Wednesday saw the largest protests to date against the coup in Myanmar, despite a ban on large gatherings imposed by the military. Many of the demonstrators gathered outside the Chinese embassy in the city of Yangon and accused China of supporting the junta, or even using the junta as puppets so Beijing could take control of Myanmar.
Thousands of people filled the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, on Wednesday despite the junta’s ban on gatherings of more than four people. Protesters used their vehicles to block roads and bridges, popping their hoods to pretend they were having car trouble. This tactic made it difficult for police or military forces to disperse the demonstrators.
Many of those demonstrators thronged outside the Chinese embassy, waving posters that showed Chinese dictator Xi Jinping working coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing like a marionette. According to the Financial Times, there are growing calls for direct action against Chinese interests in Myanmar, and mounting fears the junta will employ Chinese tactics against the restless Burmese population:
Activists have in recent days launched an online campaign to boycott Chinese products. Some have even called for attacks on the natural gas pipeline linking China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s port of Kyaukphyu, a flagship infrastructure project.
The junta have over the past three nights ordered telecoms operators to shut down internet service overnight, stoking speculation that it is installing a site-censoring “great firewall” with China’s help.
“China! Don’t make firewall to block internet in Myanmar,” one of the signs held up by protesters at a recent embassy protest said.
Protesters in Myanmar noted an unusual series of cargo flights from the Chinese city of Kunming to Yangon after the junta took control, and speculated the planes might contain Chinese surveillance and firewall equipment, or even Chinese troops. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Yangon claimed the flights were merely routine import and export deliveries, while the Chinese ambassador denounced rumors to the contrary as “completely nonsense.”
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Tuesday quoted Ambassador Chen Hai insisting his country is maintaining lines of communication with both the Burmese military and the deposed civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD):
Ambassador Chen Hai told a group of local media outlets on Monday that Beijing had no “prior knowledge” of the coup and insisted rumours it was helping the military junta set up a firewall to prevent protesters from organizing online were “laughable”. The ambassador’s interview was posted on the embassy’s website on Tuesday.
“We have friendly relations with both the NLD and the military. The current situation is absolutely not what China wants to see,” said Chen.
This was the closest Beijing has come to criticizing the current unrest that has gripped one of China’s most important partners in Southeast Asia. No other country has more infrastructure investments in Myanmar than China, which regards its southeast Asian neighbor as a key part of its strategic goal of avoiding being encircled by US allies.
The SCMP noted China and Russia used their positions in the U.N. Security Council to block a joint statement condemning the coup. Chen claimed this did not necessarily mean Beijing supports the junta, implying his government was more or less comfortable with the United Kingdom’s statement of concern about developments in Myanmar.
Chen also claimed “people with ulterior motives” were spreading rumors about China surreptitiously sending equipment or soldiers to help the junta because they wish to damage “the good friendship between the people of our two countries.”
China’s state-run Global Times quoted Chen insisting “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see” and vaguely wishing all parties could “handle differences properly under the framework of the constitution and laws and maintain political and social stability.”
Chen was as critical of the demonstrators outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon as he was of the military leaders who overthrew the civilian government.
“Some people petitioned in front of embassies and international organizations in Myanmar. We understand their aspirations. And we also mentioned their reasonable demands when we strove to promote dialogue among different parties in Myanmar,” he said.
“We hope all parties could stay calm and restrained, refraining from doing things that may intensify conflicts and escalate tensions. Under the current situation, violence should be avoided, and the basic rights of people need to be protected,” he added.
“China and Myanmar are neighbors that cannot move away from each other. Friendly neighbors wish each other well. We hope that all things go well in Myanmar, rather than becoming unstable or even falling into chaos,” Chen concluded.
“When it comes to China, we have been clear that we would like to see China play a constructive role in this. And that is a message that we have sent both publicly and privately to Beijing, and it’s a message that we’ll continue to send until China is clear in its condemnation of this coup,” the U.S. State Department countered Tuesday.
As the Financial Times pointed out, China had a fairly solid relationship with the deposed civilian government, which agreed to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and it supported Suu Kyi’s government when it handled Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in much the same way China treats its own Muslim population. Myanmar is a vital trading partner for China and trade was growing steadily before the coup.
On the other hand, China also has a long history of supplying weapons to the Myanmar military, stretching back long before the elections that (temporarily) ended military rule. Members of the military elite grew very, very rich doing business with China, including a secret trade in Burmese jade that pillaged the country’s most valuable resource and made billions for Myanmar’s warlords and crime bosses.
China has valuable oil and gas pipelines running through Myanmar and covets its access to the Bay of Bengal. The arrival of democracy in 2015 made the Chinese nervous. There is every reason to think they prefer dealing with a military dictatorship than an elected civilian government, although Beijing probably desires stability and protection for its investments in Myanmar above all else.