Fri, Feb 17, 2012 - Page 9 News List

As Myanmar opens, China alliance frays

China has long been the isolated Myanmar’s only foreign ally, but the country is chafing at Beijing’s influence, even though the easing of sanctions and opening to trade with the West will have little immediate effect

Reuters, MANDALAY, MYANMAR

“I am ready for the sanctions to go. I am building a new factory to export to the United States and Europe. I cannot buy directly some US-made components. I have to go to China and get them from street vendors,” he said.

His friend, Sein Win, believes the market will decide who is better for business in Myanmar: China, Europe or the US.

“Everyone knows that US and European products are expensive compared with those made in China. Market forces will talk and we will still trade with China, as Chinese goods are cheap,” he said in pitch-perfect Mandarin.

Economist Intelligence Unit Asia analyst Manoj Vohra agrees that easing sanctions will not make much of a difference initially.

“We’re not going to see an huge flow of investments by American and European companies immediately, so Myanmar’s dependence on China as a regional ally for economic development and investment will continue,” Vohra said.

However, shoddy treatment of local workers by Chinese companies has caused “huge resentment and discontent,” said Vohra, who thought stiffer competition from Western countries would eventually encourage China to “make the deal sweeter” when doing business on Myanmar.

Post-Myitsone, he added, the message to Chinese investors had changed slightly, to: “Yes, we welcome you — but you have to do more.”

WAVES OF IMMIGRANTS

Chinese have been a formidable presence in Myanmar for centuries.

Immigration swelled during British colonial rule from 1842 to 1948. The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 brought another wave of migrants. When Chinese Communists expelled the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), many fled to Myanmar and Thailand, and then fought with the Burmese government before settling in Taiwan.

Those who stayed behind faced brutal discrimination under the rule of former Burmese leader General Ne Win, who barred ethnic Chinese and other foreigners from owning land, banned Chinese-language education and stoked anti-Chinese violence.

In Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, memories are still vivid of bloody anti-Chinese riots in 1967. Deadly flames engulfed a school. Chinese shops were looted.

“It was a terrible time. Everything changed for us after then,” said shop owner Wu Yan-shun, whose father arrived in Yangon in 1949.

Wu fears the recent political changes could weaken the government’s ties with China, making him and other Chinese vulnerable.

“You can’t rule out that some of the anger people feel against the Chinese will be turned on us again. Relations with China are not so bad now. That could change as Myanmar opens up and there is more debate about ties with China and its influence here,” Wu said.

Backlashes against Chinese have flared before in Southeast Asia, most notably in Malaysia in 1969 and in Indonesia in 1998 before the fall of former Indonesian president Suharto.

Perhaps with this in mind, the Chinese community in Yangon seems strangely un-Chinese, especially when compared with other Southeast Asian cities.

Its “Chinatown” has almost no Chinese restaurants, no Chinese pop music blaring from shops, few Chinese bookstores and limited use of the Chinese script.

There are no government-approved Chinese schools, unlike in Malaysia or Thailand. The city has a few privately run buxiban or “cram schools,” which are just language academies.

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