Mandalay — “It is not news anymore that all good locations in Mandalay belong to the Chinese. But it will be news if Burmese can take them back,” said Sein Hla, a 57-year-old bean trader in Mandalay.
The Chinese have been able to expand their territory in downtown Mandalay because the Burmese are weak economically, Sein Hla said. When the Chinese came to Mandalay with plenty of money at a time when the Burmese were suffering an economic crisis, local land and business owners could not resist selling off their assets.

After Burma’s 1988 nationwide uprising and subsequent military coup, most local businesses in Mandalay were in bad shape and in need of cash. Beginning around 1990, many Chinese from Yunnan Province, as well as other areas of China, began to open businesses in Mandalay, buying up plots of land at high prices. Later, they brought their relatives to work in the new businesses.

In this manner, the Chinese migrants have taken over the central points of the city one after another, pushing out the local Burmese in the process.

“When I sold my land in 1994, I received over 17 million kyat [US $21,250]. Now, the price of that land is 8 billion kyat [$10,000,000]. I have never heard of such prices before,” said Lwin Maung, a 70-year-old Mandalay resident.

Lwin Maung said he sold his land at the time because he needed money. He thought that he would buy it back after working hard for a while, but he certainly cannot afford the current price.

“I think the main factor contributing to the Chinese predominance in our city is our own incompetence. Burmese are poor in terms of money and education. We are under repression, so we are poor in ideas. We are also poor in knowledge, so we lack economic vision,” said Lwin Maung.

Dr Than Htut Aung, the chief executive officer of the country’s leading Eleven Media Group, told persons attending the group’s 11th anniversary celebration in June that without capital strength, there is no way for Burmese to resist Chinese encroachment.

“We can’t stand next to a soon-to-be super power country without capital strength. There is no way our poor people can resist the threat of a very rich and powerful country,” said Than Htut Aung.

The current price of a plot of land in Mandalay, which used to cost around 10 million kyat, is reported to be at least a billion kyat.

“The sales of land have been quite good. Chinese are more interested in land plots with high prices. As for Burmese and other ethnic people, they sell out a plot of land in good location and buy two or three plots in the new town area. So the real estate business in Mandalay is always on the upturn,” said Pu Lay, a real estate agent.

In early July, a plot of land located at 53rd and 38th streets in Mandalay was bought by a 40-year-old Chinese businessman, who is married to a Burmese woman, for nearly 8 billion kyat [$10,000,000].

“It is not easy to buy land in Yunnan,” the Chinese businessman said. “It is crowded and there are not many good locations to live. But I can buy land in Rangoon and Mandalay. I have planned to live here, that’s why I bought it.”

Maung Maung, a gem trader in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy that Chinese from the border have entered every business sector in town.

“Chinese from the border do everything. They are involved in the gem trade, gold mining and the bean trade. They are even involved in the construction material market,” said Maung Maung.

He pointed out that Chinese businesses in the city have quickly improved because they are united, economic-minded and share markets between themselves. While the Chinese are focusing on business and prospering, Burmese are wasting their time in teashops and gambling on football and the lottery, he said.

“There are also Burmese businessmen, such as Aung San Win in gold trading, who are smart and really work hard. But most of them are not smart and do not work hard. They just waste their time without making any effort,” said Maung Maung.

Many Burmese businessmen in Mandalay come from wealthy family businesses and prefer their traditional ways of working, some observers said.

Other local observers said that the Burmese people’s discontent over Chinese encroachment has broadened because many of the Chinese people entering Burma after 1988 have been able to bribe government officials to obtain identification cards, giving them the ability to buy plots of land and houses.

“The gunpowder of hatred is already there, so it can explode anytime when it is hit by a spark. In my opinion, I don’t think we should hate or be against a particular race.

I think what is happening on the ground is not because of races, but of the governments behind them,” Kyaw Yin Myint, a resident journalist in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy.

In late June, an angry mob gathered and readied to attack a Chinese owned jewelry store after a dispute broke out. Kyaw Yin Myint said that this anger that nearly led to violence is rooted in discontent that has existed for a long time, and warned that unless an appropriate solution is implemented by either the Chinese or Burmese government, any dispute between Burmese and Chinese inside Burma could instigate a situation worse than the anti-Chinese riots of 1967.

“If the current problem [anti-Chinese sentiment] becomes bigger, it may be worse than what happened before and difficult to handle. As a result, relations between Beijing and Naypyidaw could be affected,” said Kyaw Yin Myint.

Soe Htun, a political activist and leader of the 88 Generation Students group, said that the source of growing discontent towards the Chinese lies in Beijing’s appeasement of the repressive Burmese government, and urged the general public to beware of the Chinese threat.

“We must be careful about China’s threat. It is important. Beijing is not only destroying our natural resources, but also backing and cooperating with the hard-hearted Burmese government,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Activists also said the recent clashes in northern Burma are the consequence of Naypyidaw’s protection of Chinese interests in the area.

Than Htut Aung believes the Burmese will be able to avoid threats from China only if their country is embraced by the international community.

“We only have the will to protect and preserve our country and our independence. The thing we have do to prevent potential threats from China is not express hatred, which will affect our bi-lateral relations. We have to re-access the international community,” said Than Htut Aung, in his speech commemorating his group’s anniversary.

The Irrawaddy reporter Lin Thant contributed to this article.