The protest demonstrations by students and monks, which have been sweeping across lower and central Myanmar since August 19,2007, are not only anti-Junta, but also anti-Chinese. This is evident from the fact that the demonstrators have been receiving maximum public response in areas, where a large number of Chinese engineers and other workers are working in projects for the exploration of oil and gas and for mining.
2. The most impressive protest demonstrations so far have been reported from Sittwe (Akyab) in the Arakan State ( now called Rakhine by the Junta), where around 2,000 Buddhist monks and others have been demonstrating almost daily. Sittwe is also the place where police officers, who were asked by the Army on September 18,2007, to disperse the monks, ran away instead of using force against the monks. The Army had to intervene, use tear-smoke and fire in the air in order to disperse the monks and their supporters. On September 19,2007, about 3000 monks, watched and encouraged by a crowd of about 10,000 onlookers, occupied the office of the Rakhine State Peace and Development Committee in Sittwe for hours to demand the release of four monks and 16 others detained by the Army the previous day. They dispersed peacefully after four hours. It is not known whether the Army conceded their demand.
3. A number of Chinese companies has been given contracts for the exploration of oil and gas in the Arakan area. The Junta has also permitted the Chinese to construct a gas pipeline from the Arakan to the Yunnan Province of China. About a hundred Chinese engineers have reportedly already arrived in the Arakan to work in these projects. The resentment against the Chinese has been building up since February,2007, due to the following reasons:
China’s veto of a resolution moved by the West in the UN Security Council calling for economic sanctions against the military for its continued violation of the human rights of the Myanmar people.
Resentment over Chinese engineers and other workers taking away local jobs at a time when there is an acute unemployment in the State and consequent economic hardship. This is similar to the resentment in Pakistan’s Balochistan against the Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar port development project.
4. Following the Chinese veto in the UN Security Council, a till then unknown organisation called the Young Monks’ Union distributed leaflets in Sittwe and other towns of the Arakan State in the beginning of February,2007,calling for a boycott of Chinese goods in protest against the Chinese support to the suppression of democracy by the Junta. An unnamed office-bearer of the Union was quoted by a news report disseminated by Myanmar political exiles abroad as saying as follows: “The distribution of leaflets to the people is the first step in our plan. We will be conducting other activities to effectively target the Chinese Government very soon.”
5. On April 28,2007, about 40 villagers from Yenanttaung, 15 miles from Kyaukphyu in western Arakan, attacked the local office of a Chinese gas exploration company to protest against the Chinese preventing the local people from continuing with their traditional methods of gas exploration. It was alleged that the Chinese and the Junta had confiscated from the local people equipment such as the traditional drills used by them for their exploration.
6. The steep increase in diesel and cooking gas prices imposed by the Junta on August 15,2007, has exacerbated not only the anger against the Junta, but also against the Chinese, who have been accused of trying to take away Myanmar’s gas and oil, when the local people are facing severe shortages .
7. The demonstrations till now have been confined to lower and central Myanmar, where the Burmans (Buddhists) are in a majority. The ethnic minorities in the North, who are largely Baptists, and the Rohingya Muslims of the Arakan State, who are of Bangladeshi origin, have by and large kept away from the demonstrations.(20-9-07)
(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com )