A court in Myanmar has sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging, a deputy magistrate and a defense lawyer said Wednesday, prompting Beijing to urge that Naypyidaw reconsider their case and set them free.
In addition to the 153 life sentences, the Myitkyina district court in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state handed two Chinese minors 10-year sentences for the same offense, district deputy magistrate Myint Swe told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
A woman who was among those given a life sentence also received an additional 15 years in prison on a drug charge, he said.
“We tried to make the sentences as fair as possible, but we had to consider the environmental point of view,” Myint Swe said.
“If you look at the number of vehicles, and machinery and the equipment [they were caught with], you can imagine the amount of environmental damage they’ve done.”
The 155 Chinese national were arrested in January by Myanmar’s army in Kachin state near the border with China, along with some Myanmar citizens. Authorities also seized 436 logging trucks at the time of the arrest.
They were sentenced, after spending the last six months in detention, under a 1963 law carrying a punishment of 10 years to life in jail for anyone caught stealing or abusing public property.
According to the Associated Press, life terms are generally treated as 20 years in Myanmar’s judicial system.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung told reporters after the verdict was announced that his clients were considering an appeal.
“We can appeal to the higher level—the Kachin state judiciary. And we have 60 days to make an appeal,” he said.
“So if they want to, we’ll do it.”
Khin Maung said representatives from the Chinese Foreign Ministry attended Wednesday’s open trial, as well as his client’s family members and a number of journalists.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was “highly concerned” with the verdict and had “made representations with Myanmar over the matter,” according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency.
He called on Myanmar to “take every factor into account and properly handle the case,” noting that Beijing had repeatedly raised the issue with Naypyidaw since the Chinese nationals were arrested in January.
Lu also asked Myanmar to “return those Chinese citizens as soon as possible,” the report said.
The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar reportedly claimed its nationals had been deceived by criminals from both countries to engage in illegal logging.
Chinese demand for timber
Myanmar banned timber exports last year, but analysts say Chinese loggers often make deals with local warlords, and in some cases local Myanmar army officers, to ship timber across the border into China’s Yunnan province.
In May last year, London-based independent green group the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that soaring Chinese demand for valuable Siamese rosewood timber is threatening the prized rainforest species with extinction in countries of the Mekong region, where illegal trade is driving corruption and weakening state governance.
From 2000-2013, some 3.5 million cubic meters (123.6 million cubic feet) of Hongmu (redwood) timber was imported by China, the only country to have a specific customs code for Hongmu species indicating the country’s “global dominance of trade” in the wood, the EIA said in a report.
The Mekong region—consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar—has historically been China’s supply base for Hongmu and has been most affected by the surge in demand over the past decade, EIA said, accounting for nearly half of the imports since 2000 at a value of nearly U.S. $2.4 billion.
It said that despite measures put in place by Mekong countries to prevent illegal and unsustainable logging, the value of the industry has rendered such efforts ineffective, and Siamese rosewood—a particularly rare form of Hongmu—is highly sought after by traders.
In January, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying responded to an editorial in the New York Times accusing China of plundering Myanmar’s rosewood, wildlife, minerals and other resources, by saying Beijing “is always opposed to illegal logging, mining and trading on wildlife.”
“We stay committed to cracking down on these kinds of illegal activities, preserving natural resources and safeguarding stability of border areas with our neighbors including Myanmar through strengthened cooperation,” she said at the time.
Despite close political and economic ties between the two countries, large Chinese infrastructure and mining projects in northern Myanmar have drawn the concerns of residents who say they damage the environment and local livelihoods.
Clashes between ethnic rebel groups and government troops in Myanmar near the border in recent months have also sent waves of refugees into China, and an accidental bombing by the Myanmar air force inside Chinese territory added to tensions, leading to an apology from Naypyidaw.
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