Ruili – A Frontier Market Marked by Soft Power

In southwest China’s city of Ruili, the gateway to Myanmar, visitors are surprised by the simple and practical ease with which a seamless international border has been drawn — and managed. There is no pageantry here, no elaborate change of armed guards and no bugles. A simple but prominent yellow line divides Myanmar’s Mangxiu village from Yinjing on the Chinese side. At other places, a village road, a ditch, scaffolding and even an accumulation of soil greened by heavy foliage of creepers define the frontier.

“We often say that the hen from Mangxiu can lay eggs in Yinjing,” laughs Cui Hongji, a senior local official. As he speaks, a young woman on a two-wheeler from Mangxiu passes by. Without switching off the engine, she stops at the window of a white-gated structure, dampened by the previous night’s downpour. Her special pass, issued to residents on either side, is stamped here. In less than 30 seconds, she is off, indifferent to the sunlit view of vast paddy fields that lies ahead, as the outskirts of Ruili are approached.

“The special pass allows residents of Mangxiu to visit Ruili but not beyond. It is common to see them buy daily groceries in China, and head back before sunset,” explains a local Chinese official. In recent years, the border zone has become a major tourist attraction, much amplified by the allure of jade, the precious stone, which, for reasons of culture, is in high demand in China. “Jade, because of its lustre and toughness, is a symbol of virtue. It also symbolises fortune and good luck,” says Yi Xin, a local official.

Ruili is the natural conduit for moving jade, legally, out of Myanmar. It is not far from northern Myanmar’s “jade tract” — located at Lonkin Township in the Kachin State. Large reserves of jadeite, the original mineral from which the stone is derived, are mined there. Unsurprisingly, traders do brisk business in jade and other precious stones in the exotic gems bazaar — a row of sheds — on the Chinese side of the border. A swift exchange of local handicraft, clothing and much more is also routine here. An ill-translated signboard, signalling that the visitor is now in the exotic precincts of jade-country reads: “It is forbidden to steal, pry jade, otherwise heavy fines.”

Ethnic bonds

Strong ethnic and religious bonds ensure that crossborder commerce flourishes in this area. “Most of the people on either side of the border are of Dai and Jingpo ethnicity,” says Zhao Yunshan, director in the International Publicity Office in Dehong prefecture, of which Ruili is a part. The Jingpo in China share strong ethnic ties with their counterparts in Myanmar’s Kachin hill tracts — home to the jade mines. Several rivers flow out of the 40 hill tracts, all joining the mighty Irrawaddy River, which drains into the Andaman Sea. Mr. Zhao points out that the Dai people, whose presence is strong in Ruili and its surroundings, belong to the same ethnic stock as Myanmar’s Shan, mostly residing in the country’s often turbulent Shan State.

“Inter-marriages among the Dai and the Shan on either side of the border are commonplace,” says Mr. Zhao. He explains that despite cross-border marriages, the women from Myanmar marrying Chinese men can inherit property. Also, divorce is rare, and he attributes the strong family ties to the common heritage of Buddhism followed in this region.

The intimate cross-border cultural connect has had a major political fall-out. The common intra-ethnic bonds have naturally extended Chinese influence within large tracts of Myanmar, including Kachin and Shan States, where ethnic insurgent groups have frequently battled authorities in Nay Pyi Taw.

 

Source: The Hindu

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