Fri, May 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Chinese influx transforming Myanmar’s quintessential city

As China’s shadow grows in Southeast Asia, residents of Myanmar’s former royal capital, like those in other cities in the region, are lamenting an influx of Chinese migrants

By Denis Gray  /  AP, MANDALAY, Myanmar

Illustration: Mountain people

Myanmar’s last royal capital harbored the most learned Buddhist monks and exquisite artists, citizens speaking the most refined Burmese and cooks who prepared the best curries in the land. Mandalay was rhapsodized as the nation’s cultural core.

Today, along the grand moat of the former royal palace, Chinese music rings out as people perform taichi exercises, a sign of an uneasy transformation taking place in Myanmar’s second-largest city.

This once quintessential Burmese metropolis, residents say, is losing its traditions as a massive influx of Chinese migrants reshapes it in their own likeness.

“I feel that I am no longer a resident of Mandalay,” 30-year-old journalist Nyi Nyi Zaw said, adding that problems between Burmese and Chinese caused by the changing dynamics have become a staple of his reporting.

“They [Chinese] look like the residents,” he said. “They have money, so they have the power.”

This makeover of Mandalay — located about 300km from China’s Yunnan Province and at the crossroads of trade, transport and smuggling routes — reflects a Chinese footprint across Southeast Asia that has grown alongside Beijing’s economic and military clout.

Moreover, it is one that is expected to widen as China pushes forward with its Belt and Road Initiative to link Eurasian nations via land and sea routes.

Propelled by Beijing’s policy of encouraging Chinese enterprises to expand abroad, as well as official Chinese government investment in its neighbors’ infrastructure, the influx has sparked a measure of prosperity in some impoverished Southeast Asian regions.

However, along with it has come local resentment, sometimes anger, at perceived Chinese aggressiveness, cultural insensitivity and environmental damage.

Chinese have been drawn to Southeast Asia for centuries, with waves of migrants fleeing war, revolution and starvation in the first half of the 20th century. While most of them came with little more than the shirts on their backs, many of the latest migrants are arriving with cash and savvy.

“Out of the 10 top entrepreneurs in Mandalay, seven are Chinese,” Mandalay Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry vice president Win Htay said.

Chinese in the city own everything from small noodle shops to expensive commercial buildings, he said.

He estimated that about 60 percent of Mandalay’s economy, including the key industries, is now in Chinese hands.

Next to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, Chinese are building a virtually new city on more than 300 hectares of government-provided land that is expected to cater to an influx of migrants coming to work on Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, reshaping the once sleepy town on the banks of the Mekong River.

Residents of Sihanoukville are calling Cambodia’s only seaport “China Town” as more Chinese corner real estate and settle in a country that has turned from the West toward Beijing, now its key political and economic supporter.

Spearheaded by a surge of Chinese tourists, condominiums and second homes marketed to Chinese are sprouting in the northern Thailand hub of Chiang Mai, along with both legal and illegal businesses catering to their needs. A tourist with no knowledge of Thai or English can now hire an unlicensed Chinese taxi driver or even a bodyguard.

Chinese investment has increased sharply in Malaysia, sparking concerns over sovereignty. In addition to mega ventures including a US$100 billion property development project, Chinese state-linked firms have also bought assets linked to the indebted 1Malaysia Development Bhd state fund, which was set up by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and is being investigated by the US and other countries for embezzlement and money laundering.

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