Myanmar action irks Beijing

YANGON, July 23

Beijing on Thursday  hit out at long jail sentences handed to more than 150 Chinese nationals for illegal logging in Myanmar, in the latest tremor to shake relations between the neighbours.

The mass sentencing, which has sparked outraged editorials in Chinese state-run media, comes after the loggers were arrested in January during a crackdown on illegal forestry activities in northern Kachin state, which borders China.

For years, China has hoovered up Myanmar’s once abundant raw materials, spurring popular anger in the former junta-ruled country which is set for a general election later this year.

Beijing has asked its smaller neighbour to “deal with this case in a lawful, reasonable and justified manner... and return those people to China as soon as possible”, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement on the ministry’s website.

But the Myanmar government said it would not interfere in the judicial process.

“When our citizens break the law in other countries, (they) face sentence by those country’s laws. We cannot use diplomacy to intervene. I think China will understand,” government spokesman Ye Htut told AFP. “What is really needed is to stop illegal logging in future,” he added.

A court official in Kachin state, asking not to be named, told AFP yesterday that 153 Chinese loggers were jailed for life for illegal logging. Life in Myanmar is equivalent to 20 years according to legal experts. He said a further two males under 18 were handed 10-year sentences without giving details, while a woman was jailed for 15 years on narcotics charges.

An editorial in China’s Global Times slammed the “severity” of the sentences, expressing hope that intervention from Beijing could “reverse” the outcome.

“A few cases of Chinese engaging in illegal business in Myanmar have been scrutinised by public opinion, exaggerated as China’s economic ‘invasion’ of the latter,” it said, urging the Myanmar public “to look upon China-Myanmar trade in a positive way”.

It is the latest spat to sully ties between the two countries.

Beijing was Myanmar’s closest ally during the later years of military rule, providing a shield from international opprobrium and a lifeline as a trading partner.

But observers say the scale of interests China accrued during that period — from dams and mines, to a gas pipeline aimed at developing its southern Yunnan province — caused friction and prodded Myanmar towards reforms in an effort to balance Beijing’s power.

One of the first major acts of President Thein Sein was to halt construction of the huge Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in Kachin.

In 2013, China executed notorious Myanmar drug kingpin Naw Kham for the murder of 13 sailors on the Mekong river in 2011. The decision to first parade him live on television stoked deep resentment in Myanmar.

Earlier this year, Beijing issued a strong rebuke after a Myanmar plane dropped a bomb in Chinese territory leaving five Chinese citizens dead as fighting between government troops and ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels spilled across the border.