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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar crisis drags China into chaos after factories torched

Beijing warns of 'drastic action' to defend interests

Smoke billows from the industrial zone of Hlaing Thar Yar township in Yangon on March 14. Attacks on Chinese-run factories in Myanmar's biggest city drew demands from Beijing for protection of their property and employees.    © AP

YANGON/BANGKOK -- Attacks on Chinese-financed factories in Yangon have drawn an angry response from Beijing, which is being dragged into the mounting chaos in Myanmar despite its attempts to stay on the sidelines.

After a number of Chinese factories near Yangon were attacked by unidentified groups over the weekend, China warned that it might consider "more drastic action" to defend its interests.

On the worst day of violence on Sunday since the Feb. 1 military coup, Myanmar security forces killed at least 50 demonstrators in the industrial suburb of Hlaingtharya.

China made no mention of the killings in a statement issued by its embassy in Yangon, but instead condemned attacks on Chinese-linked factories in the area, some of which were set ablaze.

The identity of the attackers was not immediately clear, but Myanmar protesters resisting the military takeover are increasingly turning their anger against China for its perceived support of the junta and its earlier reference to the coup as an "internal matter."

The Chinese government, in its first direct expression of concern about the situation in Myanmar, called for media clampdowns and urged Myanmar to take actions to "resolutely avoid a recurrence of such incidents." In an urgent statement on Sunday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman avoided mentioning civilian casualties and said China was "very concerned about the impact on the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel."

Chinese state media CGTN went further, warning that "China won't allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression," and adding that "if the authorities cannot deliver, and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests."

A tally on Monday showed that 32 Chinese-funded enterprises were damaged in Sunday's outbreak of vandalism and arson, CGTN said. According to the Chinese Embassy, two Chinese staff were injured, while total losses amounted to nearly 240 million yuan ($37 million).

After the embassy announcement, the junta imposed martial law in Hlaingtharyar and several other districts in Yangon.

Before Sunday's attacks, Beijing had been particularly alarmed by threats by pro-democracy activists to the China-backed twin oil and gas pipelines running nearly 800 km across Myanmar from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan to western Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Bai Tian, head of external security affairs for China's Foreign Ministry, held an emergency virtual meeting with Myanmar Home Affairs and Foreign Ministry officials to press the military regime to guarantee the pipelines' security.

According to a leaked record of the meeting cited by U.S. broadcaster Voice of America, Bai Tian said: "Criticism about the gas pipeline should not be allowed, as it is important for the socioeconomic development of Myanmar. Relevant organizations should control fake news relating to the project."

China had taken flak for its implied support of the Feb. 1 military takeover and the military regime. The public's distrust over China's stance continues to fuel a backlash from the protest movement, judging by the reaction on social media. "So this is no longer an 'internal affairs [sic].' China is now using strong words when their interests are threatened," a Myanmar business owner tweeted.

China’s public remarks have escalated anti-Beijing sentiment in its smaller neighbor, said a Myanmar business analyst based in Yangon. 

“Young people here are already shunning well-known mobile games developed by mainland [Chinese] companies,” he told Nikkei Asia. “The boycott will likely hit other products, like mobile phones, but it won't be easy for the general public to boycott everything from China, especially the normal cheap goods and commodities.

“Amid the growing public backlash in Myanmar, it will be harder for Xi Jinping’s government to push ahead strategic projects under the Belt and Road Initiative connecting Myanmar and China. The security of those projects is also under more and more doubt,” he said.

The violent crackdown has spooked foreign investors beyond the Chinese. Taiwan's de facto embassy in Myanmar advises Taiwanese companies in the country to fly the island's flag and put up signs declaring their origin, to avoid being confused with Chinese businesses a day after some such factories were torched.

The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar issued a statement expressing "deep concern over the ongoing violence against Myanmar citizens engaging in peaceful protests, which is causing many casualties."

"JCCM sincerely calls for an immediate end to violence and recover [sic] stability under democracy," it said, becoming the latest foreign business group to speak out.

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