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The party headed by Burma’s current prime minister, Thein Sein, has appointed a Chinese businessman with close ties to the ruling junta as an election candidate in the country’s northern Kachin state.
The man, known only as Yawmo, is from China’s southern Yunnan province and, according to a local in Kachin state’s Bhamo, is “business partners” with the Burmese government. He will run for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Momauk town, about 30 kilometres from the China border.
“He is Miao [ethnic Chinese minority group] from Yunnan province,” said the local. “He came and settled in Momauk in 1990 and later moved to Hpakant [a jade mining town] where his brothers-in-law already live.”
Election laws announced in February ban foreigners, and spouses of foreigners, from participating. This factor played a key role in forcing the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to UK national Michael Aris, to boycott the polls.
But numbers of influential Chinese businessmen close to the government are known to buy Burmese passports and ID cards. Burma has become heavily reliant on China as one of the junta’s principal economic allies; a visit to Naypyidaw by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao last week saw the two countries sign some 15 trade deals.
Burma’s economy has also undergone a significant revamp in recent months, with the government selling off swathes of previously state-owned industry to private businesses, many of whom have close ties to the Burmese junta. It is unclear to what extent Chinese businesses have benefitted from this, but analysts believe that Chinese investment in Burma, at both an entrepreneurial and state level, will continue to rise as Burma’s markets open up.
Many of Burma’s wealthy Chinese elites, including Yawmo, made their fortunes in the country’s lucrative jade mining industry, which is predominantly focused in the north, before moving to Mandalay in central Burma. Now Burma’s second city has an estimated Chinese population of up to 40 percent.
Another USDP candidate in Kachin state has been named as Htun Htun, a Burmese-born entrepreneur who also became rich through jade mining. The choice of candidates by the USDP, which is widely tipped to win what critics deride as a sham election, appears to validate suggestions that businessmen with close ties to the ruling junta will play key roles in the post-election government.
Moreover, the USDP has begun unofficially campaigning in several states and divisions around Burma while the 35 or so other registered parties must wait for official approval from the government before they can begin canvassing.
Ward officials in towns around Kachin and Chin state have reportedly been told by the USDP, which is believed to be an offshoot of the government-proxy organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), to recruit at least 10 percent of voters as party members.
“They are persuading people that they will get privileges for businesses and travelling – they will be prioritised when buying train, buses and air tickets,” said the Kachin local. “They said that even if a party member breaks the law and gets into trouble, senior authorities can speak in his or her favour and soften [the punishment].”