Aye Lwin: ‘The Chinese need to treat Myanmar as an equal business partner’

Frontier chats to U Aye Lwin, joint secretary general of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

China is the biggest investor in Myanmar and some of its megaprojects, such as the pipelines transporting oil and gas across the country from Rakhine State to Yunnan and the Letpadaung copper mine, have generated deep controversy. A dramatic example of the animosity towards Chinese investment was the government’s decision in 2011 to suspend the Myitsone hydropower project in response to an escalating national protest movement. The negative attitudes towards investment from China have had implications for Myanmar’s long-established Sino-Burmese community, an issue that Frontier has explored with U Aye Lwin, the joint secretary general of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. U Aye Lwin, who is part Chinese, is also secretary general of the Myanmar Geosciences Society, the Federation of Myanmar Mining Association and the Myanmar Border Development Association and vice-president of Myanmar Industries Association.

Please tell me about your background.

I am half-blood Chinese and Karen. My grandfather came from Guangzhou Province when China was in turmoil because of poverty. I own a value-added wood product factory, as well as the Geomine Mineral Exploration and Mining Co., Ltd, and a logistics company. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Geology. I have been a part-time tutor at Yangon University and I also worked at the Ministry of Mining. I went into business in 1988 and am a volunteer with many associations.

Even though China is Myanmar’s top investor and trade partner, there’s opposition to some of its projects. There’s also discomfort in society about the level of investment from China. What is your response?

Sinophobia exists in Myanmar and other member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations because China is growing faster than in the past. If a country is growing and becoming more powerful than its neighbouring countries, they will worry. Other countries find it difficult to compete against China’s economic might. Its companies get the upper hand.

If we talk about Chinese investment in the Myitsome dam, the Letpadaung copper mine and jade mining at Hpakant we need to consider that it is the responsibility of the government and the investors. For example, the people blame China for the Letpadaung project because it is the biggest investor. But we need to remember who signed the contract. The government, the Myanmar partner and the Chinese company should have negotiated a fair contract based on international standards.

The problem is the contract, not the Chinese. There is a saying that if you allow guests to wear shoes in the prayer room, they will. What I mean is that the host is also important.

What is your response to the criticism in Myanmar of mainland Chinese?

It is partly a consequence of more Chinese doing business than any other nationality, far more than the [South] Koreans and the Japanese. Malaysians and Thais have come here to do business, and some of them are also ethnic Chinese. The people see a lot of Chinese doing business here and it might stimulate Sinophobia. But I urge that businesspeople from abroad be judged as individuals and not because of their ethnic background.

How have negative attitudes towards Chinese from abroad affected the Sino-Burmese community?

There are a lot of people like me, born and raised here but half-blood Chinese. Frankly, it is inconvenient to belong to a race that the native people dislike. To some extent, we experienced discrimination in education for being Chinese. We could not study to be doctors or engineers during the Ne Win government. That is why millions of people with foreign ancestors were denied opportunities in education, even though we are loyal to this country.

I am deeply concerned about the risk of a situation similar to that in Yangon in 1967, when there was violence targeting the Chinese community. It was widely believed the rumours that triggered the violence were started by the authorities as a distraction after rice prices rose. The people believed the rumours and attacked Sino-Burmese and burned their homes. The government banned the import of Chinese literature and shut Chinese schools and newspapers. Higher education opportunities for Chinese youths were lost. I am not complaining about this, I am just saying what happened. We should try to avoid Sinophobia. I worry that the people could become the victims of politics.

Were any of your relatives killed in 1967?

Please excuse me for not wanting to answer. It was a very emotional experience and I do not want to recall memories that will make me feel bad.

What can be done to ensure such a situation is not repeated?

I think the half-blood citizens should be fair when doing business with the authorities or natives. The businesses of half-blood citizens should be models of transparency. Being open is critical to eliminating doubt. Half-blood citizens in border areas should be particularly careful. Some half-blood Chinese don’t like overseas Chinese businesspeople because they lack responsibility. If this continues to be a problem, we worry about the possibility of racial conflict. This is why half-blood Chinese businesspeople need to be more law-abiding than their native counterparts.

What will change for business under the next government?

I think enforcement will be stronger and businesspeople will follow the rules more than now. Then, it will be better. Business administration under the outgoing government was like complacent parents who spoiled their children and made the situation worse. The application of the rule of law will change the political and business conditions.

What should the next government do about Chinese megaprojects such as the Myitsone dam?

They must review them. If the people don’t agree with the projects, they must stop them. I think that if the National League for Democracy government discovers that any big projects involved corruption or were based on contracts that are unfair to Myanmar, they would not proceed. The Chinese need to treat Myanmar as an equal business partner rather than taking the upper hand. There is much we can learn from the Chinese but Myanmar needs to be smarter.

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