A Chinese foreign ministry statement (Thursday) calls for Myanmar to deal with its jailed nationals in a “lawful, reasonable and justified manner,” asking for all those convicted of illegal logging to be returned to China “as soon as possible.”
Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw tells VOA his government has listened to the Chinese complaints, but told Beijing that officials can no intervene in the country's judicial process, which is more independent than it was in the past. He added that he does not expect the issue to harm bilateral relations with China.
A total of 156 Chinese were arrested in January for illegal activity in forests in Kachin state, along Myanmar’s border with China.
On Wednesday, all but three of the defendants were given what were termed as “life” sentences. Observers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, say prisoners typically serve 20 years for such sentences.
A judge, Myint Swe, justified the unusually long sentences in one of the largest known such crackdowns by Myanmar on the illicit timber trade.
The justice says the prison terms were decided because of the extent of potential destruction to the environment and the loss of forests based on the number of people involved and machinery used.
Authorities, at the time of the arrests, said they had seized 436 logging trucks, 14 pickup trucks loaded with timber logs, stimulant drugs, raw opium and Chinese currency.
Environmentalists have long accused both Myanmar and China of ignoring lucrative smuggling networks of gems, drugs and numerous endangered natural resources along their shared border.
Julian Newman is a campaigns director for the non-profit British-based Environmental Intelligence Agency.
“Obviously we welcome enforcement of the law. And we think that these sentences are quite excessive and the fact that most of the believe, who were captured, were very much the small players really.”
Newman says the agreements with Chinese businesses for the illegal logging are negotiated at very high levels of either the ethnic groups or the military in Myanmar.
“So unless we get starting getting up the chain to those people who are actually the authors of these illegal logging activities, rather than the people at the bottom of the chain, the problem will continue because, often, people who are the loggers or truck drivers are dispensable.”
Exiled Myanmar activist Maung Zarni says the harsh sentences appear to be retaliation for China rolling out the red carpet for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit to Beijing.
“The Burmese military government has never lifted a finger against the Chinese traders, illegal or not. And, so, this is essentially tit-for-tat politics that the Burmese military leaders are well known for.”
The activist predicts Myanmar will eventually bow to Chinese pressure and those imprisoned will be released early and sent back home.