The border dispute between newly independent Burma and China over a large stretch of un-demarcated border was a longstanding one, dating back to the time of British colonial rule. China had never accepted the boundary north of 35 degrees Latitude – that is, Burma’s high conical peak above Sadung Subdivision in Kachin State, along the snow bound watershed up to the tri-junction where Burma, China and India meet.
During a trip to Beijing in 1956, Prime Minister U Nu initiated talks to resolve the border dispute. The Prime Minister considered it to be a favorable time as China was locked in a bitter border dispute with India, with the two sides engaging in skirmishes that later led to a full blown war in 1962.
Accordingly in early 1957, the Burmese side undertook the preliminary work of inspecting areas along the disputed frontier, noting down sites for placing boundary markers. This arduous task, which called for physically demanding flag marches to remote borderlands, was carried out by the Burma Boundary Commission led by Col. Saw Myint of the Burma Army. Also assigned to the Commission was Duwa Shan Lone, Secretary to the Kachin State government.
Burma Boundary Commission flag march team (1957)
Duwa Shan Lone also had a major role in the joint Burma-China Boundary Commission, representing Kachin State government views at Commission meetings, and drafting the Burmese version of the protocol for the final agreement. As such, he had quite a few interesting behind-the-scene accounts to relate about the 4-year long commission proceedings.
According to Duwa Shan Lone, the Chinese claimed, albeit mildly at first, that the 3 Kachin villages of Hpimaw, Gawlam and Kamfang, lying east of the divide, belonged to them. The claim was based on a rather weak historical link that these villages were once Chinese trading posts. As negotiations progressed however, this claim became the focal point of all deliberations, and the most difficult to resolve.
U Nu, anxious to appease, was all for handing over the villages, but the Kachin State government was adamant about not giving up any Kachin land. Heated exchanges took place in Parliament between U Zan Hta Sin, who was head of the Kachin State government, and Prime Minister U Nu.
Rangoon University Kachin students reacted by organizing the “Hpimaw Action Committee”. They staged protests, met with U Nu and senior members of his ruling party to voice Kachin concerns, and wrote to Premier Chou En-Lai to reconsider China’s demand for the 3 villages. In fact the Hpimaw issue, as it was commonly referred to, became one of the chief reasons why a group of Kachin university students decided to take up arms against the central government and form the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 1961.
The issue caused quite a bit of a stir among non-Kachins as well. There was talk, purportedly coming from university circles, that uranium was to be found in the area. This gave rise to speculation that it was the main reason behind China’s demand for the villages.
The late U Win Tin, journalist extraordinaire and fearless democracy fighter, curiosity piqued by lives about to be changed irrevocably by the handover, embarked on a grueling trek to the 3 villages. Upon return, he wrote in Kyemon (Mirror), the Burmese daily he worked for, how the lack of infrastructure was impeding development in ethnic minority borderlands. The Kachin weekly newspaper, Jinghpaw Prat (Jinghpaw Times) also ran a news item of the trip with pictures of U Win Tin in the company of Kachin porters and villagers in traditional costume.
In 1958, U Nu, facing a political crisis, handed over power to the military caretaker government under army chief General Ne Win. In major negotiations thereafter, Brig. Aung Gyi, Ne Win’s deputy, led the Burmese side.
And it was during this time that the stormy issue of the 3 Kachin villages was finally resolved through a quid pro quo offer by the Chinese. The Namwan Assigned Tract south-east of Bhamo, was offered in exchange for the 3 Kachin villages. This area, since the time of the British, had been leased to Burma through an annual rent of Kyats one thousand. China in return, demanded 2 small villages in southern Wa State, namely Panghung and Panglao.
This was the price Burma paid for an overall Chinese acceptance of the hitherto undefined and unmarked boundaries between the 2 countries. Thus with agreement reached, the border treaty and the friendship and mutual non-aggression pact between Burma and China was signed on October 1, 1960.