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A sophisticated new criminal network is openly smuggling timber across the Myanmar-China border

April 9th, 2021  •  Author:   Environmental Investigation Agency  •  6 minute read
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Amid the chaos of the brutal military coup in Myanmar and despite previous crackdowns on illegal timber trafficking over its border with China, EIA has established that a major new criminal syndicate is operating the trade.

The syndicate is headed by a Mr Da Shi Naw and involves at least five other sawmill owners in the processing and transportation of the timber, from which the military junta continues to benefit financially.

In the past decade, EIA has been working in Myanmar to monitor and document the smuggling of hardwoods across the Myanmar-China border.

Trucks crossing the border from Myanmar to China with processed timber, March 2021

In addition, we were able to investigate the people, methods and syndicates behind this multi million dollar theft of Myanmar’s forests in both Myanmar and China, as well as the European Union, Asian and US-based traders profiting from this crime.

From July 2019, we received reports that it had become difficult to continue smuggling teak to China at the Muse-Ruili checkpoint because the Chinese border police were blocking it.

Action by the Chinese authorities included a seizure in August 2019 of more than 100,000 tonnes of wood worth tens of millions of dollars. Enforcement in China has significantly affected the criminal syndicates in Myanmar, leaving them unable to smuggle their timber or pay anyone involved in illegal logging or transport at the time.

Many of those involved in illegal logging and the lucrative illicit trade across the Myanmar-China border had been arrested or had arrest warrants issued for them, including the members of the Dazu syndicate exposed in EIA’s Organised Chaos report in 2015.

By January 2020, EIA field research suggested that, in the wake of the Chinese border enforcement, illegal logging had virtually stopped in most of Myanmar’s Kachin State. However, we were informed of illegal logging in the Government-controlled Sagaing Division, with a significant cut of the money being taken by the Forest Department and military, who at various stages demanded taxes, road fees and bribes.

Teak logs in Myanmar (c) EIAimage

In May 2020, EIA was informed of further enforcement action, this time on the Myanmar side of the border. The Forest Department had seized logs, including teak, in Bum Tawng, in Kachin State, and two people were also arrested.

The logs were taken to the local Forest Department facility – where we were able to check and verify that there had been a significant seizure of 2,000 tonnes of timber – but later that day the logs were moved to Myitkyina and all teak removed and held in the nearby Myanmar military compound.

Following the military coup on 1 February, EIA received information that operations previously run by the Dazu syndicate had resumed and expanded to now include sawmills and warehouses to process timber, presumably on order from traders in China. The sheer scale of this operation can only take place with the knowledge and involvement of the State.

EIA is aware of sawmill operations in four different locations along the Kachin-China border, in Yit Zang, Nba Pa (also known as Mbaba), Gai Daw and Lweje (also known as Lwejel, Lwegel and Loi Je).

We have also been informed of two crossing points for timber into China at Mai Ja Yang-Zhangfeng and Lweje-Zhangfeng.

Timber being smuggled into China and monitored by EIA has been coming from Sagaing Division, an area controlled by the State (not ethnic armed organisations, which control some other areas of Myanmar) and, as such, timber operations in the region will have been conducted with the knowledge and control of the military junta since the beginning of February. There are other routes taken from Myanmar to China, including from northern Shan State.

EIA investigations have shown that the military junta is financially benefiting from the trade into China, including profits amassed from charging for the use of trade routes and passage through military checkpoints controlled by the Myanmar Army, as well as military connections with other criminal syndicates supplying traders in China.

Information we received indicates that a new syndicate is now involved in the processing and transporting of the timber. Led by Mr Da Shi Naw, this operation  involves at least five other sawmill owners – Ah Chying, Ah Ba, Kawn Gam, Kyang Hpang and Sham Maw.

Burmese teak being illegally transported into China (c) EIAimage

Since the 1 February coup, it has been impossible for EIA to continue working with local partners and Forest Department officials in moving forward to strengthen forest governance in the country.

The work of civil society towards transparency in the forest sector, including a clear chain of custody for timber, as well as changes which ensure that communities and civil society are part of any solutions to protect and sustain Myanmar’s forests, have been destroyed overnight.

Monitoring illegal logging and the associated illicit trade on the ground was never safe, but now, as the violence and brutality reach all corners of the country, it is almost impossible.

The Government of China can help – as shown by its significant enforcement in 2019, the country can take meaningful action.

In addition, China has recently revised its Forest Law and now includes a ban on the sale of timber from illegal sources within China.

Timber in a sawmill warehouse near the Myanmar-China border

Regulations to implementing this policy are expected later this year which should allow further enforcement and more clarity on the requirements for confirming the origin of timber.

However, EIA’s research within China indicates that companies are comfortable advertising timber sourced from the land border with Myanmar, including valuable rosewood and teak.

As obtaining timber through formal channels becomes more difficult, companies within China may instead pursue timber through illicit routes, including through conflict zones in Myanmar.

The Chinese Government must take immediate action to ensure this illegal conflict timber is not being sold and consumed in Chinese markets and exported through China to the rest of the world.

* Find out more in our special Myanmar timber resources and information page.

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