A court in Myanmar has sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging, after arresting them in northern Kachin state, near the Chinese border, during a military operation.
A total of 155 Chinese citizens stood trial in a court in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. A fifteen-year old and a woman in the group received 10-year prison terms. They have a right to appeal against rulings, court officials said. Life sentences are generally treated as 20 years in Myanmar.
The harsh ruling prompted an angry diplomatic protest from Beijing, which said "extremely concerned" about the decision.
"China had repeatedly, on many levels and through many channels, made representations with Myanmar about the case," China's Foreign Ministry said in a short statement, quoted by local media.
Beijing demanded Myanmar deals with the case, "consider the actual situation of those loggers and deal with the matter in a lawful, reasonable and sensible way," it added.
China claimed those who were arrested last January were tricked into illegal logging and timber trade. Myanmar military officials said more than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized during the raid. Officials declared 10,000 metric tons of illegal timber had been seized since January, most from Kachin State, Reuters reported.
Illegal logging is a big problem and threat for the south Asian country and it’s also another cause for resentment towards its giant neighbour as China's huge demand for raw materials fuel the lucrative business.
Chinese media claimed this resentment is behind the "extremely harsh" sentences, handed down on Thursday.
"A few cases of Chinese engaging in illegal business in Myanmar have been scrutinized by public opinion, exaggerated as China's economic 'invasion' of the latter," China's Global Times, wrote in an editorial after the verdict.
Myanmar's military and rebels have been involved in intensified fighting Kachin State, since 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire broke down. Kachin rebels demand control over jade, timber and other natural resources, and it’s reported that illegal logging sanctioned by the ethnic rebel groups active in the area.
Myanmar's government has long accused China of supporting the rebels, a claim that Beijing rejects.
Cross-border fire has killed at least seven Chinese nationals near the border and has been protested by China several times. China has repeatedly called on Myanmar to restore stability of the region.