field notes

Aug 11, 2014 | 17:07 GMT

6 mins read

Letter from China: Life on the Myanmar Border, Part One

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part Field Note on the China-Myanmar border.

Jade Kingdoms

"The golden age of jade is gone," Xiao Liu sighed. Two years out of college, he looked old already. He was a native of Tengchong in China's western Yunnan province, one of three strategic China-Myanmar border towns along with Ruili and Yingjiang. Across from Tengchong is Myanmar's Kachin state, much of which is controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, the nation's second-largest ethnic insurgency.

Liu majored in engineering, but all he talks about is jade. Chinese traders have smuggled the precious stone for decades, buying it raw from insurgents or factions within Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw. Often buyers have no idea what their find is worth until they get it back to Yunnan province. Liu once persuaded a friend to go in on a 20,000-yuan ($3,200) venture; the two multiplied their investment a hundredfold. Others are not so lucky. Liu himself was once detained in a water prison by ethnic Shan soldiers near the Myanmar city of Myitkyina. As frightening as it was, he knew that had the Tatmadaw detained him, he would have been killed.

Liu talked about how the border used to be when the ethnic Kachin militants sold seemingly endless quantities of jade and timber to fund their war against the Tatmadaw.

But things have changed. Myanmar underwent a political transition in 2010 and ended a long-standing cease-fire with the Kachin. Fighting broke out as the Tatmadaw cracked down on the informal jade and timber trade. Clashes were most intense near the Chinese border and along routes into Yunnan province. As the Tatmadaw took over more and more supply routes and jade deposits from the Kachin, the military was able to restrict the flow of jade — and inflate prices.

"No easy windfalls can be expected anymore," Liu said. The long-standing balance between the sides has collapsed. "It's just like the Three Kingdoms," he said, referring to the time in Chinese history when the nation was divided between three balanced kingdoms. As the Kachin Independence Army weakens, China could lose its leverage over the Tatmadaw, a development that worries Liu. He mused, "What if one of the kingdoms is out of the game?"

Infrastructure and Supply Lines Along the China-Myanmar Border

Infrastructure and Supply Lines Along the China-Myanmar Border

A Tale of Two Cities

Lao Yang has two jobs. Sometimes he is a successful businessman in Ruili, the flourishing border town where I met him, just opposite the Myanmar city of Muse. Before he came to Ruili, he was a farmer in his hometown of Yingjiang, opposite Laiza — the former headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army. Yingjiang, once as prosperous as Ruili, is now a backwater, and its border crossing is closed because of ongoing fighting between the Kachin and the Tatmadaw. Yang still goes back from time to time to tend to his fields.

When the border closed, Yang went to Ruili in hopes of making money from the cross-border trade and investment there. He said he started out as a truck driver but did not tell me what he carried. Maybe his truck was just one of the many that crowd the border gate carrying watermelons, machinery, gravel or fuel. It is equally likely that he showed up at midnight with a bribe for the guard and carried illegal rice and jade. He did admit to selling a little jade himself sometimes — like everyone in Ruili — but said he was never greedy, unlike the coastal Chinese transplants who have poured millions into gambling on jade or fabricating fake stones.

With the 2013 opening of the China-Myanmar border to tourism, Yang began to operate a two-star hotel in the city center and work as a guide, leading customers over the border. He even saves them the trouble of getting a Myanmar visa. When he took me, he led me through a bamboo forest to a remote checkpoint meant only for local use. There he bribed the Tatmadaw guard, a defector from the ethnic Shan insurgency. Such "illegal" border tourism is very popular.

Ruili is booming, but it still has not reached its potential. Both the historical Burma Road and Ledo Road once crossed the Myanmar border at Ruili. Plans to renovate and open these vital connections to India and the Myanmar coast are once again in the works, and the small border town is banking on the prosperity of an open and potentially stable border.

When I was there, I saw mostly rundown jade shops and nightclubs still awaiting the return of the big spenders, who, only a few years ago, thrived on unregulated drug trafficking, casinos and prostitution in the city. When night fell, the city changed dramatically. I watched as ethnic Bamar from Myanmar, Bengali and Indian vendors opened street stalls selling fake jade, cosmetics and local food. Who knows where they all lived — people come and go easily across the porous border.

After Ruili, Yang took me 130 kilometers (80 miles) north up the newly upgraded highway to his hometown of Yingjiang to take up his other job: harvesting the peas in his fields.

Greater Yingjiang county has some of the largest open plains in mountainous Yunnan province. Well-endowed with natural resources, it also shares a 200-kilometer border with Myanmar on three sides, only 100 kilometers away from Myitkyina and Bhamo, northern Myanmar's most important towns.

Yingjiang is home to ethnic minorities with ties to both sides of the border — China's Jinghpaw and Dai are the same as Myanmar's Kachin and Shan. In ancient times, Yingjiang, like Ruili, was a key crossing point between China and the Indian subcontinent. But instead of the crowded streets and busy markets of Ruili, Yingjiang has only shuttered jade shops, cheerless hotels and lofty signs lauding Yingjiang's future upgrade from "county" to "city" status.

It took some time for Yingjiang to go to seed like this. Starting with the fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, the timber and jade business suffered. As the skirmishes elevated into full-fledged war, investors and tourists fled. Finally, the Myanmar military besieged Laiza, and the border was shut down, sending people like Yang to Ruili to find their way.

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