Myanmar Military Coup Strands Tens of Thousands of Chinese Nationals

Business owners say they expect an onslaught of Western economic sanctions to hit their businesses, while analysts say China’s Belt and Road initiative could also be affected.

China's foreign ministry said on Monday it had no current plans to evacuate its nationals from Myanmar following the military coup in the country.

Tens of thousands of Chinese nationals are stranded in Myanmar after the only remaining flight back to China, operated by state-run Myanmar National Airlines, was grounded.

Tu Guoding, chairman of the Zhejiang Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar, said Chinese citizens had already seen flights operated by Air China, China Southern, and Eastern Airlines suspended amid travel restrictions imposed amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases in China.

"I am in Yangon right now," Tu told RFA. "We calculated just a few days ago that there are tens of thousands of [Chinese nationals] in Myanmar."

"Previously, we had a choice of routes [to fly home to China], but they were canceled ahead of the Lunar New Year, and won't resume until Feb. 20, or thereabouts," he said.

He said communications had also been disrupted.

"When I got up this morning, my phone was disconnected and the internet was blocked," Tu said. "It's looking now as if some mobile phone signals are back, and communications are resuming."

He said the coup would likely affect many Chinese-run businesses in Myanmar.

"If the military government takes power and Western countries have to sanction it, it may affect our businesses, big-time," he said.

Tu said he had received a notice from the Myanmar Civil Aviation Administration on Monday that the airport would be closed until the end of May.

An official who answered the phone at the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing said they had no current plan to evacuate Chinese nationals from Myanmar.

"Do you mean the situation in Myanmar? [We will need to] wait for a while until communications resume," the official said.

"We have not received any notification [relating to evacuations] at present."

Calls to the Chinese embassy in Myanmar rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.

Myanmar’s military have detained senior politicians including elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Military chief in charge

An announcement read on military-owned Myawaddy TV said Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing would be in charge of the country for one year, citing alleged electoral fraud leading to Suu Kyi's parliamentary majority.

According to Tu, all municipal government buildings are under military occupation.

"There are no large-scale demonstrations or riots on the street," Tu said. "[Banks] have issued notifications that withdrawals and deposits can't go ahead due to network problems."

"The banks are also closed on orders from the central bank," he said.

A Hong Kong businessman surnamed Lee, who runs a garment factory in Yangon, said he also fears Western sanctions in the wake of Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims will hurt his business.

"After the Rohingya incident, the European Union said it would sanction Myanmar, and the U.S. government also sent negative signals, and a lot of Americans stopped investing here," Lee said.

"This isn't going to end well," he said. "Many factories will close down and many workers will lose their jobs."

Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the School of International Relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the military had overthrown a democratically elected government.

"This is a military coup," Li said. "Things looked OK for social and economic development under the democratic alliance during the past few years."

"This is a pretty big mess, and there is a big question mark over further socioeconomic development," he said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that China had "noted" recent events in Myanmar, and was following the situation.

Li said China could decide it wants to continue to distance itself from Myanmar politics.

"The Chinese side may maintain a relatively detached ... policy towards Myanmar, because ... we have no idea what political direction Myanmar will take in the next few years now," he said.

Heavy Chinese investments

Myanmar is an important country in China's Belt and Road infrastructure strategy, helping China expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, according to Zhuang Jiaying, associate politics professor at the National University of Singapore.

"Who will bear the costs, and gain access to the benefits and resources now?" Zhuang said. "It will take some time to sort all of that out."

"This will have a critical impact on the sustainable development of the Belt and Road initiative in Myanmar," he said.

Beijing’s most important investment in Myanmar is a U.S.$1.3 billion deep-water port and industrial zone built in the western state of Rakhine that has been largely shunned by Western investors despite being designated a special economic zone by Myanmar.

Bilateral conflicts will also remain, including ethnic conflicts in the mountainous border regions, and resentment caused by the construction of reservoirs and oil pipelines by Chinese companies in Myanmar.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Xiaoshan Huang and Chingman for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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