Guest Column

When the Chinese Press Down

By Min Zin 14 August 2013

We are afraid of China,” said President’s Office Minister U Aung Min last November during a public meeting in Monywa, central Myanmar, where local people had been protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine. U Aung Min, who once fought hard against the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma, told protesters demanding a complete shutdown of the Letpadaung mining project that, “We don’t dare to have a row with China!”

“If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide,” he added. “So you better think seriously.”

Of course, any serious observer would agree that no matter who is running the country, Myanmar must be sensitive (the word “afraid” is not politically savvy) to its northeastern neighbor. However, the minister’s statement drew outrage from the activists and general public. In newsweeklies and on social media websites such as Facebook, people went wild with comments, labeling the Chinese as exploitive and the Myanmar government as betraying the nation’s interests, with U Aung Min bearing the brunt of anti-China sentiment.

Despite the official rhetoric by both countries about China and Myanmar’s unique paukphaw (fraternal) relationship, a large number of Myanmars do not seem to regard China as a compassionate brother. In the sibling hierarchy, China enjoys the role of the paternalistic older brother, and Myanmar of the younger.

In the wake of the 1988 pro-democracy popular uprising, and after the subsequent military takeover, Myanmar relied on China for political, economic and military support—with profound internal and international ramifications. In a domestic context, the public became increasingly intolerant of Chinese migrants who had settled in the country or come for employment after the military takeover. The population of Chinese descent currently living in Myanmar is estimated to be between 3 million and 5 million.

Lacking longitudinal data or independent surveys about popular attitudes toward the Chinese in Myanmar, it is worthwhile to study the topic through contemporary cultural and media works, including poems, books, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles, cartoons and jokes that went through the former junta’s heavy censorship.

Military memoirs are also revealing. After reading about a dozen memoirs published recently by former generals, it is fair to conclude that the military regarded the Chinese with mistrust. The memoirs describe the military’s hard-fought battles from the late 1960s to the late 1980s against Myanmar’s banned Communist Party, which received massive Chinese support, as a struggle against foreign invasion via a proxy.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the societal figures of Myanmar were mostly pro-Chinese because left-leaning writers dominated public discourse. The first notable anti-Chinese expression came in the aftermath of 1988, with a collection of seven short stories known as “Wathoundare Let-ye” (“Handwriting of the Earth’s Guardian Spirit,”), which were published in 1989. Written by famous novelists in the mid- and late-1980s, all seven stories covered the changing community and cultural landscape in Upper Myanmar as new Chinese migrants replaced native residents with massive real estate purchases and dominated businesses.

The collection of stories captured a sense of dread among local Myanmars for the disintegration of their social fabric. Written under heavy censorship, the stories did not explicitly include the word “Chinese” but implied the characters’ ethnicity by describing their heavy accents, fair or yellowish skin, a certain style of clothing and a poor understanding of the Myanmar language. The characters also referred to themselves with the personal pronoun Wa, commonly used by the Chinese in Myanmar.

In the early 1990s, some business magazines featured articles about newly thriving Sino-Myanmar border trade, real estate markets and changing socio-economic conditions.

The most significant writings that persistently focused on Chinese encroachment in Upper Myanmar came from the influential writer Ludu Daw Amar, a former heroine of the country’s independence struggle. In a famous article series called “Amay Shay Sagaa” (“Mother’s Old Sayings”), Daw Amar said Myanmar’s societal disintegration and cultural decline had been caused by several factors, including poverty, the distorted market economy, and the “superhumans” (military generals and their children) and lawpan (rich Chinese businessmen). She denounced the rise of lawpan khit, or an era of rich Chinese businessmen, in Myanmar society, while urging the public to resist their domination and decadence.

Some short story writers circumvented government censorship to portray the losing battle of local Myanmars against Chinese money and “cultural intrusion” in the 1990s. One of the most popular stories, “Kara-o-ke Nya-chan” (“Karaoke Evening”) by Mandalay writer Win Sithu, was about the moat of Mandalay’s Royal Palace—a source of Myanmar cultural pride that symbolizes the country’s last kingdom and independence—and how it became the site of a karaoke bar. In the story, female singers at the bar serenade Chinese customers with Chinese songs, and a drunk man vomits into the moat.

In the mid-2000s, writer Hsu Hnget described Mandalay’s changing culture in the following passage: “Virtually no shops and workplaces are closed for religious holidays, even for the full moon day [of Buddhist Lent]. Except in one case: Chinese New Year! During the Chinese New Year, nothing can be sold and bought. Everything is stopped, silenced, and the roads are clear.”

Writers have creatively invoked traditional proverbs, songs, images and other relevant symbols to bypass censorship and convey their messages. For instance, Nyi Pu Lay wrote a short story about a Chinese intrusion in Myanmar for Shwe Amyutay magazine in March 2011. The story’s title, “Ta-ei-ei A-naut Mha” (“Slowly Moving Westward”), was inspired by a well-known Myanmar tabaun prophetic saying, “Tayote ka pi shan ga ei shi thi bama a-naut mha.” (“When the Chinese press down, the Shans lean on the Burmans. The Burmans are then forced to move westward”).

Authors have not been the only ones expressing concern about Chinese influence in Myanmar. Comedians have also had their say, including in the popular short play “Mandalay-tha-sit-sit-gyi Ba Bya!”(“I am a Real Mandalay Resident!”), a one-act performance by a famous comedian group from Mandalay in 2009. The main character in the play calls himself a native Mandalay resident, but his style and accent have changed because he lives among a growing Chinese community and has been forced to assimilate. He explains his experience by citing a Myanmar proverb: “Mi mya mi naing ye mya ye naing” (“If fire is in force, fire prevails, and if water is in force, water prevails”).

Recently, anti-Chinese rhetoric has become increasingly loud and intense with public outrage over the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project and the Letpadaung copper mine. In nearly every conceivable medium, critics have called to save the Ayeyarwady River and the Letpadaung mountains, as millions of people depend on them for their livelihoods. Some writers have railed against “Chinese exploitation” and the Myanmar military’s collaboration, with many works invoking a thematic line from the national anthem: “This [Myanmar] is our nation, this is our land, and we own it.”

Public criticism has been emboldened by the government’s decision to lift prior censorship in August 2012. In the case of the Letpadaung mine, harsh words have been cast not only at Minister U Aung Min, whose comment about fearing China drew particular backlash, but also at democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who chaired the investigation committee that recommended continuation of the mining project.

The Myitsone dam and Letpadaung mine controversies have elevated anti-China attitudes to their highest levels in Myanmar since 1969, when riots against the Chinese broke out. After U Aung Min’s comment in November, sources close to Chinese officials told me that some Chinese policy makers believed he had intended to provoke anti-Chinese sentiment. When I met U Aung Min early this year and asked him about the allegation, he slowly but rhythmically shook his head. “No, no,” he whispered.

All in all, the confluence of growing anti-Chinese sentiment amid Myanmar’s ongoing political transition could be a cause for serious concern. In the early phase of democratization, a mix of widespread poverty, fear among key stakeholders of losing financial and political power, increasing levels of free speech, and weak government institutions could allow for the emergence of populism and nationalistic violence, possibly in the form of anti-Chinese riots.

Anti-Chinese populism should be tempered and constrained by all parties concerned. Otherwise, Beijing could feel threatened and react with more visible interference in Myanmar, hoping to protect its vested interests. If that happened, Myanmar’s state-building efforts and much-needed development would be severely undermined.

Min Zin is pursuing a PhD in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is based on his paper “Burmese Attitude toward Chinese: Portrayal of the Chinese in Contemporary Cultural and Media Works,” published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs in 2012.

This guest column first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.