Will Protests against China Push Beijing to Intervene in Myanmar?

Among the earliest images to go viral at the start of Myanmar’s anti-coup protests was a photo of an airplane unloading cargo. Source unknown, the picture was often paired with a second showing workers moving long army-green boxes from what appeared to be the inside of a plane. Netizens found evidence of nightly flights between the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming and Myanmar’s former capital Yangon and insisted the photos, therefore, had to be proof that Beijing was supplying Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, with arms and ammunition. When the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar released a statement saying the planes were delivering seafood, it was met with widespread mockery.

Angry with the results of the November election, which saw a landslide win for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Myanmar’s military claimed electoral fraud. On February 1, they seized power from the civilian government, rounding up longtime NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the country’s civilian leadership and unleashing an increasingly violent force against the public. Hundreds of thousands have since taken to the streets, and the military has arrested thousands and killed more than 500.

Almost from the start, protests against the coup have targeted not just the Tatmadaw, but neighboring China.

“China will work with whoever is in power, but the protestors believe that China should not have the liberty or the right to work with [an] illegitimate junta. If China does, it is perceived as China’s support of the junta,” China-Myanmar expert Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, wrote in an email.

Unlike many Western nations, China’s government has been loath to criticize the military takeover. In the early days, Beijing termed the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” and it initially held up efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a resolution condemning the coup. China did, however, sign on to a call for Suu Kyi’s release, and later signed a Security Council presidential statement urging the military to hand power back to the government. China is hardly the only country to downplay or ignore the Tatmadaw’s actions. Russia, too, shielded the Tatmadaw by refusing to sign on to the Security Council resolution and has publicly supported the junta; India was among those that pushed for the watered down version of the statement the Security Council eventually released; and some Myanmar netizens believe the green boxes pictured in the viral photo were holding missiles from Belarus. But China is the strongest among these detractors and has long had a heavy, and unpopular, footprint in neighboring Myanmar.

“China is the second biggest exporter of arms to Myanmar, behind Russia. Many ethnic armed organizations especially in the northern region have close ties with China. Though the general public might not know about these statistical facts, they have everyday rather unfortunate encounters with China. For example, garment workers of Chinese factories from . . . Hlaingthaya experience wage cuts, restrictions on their movement and behaviors during work hours at the factories, violations of rights, etc., and these grievances are pervasive,” Tharaphi Than, an Associate Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Northern Illinois University who studies dissent in Myanmar, wrote in an email.

In its role as Myanmar’s wealthy northern neighbor, China has long contended with Burmese ire. In recent years, thousands have protested Chinese-backed projects, including the controversial Myitsone mega-dam; a U.S.$10 billion deep sea port and special economic zone in Kyaukphyu that plays an integral role in the Belt and Road Initiative; and various smaller enterprises. That dissent has gathered into a powerful force.

On February 11, just days into the protest movement, hundreds gathered outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon, calling on China to “stop helping the military coup.” A #BoycottChina hashtag appears in many anti-coup social media posts now, with protest leaders urging boycotts of Chinese products. (These social media campaigns have been aided by the pan-Asian Milk Tea Alliance, which is composed of pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and now Myanmar.) On social media, there are calls for an attack on the oil and gas pipelines that run from the Kyaukphyu port to Yunnan province. “It’s an open secret that sooner or later somebody will blow up their twin gas pipelines just to send a message to China,” an activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security concerns, told me.

Anger toward China has been steadily escalating. On March 14, a number of Chinese factories in Hlaingthaya were torched during a day of violence that saw as many as 70 protesters nationwide killed by the military. The Tatmadaw blamed the demonstrators, while the demonstrators insisted soldiers set the fires themselves. Whatever the truth, the Chinese embassy released a statement demanding protection for its factories and expressing concern for trapped and injured Chinese workers. On Facebook, the statement drew tens of thousands of angry comments urging China to leave the country. Many were enraged it failed to make any mention of the dozens of unarmed Burmese killed on that day alone.

“The statement, I think, is like a death sentence to the people in Hlaingthaya. They will kill more people to set an example as well as to please China,” the activist told me the day the statement was issued.

Is Beijing playing a role in the coup? To some, it looks that way. In an article published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, security analyst Susan Hutchinson explored the possible truth behind the nightly flights between Kunming and Yangon. Noting that the planes’ transponders had been turned off, Hutchinson wrote: “Whoever has arranged these flights is going to great lengths to hide them.”

She goes on to write, “The situation in Myanmar suggests two possibilities for what the planes are carrying. One is that they’re bringing in Chinese troops and cyber specialists to help the Tatmadaw control access to information and the internet. The other is that they’re increasing the Tatmadaw’s weapons stores.”

Since the start of the coup, the Tatmadaw has rolled out and expanded a telecommunications block. According to NetBlocks, nightly Internet shutdowns have taken place on 47 consecutive days, while mobile data has been blocked for more than two weeks. As early as mid-February, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law reported that “Credible sources revealed that the Myanmar military government is receiving ‘technical support’ from the CCP to build similar internet firewalls to block access to Twitter, NYT, FB etc.” VOA carried similar reports from a Burmese cybersecurity expert.

While these arguments have generated no small amount of attention, they are scarcely less speculative than the protesters’ claims. Would China stand to benefit from this level of meddling?

“With China, it’s always easy to read into anything that China does and see a nefarious motive,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.

My view is that the Chinese are not particularly happy about what’s going on. The Chinese had reason to look forward to a fruitful second five-year term for the NLD. They invested a lot of resources into their relationship with the NLD. The country was allowing China to move forward with its infrastructure projects. In general, there was movement in that relationship and the military is probably the most anti-China or suspicious of China in the country. The return of this institution to power—even before the protests erupted and the country ground to a halt, I don’t think they would have been particularly happy about that.

Stability, above all, is what China needs in Myanmar if it is to move ahead with its significant economic investments. It is hard to imagine a less stable environment. Should the military continue to hold power, either protests will continue, or they will be stopped in a horrifying manner. The E.U., U.S., and U.N. could then choose to recognize Myanmar’s government in exile, the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, rather than the junta. If that happens, sanctions are likely to reach not just Myanmar’s generals but anyone doing business with them. For China, that could prove a colossal headache.

For the protesters, “inaction is a form of action and noninterference is a form of interference,” said Strangio. “On those grounds you could say, yes, China supported the coup. But I think by Chinese standards, they’ve been fairly critical and standoffish.”

Could Beijing be pushed to raise a stronger voice? Demonstrators are certainly urging that. The blanket condemnations of China in many cases come with calls for its government to cut any form of support to Myanmar’s military and to pressure the junta to reinstate democratic rule.

Yun, of the Stimson Center, said she doubted that would happen. “I don’t think China sees it as China’s job or responsibility to push back against the coup since this is the internal affairs of Myanmar. The most China could and would do is to push for the military and the civilian side to engage in talks and negotiations. I think China has advocated for it, but has not put heavy pressure on the military for it to happen.”

But if its interests continue to be threatened, China may well have little choice, said Strangio.

I often draw a parallel to the U.S. claiming it advances principles of democracies. It does when it’s convenient, but it’s also the case that when core national interests are under threat it's easy to come up with rationalizations for diverging. I think China is similar. [Despite its policy] it’s not really beyond interfering. China’s got relations with ethnic armed groups across Myanmar … it has pushed these groups to take part or requested them not to take part in peace negotiations. They've been involved in Myanmar politics for a long time in different ways. But I think if we start to see pipelines threatened more seriously, we may see more involvement of China, especially in the borderlands which are unstable regions. If things continue to deteriorate in the country, we could see outside powers move to secure their various interests. China has a lot of interests and is right next door, so whatever happens in Myanmar has an outsized effect on them.