Myanmar’s top general indirectly accused China of backing terrorist groups in the country in a recent interview with Russian state media, the Hindustan Times reported Thursday.
Speaking to Russia’s Zvezda news channel, Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said terrorist organizations active there are supported by “one foreign country” that arms the militants with “sophisticated weapons,” then asked the international community for cooperation in suppressing the ethnic rebel groups.
According to India’s Economic Times, the general’s allusion to “one foreign country” was widely understood as a reference to China — Myanmar’s neighbor to the northeast. Myanmar is China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun later clarified the senior general’s remarks, according to the Hindustan Times, asserting that he referred to the Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Myanmar’s government has officially designated both groups “terrorist organizations.” Since October 2016, ARSA has led insurgent attacks in the North of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people face discrimination by the government and local Buddhist population. Multiple human rights organizations have decried Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya as genocide. ARSA claims to be acting on behalf of the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s military launched a counter-offensive, allegedly against ARSA, that has reportedly also targeted civilians. Ensuing sectarian violence against the Rohingya by the military and local Buddhists has caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to flee the country for Bangladesh. The international community has condemned the violence with the U.N. describing it as ethnic cleansing.
In late 2018, AA insurgents joined the conflict and began attacks against state military and police. When explaining Senior General Hlaing’s recent remarks, military spokesman Tun similarly claimed that a “foreign country’” backs the AA, citing the terror group’s alleged use of Chinese-made weapons to perpetrate mine attacks on the Myanmar military in 2019. Tun previously alleged that China was behind another separatist group, the Hindustan Times added:
When the Myanmar military busted a huge cache of weapons including surface-to-air missiles — each costing between $70,000 and $90,000 — from the banned Ta’ang National Liberation Army in November 2019, the [Myanmar] military had underlined the Chinese connection to the weapons. Most of the weapons seized by the force are “Chinese weapons,” military spokesperson Major General Tun Tun Nyi had declared.
China has consistently denied supplying weapons to ethnic separatist groups in Myanmar. Most recently, in January, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Myanmar and was reportedly asked about the matter by Senior General Hlaing. In response, Xi “promised that China would ‘carefully scrutinize’ matters and ‘solve the problem,’ [suggesting] that there were other ways for the rebels to acquire Chinese weapons,” the Hindustan Times reported.
The ethnic separatist groups, of which there are several, claim to seek greater independence from Myanmar’s central government. According to the Economic Times, China has long faced accusations of supporting the insurgent groups as “a bargaining chip for smooth implementation of BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] projects that seek to give Beijing entry into the Bay of Bengal and Eastern part of the Indian Ocean Region.”