The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Myanmar protesters torch Chinese factories, workers are caught in spiraling crisis

Smoke billows from an industrial zone in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday. Attacks on Chinese-run factories drew demands from Beijing for protection of Chinese property and employees. (AP)

Xiang Jun has spent more than two years and almost $1.2 million opening garment factories in Myanmar. Now he is desperate to leave. “Every day, the sound of gunshots doesn’t stop,” said the 36-year-old from China’s eastern Jiangxi province.

More than a month after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, a crackdown on protesters has spiraled into bloody conflict, with more than 200 killed and thousands detained. Foreign businesses, particularly those owned by China, are entangled in the chaos, as protesters target them and their staffs in a bid to weaken the economy and punish Beijing over perceptions that it backs the military.

Xiang has seen protesters torching nearby Chinese-run factories like his. The compounds of Chinese friends have been broken into and their cars set on fire. For the past three days, Xiang and seven other Chinese nationals have hidden in one of his factories in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar district, an industrial zone on the city’s outskirts, surviving on rice and vegetables brought daily by local staff.

An American success story is lost in Myanmar’s coup

He and his compatriots have asked the Chinese Consulate to help them return home. “I really hope the Chinese government can do something,” he said. “We wouldn’t leave if we didn’t have to.”

The targeting of Chinese businesses underlines Beijing’s awkward position in relation to the coup. Not explicitly condemning or punishing Myanmar’s military has made China a target of public anger, but overt criticism of the generals’ takeover would rule out cooperation with the military and contradict Beijing’s self-avowed philosophy of noninterference in the affairs of other countries.

The situation deteriorated into violence Sunday in ­Hlaing Tharyar, home to hundreds of garment factories operated by companies from China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere. Security forces opened fire on protesters, many of them migrants and impoverished laborers from other parts of the country, killing at least 60.

Mya May Thein, a funeral director in a nearby cemetery, said more than 100 funerals were held Tuesday and Wednesday, and many of the bodies were riddled with bullet holes. On Tuesday, at least six more people were killed, local media outlet Myanmar Now reported, after a Chinese factory owner called security forces to intervene in a wage dispute.

Pope Francis appealed for an end to bloodshed in Myanmar on March 17, saying: "Even I kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say 'stop the violence'." (Video: Reuters)

Workers, in line with broader aims of Myanmar’s anti-coup “civil disobedience movement,” had earlier threatened to torch Chinese-owned factories if security forces fired on the protesters. An unidentified photographer with Frontier Myanmar, an ­English-language magazine, reported seeing ahead of Sunday’s protests a vinyl sign that read: “If the blood of one Hlaing Tharyar resident hits the ground, one Chinese factory must burn.” At least 32 Chinese-financed factories were attacked, causing $37 million in damage, according to Chinese state media.

China has denied any prior knowledge of the coup. In an interview with local media shortly after the military takeover, it said the actions were “absolutely not what China wants to see.” Beijing has called for de-escalation and signed a U.N. Security Council statement last week expressing “deep concern.” China previously defended Myanmar at the United Nations over the brutal crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority, which international courts are investigating as genocide.

After Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won elections in a landslide in November, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message and stressed close and friendly relations not just between Myanmar and China but between Beijing and her party specifically.

Suu Kyi worked to rebuild ties with Beijing, which found itself relatively sidelined when the ruling junta first embarked on a quasi-democratic transition in 2010, canceling major Chinese projects and engaging with the West. China’s Wang Yi was the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar after the November election; the two countries were engaged in billions of dollars in projects before the coup, including a strategically important deep-sea port, an economic zone, and an industrial park in Yangon, the country’s commercial center.

In Myanmar coup, grievance and ambition drove military chief’s power grab

Under the military government, these projects are now in question. Chinese nationals working in the country described feeling under siege, with companies hiring armed security. One manager at a Chinese-run textile firm in Mandalay who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns said his company had arranged transportation home for more than 270 staff members who chose to leave.

Efforts to leave are complicated by the difficulty of getting coronavirus tests to reenter China, getting a flight and even getting to the airport in Yangon.

“People are thinking about leaving, but there is no way,” said Wang, a manager at the Chinese state-owned textile firm Jiangsu Guotai’s factory in Yangon. He did not give his full name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Wang said the company’s weaving production facility had been burned down and operations were halted. “We plan to leave soon. That’s for sure,” said another manager at the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Suu Kyi’s ouster heralds return to military rule in Myanmar

When the gunfire faded on Sunday, A Kyi Kyaung, a 26-year-old protester staying with family in Hlaing Tharyar, heard a call urging people in the area to torch a nearby Chinese-owned garment factory.

“Dead bodies and injured persons were lying on the street,” he said. “I didn’t know who called on us to set fire to the nearby factory, but we did it with emotion, anger and grief.”

A Kyi Kyaung and other protesters know their actions have prompted a harsher crackdown by the military, which placed parts of Yangon under martial law on Sunday, meaning crimes such as arson or illegal gatherings or protests could be punished with the death penalty or prison terms with hard labor. Basic goods like eggs and meat are hard to find as traders stay away, and many migrants have fled back to their home states.

But A Kyi Kyaung said he does not regret the action, describing it as strategic. Protesters want to drive Chinese and other foreign companies out of Myanmar as a way of depriving the military of economic resources and undermining its rule. Targeting Chinese companies, he said, was like “an eye for an eye,” mirroring perceptions that Beijing continues to protect the Tatmadaw, as the army is known, from serious international ramifications.

“We are glad to see arson continue in other areas,” he said. “We will do it again whenever we have the chance.”

Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon, Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

An American success story is lost in Myanmar’s coup

In Myanmar coup, grievance and ambition drove military chief’s power grab

Suu Kyi’s ouster heralds return to military rule in Myanmar