Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The 1967 Anti-Chinese Riots in Burma and Sino-Burmese Relations

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The 1967 Anti-Chinese Riots in Burma and Sino-Burmese Relations

Article excerpt


During the Cold War, China's relations with its neighbours were critical to its foreign policy, which was subordinated to its triangular relations with the former Soviet Union and the United States. Beijing's relations with Burma were one of the highlights of this peripheral diplomacy between the 1950s and 1960s. Burma was the first non-communist country to recognise the People's Republic of China (PRC; China) in 1949. The two countries developed ties that came to be known as 'Pauk Phaw' (fraternal), lasting until 1967. During this period, both countries mutually enjoyed good relations and conducted frequent high-level bilateral visits. For instance, Premier Zhou Enlai visited Burma on nine occasions, President Liu Shaoqi on two, and Deputy Premier Chen Yi on at least sixteen. Conversely, during the same period, U Nu and Ne Win each visited China on six occasions.

Burma acted as a buffer state between China and the West as well as the Soviet Union later on. William Johnstone noted that Burma was 'the only friendly non-Communist territory through which the Chinese Communists can come and go, and through which delegations and official missions from Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia can come and go with ease'. (1) Winston Churchill had also aptly remarked that Burma was a gap in the West's encirclement campaigns against China. (2)

After Ne Win seized power in 1962, China maintained its good relations with Burma, strongly supporting Ne Win's nationalisation of the economy and assisting him to consolidate his power by foiling an attempted coup d'etat. (3) However, China's pragmatic and flexible foreign policy towards Burma began to shift after China set on a course of political anarchy in 1966 as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Their cordial relations were dramatically challenged by the 1967 anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon, which brought about the end of 'Pauk Phaw' ties.

The significance of the riots has not been thoroughly studied and understood, however. Chinese research undertaken on Sino-Burmese relations often 'omit' or 'neglect' this event in order to highlight the long-term friendship and harmonious relations between the two nations. (4) In mainland China, only a handful of scholars and returned Overseas Chinese from Burma conducted research on it. One Burmese-Chinese, Feng Lidong, has argued that the Chinese embassy in Rangoon as well as the Beijing government itself should be held accountable for the 1967 anti-Chinese riots, not the local Chinese community. (5) This is in contrast with the views of Chinese researcher Lin Xixing who wrote that the unrest was caused by Burma's own domestic anti-Chinese nationalism. Lin added that there was also reason to believe that the riots had been instigated by some Burmese who harboured ulterior motives. (6) Other scholars, such as Lin Zhu and Fang Xiongpu, synthesised the two arguments and ascribed the riots to Beijing's radical foreign policy coupled with Burmese domestic tensions. (7) Lin Zhu was a Chinese school headmaster in Mandalay who had returned to China just before the events of June 1967. Lin provides a valuable account of the background to the events as well as the subsequent response of the local Chinese community. However, these researchers have confined themselves to determining the facts rather than the impact of the riots.

The 1967 anti-Chinese riots have drawn more attention from Western and Asian scholars outside China; most of this research was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, however. According to these researchers, the causes of the Rangoon incident could be classified into three categories. Most scholars concur that the main cause of the '6.26' (26 June, the date of the first major anti-Chinese riot) event was the Cultural Revolution and China's attempt to export it through so-called 'Red Guard diplomacy'. (8) Stephen Fitzgerald argued that incidents involving Overseas Chinese in Macao, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia were direct effects of internal struggles among Chinese officials themselves or possibly the result of unauthorised activity in Beijing. …

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