|Kwao Peppeh |||Jul 23, 2015 05:10 AM EDT|
(Photo : REUTERS/Stringer) China has lodged a diplomatic protest with Myanmar after a court in the southeast Asian nation sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life imprisonment for illegal logging. The Myitkyina court handed down sentences to 155 Chinese citizens on Wednesday.
China has expressed concern over the severe lifetime imprisonment sentence handed out to over a hundred Chinese nationals in Myanmar on Wednesday. Officials have urged Myanmar authorities to deal with the issue in a "lawful, reasonable and justified manner."
The 153 Chinese nationals were arrested in January in Myanmar's restive Kachin State, which shares a border with China. Myanmar authorities have been battling the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group made up of tribes from both China and Burma.
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The Myanmar government is trying to stop illegal logging, which is fast depleting the country's trees. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), between 2000 and 2013, up to $8 billion worth of timber was illegally exported from Myanmar. Some of the top destinations for this illegal timber include China, Bangladesh, India and Thailand.
Earlier in the year, authorities embarked on a crackdown on illegal loggers in Kachin, who allegedly had the backing of the KIA. Over 100 Chinese nationals were arrested during the crackdown and hundreds of timber trucks were recovered. Myanmar authorities have accused the group of entering the country illegally and engaging in logging.
Two teenage boys in the group have been sentenced to only 10 years in prison. Also, one woman in the group, accused of drug possession, has received a 15-year additional sentence. All other members of the group, however, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Experts say under Myanmar law, a life sentence is equivalent to about 20 years in jail.
The Chinese consulate in Myanmar has revealed that the 153 Chinese nationals were tricked into engaging in illegal logging. The consulate has reportedly contacted the Myanmar government to protest against the harsh life imprisonment sentence handed to the group.
China has been in contact with Myanmar authorities since the group was arrested in January. According to China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang, China has been attempting to secure the repatriation of the accused loggers. Lu has implored Myanmar to "take China's concerns seriously, take all factors into account and properly handle this case."
Experts say Myanmar can ill afford to sour its relationship with China again. China is one of Myanmar's main developmental partners. Annual trade between both nations is reported to be over $1 billion.
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