China’s Footprint in Myanmar

China’s Footprint in Myanmar

  • Spirits are bright at an ice park built by a Chinese company in Yangon. Natives of the tropical city found it a novelty to wear borrowed down jackets as they trudged around on the ice in their open-toed sandals. The ice park is but one of a recent influx of Chinese businesses in Myanmar. But the current government, which put a massive Chinese-backed dam project on hold, seems to be signaling a shift away from a reliance on the Chinese to greater openness towards the U.S.
  • The Moustache Brothers perform their famed and blacklisted comedy act, which makes China as well as the Burmese government the butt of many jokes. As performer Par Par Lay, right, does a mock Chinese dance, his younger brother Lu Maw, left, says: “Burma is very lucky to have China as a neighbor. We can have Adidas, Nike. Only three dollars. All fake.”
  • On the languid shores of the Irrawaddy River, a Burmese woman brushes <em>thanaka</em>, a traditional sunblock powder, on her son’s face after a mid-day bath. Though currently on hold, the Myitsone dam project threatens to alter life in riverside towns. The Chinese-financed hydroelectric project was suspended in September 2011 after years of public outcry.
  • Children share a laugh and a board game in the shade near a new school built with funds from the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in a village northeast of Mandalay. CNPC is building an oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar to China and has made donations like this school throughout the country—a sign, say observers, that China’s state companies are trying to win local goodwill.
  • Chinese parents pick up their children outside a Chinese restaurant in downtown Mandalay. While ethnic Chinese have resided in Myanmar for several generations, the growing number of Chinese coming to the country over the past decade has caused disquiet and anti-Chinese sentiment among Burmese.
  • A market scene in Mandalay.
  • A trader from Kunming in Southwest China looks over bangles, rings, and earrings at a jade market. The Chinese  trade in jade and gems from Myanmar, taking the stones back across the border to sell for a profit in China.
  • A man hauls his boat from the shore in the early morning in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. If the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam project is ever completed, this area—some 120 square miles—will be flooded.
  • A cross stands on a slope near the site of the planned Myitsone dam. Christian churches in the area planted crosses on the construction site in northern Kachin State, despite the Burmese government’s warnings to stop doing so.
  • Sister Elizabeth Lydia, who lives in an old church near the controversial hydroelectric project, sobs as she speaks of her parishioners in the village of Tang Phare. The villagers have been forced to relocate because of the dam project, though the church and its clergy have, for now, been allowed to stay on in the area without their congregation. Sister Lydia was detained by the authorities as she attempted to build a flood wall around the church.
  • Monks stand at the edge of the confluence waters of the Mali and N’Mai Rivers.
  • Customers sit at a riverside cafe near the banks of the Irrawaddy River, which is the source of much trade and life in Myanmar.
  • The Irrawaddy River as the morning sun breaks over Myitkyina.
  • A woman walks along a road that connects Kachin State in northern Myanmar to Tengchong County, China. The road, previously a trade route, has been rebuilt by the Chinese to allow for the transportation of supplies.
  • Barbed wire surrounds a dormitory that houses Chinese workers for China National Petroleum Corporation’s $2.5 billion oil and gas pipeline near the mountain towns of Hsipaw and Ban Nay Village. The 1,700-mile pipeline cuts across Myanmar, taking oil and gas into China.
  • Simple two-story homes stand in neat rows at the model resettlement camp of Aung Myin Thar. The resettlement camp, which contains about two dozen homes, was built to house the villagers of Tang Phare.
  • A sign near the Ban Nay Village, outside the town of Hsi Paw in Shan State, announces China National Petroleum Corporation’s presence.
  • Miles of pipe laid for the China National Petroleum Corporation’s multibillion-dollar pipeline to pump oil and gas to China. The two countries share a border more than 1,300 miles long. Myanmar stands in the way of China’s most direct route to the Indian Ocean.
  • A Chinese-operated cafe in Mandalay. The influx of mainland Chinese to the city in recent years has generated unease among locals, but ethnic Chinese who have lived here for two or three generations now are seen as different from their newly-arrived compatriots.
  • Mainland Chinese walk on the streets of Mandalay, their clothing and demeanor identifying them as foreign.
  • Ngwe Nyi Aye bathes her child, Naing Min Tun, 6, at their shack on the outskirts of downtown Mandalay, in view of a villa owned by a Chinese family.
  • An evening river scene at the docks of the Mandalay jetty, along the Irrawaddy River.
  • A group of Chinese exercise to music early in the morning by the moat of Mandalay Palace.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Yangon (also known as Rangoon) today shines a spotlight on a story that has already captured the world’s attention: namely, the remarkable political transformation that has been underway over the past year in Myanmar. Looming large in the background of the conversations he had with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and with democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi about developing the country’s economy and bolstering its steps toward democracy and the protection of human rights, is presence of Myanmar’s influential neighbor, China.

China and Myanmar share a border of some 1,300 miles and the two civilizations have a long and complex history as neighbors. Friendly ties between Beijing and Myanmar’s junta helped keep that regime in power, even as much of the developed world shunned it. Migrant Chinese have settled in Myanmar’s cities (particularly Mandalay) for generations. And China has been an increasingly active player in the export and trade of Myanmar’s mineral wealth, from gems to oil and gas, as well as a powerful force in the flow of sex workers and drugs, and the diseases that come with them, that have long traveled across the countries’ porous border. Myanmar’s location at the crossroads of East and Southeast Asia, its port on the Indian ocean, and its energy and mineral reserves make it important to China’s geopolitical strategy.

In some parts of the country, Burmese live amicably with their Chinese neighbors. But many Burmese resent China’s role in their country, both for its coziness with the oppressive junta and for the heavy-handedness of its extractive enterprises.

China’s plans to build a large hydroelectric dam on the Irawaddy River sparked national outcry and Myanmar’s government recently suspended the project.

In this photo essay, shot across Myanmar in March and April 2012, Sim Chi Yin explores the complex relationship between the two neighbors.

Sim Chi Yin is a photographer based in Beijing. She is a member of VII Photo Agency.Chi Yin was a finalist in W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography with a personal project on Chinese gold...