Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 April 2013
When the Burmese military junta implemented a repressive economy that nationalised trade and industry during the socialist period (1962–88), a black market economy sprang up and predominated. Despite regime change in 1988 and the subsequent adoption of a market-oriented economy, the underground trade has nevertheless continued and thrived. The Yunnanese Chinese merchants of Burma have played a significant role in the contraband economy over the span of regimes. Based on a non-state-centred perspective, this paper aims to look into the everyday politics of the underground trade conducted by the Yunnanese Chinese moving between Burma, Thailand and Yunnan and analyses the country's politico-economic landscape since 1962.
1 Mr Wang, interview, 10 Oct. 2010. All names in this paper are pseudonyms. This paper is based on my fieldwork in northern Thailand, Burma, Yunnan, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan since 1994.
2 The use of the term minjian is drawn from Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, who uses it to refer to the unofficial order that is generated through the infinite weaving and spreading of personal connections and group formations; Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui, Gifts, favors, and banquets: The art of social relationships in China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)Google Scholar.
3 Yunnanese Chinese include both Han and Muslims. The great majority of the Yunnanese Chinese (Yunnanese hereafter) in Burma and Thailand today are descended from the refugees who fled their homeland in China after 1949. Given this movement, the term ‘overland Yunnanese’ is often used to refer to the Yunnanese diaspora in upland Southeast Asia. This is in contrast to the ‘overseas Chinese/maritime Chinese’, who migrated from the southeastern coastal provinces of China to other countries by sea. The Yunnanese populations in Burma and Thailand are estimated to be around 700,000 and 150,000 respectively. Yunnanese Han constitute the great majority in both countries, over 90 per cent. In this paper, I also use ‘Yunnanese migrants’ to refer to the Yunnanese Chinese diaspora.
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6 The exchange rate was 820 kyat to US$1 in May 2011; two years earlier, it was around 1,000 kyat to US$1.
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28 The caravans mainly used mountain tracks, but sometimes they needed to cross or even travel on public roads which were controlled by the Burmese army.
29 Jade stones were transported variously by mule caravans, motor vehicles or aeroplanes; see Chang, Wen-Chin, ‘Guanxi and regulation in networks: The Yunnanese jade trade between Burma and Thailand, 1962–88’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35, 3 (2004): 479–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
30 It was Aunty Shen's first trip to Taiwan. Her daughter had come to the country for further education and got married later. I have known Aunty Shen since 2004 and visited her several times in Taunggyi. However, in Taunggyi, her account of the transborder trade was always piecemeal. During our meeting in Taiwan, she said that she had been more concerned about talking of her past while in Burma.
31 Apart from transportation via vehicle caravans, the Burmese government contracted with mule owners to ship supplies to mountainous areas where there was no access to any public road.
32 Mae Sai is the Thai border town adjacent to Tachilek. When the border gate is open, people from both sides move freely. When the gate is closed they secretly cross the border, marked by a river, in small boats.
33 Smith, Burma.
34 In their studies, MacGaffey and Tripp also recorded similar situations in Zaire and Tanzania, accentuated by corruption and civil wars.
35 Kokang is a border region in northern Shan State where Yunnanese Chinese have settled for centuries.
36 The Indochina wars contributed to weapons smuggling from Laos and Cambodia to Thailand and Burma. Several leaders of major ethnic armies controlled the trade and sometimes used smuggled weapons as gift tokens to absorb minor ethnic forces.
37 There were 24 KKY units at the time; 19 of them followed the order; see Chen, Kunsa jinsanjiao chuanqi, pp. 193–4.
38 Khun Sa passed away in 2007, but Luo Xinghan still maintains a relationship of cliental patronage with the current Burmese junta.
39 Chen, Kunsa jinsanjiao chuanqi.
40 Maung Chan, ‘Miandian junzhengfu de caiyuan yu bianjing maoyi’ [The economic sources of the Burmese military junta and its border trade], Dajiyuan [Epoch Times], 2 Feb. 2005.
41 In 2011 China overtook Thailand to became Burma's largest trading partner, with trade amounting to US$6.5 billion according to International Monetary Fund figures; see Aye Thidar Kyaw, ‘China firms trade position in Myanmar’, Myanmar Times, 16 Jan. 2012; Elaine Kurtenbach, ‘Boomtown Ruili faces backlash’, Irrawaddy, 1 June 2012.
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43 The Burma Road was constructed during the Second World War, running between Kunming (in Yunnan) and Lashio (in Burma), for transporting the Allies' supplies from Burma to China via the Wanding–Kyukok connection at the Sino–Burmese border. The new Burma Road follows by and large the old route via the Ruili–Muse gateway at the border and has been extended from Lashio to Yangon via Mandalay.
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