Burma: Big Trouble Brewing for China

By Bertil Lintner

Following the Burmese government's suspension of a controversial joint-venture hydroelectric dam project with China in the far north of the country, another flashpoint has emerged in relations between the two countries - a massive copper mine at Latpadaung, a mountain near Monywa northwest of Mandalay in Upper Burma.

The Myitsone hydroelectric project, being built to supply power to China, was cancelled in the face of strong local resistance. This time, local residents are protesting against a Chinese company. Wanbao Mining is in a joint venture with the Burmese military's main commercial enterprise, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, or UMEH, accused of destroying cultivated fields, polluting nearby water sources and desecrating Buddhist shrines. No less than 7,800 acres of land from 26 surrounding villages were confiscated for the project.

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The public outcry could also force China to rethink its often insensitive - some would say aggressive - policies towards smaller countries in the region.

UMEH's involvement is merely as a recipient of fees from Wanbao, a subsidiary of the North Industries Corporation, or Norinco, China's main weapons manufacturer which is also involved in other business activities.

When the agreement between Norinco and the government of Burma was signed 10 June 2010, the Chinese company said on its website that Monywa is "abundant in copper mine resources with excellent mineral quality, which is of great significance to strengthening the strategic reserve of copper resources in our country, and to enhancing the influence of our country in Myanmar (Burma)."

That influence is now on the wane as Burma tries hard to distance itself from China - which for more than two decades has exerted considerable economic, political and even military influence over this Southeast Asian country - while improving political relations with the United States, the European Union and Japan. But after last year's suspension of the US$3.6 billion joint venture Myitsone dam project in the northern Kachin State, which shocked the Chinese, Burma must tread carefully in dealing with Wanbao Mining. For the country's new leaders, it is a dilemma: They cannot crack down on the movement in Monywa without risking its still tenuous relationship with the West. But a continuing struggle could impact relations with Burma's powerful northern neighbor.

The campaign against the Chinese company is led by two unlikely local heroes: Thwe Thwe Win, 29, and Aye Net, 34. Neither of the two young women has more than the compulsory five-year primary education behind her, and more than a year ago, both were selling vegetables in the local market in Monywa.

"The Chinese company came and bulldozed our fields and the Chinese officials made rude gestures at us when we came to complain," says Thwe Thwe Win in an interview in Monywa.

The police did nothing, except arrest the two women and some of their comrades. That ignited a mass movement, at a time when freedom of expression is becoming tolerated in Burma after decades of iron-fisted military rule and when anti-Chinese sentiment is rising across the country. Student and labor activists from the old capital Rangoon and elsewhere traveled to Monywa to show support. On 26 October, more than 1,000 local miners, Buddhist monks and members of the general public defied an order by local authorities restricting access to the mine and marched past roadblocks to make merit at a pagoda inside the mining area.

The two women vow not to give up until the project is scrapped and the Chinese company leaves Monywa.

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Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several works on Asia, including Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia" and "Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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