Ask residents of the dusty Chinese border town of Ruili what they think of their neighbour and supposed friend, Burma, and one word features prominently — “luan”, or chaotic.
Ask the Burma traders, in their sarong-like longyis and cheap plastic sandals, what they think of China and their answer is completely the opposite — stable, giving them a chance to escape the poverty and mismanagement of their ruling generals.
Yet there is little love lost between the Burma businessmen, farmers and massage girls who flock to booming China and their host nation. Many harbour a burning resentment, not necessarily of their own government, but of the Chinese.
“There are so many Chinese in Mandalay, at least half the population now,” said Burma jade trader Ye Kaw, speaking in the flawless Mandarin he has picked up after many years living in Ruili, China’s main trading post with its southern neighbour.
“We hate them,” he added, when asked how residents of his home town look upon the Chinese migrants, looking fearfully around to see if any of his customers had heard him.
“But we have to come here. There is no future for me at home.”
Ruili — its name comes from a word in the local Dai language meaning “a jade green place enshrouded in mist” — is home to a large population from Burma, some legal, and others sneaking across a porous border to sell vegetables, trinkets or sex.
Sitting on the far south-western tip of Yunnan province, Ruili was once notorious in China for its gambling, prostitution, smuggling, drugs and general lawlessness during the 1990s when border trade really began taking off.
It’s poor and horribly corrupt
While those heady days may be behind the city, there is little doubt at the sway Burma continues to hold over Ruili.
The circular Burmese script adorns many shop signs, people squat by the side of the road eating spicy papaya salad laced with pungent fish sauce, and the Burma kyat freely changes hands, though China’s yuan currency is far more popular.
Ruili’s residents have become rich on trade with Burma, mainly in raw materials such as timber and jade, which once sculpted and polished into intricate and immaculate designs of Buddha or traditional Chinese gods can go for thousands of dollars.
This has not, however, engendered much goodwill towards the government of Burma. Though it does not appear to generate Chinese disdain of the often obviously poorer Burma citizens in their midst.
“We all know how bad the government there is,” said Chinese businessman Li Hai. “It’s poor and horribly corrupt. If I were from Burma, I’d want to come to China too.”
In Burma, there has been growing alarm among some people at illegal mass entry of Chinese into their country through the border controlled by major ethnic armed groups such as the Chinese United Wa State Army, denounced as a narcotics cartel by the United States.
Anti-Chinese feeling in the former Burma is not new. The Burmese kings, who ruled before the British came, had long been wary of their powerful neighbour.
More recently, in 1967, anti-Chinese riots in the capital, Rangoon, led to the sacking of China’s embassy and dozens of deaths, if not more.
Burma, believed at independence in 1948 to have a bright future ahead of it due to its rich natural resources, has seen its economy lag far behind China’s thanks to almost five decades of inept military rule and international isolation.
The United Nations ranked Burma 138 out of 166 countries in its 2009 Human Development Report. China, by contrast, is now on track to surpass Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.
The flow of people goes both ways.
Zaw Mein, an ethnic Rohingya and Muslim from the south-eastern Burma coastal state of Arakan, has little time for the politics of his sometimes chaotic homeland. He just wants to earn enough for his family back in Burma.
“What choice do we have but to come to China to work?” he said, standing in Ruili’s sprawling jade market. “China gives us visas easily. Not many other countries will.”
Ask him about Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained Burma democracy leader and Nobel laureate, and his face lights up, as do those of his friends clustering around.
“Everyone wants to vote for her,” he said, referring to an election slated for sometime this year, one condemned by rights groups, the United States and the European Union, as a sham.
“We know people won’t be allowed to vote for her, so what’s the point? The military will still stay in charge no matter what, and I’ll stay in China.”
Many Rohingyas, not recognised as an ethnic minority by Burma, allege human rights abuse by its authorities, saying they are deprived of free movement, education and rightful employment.
Rohingyas have been leaving Burma and heading mainly into impoverished Bangladesh since the late 1970s. The biggest influx occurred in 1992.
It’s not only the Rohingya who come to Ruili, though.
Yunnan is home to many ethnic minorities whose populations are on both sides of the border. China’s Jingpo are the same as Burma’s Kachin, many of whom have for decades been involved in armed rebellion in the mountains of north-eastern Burma.
The frontier means little to them, and in any case the two sides are separated by no more than a ditch and scanty bamboo groves in some villages.
“We’re lucky to live in China,” said Jingme, who like many ethnic Dai uses only one name, and whose village is half in China and half in Burma. Her aunt crosses every day to look after her nephews.
“But we are one people. How can we not feel bad for our friends and relatives on the other side?” — Reuters