It was supposed to be a diplomatic coup when President Thein Sein freed the 155 Chinese workers sentenced to life imprisonment for illegal logging less than two weeks ago in Burma, under a massive presidential pardon. But it turned out to be a failed move politically for the Union Solidarity and Development Party-Military (USDP-Military) regime.
On 30 July, President Thein Sein ordered the release of 6,966 prisoners in a presidential amnesty. However, as in previous mass releases, most of those freed were criminals and former military intelligence officers jailed in 2004. Only 13 of those released were political prisoners, including five journalists. The release also included 155 Chinese loggers jailed on 22 July, and 55 more foreign nationals.
As of 31 July, at least 120 political prisoners remain incarcerated, with 444 activists facing criminal charges for political actions. In a statement released on 14 July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the recent surge in political prisoners casts doubt on the regime’s commitment to a genuine democratic election in November.
Earlier, on 22 July, Myitkyina Township Court, Kachin State, had sentenced 155 Chinese citizens to life in prison under Article 6(a) of the Public Property Protection Act for illegal logging in Kachin State. Two Chinese minors received ten year sentences for the same offence, while one woman received an additional 15 years on a drug charge. The loggers were arrested in January 2015 in Kachin State near the Chinese border during a crackdown by the military, police, and Forestry Department. On 23 July, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang released a statement condemning the harsh sentencing. On 30 July, all of the Chinese loggers were released in a presidential amnesty.
Different aspects of the logging blame game
The government version is that the ethnic resistance groups are competing for the extraction of natural resources with the government, which has the sole ownership of “sovereignty”, while the latter considered that it is a “shared-sovereignty”, and especially within their respective, ethnic homelands, and thus also have the same rights. They consider themselves to be entitled to make use of the natural resources to fund their armies that have been struggling to wrestle back their rights of self-determination and defend their people from Burmese military occupation and suppression. Although the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) and the rest of the ethnic resistance armies never officially quite spelled out such a position, it is clear that they harbour such a belief.
Following the January arrest of the Chinese loggers, the government attacked the KIA positions in March, claiming to crackdown on illegal logging, but the KIO explained its point of view and painted a different picture.
Eleven Myanmar on 23 March 2015 reported that Lamai Gum Ja from the Myitkyina-based Peace-talk Creation Group (PCG) had said, “The fighting occurred as the army detected timber smuggling from a helicopter. However the KIO said the place the fighting occurred is not used for timber smuggling.”
The Irrawaddy on 23 March 2015 also reported that “The KIO official said that the Burma Army launched the attack after firing at trucks carrying timber from central Burma’s Sagaing Division. The trucks passed several government checkpoints, he said, but they came under attack after crossing into KIO territory, which they travel through to enter China illegally.”
Dau Khar, head of the Kachin Independence Organization’s technical team, in an interview with VOA, on 25 March 2015, said that the smuggling racket must have the understanding and backing of government institutions, such as police, army and civil administration, to conduct such large scale illegal logging with so many vehicles involved. For the KIA, it only taxes the vehicles passing through its territory. Besides, the KIA said all the logs originated from Sagaing Division and northern Shan State, noting that Kachin State has no huge forest reserves that could allow such a massive logging enterprise. Apart from that, the timber loaded vehicles passed through many government controlled gates, before reaching KIA territory.
When the VOA, Burmese Section, asked Dau Khar on the government accusation that the KIA is protecting illegal logging vehicles, he replied, “We don’t have any need to protect them for they are working through give-and-take with various government agencies. One thing is that they have to pass through our territory, in order to go to the Chinese border. And so we just collect taxes and have no duty to protect them, whatsoever. Since they are doing their business through giveand-take with various government agencies, the KIO doesn’t need to be responsible or give protection.”
It is true that Thein Sein government has also sought to stem the depletion of rain forest with a ban on the export of raw logs that came into effect in April last year.
Actually, logging in Myanmar intensified under the country’s former military junta as the ruling generals tossed aside sustainable forestry practices in a rush to cash in on the country’s vast natural resources. The Kachin rebels were also accused of filling their war chest from timber extraction, to satisfy the huge demand across the border in China.
Timber extraction began as early as 1980, when the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was garrisoned along the Shan-China border. However, after 1989, with the CPB downfall, ethnic armed groups that had signed ceasefire pacts with the government began to export timber on a large scale to China, with the permission of the regime. No doubt, the ethnic armies as well as the then military regime profited from such transactions.
However, the truth of the logging blame game is that the regime as well as the resistance armies are equally responsible. If viewed from the point of environmental preservation there is no clear-cut heroes or villains. Many environmentalists have already blamed the recent flooding in Burma as a result stemming from denuding the rain forest in Kachin State and Sagaing Division which are considered to be the roof top of the country.
Predictably, the public uproar, anger, and disappointment were registered in Myanmar’s newspapers and social media users, as the government freed the 155 Chinese in a mass amnesty, just eight days after they were jailed for illegal logging.
Most saw it as the government caving in to pressure from its massive neighbour and letting go the criminals that are responsible for environmental destruction, leading to climate change and disaster within the country.
The Global New Light of Myanmar, on 30 July, wrote: “The amnesty is aimed at furthering stability and peace process, and allowing the pardoned prisoners to participate in national reconciliation and political processes.”
If the presidential amnesty is really aimed at such a noble ambition, it has failed the mark miserably. For the release of criminals and illegal Chinese loggers definitely won’t have anything to do with the betterment of the country, but the prisoners of conscience, political prisoners and the student activists could contribute to the said ambition.
The Government responds
According to a DVB report on 1 August 2015, Zaw Htay, the presidential spokesman, said that there are five points to be considered concerning the release of the Chinese prisoners.
He said: “First, it is the prisoners’ issue. At the other side, we have about 250 prisoners; equally, there are also around 3000 refugees that they are looking after. Another point is that we have many illegal workers there, working without legal work permit. They are said to be relatively convenient with their livelihood and we are negotiating to legalize it. They also released 250 prisoners ahead (before the regime’s Chinese logger’s release). Another one is the peace issue. The Chinese told us three points. It could be called promises. First, China won’t aid the insurgents. Second, China will support the government’s peace process. Third (our adherence to) the one China policy. As we adhere to it, they will also only deal with the Burmese government. They have given us these promises. With regards to trading, Chinese government will legalize rice export from Burma.”
Is it a well thought out consideration?
The President’s hasty decision might have been able to appease the Chinese and, probably, mend the bilateral relationship between the two countries. But if the regime is hoping that China would pull the rug from underneath the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as Kokang, it is just wishful-thinking, for China has time and again said that it won’t physically get involved in the conflict between the parties, but would only function as a go-between for a peaceful settlement.
As it turns out, the well-meaning presidential amnesty has brought more anger than benefit for the Thein Sein regime domestically. With a nationwide election looming and just a few months left to go, it is questionable how the President will try to shore up his depleting political credit in time to be able to campaign for the presidential post in November. But there is still consolation, for if the military faction endorses him as one of the three presidential candidates he still has a fighting chance to be in the race.
The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democracy Union (SDU)-Editor
This Article first appeared in the August 13, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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