On July 30th the Myanmar government declared a broad amnesty, a move intended to bring prisoners back into the political field in the wake of the upcoming elections in November. Among the nearly 7000 prisoners released, many observers were surprised to find the 153 Chinese loggers who were given life sentences – plus two condemned with shorter sentences – only a week before, on July 22nd. According to The Irrawaddy, the loggers were released “for the sake of friendship and cordial relations” with China, yet the move immediately triggered angry reactions throughout Myanmar.
The unusually long sentence came from a court in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state in the north of the country. The loggers were arrested in early January in Kachin state in a crackdown on Myanmar’s lucrative timber trade. Several vehicles and over 4,000 tons of timber logs were also seized. The recent sentence irritated China, with the foreign ministry openly expressing its concern about the fate of the 155 Chinese nationals.
Illegal logging and cross-border timber trade have been going on for decades along the Yunnan-Myanmar border. A 2013 Forest Trends report shows that timber product exports from Myanmar to China reached an all-time high in 2013 – a trade which remains largely illegal. Particularly worrying is the Chinese demand for luxury hardwood such as padauk and tamalan, used in the production of high-end Ming and Qing dynasty reproduction furniture (hongmu). As the report indicates, “there are concerns that padauk and tamalan could soon be logged to commercial extinction.”
Part of Kachin state is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which remains to this day at war with the Myanmar army. A recent surge in violence indicates that a political solution for the conflict might still require time. The KIO, moreover, has long been funding its war with Naypyidaw through illegal trade with China in natural resources, of which Kachin state is rich, particularly timber and jade.
The KIO’s relations with the Chinese government thus go back a long way, and it is well known that until not long ago, Beijing provided the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with training and weapons. Both Laiza, the KIO headquarters and de facto capital, and Mai Ja Yang, the second largest city in KIO-controlled territory, are situated in close proximity to the Yunnan border, and run on Chinese electricity and mobile networks.
It thus seems clear that the arrest of the Chinese loggers had, for the Myanmar government, a twofold objective. On the one hand it attempted to prove the government’s effort to effectively put an end to the illegal exploitation of the country’s precious forests. The second objective was more political, attempting to put the blame for the timber trade on the KIO and highlighting, once again, China’s role in it.
Yet despite the KIO’s undoubted involvement with the timber business, there are also many indications that show a likewise important implication of the Myanmar army, and in the end, of the government in Naypyidaw.
During a recent trip to the Yunnan-Myanmar borderlands I was impressed by the quantity of timber regularly coming into China. Local businessmen nevertheless related that, although still profitable, the timber trade was not as good as it used to be two years ago. Conversations with Chinese loggers and truck drivers implicated in the timber trade, moreover, confirmed just how complex the situation is inside Myanmar.
All of the traders I talked to confirmed that, when in Myanmar, they had to travel through territories controlled by different armies. None of them was, however, able to clearly identify them, as most do not speak any of the languages used in northern Myanmar, and in several cases have been in this line of business for just a few years, if not months. They all told me, moreover, that in order to travel through those different territories they simply needed a special document which is generally provided by their company, a gate-opener for the numerous check-points they encounter along the road.
Although the main destination for Burmese timber remains Ruili, the major border crossing between the two countries, I found particularly revealing a visit to the upper Nujiang valley, in the remote north-western corner of Yunnan. There, a few dirty roads lead into the northern part of Kachin state, far from any KIO-controlled areas. On the Chinese side all the roads were strictly under the control of the Chinese border patrol, with small offices issuing border passes for Chinese loggers placed at the beginning of each road. Next to them, large deposits of Burmese timber and trucks leaden with logs were in plain view.
A few Chinese truck drivers I managed to talk to in the vicinity of those roads told me that, at times, they have to drive up to 100km inside Myanmar in order to reach the logging area. Travelling this far without entering government-controlled territory would be virtually impossible.
Number plates on the various trucks used for bringing logs into China, moreover, carried the acronym KSR: Kachin Special Region. The Kachin Special Region 1 refers to a territory control by yet another ethnic armed group, namely the New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K), the first Kachin group to reach a ceasefire agreement with the central government in 1989. NDA-K forces were recently transformed into Border Guard Forces (BGF), regular military forces structured like the Myanmar army, with a commander from the ethnic armed group but under the control of the Myanmar army. Kachin Special Region 1 thus became, de facto, under the control of the national army.
It thus seems rather clear that, although the KIO is surely implicated in the timber business, it is far from being the only player. As with the jade business, the Myanmar army, with and through the various BGFs along the country’s borders, seems to also be heavily involved with this lucrative business.
The recent amnesty that freed the 155 Chinese loggers might thus calm Beijing and Kunming, effectively easing diplomatic tension between China and Myanmar. The move could also signal, however, that when it comes to the timber trade, it is business as usual. If the government is serious about fighting the logging business – and not strike it only when the KIO is involved – the place to start should probably be Naypyidaw, not Laiza.