China called on Myanmar’s military to stop attacks on Chinese-invested factories after dozens went up in flames in Yangon on Sunday – Beijing’s strongest comments yet on the crisis gripping its Southeast Asian neighbour.
In one of the deadliest days since the military seized power in a coup in February, Myanmar’s security forces killed dozens of protesters on Sunday, some of them near an industrial zone housing the factories.
The protesters accuse Beijing of supporting the coup and the junta although China has denied playing a role in the turmoil.
The Chinese embassy in Yangon said a number of Chinese citizens were wounded in the attacks.
Chinese tabloid Global Times reported that 32 Chinese-invested factories were vandalised, resulting in 240 million yuan (US$36.8 million) in losses.
Asked about the attacks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that Myanmar should “take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety ... of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar”.
Zhao did not comment on whether Beijing had any plans to evacuate its citizens.
“The Chinese side is closely following the developments in Myanmar and is highly concerned about the safety of the affected Chinese institutions and personnel,” he said.
“The Chinese side hopes Myanmar will take concrete measures to ensure the safety of the Chinese citizens and avoid similar incidents from happening again.”
Zhao also called on protesters to “express their demands legally, not to be incited or manipulated, and refrain from harming the friendly cooperation between China and Myanmar”.
Myanmar has been in crisis since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a February 1 coup, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party and set up a ruling junta of generals.
China, heavily invested in a series of infrastructure projects in Myanmar, has insisted the crisis is an internal affair and refused to condemn the Tatmadaw, the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar.
But that changed on Wednesday when China endorsed a statement approved by all 15 members of the United Nations Security Council that strongly condemned the violence against peaceful protesters and called for “utmost restraint” by the military.
The statement also called for the immediate release of civilian government leaders, including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.
China and Myanmar agreed to open a cross-border oil pipeline in 2017 while Suu Kyi was still in power, allowing Beijing to diversify oil supply routes and avoid the Malacca Strait choke point in the South China Sea. The pipeline project has been fraught with delays and opposition from residents who oppose its expansion.
Pang Zhongying, an international relations specialist at Ocean University of China, said China faced a dilemma in responding to events in Myanmar.
“On the one hand it needs to maintain good relations with the military to have continued support for its infrastructure projects in the country,” Pang said.
“On the other hand it does not want to be seen as interfering into Myanmar’s internal affairs or appearing too close with the military amid international condemnation.
“The Chinese-invested projects are facing great security risks at the moment. But China’s hands are tied.”