Within a day of the deadly suicide bombing at Karachi by a Baloch lady that killed three Chinese nationals, an underground group fighting military rule in Myanmar threatened to attack Chinese interests.
Both the Balochistan Liberation Army (which claimed responsibility for the Karachi suicide bombing) and the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) in Myanmar have lashed out at what they describe as ‘Chinese exploitative practices to loot our natural resources’.
The PDF statement particularly referred to Chinese company Wanbao Mining, which in partnership with Myanmar military-owned conglomerate Myanma Economic Holdings, runs the Letpadaung and Sapetaung-Kyesintaung copper mines near Salingyi in the Sagaing region.
Widespread anti-Chinese sentiment
The PDF is not alone in targeting Chinese interests though it is the only group which has attacked them — a sabotage at a Chinese-run nickel processing plant this year and an attack last year on guards at an offtake station of the oil-gas pipeline that connects Myanmar’s Rakhine coast with China’s Yunnan Province.
Sixteen Myanmar rebel groups recently issued a joint statement, saying income from mining was “lining the pockets of senior Myanmar military officials and cronies”. A PDF spokesman warned that if these projects are not closed down, they will be attacked.
Much before the PDF targeted Chinese business interests, more than 30 Chinese-run factories were attacked by demonstrators opposing the February 2021 military coup.
At the root of popular angst against China is a widespread feeling in Myanmar that Beijing’s support and unstinting backing for the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) had emboldened the generals to topple the elected government of Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The National League for Democracy had won a massive mandate in the 2020 national polls.
Beijing has backed the military junta in Myanmar and provided it with support in the face of Western sanctions, managing, in the bargain, to get clearance for scores of new Chinese projects and concessions.
Most Burmese who want democracy back, therefore, see both their own military rulers and their Chinese backers as hurdles and see both as legitimate targets.
The PDF, which is the military arm of the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar, has grown in strength. On April 23, they ambushed a military convoy at Tamu near the Indian border, killing at least 15 soldiers.
The Chinese embassy in Yangon reportedly have desperately tried to contact the NUG to prevent possible attacks on Chinese interests, but without much success.
Balochs too target Chinese
Like in Myanmar, in Pakistan, Baloch rebels, fighting against “Pakistani occupation” of resource-rich Balochistan, have identified China and Pakistan as “enemies”. They oppose Chinese extractive projects and also the port project of Gwadar in Balochistan which was been developed as the final leg of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Balochistan is not just Pakistan’s biggest province and the least populated, but also very rich in natural gas, copper, uranium and much more.
Like the ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar, the Baloch rebel groups fighting for self-rule are determined to deny both China and Pakistan exploitation of the province’s rich mineral resources. They see such exploitation as “reinforcing internal colonisation” and China as a “greedy external partner” behind the powerful army of Pakistan. Balochistan has witnessed three major uprisings in the past against “Pakistani occupation” and their attacks against Pakistani forces and Chinese nationals have multiplied in recent months.
China faces a worrying two-front problem in implementing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Both Economic Corridors hold the key to easy ocean access for China to get over its “Malacca Chokepoint” worries. These two corridors aimed at providing large land-locked Chinese provinces access to sea that cuts down transport costs for both exports and imports.
India has opposed the CPEC because it passes through parts of Kashmir claimed by India but under control of Pakistan. It is also uneasy with the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar, especially in view of the country’s long border with India’s sensitive North-East where Beijing has reportedly backed ethnic insurgencies in the 1960-70s.
But the Modi government has fought shy of openly supporting Myanmar’s democracy movement because it does not want to upset the Burmese generals for fear of driving them totally into China’s lap. Pro-democracy groups in Myanmar, however, say the generals are already under Chinese control, so the Indian policy is anchored on false premises.
But, since India has repeatedly called for peaceful resolution of the Myanmar imbroglio, it finds it tough to leverage the growing popular (and armed resistance) to military rule. The NUG and the PDF reportedly depend on Western sources for funds and possibly weapons (using the Thai border). India’s backing would thus strengthen them more.
India does not share a border with Balochistan, so any support beyond the moral is difficult to sustain. Pakistan has accused India of backing Baloch rebel groups, especially after PM Modi raised the issue in his Independence Day speech when he first came to power.
It seems the sharp rise in Baloch rebel activity in recent months is more due to the receipt of a large consignment of weapons before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington is keen on disturbing the Chinese footprint in Balochistan at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Since Iran is wary of its Baloch problem in Sistan province and Afghanistan is in Taliban hands, India cannot back the Baloch movement effectively even if it wanted to as a riposte to Pakistan’s backing for terrorism in Kashmir.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts)