Despite Beijing’s efforts to remain neutral, China’s status in the country is deteriorating.
Political turmoil persists in Myanmar, much to the dismay of China, that country’s largest trading partner.
A coup overthrew the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) on February 1, returning control of Myanmar to the military, the Tatmadaw. Myanmar has been awash in turmoil ever since, with protests rattling the southeast Asian nation.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy had enjoyed widespread support in Myanmar following a landslide election win last November.
Under the leadership of General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw declared those elections to be fraudulent, arresting prominent members of the civilian government including Aung San Suu Kyi. But the restoration of the military junta in Myanmar has been met with fierce opposition, both inside and outside of the country.
For its part, though, Beijing has approached the situation cautiously, stating that they have “noted” the development in Myanmar and would like the political factions to resolve their differences. But Beijing has worked with both the Tatmadaw and the NLD in an effort to sustain their influence in that country and, in so doing, has maintained a neutral position on Myanmar.
Along with Russia, China blocked an effort by the United Nations Security Council to condemn the coup in Myanmar. However, Beijing did sign onto a request asking for the release of the detained civilian leadership.
China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, stated that the turmoil in Myanmar was “absolutely not what China wants to see,” which is likely true. Myanmar is vital to Beijing’s strategy in the region, which has seen China invest heavily in Myanmar through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
But despite Beijing’s efforts to remain neutral, China’s status in the country is deteriorating. Protesters have been gathering in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, casting blame for the coup on China.
Al-Jazeera reports that the protesters have brandished signs that read “Myanmar’s military dictatorship is made in China” and “If this is an internal affair, why are you helping the junta?” a presumed dig at Beijing’s stated policy of not intervening in the internal affairs of other countries.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has vehemently denied accusations that it assisted the Tatmadaw, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters, “Today I would like to take this opportunity to once again state solemnly that the rumors circulating online are completely false and their aim is to sabotage friendly ties between China and Myanmar.”
The relationship between Beijing and the Tatmadaw has long been uneasy.
Enze Han, an Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, wrote an article for East Asia Forum stating that “Beijing has always considered the Tatmadaw to be incompetent and corrupt.”
Nonetheless, Beijing’s refusal to condemn the coup may be fueling the rumors that it’s backing the military. Also hurting China’s argument is that three weeks before the coup, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar and praised the country’s generals, stating that the military deserved a “role in the course of national transformation and development” according to The New York Times.
There have also been rumors that Beijing is assisting the Tatmadaw with its internet crackdown across Myanmar. The military junta has blocked internet access to try and stem the protests. Some have speculated that the Tatmadaw have been assisted in their efforts with the help of Chinese technology.
The Chinese government has dismissed the accusations.
Myanmar has a history of anti-Chinese sentiment and as China’s influence grows globally, many of those in countries that receive heavy Chinese investment have grown to view China as a colonial figure and fear that their respective nations are becoming vassal states.
A rise in such sentiment is likely to worry officials in Beijing as they watch Myanmar descend into greater turmoil across the border.
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