Myanmar protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon after the February 1, 2021 coup. Image: Facebook

CHIANG MAI – Soon after 17-year-old medical student Khant Nyar Hein was shot and killed during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon’s Tamwe township on March 14, his mother posted on social media that although her family is ethnically Chinese they do not support the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Ethnicity also came into play in Mandalay when a 19-year-old woman was shot by a Myanmar army sniper on March 3. Widely circulated pictures of the Sino-Myanmar woman, known as Angel, taken just moments before she was killed showed her in a T-shirt with the slogan “Everything will be OK.”

Kyal Sin, or, in Chinese, Deng Xia Ji, is now widely viewed as a fallen hero in the nationwide resistance against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s military coup and an increasingly lethal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, with at least 250 killed and thousands arrested.

Unlike Western countries, China’s response to the coup has been mainly muted. Protesters have taken critical aim at China’s portrayal of the democracy-suspending coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, with thousands of protesters in front of the Chinese embassy expressing their displeasure with Beijing’s perceived support of the coup regime.  

China, along with Russia, has also blocked attempts led by Western nations at the UN Security Council to take collective action against Myanmar’s military coup makers and their deadly crackdown on unarmed protesters. That stance, some suggest, lit the flames that attacked and torched several Chinese-owned factories and properties in Yangon earlier this month

Statements by Chinese authorities calling on Myanmar’s security forces to take firm action against the people responsible for those attacks triggered more anger for the PRC on social media, with some saying Beijing is more concerned about their property than the lives of demonstrators.

To prevent rising anti-PRC sentiments from morphing into broad anti-Chinese feelings, more sensible voices on social media have been eager to emphasize that Khant Nyar Hein and Kyal Sin were local Chinese and supporters of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that has swept the nation since the coup.

Protesters holding photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping gather outside the Chinese embassy on Februry 15, 2021 demanding China to halt its support for the junta. Photo: AFP/EyePress News

Many older Sino-Myanmars remember what happened in June 1967 when angry crowds stormed into Yangon’s Chinatown, killing local Chinese and looting their properties. The Chinatown riots came at a time when Myanmar’s economy was suffering a severe crisis caused by the socialist politics of the military-controlled government.

Then, Sino-Myanmars, many of whom were involved in the country’s thriving black market, became scapegoats. The pretext for those fateful attacks, which were most likely encouraged by Myanmar’s government, was that some young members of the Sino-Myanmar community were PRC sympathizers and wore buttons with pictures of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.

Fast forward to the present, the sizable ethnic Chinese community in Yangon has issued public statements saying that they support the anti-coup movement and have nothing to do with the PRC.

But today’s wave of anti-PRC sentiment among anti-military protesters and CDM supporters cannot be explained only in the context of Beijing’s perceived support for the coup makers and their junta.

Rather, it has spawned from decades of simmering discontent with what is seen as China’s plunder of the country’s natural resources, especially valuable timber, which has led to widespread deforestation in northern Myanmar.

Anti-PRC demonstrations were first held in 2011 against a joint PRC-Myanmar hydro-electric power project at Myitsone in Kachin state, which was designed to flood hundreds of square kilometers of forest land and to export 90% of the electricity generated to China.

That project was suspended by then-president Thein Sein in September 2011 because, as he said at the time, “We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness.”

Then came a popular movement against another joint PRC-Myanmar venture, this time a copper mine at Letpadaung northwest of Mandalay. It was causing extensive environmental destruction and threatened Buddhist holy sites. Many villagers were injured in a security force clampdown on protests against the mine.

Beijing-backed mega-infrastructure projects including a high-speed railroad designed to connect the southern Chinese province of Yunnan down to a partly Chinese-built deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu on the coast of Myanmar’s Rakhine state have also faced local criticism for environmental and land rights reasons.

These often military-steered ventures have contributed to portraying the PRC as interested mainly in exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources and geostrategic location between South and Southeast Asia with little to no consideration for the livelihoods of local Myanmar people.

During the present uprising, social media has been full of reports and rumors claiming that Chinese experts — and even special forces snipers — have arrived at Yangon’s Mingaladon airport to assist in the suppression of the anti-coup movement.

Other posts have claimed secret flights from China have delivered sophisticated surveillance equipment and other military-related items to be used in suppressing the protest movement.

Those widespread and largely unsubstantiated rumors prompted China’s Yangon embassy to issue a statement on February 13 that denied Beijing had sent technical experts and equipment to help establish an online firewall in Myanmar.

The damaging rumors are mostly just that – rumors. Military experts say that any sensitive flights carrying such equipment and personnel would not fly to an open airport like Mingaladon, but rather land discreetly at the Meiktila airbase near Mandalay.

That was, for instance, where North Korean planes landed when the then junta established a close military relationship with Pyongyang in the early 2000s. But the fact that many Myanmar people believe the rumors have only added fuel to anti-PRC sentiments that are now hot and rising across the country.

What can be confirmed were unusual troop movements on the Myanmar-Yunnan frontier in the days before the coup, indicating that the PRC’s security services knew that coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was going to seize power on February 1.

China’s prior knowledge of the coup could have been the result of the work of their own extensive intelligence network inside Myanmar, or because the Myanmar military had informed them of the plan as a diplomatic courtesy.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Myanmar coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a file photo. Image: Twitter

According to Taiwanese media among the independent cable television network Eastern Broadcast Corporation (EBC), which based their reports on the island-nation’s intelligence services, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) moved around 12,000 troops to the China-Myanmar border in the days before the coup.

The PLA Air Force also reportedly deployed eight J-10 fighter aircraft at Lincang airport near the border. EBC reported that those precautionary measures were taken because of a “possible refugee crisis at the border…[people] fleeing an unstable Myanmar that may or may not be descending into turmoil, maybe even civil war at some time in the future.”

Despite that apparent foreknowledge, China has arguably misplayed its hand in the coup’s aftermath, missteps that threaten its deep and wide commercial and strategic interests in the country.

On March 16, for instance, at least six people were killed and 70 arrested when the Chinese owner of the Ying Jia shoe factory in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township summoned his workers to settle a wage dispute — and then called the military to intervene when his employees protested against what they perceived as insufficient pay.

News about that incident soon appeared on social media, sparking a flood of angry anti-Chinese comments.

While the PRC may be used to Tibetan exiles demonstrating outside its diplomatic missions abroad, never anywhere in the world have such huge crowds of demonstrators gathered to condemn Beijing’s policies as recently seen in Yangon.

There have been nuanced signs of a retreat from its earlier tone-deaf statements. Chen Hai, the PRC’s current ambassador to Myanmar, said in a statement issued on March 16 that the current political situation is “absolutely not what China wants to see.”

Black smoke billows from the industrial zone of Hlaing Thar Yar Township in Yangon, on March 14, 2021. Attacks on Chinese-run factories in Myanmar’s biggest city drew demands from Beijing for protection for their property and employees. Photo: Agencies/Screengrab

But it’s still altogether unclear what Beijing is willing to do, publicly or behind the scenes, to prevent Myanmar’s military from making the country a failed state. What the PRC intends to do is crucial, though, as it is probably the only country that has significant leverage in Myanmar and, more specifically, with the ruling military.

So far there is nothing to indicate that the PRC is willing to reassess its old policies of dominance and exploitation of Myanmar’s resources. That can be seen in Muse, the main Myanmar trading town on the Yunnan frontier which recently imposed a strict curfew after dark with orders to shoot anyone who ventures outside of their homes.

The only nighttime movements that can be seen, eyewitnesses say, are huge lorries carrying freshly cut timber across the Chinese border to the town Ruili and from there deeper into China.