Myanmar must not use Chinese illegal loggers as political pawns

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 1:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 1:02am

Diplomatic rows should never use innocent citizens to score points. The life sentences handed down to dozens of Chinese nationals for illegal logging by a court in Myanmar were excessively harsh. What the loggers had been doing was illegal, but ordering the maximum penalty, up to 20 years in jail, should be reserved for the organisers, not the workers. Problems between nations have to be resolved with reasoned dialogue rather than through political posturing.

The 153 given life sentences and two 17-year-olds jailed for 10 years last week had been in custody since January after being arrested by the army in the state of Kachin, bordering Yunnan province. Chinese foreign ministry arguments that they should be repatriated on the grounds that they had been tricked into illegal logging were ignored. Complicating the case is that the area is controlled by rebels Myanmar's government is fighting, as also in neighbouring Shan state, where battles in the Kokang region in March spilled over the border, resulting in the deaths of four Chinese when a military plane dropped a bomb.

Myanmar banned timber exports last year to protect fast-depleting resources. Rosewood, especially popular in China to make high-quality furniture, was on the verge of extinction. But the move has not stopped a flourishing illegal trade, with half of the logs felled believed to be going north through Yunnan. Handing out maximum penalties sends a strong message to would-be illegal loggers.

But it also taps into growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Myanmar's relations with China have become increasingly strained since it began implementing democratic reforms in 2011. The neighbours previously had the closest of diplomatic and trade ties; the dropping of Western sanctions as a result of the changes have enabled the formerly military-ruled nation to broaden its economic horizons. But the opening of civil society has also sparked protests against Chinese companies, as at a copper mine at Letpadaung and the long-suspended Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River.

Myanmar cannot shun its neighbour, though - China has deep cultural and economic ties, as well as a strong strategic interest. The relationship is complex, with two million present and former Chinese citizens living in the country and billions of dollars of investment in energy, mining and transport infrastructure. China and Myanmar need to work together. The loggers have to be treated fairly, not as political tools.