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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau


Notes on the Chinese communities in Burma and Thailand

Guy Lubeigt

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1Concerning these communities I would like to make two comparative remarks: one concerns Thailand and the other concerns Burma.

  • 23 Among the latest publications on the subject we can refer to the book of Arnaud Leveau: Le destin d (...)

21) When we speak about the Chinese in this country there is a sort of taboo. As people in general do not like too much to speak about the Chinese during conversations with strangers some subjects concerning that community are never mentionned or are systematically concealed. The reason for such a discreet attitude is obvious. For most of the foreigners the inhabitants of Thailand are “Thais”, and there are but few mentions of the Chinese as a distinct group of population or inhabitants of the kingdom. To be fair the other ethnic groups composing the population are also ignored. In the north nearly one million of hill tribes people (Akha, Karen, Lishu, Hmong, Miao, etc) are often denied the Thai nationality. Nevertheless one can safely assume that a large portion -if not the majority- of the so-called “thai” population is unmistakably either ethnically purely Chinese or mixed blood, with the exception of the eastern part of the country (Isan) where physical Khmer characters are dominant. Thais of Chinese ancestry are so well integrated into the society, sometimes for generations, that they identify themselves as “Thais.” Naturally by underlying this well-known facts I do not wish to make any sort of unpleasant racist remark about the Sino-Thais, I only try to describe a situation that anybody familiar with continental Indochina can witness in Thailand. Many books deal with the historical presence and integration of the Chinese in the kingdom of Thailand. As they are of easy access in the libraries and bookshops anybody can find references on that abundant and well documented literature.23

  • 24 Lunet de Lajonquière, Le Siam et les siamois, 1904. White Orchid Press, Bangkok (Reprint 1986), p. (...)

3When we live here, we can see that the Chinese presence is conspicuous. We don’t need to go far: let’s start with the Chinese cimetary which is right in front of the entrance of this venue (Sofitel Hotel), and right in the middle of the business center of Bangkok (the quadrilater defined by the roads Sathorn, Charoen Krung, Si Phraya and Rama IV). The capital of Thailand itself is by no mean a “Thai” town: it can be characterized as a Chinese town. Not because of its urban landscape, which tends to globalisation (skyscrapers are everywhere in asian metropolis), but because it is mainly inhabited by ethnically Chinese people. Bangkok was already described as such at the beginning of last century.24 Not solely because of the existence of a famous “Chinatown” in the historical center of the city. Other countries also, western included, have their ‘Chinatown.’

4In Bangkok a very large number of shops, in every quarter of the city (and not only in Chinatown) can be attributed to Chinese families. They display outside, above their door, small red stickers wishing luck to the owners, and inside the shop red painted altars (which can be installed on the floor level or fixed on the upper part of the wall) devoted to the worship of the ancestors of the shopkeepers. Meanwhile tall buildings bordering the avenues have their names inscribed in huge Chinese characters which are fluorescent at night. During the annual celebrations of the Chinese New Year, Bangkok nearly seems to be a dead city: for about one week most of the government administration, shops, offices, trading and financial houses and banks are closed. Members of the Chinese community, whether or not Thais by nationality, follow the tradition, participate actively to the festivities (Dragon dances, homages to ancestors, traditional cakes) and indulge in or outbound travels often to pay a visit to their elders or relatives left in China.

  • 25 Between 8 and 16% (Leveau, 2003: 1). This uncertainty concerning the real size of that community co (...)
  • 26 On this topic the publications of Chris Baker and Paisuk Phongpaichit are deeply informative. Their (...)

5According to the statistics the size of that community appears modest when compared to the overall population of the country (66 millions). I don’t remember the actual figures,25 but in the sixties the percentage of Chinese immigrants among the “Thai” population was officially 8,5%. It represented already the greatest concentration of ethnic Chinese outside China. Since then one can can be sure that most of these immigrants have quietly acquired the Thai nationality. They are so well integrated within the “Thai” community as to dominate all the sectors of activities of the nation.26 Therefore we are not speaking about a small minority. I do believe that actually the bulk of the Thailand’s population is mainly composed of ethnic Chinese, whether old or recent immigrants, and Sino-Thais.

6Another taboo in this country is not to mention clearly that there is a link between the Thai politics and the ethnic origin of the politicians who dominate the political scene. For instance it reminds me what happen when Prime Minister Banharn raise to power. For some reasons journalists enquired about its origins. They found that Banharn was born in China and came in Siam with his father –a Chinese immigrant- when he was 8 years old. According to Thai law, as he was born in China, he should not have been entitled to become Prime Minister. Everybody in the political circle knew that Banharn had relatives in China and paid some visits to them after the establishment of diplomatic relations between this country and Thailand (1975). The question was of importance and the newspapers made their front pages on the subject for a few days. Finally a birth certificate of Banharn was produced showing that he was born in Siam, in Suphanburi (an ancient town situated in the central plain) which was described as the craddle of his family. Some claimed that the certificate produced was a forgery. Luckily no experts were called to check the authenticity of the document and the matter was quickly laid to rest. Banharn became Prime Minister. He was followed in that position by other Prime Ministers: Chavalit, Chuan and by the actual Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. All of them of Chinese ancestry like their predecessors Kriangsak and Chartchai, or the latest dictators Thanom Kittikachorn and Prapat. With such a background needless to say that a majority of the “Thais” politicians, bankers and high profile businessmen are of Chinese ancestry.

7So many “Thais” people, whether powerful or modest, have Chinese ancestors in Thailand that, naturally, it is difficult for them to accuse their competitors or partners to be not real “Thais,” especially when they, their own father or their spouse originated from China. Even if the migration of these ancestors took place a long time ago. Thus, when the matter of ethnic origin arise it is quickly buried because the whole society, or nearly all the society (the powerful, the businessmen, the banking, the big families, the monks) is concerned.

82) You mentioned yesterday that “when the Chinese move, they move with a lot of noise.” For Thailand we don’t see such a move because the Chinese are well integrated and the newcomers are quickly assimilated into the “Thai.” After a few years they have their ways to acquire the Thai citizenship and a thai identity card. In Burma the current situation is different.

9Until the annexion of the kingdom of Ava by the British on the first january 1886, the Burmese were mostly among themselves. Relations between Burmese kingdoms and China have been attested for over 1200 years, however, through the ages it seems that the Chinese presence and influence have been kept at bay by the Burmese community. During the second half of the 18th century the armies of the Burmese rulers were still strong enough to repulse three Chinese invasions. Since the middle age period trading relations, especially with the caravans plying between the highlands of Yunnan and the valley of the Irrawaddy, never ceased among the two neighbours who knew each other well. Burmese and Chinese even consider to be related by a sort of family link, called paukpaw. By the middle of the 19th century, although there was a Chinese merchant settlement and a temple in the capital of Amarapura, few Chinese migrate to Burma and the size of their community remained it seems unsignificant.

10The situation in central Burma changed with the colonial period (1886-1948), because the British, in need of clerks and manpower to administer their new colony, encouraged both Chinese and mostly Indian labourers to come to Burma. After independance the Burmese nationalist feelings were running high and one of the first move of the newly founded Union of Burma was to check the nationality of its citizens. Most of the Chinese and Indians living in the country were recent migrants associated with the colonial power. Within a few years they were sent back to their respective countries. In 1952-1954 the Kouomintang invasion of the Shan States by the Chinese nationalist troops increase the resentment of the Burmese against the Chinese foreigners. By the end of the sixties and through the seventies each plane leaving Burma was carrying several Chinese families hoping for a better future for their children in a western country.

11Up to 1988 the Burmese troops had a hard time in the Shan State, fighting this time against the Communist rebels of the BCP (Burma Communist Party) trained and equipped by the Chinese Communist Party. Finally a serie of violent battles between the Burmese army and the rebels took place in the northern Shan State (Sisiwan) and the communists rebels were wiped out. Meanwhile the Burmese socialist regime of General Ne Win, shaked by Union wide popular demonstrations, collapsed. It was replaced, on september 18 th, by a junta promissing to hold free and fair elections and to undertake a new policy founded on a liberal market economy. Unfortunately the true colour of the new military dictatorship was shown the next day: several hundred (possibly 3000) demonstrators claiming for the establishment of democracy were gunned down by the soldiers in Rangoon... That is the reason why, by the end of 1988 nobody in the free world wanted to help the Burmese generals.

12Meanwhile the Chinese were closely monitering the evolution of the Burmese political scene. They probably compared the then situation in Beijing with what had taken place in Rangoon. In June 1989 it is known that the Burmese ambassador was received by the Chinese officials, three days before the Tien An Men’s massacre perpetuated on the Chinese students. The radical Burmese example could have inspired the Chinese to eliminate their student power. Consequently the relationships with Burma, strained for decades by the Chinese support to the BCP troops, were overhauled. Close relations with the Burmese military leaders were reestablished.

13Since then China has supported Burma with arms, loans, grants, technicians, engineers (building of bridges, factories, railways) in all its endeavours. Countless missions by Chinese delegations, especially in the economic field, came to visit Burma and signed multiple trade agreements with the Military. Naturally these friendly relationships between the two regimes have changed the way the Burmese were looking at the Chinese. They are not anymore perceived as a threat to the Union. New border checkpoints have been opened and border trade initiated in 1988-89 have developped may folds. The road between Mong La and Tachileck has been upgraded (with Chinese money, mechanical equipment, engineers and workers) and, through the Eastern Shan State and its capital Kengtung, the Thai border can presently be reached by 20 tons trucks within five hours. Following the trade development the Chinese migrants (workers, traders, drivers and gamblers), clearly encouraged by the Burmese military policy, have been pouring into Burma and began to settle down in the Shan State and Mandalay.

14This is the reason why, for six or seven years, I’ve been witnessing, especially in Mandalay (historical capital of the Burmese kingdom) and Rangoon, the results of this new Chinese migration, especially in the urban architecture. In the seventies Mandalay (founded by King Mindon in 1853) was a traditional asian town, with small wooden buildings in the popular quarters and brick houses, not very high though, in the wealthier ones. The recent massive arrival of Chinese migrants has completely modified the picture. This movement has generated a deep change in the urban architecture and the landscape of Mandalay. Numerous new buildings have been constructed and keep popping up everywhere. The main feature is that the town starts to rise up. Huge constructions can be seen everywhere, the same type of buildings that you can see in China. These are concrete big blocks of over ten floors. Like in China they are usually of dark grey colour and the buildings differ slightly from one another.

  • 27 The same phenomenon has been observed in Chiang Mai, Thailand. See Lubeigt: “Traditional and recent (...)

15Simple enquiries reveal that the owners of these blocks are Chinese. In some quarters Chinese families (officially identified as “Shan nationals”) have bought plots of land and constructed spacious villas such as those build in the well-known VIP quarter contiguous to the road to Maymyo-Lashio-Chinese border. The movement of construction and transfer of landownership is so strong that it has now spread to the all town. To accomodate this urban change, part of the Burmese population, which was living traditionally in the central part of Mandalay (around the Zegyo market), have been encouraged to sale its land to the Chinese and move away. New settlements have been created by the authorities on the eastern side of the old agglomeration. They are now constituted into two townships called “Mandalay New Town.” The change is of importance for the old inhabitants of Mandalay: the Burmese citizens found themselves to live now on the outskirts of Mandalay. They migrate to the outskirts of the city while they are replaced in the center by wealthy Chinese merchants. The more the Chinese settle in the central part the more the Burmese, who are offered attractive prices (for Burmese standard) to sale their landholdings, move to the outskirts.27

16I can give an example of this movement. In the south of the old palace, near a new market (Yadapon Zay) a very wealthy Chinese, recently arrived from Yunnan, has bought a piece of land to settle down. This person has been powerful enough to have some buildings demolished to build his own villa. The villa is surrounded by a lawn turned into botanical garden and protected by walls. Some coconut trees have been planted in the garden to show that the owner is somehow an ecologist. The house is fully equipped with modern and luxuous apparatus in each room (kitchen, fitness room, three salons for receptions and so on). During my visit, made with the approval of the landlady, I was very surprised by the fantastic luxury: marble flooring on the ground floor, golden teak upstairs, huge Chinese vases for decoration and so on. To say the least the contrast was big between the traditional Mandalay where Burmese used to live in tiny houses, and the sudden irruption of such wealthy Chinese gentleman who had so much money that he could build this marvellous dwelling. Here we rejoin the topic of our meeting and the question of the so-called “laundering” (just business as usual for the Chinese living in these areas) should be raised.

17Thus, the Chinese migration in Burma is going on strongly and very fast. However the urbanization of Mandalay is but the first stage of the movement. The urban landscapes is also quickly changing in Rangoon where Chinese buildings, banks, businesses, restaurants, and even Chinese dentists are also thriving in Pansodan Street. It appears that for the Chinese Burma plays presently wittingly the role of a “Far South.” The study of their influence on the country and its inhabitants is therefore fundamental to understand the prospects of the Union of Burma in Southeast Asia.


23 Among the latest publications on the subject we can refer to the book of Arnaud Leveau: Le destin des fils du Dragon. L’influence de la communauté chinoise au Viêt Nam et en Thaïlande. Irasec-L’harmattan, Paris 2003, 287 p.

24 Lunet de Lajonquière, Le Siam et les siamois, 1904. White Orchid Press, Bangkok (Reprint 1986), p. 8.

25 Between 8 and 16% (Leveau, 2003: 1). This uncertainty concerning the real size of that community could allows us, within the frame of the present workshop, to consider it as a “grey community.”

26 On this topic the publications of Chris Baker and Paisuk Phongpaichit are deeply informative. Their latest book is a biography of the actual Prime Minister Thaksin.

27 The same phenomenon has been observed in Chiang Mai, Thailand. See Lubeigt: “Traditional and recent aspects of the urban development of Chiang Maï” (117-134) in Cultural Identity and Urban Change in Southeast Asia: Interpretative Essays. Deakin University Press, 1994, 252 pages.


(CNRS-PRODIG) Member of the IRASEC Observatory on Illegal Migrations and Human Traffic in Southeast Asia
Guy Lubeigt, a member of the IRASEC and researcher at Observatory on Illegal Migrations and Human Traffic in Southeast Asia writes a stylish board of the Chinese influence in Myanmar.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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