Guest Column

China and Myanmar: No interference?

By Bertil Lintner 23 March 2021

“Enough with the interference in Myanmar already!” read the headline of an article on the China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) website on March 16. Beyond the poorly worded banner, the write-up consisted of an unusually vitriolic attack by a Chinese state-operated news agency on the West’s reaction to the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar. The piece mentions how the United States stated that it intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan “with the goal of ‘helping’ people” but its military response has “brought death and chaos” in those two countries and made “the people living in fear.” The article went on to claim that voices from the West are encouraging unrest in Myanmar and if it continues, the country risks “falling into civil war,” as if there wasn’t already a decades-long civil war there. “Egging” the demonstrators on “with empty words of support is irresponsible,” CGTN concluded.

China by contrast has, as stated in many official declarations from Beijing, always adhered to its longstanding policy of “non-interference” in the “internal affairs of other countries.” The fundamentals of that policy, China’s powerholders claim, is the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and, peaceful coexistence.” But, as Sherif A. Elgebeily, the director of the United Kingdom-based Center for the Study of International Peace and Security, wrote in an op-ed piece for the South China Morning Post on April 30, 2017, this stance is used “both to justify outward-facing actions, such as its voting record at the UN Security Council” — for instance, to block attempts by other council members who would like to see collective, UN-sponsored punitive actions against Myanmar’s generals — “and to reject foreign criticism of its own internal affairs.”

Whenever China is criticized by the West for human-rights abuses against political dissidents, the Tibetans and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, Beijing’s defense has always been that no one has the right to interfere in its internal affairs. Most recently, China condemned what it termed interference in its “internal issues” when the US in November last year sanctioned four Chinese officials over the introduction of a new draconian national security law in Hong Kong.

Human rights abuses are not an “internal affair” of any country and criticizing such behavior is not infringement of “national sovereignty,” as authoritarian regimes often have it. International human-rights bodies like the UN Human Rights Council were founded with the specific aim of safeguarding civil rights worldwide. In addition, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 before they went into force in 1976 — are international human-rights instruments that no country can ignore and brush aside.

China has signed and ratified the economic, social and cultural rights treaty and signed, but not ratified, the one on civil and political rights. China has at least in theory also recognized the 1948 declaration, but its president Xi Jinping presented in a speech on Geneva in 2017 a different vision for the future of mankind in which he emphasized “the absolute sovereignty of each state” and that the international community would have to be accept and tolerate “cultural and political differences” — or, as a long-time China watcher once put it, the leaders in Beijing and likeminded regimes such as the one in Myanmar are “trying to protect what they believe is their sovereign right to be beastly.”

In the context of Myanmar, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a press release in January last year that “since the two countries established diplomatic relations 70 years ago, China-Myanmar relations have enjoyed constant development on the basis of mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual assistance, and have set an example of harmonious co-existence and win-win cooperation between big and small countries. The Chinese side adheres to non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs and supports Myanmar in safeguarding national dignity and legitimate rights and interests.”

That, to anyone familiar with Myanmar’s recent history, is pure balderdash. No country has interfered in Myanmar politics and internal conflicts as much as China. It began in the early 1950s when 143 cadres from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) trekked to China to request assistance for their armed insurrection against the government in Yangon. About the same time, 200-300 Kachins led by World War II-veteran-turned-rebel Naw Seng had retreated into China after being defeated by the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State. The Myanmar communists were settled in Chengdu, Sichuan, where they were given political training and also attended classes in Marxism-Leninism at a Chinese Communist Party school in Beijing. The Kachins, who were not communists, were allowed to stay in a people’s commune in Guizhou province.

At that time, China had good relations with U Nu’s government in Yangon and the Myanmar exiles were not given any military support or training. That changed after General Ne Win’s coup in March 1962. Long wary of the ambitious and unpredictable general, China decided to give all-out support for an armed insurrection in Myanmar. The CPB was for the first time allowed to print propaganda leaflets and other material in Beijing, and party veterans were sent down to the Myanmar border to survey possible infiltration routes. The Myanmar communists were ardent Maoists but had little or no experience in military matters, so they were introduced to the battle-hardened Kachins in Guizhou. The nucleus of a new CPB army was formed and, in a strange twist of historical events, it was Ne Win’s government that unwittingly provided an opportunity for the CPB exiles in China to re-establish links with their comrades who were holding out in the Bago Yoma mountains and other pockets in central Myanmar.

In 1963, Ne Win called for peace talks with all rebels in the country, and 29 CPB members arrived by air from Beijing ostensibly to take part in the negotiations. One of them was Thakin Ba Thein Tin, later party chairman, who seized the opportunity to sneak out of Yangon and visit the Bago Yoma, He had brought with him radio transmitters and other aid from China. The cadres in the Bago Yoma were told that more help would be coming and that grand schemes were being hatched in China. The talks failed, predicted — and planned — by the CPB and the Chinese. Thakin Ba Thein Tin and other CPB cadre returned to Beijing while the other 27, called “the Beijing returnees”, stayed in Myanmar. They assumed leadership of the party at home while staying in touch with the exiles in China over the newly delivered radios.

After years of planning, anti-Chinese riots in Yangon in June 1967 — caused by local Sino-Burman support for the Cultural Revolution in China — provided the leadership in Beijing and their Myanmar comrades with the pretext they needed to make their move. On New Year’s Day 1968, Naw Seng and his Kachins along with CPB political commissars, crossed the border into Mong Ko, a small village in northeastern Shan State. That was the beginning of a bloody, Chinese-supported civil war that lasted for two decades. China poured more aid into the CPB effort than any other Communist movement outside Indochina. Automatic assault rifles, heavy machine-guns, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and recoilless rifles were sent across the border along with radio equipment, jeeps, trucks, petrol, medical supplies, and even rice and assorted foodstuff. A clandestine radio station, the People’s Voice of Burma, began transmitting from the Chinese side of the border in 1971 and was only later moved to the party’s new headquarters at Panghsang on the Chinese border in the Wa Hills. During the first years of fighting, the CPB’s army consisted mainly of young “volunteers” from China. It was only in the mid-1970s they were replaced by Wa tribesmen and other recruits from the border mountains.

A CPB meeting at Panghsang in 1987, under portraits of old communist icons.

But the plan failed. The CPB never managed to push down to the Bago Yoma. It became isolated in the north and northeast and, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of the economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, Beijing was no longer interested in exporting revolution to the rest of the world. It was more interested in economic development and trade with its neighbors

Then, in March and April 1989, the hill-tribe rank-and-file of the CPB mutinied and drove the old Maoist party leaders into exile in China. Most of the mutineers were Wa and they formed the United Wa State Party and Army (UWSP/UWSA) which made peace with the government in exchange for retaining control over most of the former CPB area on the Sino-Myanmar frontier. They also maintained close relations with China and managed to acquire new, sophisticated weaponry from across the border. The UWSA soon became stronger and better equipped than the CPB had ever been, and it was obvious that the Chinese were playing a double-game in Myanmar: trade, loans and credits to the government in Yangon became the carrot and support for groups like the UWSA the stick. The UWSA does not fight the Myanmar Army, but it is strong enough to deter government forces from trying to wrest control over its base area along the Chinese frontier.

Even coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said during a visit to Moscow in June 2020 in an interview with Russian news agency ZVEZDA: “A country may be able to suppress terrorist organizations on its soil. But in cases when there are strong forces behind that terrorist organization, the country alone may not be able to handle it.” It was clear that he meant China because, in 2019, the Myanmar army seized a large cache of Chinese-made weapons from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — a UWSA ally — in northern Shan State. It reportedly included newly manufactured RPGs and antiaircraft guns.

In line with this dual-track policy — party-to-party ties with the rebel forces and government-to-government relations with Myanmar’s military government — China was already in the 1990s the main supplier of military hardware to the generals in Yangon while Western countries sanctioned and boycotted the junta after a bloody crackdown on a 1988 uprising for democracy. China also became the largest importer of minerals, seafood and agricultural produce from Myanmar. And vast quantities of timber. The outcome has been a virtual deforestation of northern Myanmar with catastrophic impacts on the environment.

China actually started to penetrate the Myanmar market through an extensive economic intelligence reporting system as early as the late 1980s. The network monitored the availability of domestically manufactured Myanmar products as well as the nature and volume of trade with neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India. China could then respond to market conditions by producing goods in its own state sector factories and, by the early 1990s, more than 2,000 carefully selected items began to flood Myanmar markets. Chinese-made consumer goods were not only made deliberately cheaper than those from other neighboring countries, but were also less expensive than local Myanmar products.

Myanmar’s dependence on China eventually became so overwhelming that the ruling military felt it had to open up to the West in order to counter what internal, classified army documents seen by this writer described as a “threat to the country’s sovereignty and independence.” That succeeded after an election was held in November 2010, political prisoners were released, press freedom was guaranteed and political parties were allowed to work openly. And then, in September 2011, president Thein Sein, a former army general, announced that he had ordered the suspension of a US $3.6 billion hydro-electric power plant at Myitsone in Kachin State with 90% of the electricity earmarked for export to China. Myanmar went from being an international pariah to becoming the darling of the West.

But that didn’t last long. In 2016 and 2017, several hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State fled to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army. They brought with them horrific tales of mass murder, rape and the destruction of entire villages — and Western nations once again turned their backs on Myanmar. China, not surprisingly, took full advantage of the situation, shielded the Myanmar military in the UN Security Council and stepped up its public relations campaigns inside the country. Those came in the form of all-paid-for junket tours to China for Myanmar politicians and journalists, money being funneled through local businessmen to political parties, and attempts, also through intermediaries, to buy influence in locally produced newspapers and journals.

Then came the Feb. 1 coup — which China handled extremely badly. The Chinese authorities described it as a “cabinet reshuffle” and while they refused to condemn the killings of unarmed people anti-coup demonstrators, they urged the Myanmar military to take firm action against people who had attacked Chinese-owned businesses in Yangon. And, predictably, China and Russia forced the UNSC to water down a statement sponsored by the UK that was meant to unequivocally condemn the coup. Together with Russia, India and Vietnam, China also blocked further attempts to get the UNSC to punish Myanmar’s coup makers. Anti-coup demonstrations in Yangon and elsewhere were described in the March 16 CGTN article as “people on the streets burning buildings and factories.”

Myanmar may be the clearest— and most aggressive — example of Chinese interference in another country’s “internal affairs.” Elsewhere and across the globe it has taken other shapes and forms, but has been no less intrusive. In neighboring Thailand, Chinese envoys tried last year to press their Thai counterparts to share information about individuals — Thais as well as foreigners — that had been stored on the Thai Chana and Mor Chana tracing apps which are meant to track down Covid-19 carriers and contain local outbreaks. The Chinese authorities also told the Thais that any decision to allow Chinese tourists to resume travel to Thailand would be contingent on sharing Thai Chana and Mor Chana information. The Thais skillfully responded to China’s first attempt to monitor large numbers of people outside its own borders that it would be difficult to gather all that information in a single application as the details were stored in many different databases.

Australia has been rocked by one spy scandal after another involving Chinese secret agents. Most recently in November 2019, the BBC as well as the Australian press reported on a case involving “a suspected Chinese espionage ring” that had “approached a Chinese-Australian man to run as an MP.” The 32-year-old man has since “died in unexplained circumstances,” the BBC reported, adding that “China has denied the allegations, which Australia’s domestic spy agency has confirmed it is investigating.”

Gui Congyou, China’s ambassador to Stockholm, has been summoned by the Swedish foreign ministry no less than 40 times for threatening local journalists, Swedish PEN and even the country’s culture minister Amanda Lind with “consequences” for raising the case of the publisher book store owner Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen of Chinese origin who was abducted in 2015 and is being kept incommunicado and without trial in Chinese custody. Gui Congyou has also been outspoken on other issues and as a consequence, public opinion polls shows that 70% of Swedes view China unfavorably.

In Singapore in 2017, Chinese-American academic Huang Jing had his residence permit revoked after the city state’s Home Ministry called him “an agent of influence of a foreign country.” In New Zealand in 2017, the home and office of academic and China critic Anne-Marie Bradly were burgled, her car was tempered with, she received a series of anonymous phone calls and a threatening letter It all came after she had published a paper on the influence on the Chinese Communist Party in the Pacific. Brady believes that she has become the target of a campaign of intimidation and “psy-ops” directed by Beijing towards her and her family. But “the Chinese government has not responded to requests for comment,” The Guardian newspaper reported on January 23, 2019.

How China will handle the rising tide of anti-China sentiment in Myanmar remains to be seen. But, as far as the general public is concerned, China’s silence on the increasingly thuggish behavior of the Myanmar military and police are viewed as complicity in human rights abuses. And it is more than the question of over 200 people who have been killed by the military and police. People are being dragged out of tea shops and beaten and a video on social media shows policemen storming into a restaurant in Mandalay, smashing up everything in sight while the customers fled. Only a whisky bottle, which one of the policemen grabbed, was saved from destruction. Cars and motorcycles have also been smashed up by policemen and soldiers, and a popular art gallery in Yangon with paintings by Myanmar’s most famous artists was burned down — and pro-military social media trolls then tried to blame the demonstrators for the crime. “They are not just cracking down on the anti-coup movement,” said a Myanmar source. “They are trying to destroy people’s lives.”

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing with Chinese Foregin Minister Wang Yi in Naypyitaw in January, 2021.

Public anger at China’s lackluster reaction to the coup and its brutal aftermath should have come as no surprise. It was simply the trigger that set off anti-China feelings that many people in Myanmar had harbored for years: the plundering of the country’s national resources, constant interference in the country’s civil war, and meddling behind the scenes in domestic politics and the media landscape. There should indeed by now be “enough interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs” — but with China being the main offender. If China wants to restore even a minimum of rapport with the Myanmar public, it would first have to look critically at itself. Condemning and attacking those who have expressed support and sympathy for the anti-coup movement, as CGTN did on March 16, can only backfire and lead to ever stronger resentment toward Beijing and its policies.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades. He currently works as a correspondent for Asia Times. His views are his own.


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