On a map, the passage from the Chinese border to the Burmese town of Lashio looks fairly direct. But on the ground, slow-moving trucks packed with rice for the kitchens of China’s Yunnan province, and smuggled motorbikes bound for Rangoon, negotiate stunning mountain switchbacks. On the Burma Road, one of the few navigable routes in and out of the country, it is as if these twists and turns record the competing pulls of the foreign powers tied up in its history.
It’s along this 717-mile stretch that the wave of Chinese goods, people, and money that has washed over Burma for the past two decades has poured in. And it’s this wave of capital that in recent years has convinced the country’s ruling generals to embark on a march toward constitutional democracy—part of their bid to engage the West and avoid becoming a vassal of Beijing. In short, democracy is a market play for the Burmese government and its generals as much as it is a quest for freedom for the pro-democracy movement embodied by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Throughout history, Burma has stood apart from the rest of the world, separated first by geography, then by a self-imposed isolationism that came with 60 years of military rule. With the world descending into World War II, the British and Americans built the road to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists against China’s Japanese occupiers. In 1942 Japan seized Burma from the British and briefly occupied it too. Later Chinese nationalists went on to use northern Burma as a base for harassing Mao’s communist government for years.
These days Burma offers precious natural resources, fertile land, and an outlet for China’s exports and bulging population. For the United States, the country is an integral part of its “Look East” policy, which aims to strengthen ties in the region and contain Beijing’s power. And Western investors are eagerly eyeing one of the last frontier economies, with American icons like General Electric and Coca-Cola having already set up shop in Rangoon.
As the country continues its fragile transition to democracy, the Burmese people will determine the balance of these powers’ competing interests.
From Muse (pronounced MOO-say) on the Chinese border to Mandalay in the heartland, the Burmese recently expressed a wariness of the empire next door. They expressed, too, a cautious hope that American engagement will help lift their long-oppressed and poor country. The trucks keep coming from the East, but the Burmese people are looking west.
Yet in Burma, even when the Chinese are out of sight, it is hard to put them out of mind. The Burmese are reminded every time the lights go out. In a country rich in energy resources, power outages are a fact of life, and the hum of generators is audible all along the road.
In part, that’s because Burma’s isolated rulers sold off the country’s natural wealth at rock-bottom prices to Beijing. Two controversial pipelines that will deliver gas and oil to China are nearing completion, and an estimated 90 percent of the power from the country’s hydroelectric dams is also transferred to China. So the Burmese must depend on inefficient gas generators, imported, of course, down the Burma Road from China.
In a wooden hut on a hillside about 35 miles from Mandalay, Tin Mar, a farmer, said she was angry that she lives without electric power. Her hut sits six miles from the 790-megawatt power plant at the Yeywa Dam, but the cost of hooking up a small hamlet like hers, with just a handful of residents, is prohibitively high.
The Yeywa Dam’s construction was led by Chinese state firms. Most of the power will pass through Mandalay on its way up to China’s Yunnan province. Imported Chinese workers completed most of the construction and continue to operate the dam. Local Burmese landed some menial work off the project, but many also lost their land.
Many Burmese don’t have official title to the land where they live and farm, making it easy for the government to seize tracts as it pleases. Tin Mar’s banana orchard was taken to build a small golf course for the dam’s Chinese operators who live in a walled compound and work behind a checkpoint. The golf course provides a handful of jobs for locals, but not for Tin Mar. To make up for the lost income from bananas, she now raises livestock. As a small black dog yapped under her bed, two chickens wandered around her dirt floor.
The power lines from the dam run directly over her roof. Yet the 54-year-old has to rely on candles and a wood-burning stove for light and cooking.
In recent years Burma’s generals began worrying they were getting as raw a deal from their Chinese partnership as the villagers. And Burma’s incipient democratic shift is as much about balancing China by inviting in new friends in the West as it is about anything else.
On the stretch of the Burma Road approaching the city of Muse, the gates have literally been thrown open. The ban on foreigners in the region was lifted in May, and the old checkpoint in the village of Yay Pu lay abandoned.
But the place remains as Chinese as it is Burmese, with little hint that Westerners are now free to enter. The city of 200,000 is hooked up to China’s superior electrical and telecommunications infrastructure, so Facebook and Twitter are both blocked. Chinese concerns dominate the local economy, and signs everywhere are bilingual. Americans have never set foot in most businesses here.
Chinese businessmen in Muse make themselves scarce around town. More than one Burmese suggested that this is because many of them are involved in smuggling. The one Chinese merchant who agreed to talk to a reporter, a 43-year-old proprietor of an electronics shop, refused to give his name.
He laughed at the notion that impending American competition would be cause for concern. The businessman had more pressing problems. Speaking through two translators, he explained in Mandarin that the price of the cellphones he sold was in free fall.
As part of its economic liberalization, the Burmese government had loosened up import licenses, and cheap handsets from Thailand and Singapore have flooded Muse. The price of a basic phone has fallen from $30 a year ago to about half that. “So what?” the businessman asked, if Americans one day move into Muse. American businesses don’t sell the low-cost and low-quality Chinese goods on offer in his little shop.
The commerce and investment that truck through Muse drive China’s presence well beyond the borderlands to Lashio, the precise starting point of the original Burma Road, and into Mandalay and beyond. It is in Lashio that the motorbike smugglers hand over their rides and collect $20 to $30 for the 5-hour drive from Muse.
In this part of the country, many native Burmese are ethnically Chinese. This group accounts for much of Burma’s merchant class, and they tend to take a softer view of their foreign relatives. Those Chinese businessmen who do not buy themselves Burmese ID cards from corrupt officials often enter into joint ventures with the ethnic Chinese residents of Lashio. And, as many critics point out, they take most of the profit back over the border.
In Lashio, the mat at the entrance to the Golden Hill Hotel welcomes guests in English and in Chinese. Burmese is left off. In the market, just about anything made in a factory comes from China—cookware, toys, simple electronics.
Two hours down the road is Hsipaw, a former seat of power for the region’s native Shan people that today is too insignificant to attract much of a Chinese presence. Most shops and restaurants, as elsewhere along the road, are housed in dated, low-ceilinged buildings. But even here the most modern and prosperous shop is the Chinese-owned Yee Shin Electronics, next door to Yee Shin Guesthouse. The goods housed inside the glass storefront come from China. Out front, the Chinese solar panels that have flooded world markets lean against the façade.
Farther down the road in Maymyo, the last vestiges of the Burma Road’s original overseers, the British, are fading. The town, because of its cool climate, was the favored holiday destination for the British in Burma. But the handsome colonial brick buildings that distinguished the town have become less prominent. The small downtown of a decade ago has swelled with new Chinese-style construction.
Like most Burmese asked pointblank about the impact of Chinese influence on their country, Ye Aung Hein answered indirectly. “It’s good for the Chinese, for sure,” he said, laughing outside his joint DVD and motorcycle repair shop in Muse. When the multitalented 27-year-old isn’t running the shop, he’s playing semiprofessional football. In relating his experience playing on both sides of the border, he offered a window onto Burmese dissatisfaction with their powerful neighbors.
Even when it comes to leisure, the Chinese are all business, Ye Aung Hein said. When he plays for a Chinese team in the next town over, his teammates pick him up at the border and drop him right off again after the game. When he plays with other Burmese, a postgame drink-up with both teams is obligatory. “If there’s no party, we won’t play.”
“I cannot avoid doing business with the Chinese,” he said. “But for friendship, I don’t like them.”
If Ye Aung Hein could have any country on the other side of Muse’s border crossing, it would be Japan. His second choice would be the United States, he said, because he admires the country’s democratic process, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.
It is a feeling shared by Maung Maung Aye, the only independent writer in Muse, as well as his many fellow countrymen who also expressed optimism, justified or not, that falling in with the West will ultimately be good for the Burmese people.
“I wish to be influenced by Americans, because the Americans use democratic policy,” Maung Maung Aye said.
Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay, has long been a catch basin for the waves of Chinese heading south into the country. There has been a Chinese presence here since the days when it served as the site of Burma’s royal court, but a more recent influx of Chinese citizens has altered the character of the city—and priced out many locals—provoking resentment. One Mandalay-based newspaper editor, San Yu, called the city a “second Yunnan in Burma.”
That feeling may be more common in the ritzier quarters of the city, where Chinese merchants tend to live and work. Down on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, the lifeline of the Burmese heartland, the Chinese presence has not changed life much for the poor day laborers unloading the raw materials of Mandalay’s economy. But the name emblazoned on the white sacks being unloaded from one ship by a team of Burmese, Great Wall Sugar Factory, did say a lot about who stands atop that economy.
At the same time, the specter of American capitalism is much more real here than at points north. Already Coca-Cola is looking to complement its new bottling plant in Rangoon with a second in Mandalay. A Korean factory is going up here to export clothing to the U.S.
In March the American firm ACO Investment Group signed a memorandum of understanding with the regional government to build two solar-power plants in the area. Though this power will stay in the country, San Yu, the editor, expressed skepticism that it would do much for Mandalay residents. Instead, he said he expects it will power new foreign businesses.
San Yu did not see the coming industrial growth as a spectacular boon to the many farmers who will remain very poor even after they trade in their plows for punch cards. And if Western engagement enriches a few while trampling the rest, American interests should not expect to benefit from any ingrained Sinophobia. “We hate unfairness, not the Chinese,” said San Yu.
Nonetheless, most Burmese are eager for contact with the United States. The Chinese have wised up to this quickly, and in Mandalay they have begun turning their eyes toward hearts and minds.
Xinzhi Books is a quiet, air-conditioned oasis from the hot and crowded streets of Mandalay. On a Sunday morning in June, four days after its grand opening, the shop was empty. The Chinese-language bookshop caters to the tastes of Mandalay’s affluent class of Chinese merchants—both Burmese citizens and transplants from mainland China—selling an assortment of consumer goods like basketballs, footballs, and table-tennis paddles that are of higher quality than can be found in most of the rest of the country.
But the store serves another purpose: to spread Chinese culture in Burma. It sells Chinese-Burmese dictionaries, Chinese-language textbooks, and simple books with side-by-side text in both languages.
In a tearoom on the shop’s top floor, the branch manager produced a glossy report on Xinzhi’s international march. The report features photos of Chinese and local dignitaries attending Xinzhi openings in Cambodia and Laos, and praise the store has garnered from the Chinese government as an “important project of national cultural export.” The roughly 50 Xinzhi bookshops are concentrated in Yunnan, but that is meant to change.
The report’s last page offers a reminder of the worldwide contest for influence between China and the United States in which Mandalay will be just the next of many battlefields.
On it is a world map with a snapshot of Xinzhi’s master plan for expansion, with lines emanating from China to planned shops in every corner of the globe. China, at the center of the map, is massive. North America is tiny and relegated to the upper right-hand corner—the United States a shade smaller than Burma.
But inside the bookshop, the United States loomed large. Thet Thet Aung, a 24-year-old clerk of Chinese extraction, said she hopes one day to work at a Xinzhi shop in the U.S., because it would allow her to improve her English.
“If you know more languages, it’s like having more weapons when you go into a war,” she said. Despite the martial language, she said her dream is to use English to travel the world, a sign that the Sino-American rivalry may prove gentler than great power contests of the past.
With reporting from Aye Thiri Sein. This article was produced as part of a partnership between the international news website GlobalPost and the New York-based nonprofit Open Hands Initiative, which provided a reporting fellowship for 20 journalists—10 from Burma and 10 from the U.S.—who produced a special report published July 15. Schreckinger is a freelance writer based in Boston. From our July 26, 2013, issue; The Road to Mandalay.