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-by Ernie Diaz
Those of you who despair that any positive change can come of politics, rejoice. Aang San Suu Kyi has won political power for her people, won it in one of the only two ways you can without selling out, by doing time first. The other’s by dying for the people. We may all hope Aang has a long life of fruitful service ahead. Some hope Aang San Suu Kyi can use her parliament seat as a stepladder to the president’s dais, but the same way Ron Paul fans hope.
Burma must hold together several tribes, and we use the term because it’s better than “races”, and because these Burmese tribes cling to their distinctions clansman-tight. Among those clans are Chinese, who further divide themselves based on the time and region of China from which they entered, an estimated 1.6 million, not counting potentially huge deviations of refugees who ebb and flow beyond any reliable census.
Would you believe the Chinese of Burma are far over-represented in higher education, high-tech labor, and high-power business? Easily you would, but then you might miss the diverse forest for the monolithic trees. It may comfort the westerner Foxed into paranoia that the Chinese blend in too, in with the people through intermarriage, into the culture through adaptation, and even into the political mix.
The West so far seems immune to the hefty political clout that inevitably grows in transplanted Chinese communities. Perhaps there is another brainy minority there that uses craft to make up for numbers in the Game of Votes. Regardless, the Chinese in Burma have often managed to amass considerable wealth and power, and just as often to raise native ire, to tragic effect. If this makes the Chinese in Burma sound a lot like the Chinese in Indonesia and Thailand, well then that’s so only from a distance. From a distance, England and France are the same – white people in Europe.
They were also white people in Asia. France’s colonization of Vietnam, and England’s of Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong, dissolution of the empires, Japanese invasion, all can be blamed for the division that has rent Burma and made of it a shambling cripple in the post WWII order. Deep-seated, more or less eternal ethnic strife can be blamed as well, but understanding comes slow when playing the blame game. The history is necessary to put in perspective the strange-but-true roles that assimilated Chinese have played in Myanmar.
None stranger than Ne Win, a Burmese Chinese who turned colors like a chameleon in a florist’s. Born in 1910, he came of age stoking anti-colonialist fervor. He and his socialist clique teamed up with the Japanese to resist the British during the Big One. After his patrons lost, Ne Win quickly dropped the Anglophobia and joined hands in routing Burma’s early communists. After obtaining second command of Burma’s army, he created socialist militias that boosted his power enough to take the part of interim Prime Minister in 1960, then seize the job as his own in a 1962 coup d’état.
Political schizophrenia can be amusing in an undergrad. In a strongman, who truly only serves power, it is catastrophic. Ne Win abandoned his so-called fellow Chinese like they were wobbly shopping carts. His Enterprise Nationalization Law was designed to end the livelihoods of non-citizen Chinese, causing an exodus of some 100,000 non-recognized to flee Burma. His government fanned racial tension to a cruel blaze. Chinese schoolgirls were burned alive, Chinese stores got ransacked and torched. The resentment against the ruthless economic will to power of the Han must have been amazing, as amazing as their rapid comeback in Burma after the 1988 reforms, especially in light of Burma’s autarky up to that point. As for Ne Win, he died at his lakeside house in Yangon in 2002, under house arrest.
Take a seat, Michael Corleone. Gangster Lo Hsing Han had no father to hand him his criminal empire, and he too legitimized it, turning heroin cash flows into the Asia World Company, wetting his beak on every juicy construction and energy project that China foists on Burma. It’s a dirty business, but shoots and ladders for a man who made his bones in the Ne Win-supported KKY militia. Heroin business was the reward for the most murderous anti-commies, and Lo Hsing Han played the part for the profit.
Poor guy went to jail in ’73, to be ousted by rival opium warlord Khun Sa, outsourcer to
Harlem heroin kingpins in the heyday, as featured in American Gangster. Both Lo and Khun were Chinese, but then Godzilla and Rodan were both Japanese. Besides, Lo Hsing Han is Kokang, of an ethnic Chinese tribe going back to the 1700s, today with their own special region of Burma. Khun Sa had a Chinese father and a Shan tribe mother. Both had their eyes on top spot in their corner of the Opium Triangle. Today, Khun Sa has gone on to drug lord heaven, while Asia World continues doing huge business, despite being on the U.S. sanction list for Burma junta cronies.
There are millions of Chinese ethnic or otherwise, living and working in Burma everyday, neither in extreme politics nor drug-trafficking. Ne, Lo and Chan are representative of the iconic figures a dysfunctional state produces. There are plenty of Burmese Chinese notables who rejected the dark side of the force: iconic painter Ngwe Gaing, Edward Michael Law-Yone, the courageous journalist and editor. What most of these good guys share, along with Aang San Suu Kyi, is imprisonment under the Burmese government. May brighter days lie ahead.