Friday, August 18, 2017

Ethnic Chinese hope for an NLD victory

For many elderly ethnic Chinese residents of Yangon, the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 are still a fresh wound. It is widely believed that the military government deliberately stoked the violence in an attempt to divert attention from the deteriorating economy. The anti-Chinese sentiment fomented by the regime continues to reverberate, and many of the ethnic Chinese in Yangon consider a vote for the ruling party, the brainchild of then-Senior General Than Shwe, unthinkable.

A monk from Myanmar walks past the Chinese customs house at the China-Myanmar border town of Jiegao, Yunnan province, on September 26, 2007. Photo: AFPA monk from Myanmar walks past the Chinese customs house at the China-Myanmar border town of Jiegao, Yunnan province, on September 26, 2007. Photo: AFP

In a busy morning market in Chinatown, it was “Mother Suu”, as opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is often called by her supporters, who had the community talking.

“The NLD is our only hope for change. The old government did not care, not only about Burmese-Chinese, but about anyone,” said U Htoo Htoo, who is ethnically Chinese and witnessed the riots as a young boy.

Sitting in a Chinese temple enveloped in a scent of incense, he recalls how Chinese-owned shops in the city were destroyed. “The soldiers were behind [the rioters]. They didn’t stop them. They let them continue without constraint,” he said.

During the years that followed, the Chinese community kept a low profile, trying not to attract any unwanted attention. Whereas most ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar have an organisation advocating for their rights, no such form of support seems to exist for the Chinese. The Chinese embassy also appears to have distanced itself from the community.

“We are not strong enough to oppose the government, so we have to vote for the NLD because they are strong,” U Htoo Htoo said.

In Chinatown, Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese live behind grilled doors and windows. They are citizens and have been in the country for generations, their lives interwoven with Myanmar society. They wear longyis and speak Myanmar, as well as Chinese. Even though most describe themselves as Myanmar rather than Chinese, they feel their country continues to regard them as foreigners.

“We are not seen as Burmese, [but] still as Chinese, even though we have lived here for a long time,” said a 60-year-old shop owner in Yangon, who requested anonymity.

“I was a child [during the riots] and I didn’t understand, but I was scared and saw people being hit and killed,” the woman said. The violence motivated her to learn how to speak and read Chinese, thinking it would enable her to leave the country. But while her parents have emigrated, her marriage has kept her in Myanmar. Her language skills she later used to work as an interpreter in a garment factory.

Most ethnic Chinese in downtown Yangon do not dare to speak so openly about their insular community’s fears and politics. Many agreed to speak to The Myanmar Times only under the condition that their name not be published, because they fear reprisal from the authorities.

Not all Chinese in Myanmar are full citizens – some are working in the country illegally, while others, until recently, held temporary identity cards also called white cards. An unknown number of Chinese were blocked from voting in the coming elections by the government’s decision earlier this year to invalidate these white cards and disenfranchise wide swathes of minority voters. The Muslim Rohingya community, living mainly in northern Rakhine State, was most widely affected by the sweeping identity card overhaul.

Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese population is mainly concentrated in the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay, which is perched on the border with China’s Yunnan province. The ethnic Chinese families dominate the commercial sector, mainly in the trade of jade and timber.

“Mandalay is surrounded by the Bamar, but occupied by the Chinese” is a joke often made as large swathes of the ancient capital are now predominantly Chinese. Though official ethnicity figures from the 2014 census have yet to be released, some have estimated as much as 40 to 50 percent of the city is now ethnically Chinese.

In Yangon, Chinese traders said they struggled to work under the decades of oppression, but that business is now finally picking up again.

“My father had a big shop, but it was nationalised. After that we could only have a small business because large businesses were always investigated by the authorities,” said a trader who declined to give his name.

Under President U Thein Sein’s government, anti-Chinese sentiment has been resurging, mainly as a result of controversial investment projects, like the Letpadaung copper mine in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Region, that are backed by the Chinese government. At the Chinese-operated mine, a female protestor was killed in December last year after being fatally shot by police. In May of the same year, two Chinese workers were kidnapped by angry farmers at the mine, who have been protesting against land confiscations. The workers were released unharmed a day later.

In February, anti-Chinese sentiment was further fuelled by fighting between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Tatmadaw in northern Myanmar near the Chinese border. Beijing has denied involvement with the ethnic Chinese rebel group, while the Tatmadaw has used the conflict as a PR war, with some success.

In July, 150 Chinese illegal loggers were sentenced to life imprisonment – the harshest penalty ever meted out to timber smugglers. But after Beijing lobbied for leniency, they were released a month later during a presidential amnesty. The decision drew ire within the country, as floods, partially a consequence of unchecked logging, hit most states and regions, and affected more than 1 million people.

In Yangon, the ethnic Chinese community is divided over whether the resurfacing of anti-Chinese sentiment poses a threat to their safety. Many don’t think the government would dare risk its profitable relationship with China by targeting the community. “I don’t think this will happen, because some government people are sharing in the profits of the Chinese projects,” said U Htoo Htoo.

But others are not so positive. “In 1967 the problem was between the Burmese, but the anger was directed toward the Chinese. Now we are in danger for the same problem,” said the 60-year-old shop owner.