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    Borderlands: Walking With the Dai People of Yunnan

    Professor Shen Haimei visits the Dai ethnic group and makes a case for open borders.

    This is the first commentary in a three-part series on China’s borders and the people who inhabit them.

    The border of the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture snakes across the lush, mountainous terrain of China’s Yunnan province and its southwesterly neighbor, Myanmar. Historically, the area’s inhabitants have always migrated frequently across the border. Families were often scattered across both sides, and their close interactions helped establish the friendly rapport that exists between the two nations. 

    During my third visit to the China-Myanmar border on July 30 of this year, I visited the home of Aikan-Aikan and Ma’ai in Mangai Village, Nongdao Township, in Ruili City. Situated in the southwestern part of Ruili, Nongdao is the closest point to Myanmar on a map. Its northern point just brushes the Ruili urban area, while the rest of it forms the national border with Myanmar. 

    Mangai sits in a river basin rich in natural resources, where many villagers have built Western-style homes of brick and concrete. Clad in blue steel sheeting, they represent a departure from the one-story wooden houses traditionally built by the Dai ethnic group. One floor serves as a living room, with a kitchen on one side and a stairway to the second-floor bedrooms on the other, giving the house a minimalistic look.

    The walls of Aikan-Aikan and Ma’ai’s home are covered with photographs; some are of the couple at their wedding, and some are group shots taken while participating in ganbai, a form of religious costume performance common to the Dai and other Theravada Buddhist ethnic groups in the area. 

    Meanwhile, the house is filled with the laughter of nieces and nephews over from Myanmar for their summer vacation, playing together with their cousins. On the coffee table sits a pot of freshly cooked corn on the cob that Aikan-Aikan brought back from over the border. 

    Aikan-Aikan, 35, was born in this village. He served as a novice monk at the local Buddhist temple when he was younger, but at 20 years old he left the monastic order to live a secular life. During one of his trips to the ganbai celebrations in Myanmar, he met a young Burmese woman, Ma’ai. The two fell in love, married, had children, and settled down in Nongdao. Their cross-border experiences are very similar to those of other couples around here.

    Despite their different nationalities, both were still ethnic Dai people. They spoke Dai at home with the family, practiced Theravada Buddhism, and shared a common culture. During the week, Aikan-Aikan and Ma’ai worked in the fields, planting rice and corn. In recent years, the couple has rented land from the village to plant honey pomelo trees. The large, sweet pomelos produced in Nongdao can be sold at the market for 6 yuan (just under $1) per kilo. They are an important cash crop for farmers in the area. 

    Two years ago, the Ruili Women’s Association introduced a project aimed at improving the livelihood of Burmese women who married in China. By offering special-purpose loans to families with Burmese wives, they have helped to raise their income. Aikan-Aikan’s family was thus able to expand the amount of land allotted for pomelos. The increased cash from this has already helped to repay the loans. 

    Ma’ai’s family, who lived across the border, had their own land that could be tilled and cultivated. Worried that their daughter’s new family might not have enough land to get by, her parents set aside two mu (about 0.3 acres) of land for them to plant more crops. The family, therefore, owns land in both China and Myanmar. Planting season takes them across the border into Myanmar, and similarly, at harvest time their Burmese relatives take the short trip over to China to help out. 

    Biting into their fresh, warm sweet corn was proof of how the relatively loose border control policies between China and Myanmar add to the convenience and happiness of the border inhabitants’ lives. I couldn’t help but think of the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose concerns about the efficacy of the U.S.-Mexico border have led him to call for building a wall to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. 

    Yet in these globalized times, frequent cross-border movement has become the norm, and we should endeavor not to obstruct it. Border control and management of cross-border movement presents a tough challenge for every sovereign country.  

    In Nongdao, not far from Aikan-Aikan and Ma’ai’s home, there is a tourist attraction known as “One Village, Two Countries.” A national border splits this Dai village in two: The Chinese side is called Yinjing, while the Burmese side is known as Mangxiu. 

    The unique boundary and the lives of these inhabitants have drawn Chinese tourists to the area, where the fences, wells, sewage systems, and other structures that make up a national border have been adjusted for an integrated ethnic community. The village abounds with colorful local stories about the border, like the fruit vines that grew from China into Myanmar, or the hen that ran from Myanmar into China to lay its eggs. Yinjing’s bridge spans both countries, the well serves both countries, and the Buddhist pagoda blesses both countries.  

    Both natural and artificial landforms, such as rivers, mountains, and irrigation canals, make up the 2,000-kilometer China-Myanmar border. Only in the more densely populated areas around the trading ports, like Jiegao Port in Ruili and Laying Port over in Longchuan County to the north, is border patrol more stringent. However, the large number of informal natural channels across the border make strict patrolling difficult, resulting in a generally more relaxed border policy.    

    Admittedly, looser controls can lead to problems like smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal border crossing. But if we take a macro view of things, the issues along the China-Myanmar border are all controllable. This balance of flexibility and control can serve as an example for other countries. In this case, loose border controls are essential for the economic and social well-being of the Dai community, and unnecessary tightening would only disrupt a thriving and diverse ethnic community.

    (Header image: Two women walk along a mountain road in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province, May 24, 2016. Hao Yaxin/VCG)