Chinese life in Myanmar today

This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 31 August 2015

This month’s Chinese stock-market stumble has spooked investors around the globe, sending shockwaves through world markets. From Perth to Porto Alegre, Moscow to Myitkyina, everyone takes notice when Chinese demand starts to look less certain.

This really matters in Myanmar, where the economy has become greatly reliant on Chinese capital and labour, to say nothing of the waves of people and goods that cross the vast, mountainous borderlands.

Millions of words have already been spilled on the big strategic dilemmas related to China in Southeast Asia: the Straits of Malacca; the South China Sea; String of Pearls; One Belt, One Road.

And yet it is not through these top-tier considerations that the most important story will be told.

What is often forgotten is the extent of everyday connections between Southeast Asia and its giant neighbour to the north. While this might be most obvious in Singapore – and across the region in the bustling urban neighbourhoods where Chinese migrants have found their homes and fortunes – the fact is that “Chineseness” is everywhere.

For most Southeast Asian governments this presents a confused mix of risks and opportunities. They certainly benefit from the talent and energy of the Chinese in their midst. In some cases, their assimilation into the national mainstream is almost complete.

Thailand, as an example, was astonishingly successful in the way that it absorbed millions of Chinese. Their descendants have the great advantage of taking Thai names to go with their accents, mannerisms and ideologies. It would be hard to imply that many remain“foreigners”: The simple fact is that they have melted in.

The same cannot be said for Chinese in some other parts of the region. They often tend to be marked apart by cultural, linguistic and religious differences that have the tragic potential to antagonise their neighbours. The region has a long and ignominious history of anti-Chinese sentiment, which sometimes ignites short-lived violent episodes.

Attacks on Chinese in Indonesia in the late 1990s show how political instability can go hand-in-hand with violence targeting an obvious minority. Anti-Rohingya campaigns in Myanmar take a similar tone. Sadly, at times of crisis there are often too few voices of moderation and inclusion.

For it is such inclusion, and a moderate vision of national belonging, that will keep the balance in China’s relationship with Southeast Asia. The Chinese government, increasingly bold in projecting power beyond its borders, appreciates the great significance of the Chinese population across this region. Even where they no longer speak their ancestral language and have few current ties to their old country, it makes sense to keep them on-side.

What about the Chinese in Myanmar today? Most are yet to be absorbed to quite the same extent as their cousins across the border in Thailand. Their assimilation has come later, and has been slower.

In living memory there were anti-Chinese movements in the country, all heavily politicised at a time when the Burmese Socialist government was going toe-to-toe with its Communist foes.

Yet since the 1980s the relationship between Myanmar and China has improved considerably, on almost every level. No matter how much they may resent Chinese designs, there is arguably no more important foreign relationship for the leadership in Nay Pyi Taw.

As Sino-Myanmar ties have boomed, so have the number of Chinese living in the country. The best guess is that more than 2 million Chinese citizens and former citizens now call Myanmar home.

Some are content to remain in their Chinese-speaking enclaves. Across the borderlands such towns and villages are common enough. Spoken Myanmar does not count for much when trade is denominated in yuan and the television services come in Putonghua.

At the same time, a huge number of the Chinese in Myanmar are doing their best to fit in. They have accepted many local religious practices, make their donations to the right temples, speak Myanmar in fluent fashion and give their children local names.

Their position in Myanmar society is hardly unassailable, but their lack of formal recognition as a “national race” does not prove too great an impediment to successful lives.

This is explained by the fact that many have taken local identity documents and now fit, somewhat awkwardly, into the ongoing re-designation and re-configuration of Myanmar’s ethnic tapestry. It would not be a surprise if within a generation many have fully absorbed a new way of being, whether as Wa, Shan, Kachin or Bamar.

The challenge for Myanmar, at both the policy and popular levels, is to work out how best to make this huge Chinese population work for the rest of the country. The situation of the Chinese in Myanmar is further complicated by the bold ambitions of the Chinese government.

Under the wrong conditions, these different matters could dangerously blur together, sparking the kind of backlash that would make Myanmar a much less pleasant place for its many different peoples.

Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University. In August 2015 the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore published his paper titled “Establishing Contemporary Chinese Life in Myanmar”, co-authored with Stephanie Olinga-Shannon.