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China's polished exploitation of isolated Myanmar

He was a man from Rangoon who 20 years ago had fled to the nearest Chinese city of Ruili. But he did not complain that his Chinese work and residence permit, which allowed him to sell jade mined from the mountains of Myanmar, still confined him to the Chinese province of Yunnan.

world Updated: Oct 03, 2011 00:37 IST
Reshma Patil

He was a man from Rangoon who 20 years ago had fled to the nearest Chinese city of Ruili. But he did not complain that his Chinese work and residence permit, which allowed him to sell jade mined from the mountains of Myanmar, still confined him to the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Chinese businessmen driving Porsches and Cadillacs buy his raw materials cheaply and ship expensive finished products to the world, including the US, which enforces sanctions limiting trade with Myanmar.

Ruili is in Yunnan, but hemmed on three sides by Myanmar. This is ground zero of Beijing's strategic and economic partnership with its unstable neighbour. Trade worth 4.4 billion dollars now connects the military pariah regime with China. In comparison, five years later, India's trade with Myanmar may double to 3 billion dollars.

"When I came to Ruili, it was a jungle," Phone Kyaw said, sitting in a tiny warehouse stacked with giant rocks.

Men wearing lungis and spitting betel juice stroll the potholed alleys lined with jade rocks being sold next to peddlers hawking biryani.

The Chinese government gives these Myanmarese migrants renewable three-month permits. They bring bundles of uncut gemstones and trucks of timber, raw materials that are now the mainstay of the local Chinese economy.

"In China, I have freedom," said Yong Shin, a jade trader who divides time in Ruili and Myanmar for the past eight years.

The Myanmarese don't have the capital or technology to carve their jade. The resulting opportunity lures Chinese businessmen into the town of less than 300,000 people.

While India has opened the Myanmar side of the border road, the thousands of Myanmarese flooding Yunnan can't trade directly with India.

Myanmar is leaning toward China politically in return for vast investments by Beijing.

An estimated 12 billion dollars worth in ports, highways, railroad, bridges and oil pipelines now connect northern Myanmar with Yunnan.

Last year, China began building a crude oil pipeline from Myanmar to Yunnan and Guangxi to provide itself an alternative route by 2013 to the ship borne oil and gas that comes through the vulnerable Malacca Straits.