place as the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China has sharpened since the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia after preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade.
China’s expanding economic influence was never that popular anyway in a country historically suspicious of foreign powers — memories linger of Beijing’s alleged support for the Communist Party of Burma in the 1960s and 1970s. China has its grievances, too. Clashes between Burmese soldiers and various insurgent groups dotting the border with China have killed innocent Chinese and sent refugees streaming across the frontier.
“The government has tried to ban foreign influences before. It seems to be happening again,” said Hu Chieh-chi, a restaurateur in Mandalay, who is an ethnic Chinese and a Myanmar citizen, like Chen.
A two-hour drive away, a grass-roots campaign is forming to halt China’s most strategic investment in Myanmar: twin pipelines that will stretch from the Bay of Bengal to China’s energy-hungry western provinces, bringing oil and natural gas to one of China’s most undeveloped regions.
Activists say they were emboldened by Myanmar’s surprise decision on Sept. 30 to shelve the US$3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone dam under public pressure. US officials said that responsiveness to a public demand was a crucial factor in Washington’s historic rapprochement with Myanmar late last year.
Much is at stake. Myanmar provides populous and landlocked southwestern China a crucial outlet to the sea. A friendly Myanmar helps reassure Beijing, which is increasingly worried about being “encircled” by the US and its allies, from Japan to Australia and India.
TALE OF TWO PIPELINES
From his home overlooking a colonial-era golf course, Kyaw Thiha is clear about what he sees holding back reforms: China.
“This is a democracy. The Chinese ordering us around is not democratic,” said the former political prisoner, who will contest an April 1 parliamentary by-election as a candidate for the opposition National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.