Is China behind the military coup in Burma?

N.B Chyoi / April 06, 2021

Anti-coup protesters burning a Chinese flage in Yangon / CJ

Unarmed protesters, suspecting a Chinese hand in the Burma’s military coup on February 1st 2021, that unseated State Councillor Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the elected government of the National League for Democracy, have burnt and damaged several Chinese-funded factories in Yangon.

Global Times reported that two Chinese workers had been injured during the assault on several Chinese-funded factories. The Chinese Embassy in Yangon noted that the incident caused property losses of about 240 million yuan of 32 Chinese-funded factories. This incident occurred on bloodiest day (14 March 2021) when 38 people were killed by the police during an unarmed protest.

The Chinese Embassy has urged Burma to take action to stop violence and punish perpetrators. The statement said: “China urges Burma to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Burma.”The statement came after several factories, including some Chinese-funded enterprises, were vandalized and set on fire at an industrial zone in Hlaingthaya Township of the country’s largest city Yangon.

China also called on the people of Burma to express their demands in a lawful manner and not be incited or used in a way that undermined China-Burma ties. The heaviest casualties were in Hlaingthaya township in Yangon, where military and police opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing at least 22, according to the advocacy group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which said Hlaingthaya district “became like a battlefield.”

In Yangon, there has been intense speculation about Beijing’s alleged backing for the military coup. This stemmed from China’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the coup, which took place just weeks after a meeting (10 January 2021) between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s commander-in-chief and current head of the military government. The Burma Army Chief was to have retired this year and China’s backing for the coup is an important factor in his continuance in office.

Interestingly, as the size of the popular protests in Burma have grown, it has also become clear that demonstrators aren’t just unhappy with the actions of their military rulers. They are also angry at China; with the shows of resistance becomingly increasingly anti-Chinese in their tone. Many protesters were firmly of the belief that China not only knew about the military takeover beforehand, but that they sent soldiers over the border to assist the army.

Anti-coup protesters have also frequently demonstrated against the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. Protesters accused Beijing of supporting the coup and the military junta. While China has not outright condemned the military takeover, it backed a United Nations Security Council statement saying it “strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protesters” and called on the military to “exercise utmost restraint.”

In initial days of the protest in February 2021, protesters had chanted “Shame on you, China” and held up banners in English, Chinese and Burmese. Dozens of pro-democracy protesters had gathered (18 February 2021) at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon to denounce what they called China’s backing for Burma’s military coup on 1 February 2021.“Burma’s military dictatorship is made in China,” read one placard. Another banner read, “If this is an internal affair, why are you helping the junta?” effectively asking why China was quietly supporting the military.

The almost daily rallies and protests at the gates of the Chinese mission forced a response from China’s ambassador to the country, Chen Hai, who said that “the current development in Burma is absolutely not what China wants to see”. China claimed it had “not informed in advance of the political change in Burma,” Hai said, dismissing as “ridiculous” rumours that China was helping the military consolidate its rule by flying in technical personnel and troops.

The social media has numerous posts and news speculating that Chinese soldiers had infiltrated Burma nation and showed photos of “Chinese-looking” soldiers gathering in cities. According to a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, unregistered flights from China had been landing every night in Burma carrying unknown goods and personnel from China, (in February 2021), despite a ban on international flights by the Burmese military.

There were also reports of Chinese hackers having been flown into Yangon to build a “great firewall” to block the nation’s internet access, which has been shut down several times since the takeover. There have also been calls to boycott all Chinese goods and services, and calls to damage and smash up the natural gas pipeline linking China’s Yunnan province to Burma’s port of Kyaukphyu, a flagship infrastructure project. Clearly, public sentiments against China are running high in Burma.

In the past, China’s investments in Burma have also been controversial. This combined with the ethnic tensions, have resulted in a hardened distrust of China in parts of Burma. Chinese investment projects have been major flash points, particularly the deeply unpopular China funded Myitsone hydro-power mega dam. This project was suspended in 2011 following protests by locals, who decried the environmental impact and forced relocation associated with such projects. Burma on its own has also been sensitive to falling into a debt trap with Chinese loans and assistance. That is why they re-worked the financing deal for the Kyaukphyu Port.

Historically, China has had ties to every part of government in Buram. More recently, China had invested time and money in cultivating Aung Sang Suu Kyi. At the same time, they have been ensuring that the current Army Chief is kept happy. This is because the Burma Army chief has often been critical of China’s support to the armed ethnic groups in Burma.

Over time, China had become disillusioned with the civilian government because it was unable to curb protests against Chinese funded projects and was cautious in taking Chinese assistance for the China Burma Economic Corridor. That is why they are happy to see the back of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. At the end of the day, public sentiment in Burma is clearly anti-Chinese and however much China might protest, it has tacitly backed the military coup. The fact is that it has too much at stake with the military and was therefore willing to give up on Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

N.B Chyoi is a Kachin lawyer and geopolitical analyst focusing especially on Burma, India and China.

The opinion expressed here is the author’s own, and does not represent the editorial policy of The Kachin Post.