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BURMA: China Has Much at Stake

Analysis by Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Oct 1 2007 (IPS) - Jarring against a dearth of official news about the turmoil in Burma, the ‘Southern Weekend’ – one of China’s more liberal official newspapers – has chosen to run a lengthy feature about an ethnic Chinese entrepreneur striking it rich in the jade business in that neighbouring country.

Burma&#39s Buddhist monks risked the wrath of the junta by leading street protests Credit: Myo Khin/Mizzima News

Burma's Buddhist monks risked the wrath of the junta by leading street protests Credit: Myo Khin/Mizzima News

But the feature was curiously apt. Describing the country as the "jade kingdom on earth" where fortune is easily made as long as one is hard-working, the article effectively perpetuated a centuries-old perception here of Burma as a country of riches from which successive Chinese dynasties commanded a tribute.

Tellingly, the weekender article steered around Burma’s current state of turmoil and the brutal suppression by the military junta of peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

The event eerily resembles China’s own suppression, in 1989, of student-led democracy protests. And it comes at a time when Beijing is preparing to hold the 17th congress of its ruling Communist Party and is wary of anything could jeopardise the country’s fragile social stability.

However much the official Chinese press chooses to ignore popular calls for political change in Burma, China’s rulers have a long history of involvement in the country’s fortunes and hold a unique capacity to influence its future.

Going back 800 years to the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol rulers of China invaded Burma three times. There were two more invasions by the succeeding Ming Dynasty. And under the sway of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, Burma came to be regarded as a vassal state whose kings were regularly sending tributary missions to Beijing along with gifts of elephants.

This traditional patron-vassal relationship became fiercely ideological under the reign of China’s communist Chairman Mao Zedong (1949-1976) when Beijing wanted to establish itself as the leader of a world revolution and take over the leadership of the communist movement from Moscow.

Under Mao, China financed and trained long-running insurgencies over the whole of South-east Asia. In Burma, it supported the now defunct Burmese Communist Party, which several times came close to winning power.

Over the years the Chinese grew to dominate Burmese trade in many commodities, including rice. Resentment sometimes exploded into anti-Chinese riots. Chinese shops and warehouses were ransacked and Chinese homes burnt down.

Such anti-Chinese riots gave China an excuse to invade Burma in 1968. In an undeclared war, that was little noticed because it took place during the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Beijing sent 30,000 heavily armed troops who rapidly occupied swaths of the country and forced the government of Gen. Ne Win to negotiate.

But the effort to spearhead a communist revolution across the region and the cost of subsidising large-scale insurgencies like that in Burma had exhausted communist China – itself impoverished and starving.

The death of Mao in 1976 signalled the end of an era of ideological crusades and failed industrial campaigns. China assumed a low profile in international affairs and concentrated on rebuilding relations and gaining an economic foothold in the region.

Since 1990 China has been the only big country backing the military junta that rules Burma, supplying it with aid and arms. Observers reckon Beijing has provided the generals with more than two billion dollars worth of arms and ammunition. In return, China has received teak and gems, promises of Burma’s oil and gas reserves through a planned pipeline and access to a large market for its cheap consumer goods.

Around a million Chinese are said to have migrated to Burma, dealing in trade, constructing dams and laying a road that, when ready, will stretch from the Chinese border across Burma to its shores. Isolated by western countries, Burma’s rulers have become ever more dependent on trade with China. Two-way trade doubled between 1999 and 2005 to 1.2 billion US dollars.

Protecting its investments and business interests, China has also come to play the role of Burma’s staunchest supporter at the United Nations. It has consistently resisted action against Rangoon, insisting that its behind-the-scenes political negotiations work better with the regime than imposing sanctions.

While the international community deplored the bloodshed in Rangoon and other cities last week, China blocked calls for a strong statement condemning Burma’s repressive actions. China’s U.N. ambassador Wang Guangya told the media afterwards that the situation in Burma did not "constitute a threat to international and regional peace", the formal threshold needed for Security Council action.

Yet despite appearances of inaction on Beijing’s part, foreign diplomats here believe China would seek to exert pressure on the Burmese military to prevent a repetition of the 1988 massacre, when 3,000 peaceful protesters were killed by the army.

"The stakes are too high for China," said one Western diplomat. "They have been criticised for remaining passive in Sudan for far too long and don’t want to have another Darfur crisis unfolding right at their doorstep".

The approach of the 2008 Beijing Olympics has brought heightened international scrutiny on China and its leaders are loath to see the preparations marred by any association with a Burmese massacre that some are already calling the "Asian Darfur".

In meetings with Burmese leaders last month, Chinese diplomats were unusually forthright about the possibility of violent suppression of peaceful protests that were gathering momentum in Rangoon and other cities.

"China, as a friendly neighbour of Myanmar (Burma’s formal name as used by the junta), sincerely hopes Myanmar would restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation," the Xinhua News agency quoted state councillor Tang Jiaxuan as telling visiting junta leader Gen. Than Shwe.

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