Myanmar Coup Puts China In Tough Spot

Disinformation linking Myanmar’s recent coup d’état to Chinese influence has inspired anti-China protests in the capital, Yangon. Protesters’ suspicions were inflamed by a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Myanmar’s senior military staff that took place just weeks before the coup and a peculiar statement issued by Xinhua in the immediate wake of the coup describing it as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” International relations experts point out that it is highly unlikely that China orchestrated the coup seeing as Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s deposed leader, had guided the two countries’ rapprochement in recent years. At The Financial Times, John Reed and Edward White wrote about Myanmar youth’s conviction that China is behind the coup, the absence of evidence notwithstanding:

Anti-coup demonstrators have massed outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon over the past week, holding placards attacking Beijing or showing President Xi Jinping dangling senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, by marionette strings.

[…] “China! Don’t make firewall to block internet in Myanmar,” one of the signs held up by protesters at a recent embassy protest said.

A junta spokesman on Tuesday denied China was building a firewall, adding that Myanmar had enough experts to do so itself.

Chinese officials have sent ambiguous and at times conflicting signals about Beijing’s stance since the coup. However, the taking to Myanmar’s streets and social media in hopes of reversing the coup have made up their minds that China is involved. [Source]

Rumors of internet censorship have been particularly inflammatory. The term “Myanmar Great Fire Wall” is even censored in China, according to CDT Chinese’s weekly Sensitive Words Series. The term doesn’t return search results on Zhihu, a popular social media network, and searches on Weibo and Weixin lead to results displaying Chinese embassy denials. In an interview with local media, republished by Global Times, China’s ambassador to Myanmar called the accusations “nonsense and even ridiculous,” warning that the rumors “only [prove] to have manipulation and instigation by forces with ulterior motives behind the scenes.”

The youth counter-coup protesters’ suspicion is, according to James Palmer at Foreign Policy, a reflection of China’s new preeminence in the region: “China is blamed even when it hasn’t actually done much. As with anti-U.S. feelings, resentment follows hegemony.” Myanmar youth have seemingly been paying close attention to similar democracy movements across Southeast Asia, including that of in 2019. At The Wall Street Journal, Feliz Solomon wrote about Myanmar protesters’ adoption of the three-finger salute inspired by “The Hunger Games” and popularized by protesters in Thailand in 2014:

Asia’s pro-democracy activists have adapted, often by developing flexible strategies. Thai activists embraced a motto popularized during Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, borrowed from kung-fu legend Bruce Lee: “be water.” The phrase came to signify fluid protests that were hard for authorities to get ahead of. In recent weeks, activists in Hong Kong, , Taiwan and elsewhere have also shown support for the demonstrations in Myanmar online and in smaller protests abroad.

[…] Two Thai campaigners who helped popularize the three-finger salute, Mr. Rittipong and Sombat Boonngamanong, say that to them, the gesture represented the French Revolution values of liberty, equality and fraternity. It quickly took on new meaning, adopted by counterparts in Hong Kong during the 2014 “Umbrella Protests” demanding universal suffrage, and now in Myanmar’s anticoup demonstrations.

“It’s universal,” Mr. Sombat said. “It’s not about one country, it’s a symbol for all people who want freedom.” [Source]

The Chinese government has been comparatively reticent on the coup, most likely because it has thrown the two countries’ relationship into flux. According to experts interviewed by The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Hannah Beech, China will have difficulties engaging with the generals behind the coup, and might lament the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom they had cultivated close ties:

The coup poses challenges of its own for China. The country’s leader, Xi Jinping, had cultivated closer political ties with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. As Myanmar’s civilian leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi visited China more than any other foreign country.

[…] “They spent considerable energy, time cultivating Aung San Suu Kyi — with some success,” [Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat] said. “Now they have to start again with a new bunch of generals, and these generals are not just difficult for the West. They’re difficult for everyone.”

[…] “China’s relationship with Myanmar is not dependent on who is in power,” said [Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington]. “Whoever in power will always need to work with China. The difference is with the quality of the partnership, and the costs that China has to carry for it.” [Source]

At Nikkei Asia, Toru Takahashi traced the tumultuous relationship between the two countries through a history of the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and China:

In 1988, a pro-democracy protest broke out in Myanmar, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had returned from the U.K. to take care of her sick mother, appeared on the political stage. When the Ne Win administration cracked down on the protests and thousands were killed, the army carried out an “internal coup” to overthrow the regime and continued military rule.

China was the first country in the world to approve Myanmar’s military junta, but China itself also came under heavy criticism from the West for crushing the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. For China, closer relations with Myanmar, which was in a similar position to its own, had strategic significance.

[…] However, in 2003, the junta drew up a road map and prepared for a democratic transition because it understood the danger of excessive dependence on China and the importance of improving relations with the West. The junta maneuvered to ease dependence on China.

[…] It was instead the government led by Suu Kyi, which took office in 2016, that brought the two countries closer together. When Suu Kyi herself came under fire from foreign governments for her persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority, she turned to China. [Source]

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is a highlight of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Economist reported that China’s leaders are likely eager to accommodate the new regime in order to preserve the showpiece economic project:

Part of Mr Campbell’s strategy in the 2010s was to play on the Tatmadaw’s worries about China’s power over their isolated country. Those fears, like the other drivers behind that opening-up, are still apparent today. The army is wary of Chinese support for insurgencies along their shared border. Chinese interests are deeply embedded in the country’s dysfunctional economy, easily discerned in arms sales, infrastructure projects, an army of small traders and border enclaves that are havens for gambling, and money-laundering.

The fact that Chinese state media described the coup as no more than a “major cabinet reshuffle” suggests that the Chinese government, which had been wooing Ms Suu Kyi, is keen to be on good terms with the new regime. Myanmar offers it a strategically crucial direct route to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean beyond—a way for China’s imports of oil and gas to bypass the potential chokehold of the Malacca Straits and for exports to be shipped out of its inner provinces. In time it could be a military foothold, too.

The physical manifestation of these strategic desires is the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, over $21bn-worth of country-spanning projects including a railway, oil and gas pipelines and a deepwater port at Kyaukphyu. These projects were troubled even before the uncertainty injected by the coup. It is far from clear how Myanmar can pay for them all. And the links run through the territories of various ethnic minorities, including, in Rakhine, the territory where the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas took place. Chinese-backed construction is more likely to inflame existing ethnic conflicts in such places than to bring peace and development. [Source]

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