Myanmar’s ruling junta has declared martial law in parts of the country’s largest city as crackdowns by security forces began to take the contours of an internal counterinsurgency war. At least 39 people were killed by police and soldiers in Myanmar on Sunday, a harrowing crescendo to the six weeks of protests that have followed the military’s seizure of power on February 1.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local civil society group, the death toll included at least 22 anti-coup protesters killed in the working class suburb of Hlaingthaya, in the northern suburbs of Yangon, as Chinese-owned businesses in the area were set on fire. At least 16 people were killed elsewhere in the country, including one policeman. The real death toll from the day could well be much higher, with Radio Free Asia reporting as many as 70 deaths from the day’s crackdown, including 51 in Hlaingthaya.
The violence prompted the government to put Hlaingthaya and Shwepyitha townships under martial law, which was expanded on Monday morning to cover the townships of North Dagon, North Okkalapa, South Dagon, and Dagon Seikkan. Here the Yangon Region military commander will take over all governance, security, and judicial powers until further notice.
Protests have been ongoing since shortly after the military’s seizure of power on February 1, and have only grown as the police and soldiers have used increasingly deadly means to disperse protesters.
The popular resistance to the coup shows few signs of abating, raising the possibility of a protracted de facto civil war pitting the Myanmar military against a large part of the country’s population. On Saturday, Mahn Win Khaing Than, the acting leader of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a parallel civilian government made up of parliamentarians from the ousted National League of Democracy (NLD) government, urged citizens to come together to win a “revolution” against the military. “This is the darkest moment of the nation and the moment that the dawn is close,” he said in a video.
The deteriorating situation has increased the pressure for outside intervention to curtail the violence. The CRPH has called for robust targeted sanctions on military leaders and enterprises and assets connected to the military. International rights groups are seeking the same. “The longer it takes for strong action to come from the international community,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement Sunday, “the longer Myanmar’s generals will feel they can get away with murder.”
Given the increasing lethality being employed by the security forces, Western nations are almost certain to impose additional targeted sanctions on junta leaders and their economic interests, even though the likely impacts are unclear.
The post-coup protests are also creating a thorny dilemma for Myanmar’s large neighbor China. During the violent crackdown in Hlaingthaya, 32 Chinese-financed factories were reportedly smashed, looted, or vandalized, presumably in retaliation for China’s perceived support for the coup government.
The targeting of Chinese factories demonstrated the extent to which the crisis in Myanmar is straining Beijing’s long-held doctrine of non-interference. In a statement Sunday, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon condemned the damage to the factories and urges Myanmar’s government “to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar.” But the statement made no mention of the dozens of people that had been gunned down that day by security forces.
This was accompanied by a characteristically hysterical report in the Chinese government tabloid Global Times, which aired the possibility that “the suspected arsonists are possibly anti-China locals who have been provoked by some Western anti-China forces, NGOs, and Hong Kong secessionists.”
As has been pointed out in these pages before, China has little to gain from the military takeover in Myanmar, and certainly not from the chaos that has ensued. The coup brought to power what is perhaps the most anti-China institution in Myanmar, and wiped out five years of patient diplomatic investment in Aung San Suu Kyi and the national League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Under the NLD, important Chinese-backed infrastructure projects were moving forward, and the Chinese government had reason to look forward to a fruitful second term in office for the NLD. “We have friendly relations with both the NLD and the military,” Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai said in an interview with local media last month. “The current situation is absolutely not what China wants to see.”
There is little reason to doubt the envoy’s words. Yet long-simmering anti-Chinese suspicions – some stemming from China’s support for the country’s previous military junta, some dating back further – have led many anti-coup protesters to assume that China is supporting the junta. Even though China is yet to expressly throw its support behind the coup government, its silence is widely viewed as complicity.
Last month, protesters gathered outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon, holding signs in English and Chinese with slogans such as “support Myanmar, don’t support dictators” and “stop helping the military coup.” Myanmar social media has also been flooded with posts alleging that China is helping the military junta set up a firewall to prevent protesters from organizing online, or is even infiltrating troops into the country on flights to help defend the junta. On social media yesterday, Myanmar users disseminated unverified rumors that martial law had been implemented at Beijing’s urging, in order to protect factories in Yangon’s industrial zone. (Many on social media are also claiming that the military vandalized the factories in order to smear the anti-coup protest movement.)
Myanmar’s growing anti-China sentiment highlights the double-edged nature of China’s form of silent, supportive engagement. In many parts of the Global South, China’s doctrine of non-interference has given it a strategic advantage over Western governments whose insistence on human rights and good governance reforms is often seen as patronizing and hypocritical.
But in the highly polarized situation inside Myanmar, it is getting harder and harder for China to retain its traditional position of supportive neutrality. Absent an explicit disavowal of support and opposition to junta rule, China will continue to be the subject of suspicion from Myanmar’s people, or worse.
In recent weeks, protesters have even taken to threatening to sabotage the Chinese oil and gas pipelines that bisect Myanmar, pumping crude shipped in from the Middle East and gas from Myanmar’s offshore fields overland to China’s Yunnan province.
On social media, anti-coup activists have shared satellite coordinates on the pumping stations of the oil and gas pipelines, echoing Beijing’s line that any damage to the pipelines would be Myanmar’s “internal affair.” Leaked documents have revealed that in late February, China asked Myanmar’s military government to tighten pipeline security during ongoing anti-coup protests. “China’s gas pipeline will be burned,” other protesters chanted in Mandalay last week.
China’s unwillingness to condemn the coup in unequivocal terms is seemingly motivated by a blend of principle and political calculation: it is aiming to keep its options open while awaiting further developments; it is also hoping to preserve the non-judgmental form of engagement that is one of its main sources of soft power in the developing world. This was reflected in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s claim in early March that China is willing to engage with “all parties” to ease the crisis, while emphasizing that it is not taking sides.
But there is a good argument that the fence-sitting has run its course, and that China should make an exception to its non-interference principle and take a more active role in resolving the crisis. The mass of the population is already accusing it of taking a side – the wrong one. And even if the junta manages to consolidate its hold on power in the months to come, Beijing has little to gain over the long term from being seen as the backer and partner of a loathed military regime.