Myanmar sentences Chinese nationals to life for illegal logging

YANGON (REUTERS) - China has lodged a diplomatic protest with Myanmar after a court in the south-east Asian nation sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life imprisonment for illegal logging.

China's voracious demand for Myanmar's raw materials has fuelled resentment in Myanmar towards its giant northern neighbour.

Regions along Myanmar's porous border with China have long been hotbeds for an illegal trade in timber to feed Chinese demand. Much of Myanmar's jade is also believed to be illegally smuggled into China.

A court in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State in the north of Myanmar, handed down sentences to 155 Chinese citizens on Wednesday. Two of those convicted escaped life sentences and got 10-year prison terms.

All will have a chance to appeal against the rulings, said a court official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

An official from Myitkyina's prison department confirmed the sentences.

China's Foreign Ministry said it was "extremely concerned"about the decision and had lodged a protest with Myanmar.

"China had repeatedly, on many levels and through many channels, made representations with Myanmar about the case," it said in a short statement.

China had demanded that Myanmar deal with the case "in a lawful, reasonable and justified manner" the Foreign Ministry added, so that the case could be concluded properly and the nationals returned.

The sentences were too harsh and may be due to anti-Chinese feeling in Myanmar, the influential Global Times tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, said in an editorial on Thursday.

"A few cases of Chinese engaging in illegal business in Myanmar have been scrutinised by public opinion, exaggerated as China's economic 'invasion' of the latter," it wrote.

The individuals were arrested in January in a crackdown on the country's lucrative illegal logging and timber trade launched by the military, police and forestry department.

More than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized during the raid, state media said at the time.

In June, Aye Myint Maung, a deputy environment minister, told parliament that 10,000 tons of illegal timber had been seized from illegal loggers since January, most of it from Kachin State.

Kachin State has seen an increase in conflict since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the Myanmar military and autonomy-seeking ethnic Kachin rebels broke down.

Ties between Myanmar and China soured this year over fighting between Myanmar's military and another group, the ethnic Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, along part of the shared border.

Chinese citizens have been killed by stray shells and bombs falling inside China's territory, angering Beijing.