Guest Column

The Guilty and the Innocent: China and Illegal Logging in Myanmar

By Yun Sun 22 January 2015

The recent escalation of tensions in northern Myanmar as the result of the Myanmar military’s crackdown on illegal logging and timber trade once again pushed the issue of Myanmar high up on China’s foreign policy priorities. Some are worried about rising armed conflict along the Chinese border, refugee inflows and the attendant national security challenges. Some are concerned with the potential role the United States has played in the escalation of tensions and China’s strategic vulnerability if the United States is seeping into China’s “backyard.” More importantly, since more than 100 allegedly Chinese illegal loggers were arrested during the crackdown and hundreds of Chinese workers reportedly trapped in the volatile conflict zone, the security of overseas Chinese nationals has once again become a heatedly discussed topic in China. Nationalists have called for China’s political and even military intervention in the conflict to “rescue” the Chinese.

Many Chinese analysts and media hold the strong view that the Chinese loggers are somehow innocent. Despite common knowledge that the Myanmar government had imposed a timber export ban since April 1, 2014, they insist that Chinese logging in northern Myanmar is acceptable because the Chinese businessmen had obtained approval and permits for their activities from local ethnic groups and the local military. To ship the timber back to China, they pay these local authorities hundreds of dollars in tolls per truck. From their perspective, since all local “procedures” and “requirements” are fulfilled, they are no longer legally liable. It is further argued that the recent crackdown on illegal logging resulted from disagreements on how to divide up the spoils within the Myanmar military, rather than enforcement of the law.

The ethnic groups also plead “not guilty.” The distribution of economic benefits related to natural resources in their own territory has always been a major sore spot between ethnic groups and the Myanmar government. Believing themselves to be the rightful owners of the resources on their land, ethnic groups such as the Kachin have bargained fiercely. The issue has also been a major obstacle in peace negotiations, hindering the conclusion of a nationwide peace accord. Especially for groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the resource extraction and trade with China are a main source of revenue, regardless of its legality. It is also a practice with an established history, so some have argued for a case of legal precedent.

From the Myanmar government and military’s perspective, cracking down on illegal logging is the state’s legal responsibility. According to government officials, because the Ministry of Forestry’s law enforcement capacity is limited in northern Myanmar’s conflict zones, the better-equipped Myanmar military carried out the mission. Strategically, the crackdown does serve to undermine and block the ethnic groups’ revenue, but that fact does not make the action any less legitimate. On their side, one group is indeed guilty: the corrupted local government officials and military officers who have allowed the illegal logging and smuggling to continue for their own personal benefit.

While everyone is motivated by their own interests, the only two parties worthy of being called “innocent”—also the biggest victims—are Myanmar’s forest and the local people. According to the Myanmar government, the percentage of its territory covered by forest has dwindled from more than 60 percent in the 1970s to around 40 percent in 2010. There are different figures on the country’s current forest coverage, although both Chinese state media and a Myanmar news outlet reported a 20 percent figure in 2012 and 2013, respectively, with both citing government officials.

Chinese loggers complain that they can no longer find logs of decent size in Kachin State and now have to travel deep into the Sagaing Division in search of exploitable timber. The longer travel distance means higher shipment costs and more money to be paid to local officials and military officers for safe passage. Yet the business has continued and prospered, raising wild assumptions about how much profit they are making. Indeed, people on the Chinese side of the border passionately see illegal logging in Myanmar as an easy and quick way to get rich as long as they know how to “handle relations with the locals in charge.”

The greed undermines everything. Few people are concerned about the sustainable development of local communities beyond the exhaustion of timber and other natural resources. Locals’ definition of a good future is reduced to making enough money out of the resource while it lasts and get their families out. The vested interests hinder the peace process between the central government and local ethnic groups; the less managed and monitored the region is, the easier it is for people to reap personal benefits at others’ expense.

In this sense, China’s commercial interests have fueled and exacerbated ethnic conflicts inside Myanmar. The Chinese government might claim that such illegal resource extraction is carried out by individual businessmen and do not represent Beijing’s policy. However, the authorities have been inexcusably sluggish in actively preventing or managing the situation through simple measures such as blocking the entry of illegal timber at the border or strict inspection of timber materials and serious punishment for transporting or possessing illegal timber. For anyone who has witnessed the hundreds of timber trucks in the Yunnan border town of Ruili, fully loaded with logs from Myanmar, it is difficult to believe that the Chinese government has done its fair share in preventing the illegal trade.

Therefore, the so-called “rescue” of the illegal Chinese loggers captured and detained in Myanmar is a nonissue and an oxymoron. Any Chinese worker or businessman operating in Myanmar against the Myanmar law should be put on trial and prosecuted based on territorial jurisdiction. China has in the past prosecuted and executed foreign offenders according to Chinese law, and therefore should respect the Myanmar government’s jurisdiction over the case. To call for China’s political or military intervention is not only ignorant, but also represents a dangerous hegemonic foreign policy dimension that China should be particularly warned against.

Under the four principles established by President Xi Jinping for China’s peripheral foreign policy—amity, honesty, mutual benefits and tolerance—China needs to demonstrate genuine concern and support for Myanmar’s national reconciliation and development through real actions. Allowing the illegal trade to prosper fuels the conflict and deepens the disparity between the government and ethnic groups. Watching local communities’ futures be destroyed is neither amicable nor honest. Nor is it beneficial to Myanmar. Simply claiming that Sino-Myanmar relations are in great shape does not do the job. Real actions need to be taken by China to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.

Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.