China Is Unpopular In Myanmar, But Does It Care? – OpEd


China is unpopular in Myanmar where it is the strongest backer of a oppressive military junta that seized power in the Feb 2021 coup and has now been embroiled in battles with multiple ethnic armed groups and the People’s Defence Forces aligned to the National Unity Government.  

Interestingly enough, China backs some of these armed groups to keep the country unstable and retain its leverage in areas controlled by the armed groups so that its business and connectivity interests.

An online survey on Myanmar people’s views of China shows that unfavorable attitudes toward China country is widespread, with many people believing that Beijing supports the junta and seeks to maintain a fragmented Myanmar with only as much stability as is required to further its own interests.

China is a  major investor in Myanmar and one of the main suppliers of the country’s military. 

The United States Institute for Peace (USIP), a federal institution tasked with promoting conflict resolution and prevention worldwide, prepared 18 questions for a short survey, “Myanmar People’s Perspectives on China”.

Myanmar’s leading media, The Irrawaddy,  posted them on its Facebook to reach a wide cross srction of the country’s population. 

Nearly 2,000 individuals across various socio-economic, political and ethnic demographics, including ethnic Chinese living in Myanmar responded.

Their findings clearly point to an adverse perception of China amongst Myanmarese people, most saying that the Chinese government may be taking advantage of the lack of space for freedom of expression to advance its economic and geopolitical interests and  push for resumption of projects that were stalled due to the resistance of the citizens of Myanmar.

Despite heavy fighting in.msny regions between the Burmese army Tatmadaw and armed non-state actors, China is pushing ahead with projects , like implementing a special economic zone around the China-funded Kyaukphyu deep sea port it financed. It seems they have managed the rebel Arakan Army as well besides the junta.

Overall, most respondents believe that China’s support of the junta in the post-coup context indicates that the Chinese government wants to see Myanmar fragmented, with only as much stability as is required to further its own interests.

Given this fact, the people of Myanmar have been calling on China to stop legitimizing the junta, thereby prolonging the civil war and wasting China’s resources, while damaging China’s international credibility, all of which will eventually jeopardize China’s interests. 

The clear message to China is that only a federal democratic Myanmar will bring peace and stability for the people of the country, which will in turn protect the interests of its powerful neighbor.

Here are key takeaways from the survey:

1. China’s growing political and economic influence among most pressing concerns for Myanmar

The top post-coup concern for respondents was the increase in crime and lawlessness (86.2 percent), followed by the economic downturn and mounting unemployment and poverty (78.8 percent), all three of which impact the day-to-day conduct of life for the people of Myanmar. China’s growing political and economic influence in Myanmar ranked third at 41.5 percent.

2. Role of ethnic Chinese in Myanmar

The majority of respondents (70.8 percent), including both ethnic and non-ethnic Chinese, felt that ethnic Chinese living in Myanmar for generations have been well integrated into society and, on account of that, have concerns over China’s growing economic and geopolitical influence in Myanmar.

Some 60.3 percent of respondents share the insecurity and concern of ethnic Chinese that the growing influence of China might have negative implications for non-ethnic Chinese perceptions of local businesses run by ethnic Chinese citizens.

3. China’s attempts to influence media, and installation of Chinese surveillance equipment in Myanmar

There was an overwhelming consensus that China is attempting to influence media to disseminate propaganda favorable to China and that it has provided surveillance technologies to the junta to track webpages, IP addresses of those who post anti-junta messages, and general internet usage. These realities lead a significant majority of respondents (93.4 percent) to affirm that China is instrumental in undermining press freedoms, human rights and democracy (93.4 percent).

Nonetheless, a little over half of the respondents (52.4 percent) felt that China’s propaganda cannot change the public’s concerns about its influence in Myanmar. Some 48.1 percent of the people believe that China has been trying to manipulate public opinion about its influence in Myanmar by spreading disinformation and misinformation in media and social media in the country.

4. Advancing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC)

Since the coup, China has continued to advance the CMEC, a collection of infrastructure projects to support connectivity between Myanmar and China. Some 81.6 percent of the respondents said the projects will benefit China, the junta and their allied businesses at the cost of local people’s livelihoods and environment.

5.  Myanmar people’s perceptions of China-Myanmar relations

Some 56 percent of respondents believed that the policy of the Chinese government is to work with any warring party that might have the potential to control the country and can protect China’s interests.

Of respondents, 55.1 percent worried that China is supporting the regime and fueling the civil war.

6. China’s donations and development assistance        

Of respondents, 80.9 percent felt that China gets far more from Myanmar than it gives. A further majority (66.2 percent) did not appreciate China’s humanitarian support for Myanmar such as providing COVID-19 vaccines, and were suspicious of the quality of the Chinese vaccines.

7. Clashes near Chinese projects

The perception of 85.1 percent of respondents was that Chinese businesses run with funds from mainland China are complicit in regime soldiers’ attacks against local people, as was suspected to be the case with the Letpadaung copper mine project.

Some 61.4 percent believed that Chinese businesses and the junta lost income due to clashes along the CMEC corridor, and that unregulated military activity in those areas will hurt the interests of Beijing and Naypyitaw.

The remaining 53.6 percent predicted that clashes will likely grow in the areas where China’s major projects are located or near China’s potential project areas, as long as peace cannot be restored.

8. Illegal and unregulated resource exploitation

The majority of respondents (78.7 percent) felt that the Chinese government and economy reap huge profits from informal business dealings even as they appear to be pushing for formal business dealings in a post-coup context. Some 75.6 percent of respondents believed that Chinese businesses, in collusion with the military, ethnic armed organizations, militia groups, and local elites allied with those groups, are themselves involved in resource extraction and exploit the lack of rule of law in post-coup Myanmar. The perception that those border areas will lose all their natural resources in 10 years and become a de facto part of Chinese territory was an opinion held by 55.6 percent of all respondents.

9. Cross-border trading

Some 92 percent of respondents said China imposes rules and regulations to give itself an unfair advantage in cross-border trading, while 86.5 percent believed that China, ethnic armed organizations, militias, and the military together reap the largest benefit from illicit border trading while consequently undermining Myanmar’s peace and development.

10. China’s involvement in selling weaponry

Regarding the involvement of China in selling weaponry to the military and China’s tacit approval in the supply of arms to Northern Alliance members including the Arakan Army,  Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, 96.9 percent of respondents viewed China as having every intention of influencing the armed actors of the Northern Alliance to protect its own self-interest. Some 85.1 percent regarded this support as fueling the conflict to take advantage of the situation for China’s own benefit.

11. The role of China’s special envoy

Trust in the role of China’s special envoy Deng Xijun was quite low across the board. The envoy’s visits in late 2022 and early 2023 were seen by 96.1 percent of respondents as a move to counter the US’s National Defense Authorization Act, while 92.9 percent regarded China’s engagement with the junta as giving it some legitimacy and undermining the democratic revolution.

India has pitched for a comprehensive dialogue between all stakeholders in the Myanmar civil war to provide the military junta an honourable exit on condition it goes back to barracks and holds elections or honours the 2020 verdict. In contrast, China has tried to split the anti-junta forces by organising talks between the army and some Northern rebel groups that led to the Kunming agreement last month.  The US and its Western allies want to drive the junta to a corner but India suspects that may lead to Myanmar falling apart as a state. It is time India pushes hard to play a more effective role in.peacemaking in Myanmar because super power rivalries in its neighborhood has never helped Delhi.

Benu Prasad Ghosh

Benu Prasad Ghosh is a former officer of India's Intelligence Bureau and has closely followed Bangladesh and Myanmar during his long tenured in India's troubled Northeast.

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