China on Thursday criticized long prison sentences in Myanmar given to more than 150 Chinese nationals convicted of illegal logging.
The Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement is calling 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 can't change the outcome.
"Myanmar is changing and the judicial system in the country is more independent than before, and so the government can't intervene in the judicial process of the case," he said.
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, said 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 said 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.
Lucrative smuggling networks
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.
“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,” said Julian Newman, campaigns director for the non-profit British-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
Newman added the agreements with Chinese businesses for the illegal logging are brokered 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,” Newman stated.
Exiled Myanmar activist Maung Zarni said 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,” Maung Zarni noted.
The activist predicts Myanmar will eventually bow to Chinese pressure and those imprisoned will be released early and sent back home.
Victor Beattie and Aung Swe also contributed reporting from Washington.