Myanmar factory attacks highlights Chinese influence

BANGKOK (AP) — Confusion over what exactly happened during recent attacks on factories in Myanmar has highlighted the complex and troubled nature of the country’s relations with China amid a broad public backlash against a February 1 coup.

China’s state-run Global Times asserted that protesters “incited by the West” had attacked 32 factories, causing CNY240 million (about USD30 million) in damage.

Turmoil is bad for business and will deter investors, the Chinese state-owned broadcaster CGTN said in a commentary.

“But China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests,” CGTN said.

With limited Internet and cell phone connectivity, outside observers face increasing difficulty verifying what is going on in Myanmar or getting an official response from the junta.

The vast Hlaing Thayar industrial zone and several other districts of Yangon, the country’s biggest city, have been under martial law since Monday, putting them under complete military control and making it difficult for protesters to organise and communicate.

But people living in the area — home to hundreds of clothing, shoe and other factories — said only a handful of factories were affected. Local TV networks including the military-run Myawaddy TV reported that five factories were burnt in Hlaing Thayar last Sunday.

Satellite imagery shows Global Fashion Garment Factory, a Chinese-owned supplier to the fashion retailer C&A, in Yangon, Myanmar. PHOTO: AP

Much of the controversy over the arson attacks has centred on what happened in and around the Chinese-owned Xing Jia shoe factory in Hlaing Thayar.

According to records from Panjiva and the Myanmar Investment Commission, the factory makes Western brand boots such as DeWalt and Dunlop and a wide variety of clothing.

But accounts from multiple sources, including Yangon-based labour organiser Andrew Tillett-Saks, said the fires broke out after five garment workers were shot and killed by the military when they reported to the factory to collect their February wages.

People living in the industrial zone contacted by phone by AP said that workers were not responsible for burning the factories, which are protected by high walls and guards.

“Many shouted in anger to burn down factories, but none actually implemented such attacks because it’s hard to access those areas and many residents work in those factories,” said San Maung, a bicycle repairman living in the area.

“If people had wanted to attack these places, they could have done so since day one. There was no looting nor fires at all until March 14, when truckloads of soldiers brutally suppressed the protests,” San Maung said.

According to the independent group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the violence last Sunday claimed at least 38 lives.

The Myanmar-based group, which keeps a tally of deaths related to the crackdown, said that as of Wednesday, 217 people had been killed and 2,191 arrested or charged. The Facebook page for the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar was flooded with tens of thousands of angry comments from local residents incensed over the lack of any mention of sympathy for those who died in the violence, after the page posted a call for better protection for the factories and Chinese personnel.

“Worryingly, there’s a lot of anti-Chinese sentiments,” Thiri Thant Mon of Pegu Partners, a Yangon-based consultancy, said on Thursday in a web seminar hosted by Japan’s Nikkei Asia. “That’s worrying because there are a lot of native Myanmar-Chinese business people as well.

“Any kind of racial tension is worrying,” she said.

Apart from hundreds of factories making mostly clothing, shoes and other light industrial products, China has massive investments in Myanmar’s energy and mining sectors. One of the biggest is the twin oil and gas pipelines that run nearly 800 kilometres from Made island on Myanmar’s west coast to Ruili, on the border of China’s Yunnan province.

Before the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which was due to remain in power after a landslide win in a November election, had announced a tender for another big Chinese-led project, a huge, deep-water port in Kyaukphyu, western Myanmar.

A January visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi drew a pledge for both sides to work toward completing that project and pushing ahead with an “economic corridor” linking China’s southwestern Yunnan province with the port and major cities in Myanmar.