Myanmar's hardened Chinese population takes stand against Beijing

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Thompson Chau
·5 min read
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An anti-coup protester flashes the three-fingered salute as others play instruments and sing in Yangon, Myanmar - AP
An anti-coup protester flashes the three-fingered salute as others play instruments and sing in Yangon, Myanmar - AP

The chorus of banging pots and pans begins in Chinatown at about 8pm.

The district in Myanmar's commercial city of Yangon is normally festooned with bright red lanterns to celebrate Chinese New Year.

But when the Year of the Ox arrived in mid-February, the usual festive atmosphere was gone - replaced by a tension in the air.

Here, and across the country, swelling ranks of young ethnic Chinese protesters are joining mass rallies against the brutal junta that abruptly deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government.

Many are united by rumours, circulated widely among the protest movement, that China is helping the regime install a repressive new internet system akin to one across the border that severely restricts online freedoms behind a 'Great Firewall'.

Eager to show opposition to Beijing meddling, they gather outside the embassy, some displaying bilingual posters reading “Myanmar-born Chinese oppose the military coup.”

“They want to show all Myanmar people: we stand together," said Yang Chung-ching, among the crowd at a recent demonstration.

“It’s not just here, but everywhere. Ethnic Chinese are actively taking part in these protests,” said Mr Yang.

Protesters of all backgrounds are concerned that China is secretly supporting army chief General Min Aung Hlaing’s hated coup.

The perception was exacerbated by China’s early block of condemnation of the coup at the UN Security Council and rumours that Chinese internet specialists had been flown in to help strengthen internet censorship.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon - YE AUNG THU /AFP
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon - YE AUNG THU /AFP

The Chinese government, which cultivated strong ties to ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and which wants to avoid instability that will disrupt its own economic ambitions, has denied reports of political support or assistance to build Myanmar’s own version of their restrictive internet.

The timing is ominous, as Myanmar is drafting a controversial cybersecurity law. Even without the law the junta has experimented in recent weeks with intermittent internet blackouts designed to disrupt dissent.

In rare comments last week, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar denied reports that cargo planes had sent teams of Chinese Communist Party web technicians to install internet controls, and said the current political situation was “absolutely not what China wants to see.”

But the daily rallies outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon continue, with protesters carrying banners demanding that it “stop interfering with our affairs of state”.

The history of ethnic Chinese in Myanmar is complex. Much of the older generations, in particular, remain scarred by the deadly anti-Chinese riots in 1967 that marked a dark chapter in China’s complex relationship with neighbouring Myanmar.

Dozens of Chinese were killed and Chinese-owned properties looted by Myanmar's Bamar majority when unrest was triggered by economic insecurity and fears that the minority was promoting the China’s Cultural Revolution.

Economic and ideological divides, as well as ethnic conflicts in border regions have since fanned tensions with Myanmar’s 1.7-million-strong Chinese minority, which makes up some 3% of the population.

Demonstrators hold placards as they rally against the military coup in Yangon - REUTERS
Demonstrators hold placards as they rally against the military coup in Yangon - REUTERS

In recent years, controversial Chinese-backed investment projects linked to an ambitious infrastructure plan coined the ‘China-Myanmar Economic Corridor’ have created new flashpoints of resentment.

Recent Chinese efforts to revive the deeply unpopular Myitsone hydropower project have been particularly unwelcome.

Given the history, some ethnic Chinese feel compelled to join the protest to prove their loyalty amid a febrile atmosphere.

Some fear the junta would prey on anti-Chinese feelings among the protest movement to deflect from its own troubles. Others worried that a failure to stand up now would only make Myanmar's Bamar majority more suspicious of them.

Say Nay Nay Win, 22, has lived in Myanmar all his life. Like millions of ethnic Chinese born and raised there, his ancestors moved to the north of the country from neighbouring Yunnan province in southwest China over half a century ago.

Children hold National League for Democracy (NLD) flags during a protest against the military coup - Shutterstock
Children hold National League for Democracy (NLD) flags during a protest against the military coup - Shutterstock

But he said that has not stopped people from questioning his loyalties in the wake of the putsch.

The suspicions have helped galvanise his own protest activities in the city of Lashio, in the northern Shan state.

After seeing negative social media posts about his community, he revived his Burmese Chinese Youth Association, which has since helped organise mass rallies and promoted the country’s mushrooming civil disobedience movement.

“People confuse anti-CCP [Chinese Communist Party] feeling with anti-Chinese feeling. [But] Because everyone can see ethnic Chinese standing up and protesting, they are slowly getting clearer,” he said.

An annual survey in early February by the ISEAS-Yushof Ishak Institute in Singapore revealed that 64% of Myanmar respondents were worried about China’s economic influence and 47% about its political clout. From 2019-20, China and Hong Kong were Myanmar’s biggest source of foreign direct investment.

“The Myanmar public, or particularly the Myanmar nationalist public, never liked China,” said Enze Han, associate politics professor at the University of Hong Kong.

He said that the coup was a new headache for Beijing, which had invested heavily in warming ties with the now overturned National League for Democracy government – a more predictable partner than the secretive ranks of the junta.

In the meantime, the rumours that China is exporting its stifling internet restrictions in the form of Myanmar's draft cybersecurity law is playing on the minds of protesters.

At one recent demonstration Sai Aung Htun, a 24-year-old ethnic Chinese lawyer in Myanmar's second biggest city Mandalay, said a draft cybersecurity law.

"I am quite worried because if that law is adopted, we won't be able to say what we want to say," said Sai Aung Htun, a 24-year-old ethnic Chinese lawyer in Myanmar's second biggest city Mandalay, at a recent demonstration.

"There's no way we could accept [what the regime is doing. Every single day since the coup ... I have been worried whether the progress Myanmar gained in the last ten years would be rolled back day by day."