February 25, 2021

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Myanmar protesters urge China to condemn coup, will Beijing act?

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Chanting “Shame on you, China” and holding up banners in English, Chinese and Burmese, dozens of pro-democracy protesters gathered on Monday at the Chinese embassy in Yangon to denounce what they called Beijing’s backing for Myanmar’s military coup on February 1.

“Myanmar’s military dictatorship is made in China,” read one placard.

“If this is an internal affair, why are you helping the junta?” read another.

The nearly-daily rallies at the gates of the Chinese mission forced a response from China’s ambassador to the country, Chen Hai, who said on Tuesday that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”.

Beijing was “not informed in advance of the political change in Myanmar,” Hai said, dismissing as “ridiculous” rumours that China was helping the military consolidate its rule by flying in technical personnel and troops.

Part of the speculation about Beijing’s alleged backing for the military’s power grab stems from China’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the coup, which took place just weeks after a meeting between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief and current head of the military government.

During the January 12 meeting in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, the senior general – who is said to harbour presidential ambitions – repeated his claims that widespread fraud had occurred in a November election that returned civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.

The coup has brought Myanmar’s experiment with democracy to a halt, only a decade after the end of nearly 50 years of strict military rule. It prompted mass protests and international condemnation, with the United States has already imposed targeted sanctions on the generals who led the coup. Other countries are expected to impose similar curbs although campaigners want to avoid a return to the punishing sanctions that were enforced following the military’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988, as well as its refusal to honour the results of an election that the NLD won in 1990.

Demonstrator display placards accusing China of supporting Myanmar’s military during a protest against the military coup outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon on February 11, 2021 [AP]

While China had backed Myanmar’s old military government when it was subject to Western sanctions in the past, and despite protester’s claims to the contrary, analysts said it was “simplistic” to assume that Beijing favoured a return to military rule in Myanmar today.

History of contentious ties

For one thing, relations between China and the Tatmadaw (as Myanmar’s army is known locally) have always been fraught.

The Tatmadaw has long accused China of supporting ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s border areas, some of whom have been fighting the central government for greater autonomy since the time of Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Relations hit a low point during the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 – just five years into Myanmar’s previous military rule – with critics accusing the army of stoking the unrest in a bid to deflect attention from acute rice shortages.

“From then on, there was no love lost between China and Burma for decades, essentially up until after the 1988 uprising,” said Edith Mirante, director of Project Mage, an independent information project on Myanmar’s human rights and environmental issues, referring to Myanmar by its former name. “The European Union and the United States had imposed arms embargoes on Burma, and China was where [the military] had to turn to purchase weapons for its massively increasing army.”

At the time, the military government was also “so desperate for foreign exchange” that they opened up Myanmar’s closed economy to foreign investment, said Mirante, and went on to grant Chinese companies logging concessions that resulted in the destruction of vast areas of forest in northern Myanmar. “It was a horrendous resource grab,” she said.

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In the mid-2000s, the military rulers also let Chinese state-owned firms build pipelines spanning the breadth of the country, one of which piped gas from offshore fields in Myanmar’s Andaman Sea straight into China’s southern Yunnan province.

But the increased reliance on China made the generals nervous.

At the time, Myanmar was one of the world’s most impoverished countries, “and it was obvious that China could do whatever they wanted in the country”, said Mirante. “They said, ‘we’ll just build this [pipeline] right through the middle of your country’. And they did. That worried people, even within the military.”

Concerns that Myanmar was turning into a Chinese vassal state – as well as an uprising led by Buddhist monks in 2007 and the dire need for international aid following a devastating cyclone in 2008 – ultimately resulted in the military embarking on a reform programme and handing over power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.

For its part, China “has always considered the Tatmadaw to be incompetent and corrupt”, wrote Enze Han, associate professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, in a recent article for the East Asia Forum.

And despite China shielding the generals on the global stage – including during the 2007 crackdown – the quasi-civilian government that took power in 2011 embraced Beijing’s foe, Washington, and also cancelled or threatened to renegotiate existing contracts for Chinese investment in Myanmar. The controversial billion-dollar mega-dam project at Myitsone in far-northern Kachin state was among the projects suspended.

“Beijing tends to view the Myanmar military as ungrateful, rapacious, greedy and a poor business partner,” Han wrote.

China ‘likes Aung San Suu Kyi’

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD took power in 2016 – after winning historic multi-party elections the previous year – Beijing found an eager partner. With the loosening of Western sanctions, the NLD opened up Myanmar’s economy to other foreign investors but continued to court China.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a frequent visitor to Beijing and talked up the need to pursue friendly relations with China for Myanmar’s economic development. The NLD government signed up to China’s plans for infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars, called the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The Y-shaped network of roads, railways and special economic zones – a key link in China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative – will provide Beijing access to the Indian Ocean when completed.

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As economic ties improved, Myanmar also began to rely on Beijing to shield it from international action. Particularly after the military carried out a campaign of mass killings, rape and arson in 2017 against the Rohingya minority in western Rakhine state.

The crackdown –  defended by Aung San Suu Kyi and supported by large numbers of the Myanmar public – forced some 730,000 members of the ethnic group into neighbouring Bangladesh and is now the subject of a genocide case at the International Court of Justice.

The brutality drew fresh criticism from Western countries, some of which imposed travel bans and other targeted sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing.

China’s President Xi Jinping, however, made a historic visit to Myanmar in 2020 and hailed a “new era” of relations “based on brotherly and sisterly closeness”. It was the first visit to Myanmar by a Chinese leader in 19 years.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, January 18, 2020 [File: Nyein Chan Naing/Pool via Reuters]

Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based political analyst, said “the Chinese government liked Aung San Suu Kyi” and saw that her economic and trade policies could turn Myanmar into a “stabilising bulwark” in the Southeast Asian region.

“The last thing they want is more instability,” he said.

Still, China was unlikely to condemn the Tatmadaw, Tangen said, “because they have an ironclad rule – no interference in the internal affairs of other countries”.

Beijing regularly professes not to meddle in the domestic politics of other countries, a move critics say is aimed at protecting itself from international criticism over its actions against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as well as Uighur Muslims in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

‘Not happy’ with the coup

So far, Beijing has held back from even calling the Myanmar military takeover a coup.

On the day of the power grab, Chinese state media referred to what happened as a “major cabinet reshuffle”, while on February 3, China and Russia blocked the United Nations Security Council from issuing a statement condemning the military.

A day later, Beijing and Moscow did back a watered-down statement that expressed concern over a 12-month state of emergency declared by the Tatmadaw and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tangen said China’s backing for that statement was “shocking”.

The move “makes it very clear they’re not happy with the situation,” he said. “This is as far as they can go given their concerns about interference in the affairs of other countries.”

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Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia, said it was still too early to say how China may respond to events in Myanmar.

“China wants stability on its border. And a military-run Myanmar is no guarantee of stability, as we’ve seen in the thousands of people that have come out onto the streets,” said Welsh.

“China is also aware that the military does not necessarily serve its economic interests in the long term … If there is a refugee exodus or a rise in conflict, and it affects Chinese business, in terms of the gas pipeline and other Chinese strategic positions, then I don’t think the military would actually be quite as welcome.”

Beijing was also likely to be cautious about working with the military as it did in the past “because that would undermine their credibility internationally”, she added.

“This is a different China, a China that is positioning itself on the global stage. We’ve seen the Chinese take a position at the UN that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

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