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The everyday politics of the underground trade in Burma by the Yunnanese Chinese since the Burmese socialist Era

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.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2013

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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.

4 See, for example, Grundy-Warr, Carl, ‘Coexistent borderlands and intra-state conflicts in mainland Southeast Asia’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 14, 1 (1993): 4257CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rosaldo, Renato, Culture and truth: The remaking of social analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Donnan, Hastings and Wilson, Thomas M., ‘An anthropology of frontiers’, in Border approaches: Anthropological perspectives on frontiers, ed. Donnan, Hastings and Wilson, Thomas M. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 114Google Scholar; Lugo, Alejandro, ‘Reflections on border theory, culture and the nation’, in Border theory: The limits of cultural politics, ed. Michaelsen, Scott and Johnson, David E. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 4367Google Scholar; Johnson, David E. and Michaelsen, Scott, ‘Border secrets: An introduction’, in Border theory, pp. 139Google Scholar; Scott, James C., The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)Google ScholarPubMed.

5 Steinberg, David I., Burma: A socialist nation of Southeast Asia (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982), p. 77Google Scholar.

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.

7 Aung Lwin Oo, ‘Aliens in a bind’, Irrawaddy, 12, 7, see (last accessed on 15 Feb. 2013).

8 Than, Mya, Myanmar's external trade: An overview in the Southeast Asian context (Singapore: ASEAN Economic Research Unit, ISEAS, 1996[1992])Google Scholar; Kyaw Yin Hlaing, ‘The politics of state–business relations in post-colonial Burma’ (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, Ithaca, 2001).

9 Lintner, Bertil, ‘All the wrong moves: Only the black economy is keeping Burma afloat’, Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 Oct. 1988, p. 23Google Scholar; Mya Than, Myanmar's external trade, p. 3.

10 The council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997.

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13 The KMT forces were supported by Chiang Kai-shek's government, which had retreated to Taiwan earlier, as well as by the United States. But under international pressure, these guerrilla forces were disbanded — first in 1953–54 and then in 1961. After the second disbandment, two armies survived and moved their main troops to northern Thailand in 1961. These were the Third and the Fifth Armies, under the leadership of Li Wenhuan and Duan Xiwen, respectively. They remained a force until the late 1980s; see Wen-Chin Chang, ‘Beyond the military: The complex migration and resettlement of the KMT Yunnanese Chinese in Northern Thailand’ (Ph.D. diss., K.U. Leuven, Belgium, 1999); From war refugees to immigrants: The case of the KMT Yunnanese Chinese in Northern Thailand’, International Migration Review, 35, 4 (2001): 1086–105Google Scholar; and Identification of leadership among the KMT Yunnanese Chinese in Northern Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 33, 1 (2002): 123–46Google Scholar.

14 The KKY were auxiliary militias recognised by the Burmese government from 1962 to 1973. According to Martin J. Smith, the KKY policy began in 1963. However, a former KKY officer told me that their unit was established in 1962 in northern Shan State. See Smith, Martin J., Burma: Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity (London: Zed Books, 1993 [1991])Google Scholar; Lintner, Bertil, Burma in revolt: Opium and insurgency since 1948 (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1994)Google Scholar; Wen, Chen, Kunsa jinsanjiao chuanqi [Khun sa: Stories of golden triangle] (Taipei: Yunchen wenhua, 1996)Google Scholar.

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16 Kerkvliet, The power of everyday politics, p. 22.

17 Scott, James C., Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

18 Ibid., p. xvi.

19 Ibid., p. 38; p. 33.

20 Scott, ‘Everyday forms of resistance’, in Everyday forms of peasant resistance, ed. Colburn, Forrest D. (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1989), p. 13Google Scholar.

21 Kerkvliet, ‘Everyday politics in peasant societies’.

22 For example, MacGaffey, Janet, Entrepreneurs and parasites: The struggle for indigenous capitalism in Zaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)Google Scholar. Hart, Gillian, ‘Engendering everyday resistance: Gender, patronage and production politics in rural Malaysia’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 19, 1 (1991): 93121CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ruz, Mario Humberto, ‘Maya resistance to colonial rule in everyday life’, Latin American Anthropology Review, 6, 1 (1994): 3340CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Resurreccion, Babette P. and Sajor, Edsel E., People, power, and resources in everyday life: Critical essays on the politics of environment in the Philippines, ed. Gaerlan, Kristina N. (Diliman, Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, 1998)Google Scholar; de Neve, Geert, The everyday politics of labour: Working lives in India's informal economy (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Everyday politics of the world economy, ed. Hobson, M. John and Seabrooke, Leonard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Nontini, Elisabetta, ‘Resisting fortress Europe: The everyday politics of female transnational migrants’, Focaal, 51 (2008): 1327Google Scholar; Prakash, Gyan and Kruse, Kevin M., The spaces of the modern city: Imaginaries, politics and everyday life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

23 The shadow economies treated in their research cover a wide range of commodities including crops, manufactured goods, ivory, diamonds and precious minerals. Collaborating with Bazenguissa-Ganga, MacGaffey expands her research from a regional to a trans-continental base by tracing the socioeconomic history of individual traders from Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville who have migrated to Paris. They look into the traders' transnational connections and a range of cultural factors on which they depend for their engagements. See Janet MacGaffey, Entrepreneurs and parasites; Janet MacGaffey, with Mukhoya, Vwakyankazi et al. , The real economy of Zaire: The contribution of smuggling and other unofficial activities to national wealth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)Google Scholar; MacGaffey, Janet and Bazenguissa-Ganga, Rémy, Congo–Paris: Transnational traders on the margins of the law (Oxford and Bloomington: International African Institute in Association with James Currey and Indiana University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Tripp, Aili Mari, Changing the rules: The politics of liberalization and the urban informal economy in Tanzania (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

24 MacGaffey, The real economy of Zaire, pp. 153, 154.

25 Smith, Burma; Lintner, Burma in revolt; Callahan, Mary P., Making enemies: War and state building in Burma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

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27 Mr Yang was speaking about the Thai–Burmese border trade via Shan State during the socialist period. Some informants gave a higher estimate of 80 per cent.

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): 479501CrossRefGoogle 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.

42 For the Chinese side, Ruili/Jiegao handles 70 per cent of Yunnanese–Burmese trade or 34 per cent of Sino–Burmese trade, see Biguang, Meng and Lizhang, Si, ‘You yige meili de difang’ [A beautiful place], in Ruili gaige kaifang sanshinian [Thirty years of reform in Ruili], ed. Ruili gaige kaifang sanshinian bianweihui (Luxi: Dehong minzu chubanshe, 2009), pp. 1419Google Scholar; for the Burmese side, Muse channels 70 per cent of the nation's total trade with China (Wikipedia, Muse,, last accessed 30 May 2009).

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.

44 Chenyang, Li, ‘The policies of China and India toward Myanmar’, in Myanmar/Burma: Inside challenges, outside interests, ed. Rieffel, Lex (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2010), pp. 113–14Google Scholar.

45 See Chang, ‘Guanxi and regulation in networks’; Chang, Wen-Ching, ‘The trading culture of jade stones among the Yunnanese in Burma and Thailand, 1962–88’, Journal of Chinese Overseas, 2, 2 (2006): 107–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chang, Wen-Chin, ‘From a Shiji episode to the forbidden jade trade during the socialist regime in Burma’, in Chinese circulations: Capital, commodities, and networks in Southeast Asia, ed. Tagliacozzo, Eric and Chang, Wen-Chin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), pp. 455–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Myo Lwin, ‘China–Burma border trade continues to grow’, (last accessed on 30 May 2009).

47 Jianwen, Qu and Chen, Liang, Touzi dongmeng: miandian [Invest in ASEAN: Myanmar] (Kunming: Yunnan jiaoyu chubanshe, 2008)Google Scholar.

48 These contracted groups are often referred to as ceasefire groups. They include fourteen main ceasefire organisations and nine other ceasefire forces that are not always listed by the government; see Smith, Martin, ‘Burmese politics after 1988: An era of new and uncertain change’, in Burma: Political economy under military rule, ed. Taylor, Robert H. (London: Hurst & Co., 2001), p. 34Google Scholar.

49 The central government would like to integrate the ceasefire ethnic minorities into border guard forces, but the proposal has been turned down by several groups. The failure of integration has triggered tension in different border areas. The confrontation between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang (under the leadership of Pheng Jiasheng/Pheung Kya-shin) and the Burmese army in 2009 was a prominent example.

50 Yin Hongwei, ‘Zhongmian daji feifa muye maoyi’ [Strikes on the illicit timber trade between Burma and China], Nanfengchuang [South wind window], no. 9 (2007); William Boot, ‘Burmese gems, timber find other markets as US increases sanctions’, Irrawaddy, 3 Nov. 2007; Woods, Kevin, ‘Ceasefire capitalism: Military–private partnerships, resource concessions and military–state building in the Burma–China borderlands’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 4 (2011): 747–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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55 In a paper discussing the life story of a female pweza and her affiliation with her pweza at a higher level at different periods of time, Bénédicte Brac De La Perrière stresses that the role of pweza not only helps in mediation, but overall functions like a patron to his/her clients; Bénédicte Brac De La Perrière, ‘A woman of meditation’, paper presented at the workshop ‘Burmese lives: Ordinary life stories under the Burmese regime’, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University, 4–5 June 2010.

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57 Wai Moe, ‘Junta confers titles on cronies’, Irrawaddy, 12 Jan. 2010.

58 Macan-Markar, Marwaan, ‘Juanta's drug ‘exports’ to China test economic ties’, Irrawaddy, 4 Jan. 2011Google Scholar.

59 In 2005, the Burmese government issued a new regulation demanding that all export jade stones have to be sold at public auctions (gongpan 公盤) in Yangon first. This change contributed to the establishment of Guangzhou as the biggest jade trading centre, with jade stones shipped from Yangon by sea. Nevertheless, the smuggling of jade stones and ornaments to Yunnan from northern Burma continues. (In October 2010, the government shifted the jade auction site to the new capital, Naypyidaw.)

60 See International Crisis Group, ‘Reform in Myanmar: One year on’ (Jakarta/Brussels, 11 Apr. 2012); Cameron Hill, ‘Burma: Domestic reforms and international responses’ (Parliament of Australia, Department of Parliamentary Services, 22 May 2012). Also see: Qu and Liang, Touzi dongmeng: Miandian; Xiaolin, Guo, ‘Boom on the way from Ruili to Mandalay’, in Myanmar/Burma: Inside challenges, outside interests, pp. 86100Google Scholar.

61 A private soldier only receives 16,000 kyat (US$16) a month; see Wai Moe, ‘Burmese media denies reports of mutiny, attacks BBC’, Irrawaddy, 23 Jan. 2010.

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