A Myanmar military tribunal has sentenced 34 people to 20 years in jail with hard labor following a spate of arson attacks on clothing and footwear factories in the industrial Shwe Pyi Thar and Hlaing Tharyar townships of Yangon in March.
In total, 32 Chinese-funded factories were burned and looted, causing property losses of roughly 240 million yuan ($37.6 million), the Chinese embassy in Myanmar said at the time. At least two Chinese employees were also injured during the onslaught, it said, as it urged the embattled Southeast Asian nation to take action to protect Chinese property and citizens.
“China urges Myanmar to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar,” the embassy said in a statement in March.
Though no group has claimed responsibility for razing the factories, they are widely believed to have been targeted because the civil disobedience movement views China as supportive of the military junta that overthrew the semi-democratic civilian government on Feb. 1, gripping Myanmar in escalating violence and bloodshed ever since. Security forces have killed more than 830 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local monitoring group.
Compared with the vigorous condemnation of the military by the United States and its allies, China has been more subdued in its response, with Beijing emphasizing “stability” and describing the coup as a “domestic democratic transformation process.”
“China says the attacks were well planned, with the vandals arriving on motorbikes with weapons and petrol,” Michael Bristow, BBC World Service’s East Asia editor, wrote in an analysis in March. “Some protesters have denied they were involved. But there is widespread anti-China sentiment in Myanmar because of a belief that Beijing is helping the military government there.”
It’s China’s “‘laissez-faire’ attitude” that has turned its factories in Myanmar into targets, Gareth Price, senior research fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, a British think tank, wrote in a March note.
“China may feel that, regardless of the outcome, it will continue to be Myanmar’s major partner,” he said. “But that feeling may be a misjudgment because, if the military is forced to back down, it may result in a more pronounced anti-China tilt, threatening its strategic interests.”
Chinese nationals fund roughly one-third of Myanmar’s 600 garment factories, making them the largest investor group, according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association.
The chaos, which created supply-chain disruptions, led some of the world’s biggest brands, including Benetton Group, Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Next and Primark, to hit pause on orders in Myanmar. Bestseller, H&M and Primark have since resumed production, saying they’re doing so to maintain jobs. A mass exodus by international companies would trigger almost certain economic collapse, according to a recent third-party audit commissioned by Bestseller.
But labor advocates say that the brands’ resumption of orders in Myanmar, which they say does not appear to have been based on discussions with unions, is premature, especially since several source from factories based in military-operated industrial parks.
Unions representing garment workers have also asked brands and governments to choke off any financial funding that could benefit the junta, even if it spells greater hardship for them.
“We all think that if we can stop the economy, that it will really hit the military government, and we think it is the solution to solve the problem we face,” Ko Aung, a member of the Federation of General Workers Myanmar, said at a press briefing organized by nonprofit Remake in March.
The garment industry, which accounts for one-third of Myanmar’s exports, employs 700,000 people, according to United Nations data.
Meanwhile, Mynamar could be on the brink of a civil war as numerous ethnic armed groups at its borderlands battle the security forces for autonomy, Dr. Sasa, spokesperson for Myanmar’s “shadow” national unity government, which comprises pro-democracy politicians, warned last week. “The people of Myanmar have been left with no other choice,” he told the Guardian. “They just have no other option left.”
The more the international community drags its feet on sanctions with teeth, “the more bloody it will become,” he said, and “the closer we get to civil war and genocide.”
At the close of April, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) cautioned that after more than a decade of “hard-won gains in the fight against poverty,” the combined impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing political crisis could drive up to 12 million people into poverty. This could result in as many as 25 million people, or nearly half of Myanmar’s population, living below the national poverty line in early 2022, a “level of impoverishment not seen in the country since 2005,” it said.
“We are witnessing a compounding crisis of unprecedented severity and complexity. Myanmar had managed to halve poverty, and with its democratic transition was showing signs of firming up fragile human development gains. Now it feels like a push-back to 2005,” Kanni Wignaraja, UN assistant secretary-general and UNDP regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. “The combined effects of Covid-19 and the political crisis have caused a systemic shock which could lead to a long-lasting disruption in Myanmar’s development trajectory, unless addressed and resolved soon.”