China's Inroad to Mandalay Irks Burmese

City residents welcome influx of Chinese goods and money, but resent the cultural invasion and takeover of the best homes and businesses

TO see Burma's love-hate relationship with China, one need look no further than Daw Myint Myint Than and her mother, Daw Hmi.

Two years ago, they lived in a spacious home in the center of Mandalay, Burma (also known as Myanmar), complete with running water and electricity. Today they live outside the city, in a new suburb called Pebyu Gone. Now their electricity comes from a generator, and their water is drawn from a tank outside.

They moved from the city, they say, because the government ordered all residents in their neighborhood to build brick walls around their homes, adorned with ``well designed gates.''

``We could not afford the repairs,'' says Daw Hmi. ``We had no choice but to move.'' As it turned out, the women played the soaring real estate market with more skill than Donald Trump. They sold their home to a wealthy Chinese family from Yunnan Province, bought a more spacious house, and walked away with about $12,500 in profit - not bad in a country where the average annual income is $250 a year.

One might think, then, that Myint Myint Than would be happy about the influx of Chinese that turned their small house into a lifetime savings plan. But she shakes her head slowly. ``We cannot say we like it. Not at all.''

Her comment captures the ambivalence that this most traditional of Burmese cities feels toward the Chinese: They welcome the money and consumer goods from nearby Yunnan, but they resent the foreigners taking the best of Mandalay for themselves.

``The central part of any city is always regarded as a business center and land prices of such regions are usually very high,'' says U Tun Kyi, the mayor of Mandalay. ``It is not the concern of government since it is a normal outcome of the changing economic system. The government has no control on the land prices.''

Burmese agree that it is the invisible hand of the market, rather than government design, that is turning Mandalay into ``a province of Yunnan,'' as U Kyaw Thein, chairman of the Burma Trading Center, an association of agricultural traders, puts it. He and others worry that Mandalay is part of a Chinese push to gain new markets and a route to the Indian Ocean. In the process, he says, Mandalay is selling its economic future too cheaply and becoming dependent on the inexpensive goods from the north rather than building its own industry.

The Ava stereo store in the heart of Mandalay's electronics district is a testament to Chinese ingenuity and success. Displayed in the front of the store is a small ``Sony'' stereo. In fact, says salesman U Maung Maung Aye, the stereo was made in China and given a bogus Japanese label. The quality is poorer than the stereos from Singapore, and comparable to those made in Burma by Daewoo, a Korean joint-venture. ``The Chinese merchants know the Burmese market. They know if a stereo from Singapore costs 9,000 kyats (about $90), and [one from] Daewoo costs 6,000 kyats, then the Chinese will price theirs at 3,000 kyats,'' salesman U Maung Maung Aye says.

The seeds of these problems were planted about 32 years ago, when Gen. Ne Win staged a military coup, hermetically sealed the country, and set it off on the ruinous ``Burmese Way to Socialism.'' For 26 years, all foreign trade was officially cut off, and the Burmese lived in a consumer time warp, but a flourishing black market in goods from China, Thailand, and India continued. Not until Ne Win retired in 1988 was border trade permitted again. In the meantime, says one textile shop owner, the Burmese suffered ``a generation gap in economics.''

``Before 1962, we Burmese owned factories, we could compete with the Chinese,'' he says. But after the military government nationalized all businesses and shops, he says, ``the bright children became doctors and writers, not businessmen. Now that the economic door is open again, we lack experience in a market system, and we can't compete.''

But there is a resentment toward the Chinese that has nothing to do with their business acumen and everything to do with politics. As one businessman put it, ``Our government's life depends on the Chinese. That's where they get arms.''

Since 1990, Burma's military government has bought more than a billion dollars of Chinese weapons according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The weapons helped tip the balance in the 45-year-old civil war with ethnic minorities fighting for independence. They also give the military the ability to put down any revolt, should demonstrators ever choose to repeat the 1988 democratic uprising.

``It's clear that the Burmese decided to sidle up to the Chinese, and that puts them between a rock and a hard place,'' says Charles Meconis, Research Director at the Institute for Global Security Studies in Seattle, Wash.

In the meantime, people in Mandalay are watching as the Chinese customs and dialect penetrate the city. ``The cultures are becoming mixed,'' says Kyaw Thein, of the Burma Trading Center. The Chinese are wearing Burmese longyi (or sarong), and Burmese wear short Chinese pants. ``But next time you come, you will see only the long pants of the soldiers and short pants of the Chinese. The longyi will be all gone.''

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