KACHIN – China’s foreign ministry have launched diplomatic protests after a Myanmar court handed down more than 150 life sentences to Chinese nationals for illegal logging near the countries’ shared border.
The mass sentencing, which sparked outraged editorials in the Chinese media, came after the loggers were arrested in January during a crackdown on illegal forestry activities in northern Kachin state.
For years China hoovered up Myanmar’s once-abundant raw materials, spurring popular anger in the former junta-ruled country which is set for a general election later this year.
Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang had asked its smaller neighbor to “deal with this case in a lawful, reasonable and justified manner … and return those people to China as soon as possible”.
But the Myanmar government said it would not interfere in the judicial process.
“When our citizens break the law in other countries, [they] face sentence by those countries’ laws. We cannot use diplomacy to intervene. I think China will understand,” government spokesman Ye Htut said.
A Myanmar court official in Kachin said 153 Chinese loggers had been jailed for life, adding that a further two males under 18 were handed reduced 10-year sentences without giving details.
Life imprisonment in Myanmar is equivalent to 20 years, according to legal experts.
A statement from China’s foreign ministry added that it had “lodged multiple representations on different levels and through various channels” since the arrests in January.
An editorial in China’s Global Times slammed the “severity” of the sentences, expressing hope that intervention from Beijing could “reverse” the outcome.
“A few cases of Chinese engaging in illegal business in Myanmar have been scrutinized by public opinion, exaggerated as China’s economic invasion of the latter,” it said, urging the Myanmar public “to look upon China-Myanmar trade in a positive way”.
Thein Sein’s government has sought to halt the export of timber from the country with a ban on the movement of logs that came into effect in April last year.
However, campaigners say both Myanmar and China have turned a blind eye to enormous smuggling networks on their shared border, transporting everything from weapons and jade to timber and rice.
Logging in Myanmar became widespread under the country’s former junta as the ruling generals tossed aside sustainable forestry practices in a rush to cash in on the country’s vast natural resources.
Huge forested areas have been stripped bare, partly to feed massive demand across the border in China, with Kachin rebels also accused of building their war chest on the profits from logging and mining.
This is the latest spat to sully ties between the two countries.