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The Burma Road serves as the gateway between Myanmar and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route feeding China’s voracious appetite for the resources — including energy, natural resources and food — it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.

Burma copper8
Monks and villagers have attempted to shut down Chinese-backed copper mining projects, saying the mines damage the environment.

Burmese police have cordoned off the area around the project site so that villagers cannot disturb the copper project again. But protests are ongoing in other neighboring areas.

Obama Burma Aung San Suu Kyi
The first visit to Burma by a sitting US president is laden with political...
Burma Road Mekong 1
Successful strategy along the Mekong.
Burma Road promo image
An evolving relationship between Burma and China.
Burma Road Yeywa Dam
Chinese hydroelectric projects leave many Burmese in the dark.
Migrants protest Brussels 2014

The EU is moving away from saving lives, focusing instead on keeping newcomers out.

About This Project

THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE — This place has always served as a watery junction where human and physical geographies collide. Burma, Laos and Thailand all meet here, as do the great Mekong and its smaller tributary, the Ruak, which tumbles down out of the Shan Hills.

The confluence also served as GlobalPost's base of operations in Southeast Asia, for the excellent reason that nowhere is China’s extensive influence in the region so starkly evident.

GlobalPost was looking to see how China is exerting itself here, how it is trying out a new kind of ‘soft power,’ a phrase coined by Harvard University Professor and retired US Navy Admiral Joseph Nye.

The concept of ‘soft power’ describes the ability for a nation to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Empires have practiced it since the beginning of history, and here in the Golden Triangle China is using ‘soft power’ to great effect. It is evident in the way China is controlling the river, the energy, the fishing industry and the trade – legal and illegal – that thrives along the banks of the Mekong River.

And perhaps nowhere along the Mekong have the changes wrought by that regional hegemon been so dramatic as in Burma, the shores of which are now lined with illegal sawmills, bordellos, methamphetamine labs and casinos.

Photographer Gary Knight and correspondent Jeff Howe found their way into Burma in order to better understand a country beginning a new chapter in democracy and inundated with sudden change. 

At the heart of the story: A new, Chinese-constructed hydroelectric dam and the Sino-Burmese Pipeline, two massive public works projects that embody China’s soft power in a region where it is aggressively extracting vast amounts of natural resources to satiate its voracious, rapidly growing economy.

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