Flights carrying ‘seafood’ between China and Myanmar fuel speculation about Beijing’s support for the military coup

Activists are concerned about possible Chinese involvement in a proposed Cybersecurity Bill

Screen shot from HK Citizen News’ video news report on Myanmar protests against military coup.

The Chinese government has so far taken no official stand on the military coup by Myanmar’s military on February 1, though the fact that China blocked the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the junta has led pro-democracy activists in Myanmar to believe that Beijing is backing the coup for geopolitical reasons.

Myanmar’s citizens began protesting in front of the Chinese Embassy days after the coup took place, and reports of aircraft flying between Kunming (China) and Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, have fueled suspicions that the Chinese government is providing support for the military government’s efforts to take control of the country’s internet.

Netizens have also begun using hashtags such as #ShameOnYouChina and #ChinaHelpMilitaryCoupForOwnBenefit on social media to condemn China’s alleged actions.

Twitter user @Ellen5461 posted a few photos of a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. Some of the placards shown in the photos bear slogans  written in Chinese, saying “Stand by Myanmar, do not support dictatorship”:

Myanmar citizen protesting against the military coup in front of China Embassy.

WE DON’T WANT DICTATORSHIP.#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #Feb12Coup pic.twitter.com/5doii1iGS3

🇲🇲Save Myanmar 🇲🇲 (@Ellen4561) February 12, 2021

@Alicebrosel posted a photo of another protester dressed in Chinese costume holding a placard saying “Myanmar military dictatorship is made in China”.

Protesters in-front of Chinese Embassy in Yangon today, dressed up as Justice Pao, taiwan famous tv serious, to show Myanmar ppl rejection on how China has been supporting on Myanmar Juntas #ShameOnYouChina #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/Lk852IOmhY

— Yu Mo Win (@Alicebrose1) February 14, 2021

Unverified claims about China’s backing of the Myanmar coup started circulating soon after the coup, as all Chinese state-affiliated media outlets was using the phrase “a major cabinet reshuffle” to describe the military takeover of Myanmar’s civilian government.

After China’s blocking of the UN Security Council from condemning the military coup on 3 of February, and reports the daily flights between Kunming, China and Yangon and raised suspicions that China was sending experts and equipment to assist the military, the Chinese Embassy issued a statement on Facebook in response to the accusations of interference. According to the statement, the planes were regular cargo flights carrying seafood. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also said he had not heard of any arrangement involving the sending of experts and equipment to Yangon.

The answer from the embassy sounded so implausible to many that the term “seafood” went viral on social media. Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network highlighted the meaning of the viral usage “seafood” on social media.

Despite YGN Int’l airport is closed dubious flight from Kunming, China to Yangon have several flights daily. Chinese Ambassador said these flights carrying seafood from China for the embassy. So we change the name of Chinese embassy to a “seafood market”. #Burma @benedictrogers pic.twitter.com/Yovz7nEMwx

— Kyaw Win (@kyawwin78) February 17, 2021

Myanmar citizens are also concerned about the introduction of a Cybersecurity Bill by the military government that empowers authorities to block websites, remove content, and charge individuals for spreading misinformation. As China is the world’s top expert in controlling and censoring web traffic, many see the country as playing a key role in the Bill’s implementation. Twitter user @ruddy5702 said:

⚠CHINA SUPPORT MILITARY COUP ⚠

The military is about to enact new cyber law to control the people’s online usage. Basically, they don’t have technologies and tools to initiate that, and so that is where China will take part#ShameonyouChina #Feb16Coup#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/f81wAwXySV

— Ruddy (@ruddy5702) February 16, 2021

Photos showing “seafood” cargo arriving late night in Yangon went viral online:

Huge seafood arrived from China to Yangon! #ChineseCargoYGN #ShameonyouChina #militarycoupinMyanmar pic.twitter.com/NRPmlEWHli

— Nantigks (@nantigks) February 11, 2021

Myanmar citizens’ access to the internet has been periodically disrupted since the coup took place on February 1. However, starting on February 14, near-total internet shutdowns have been reported by digital rights organization NetBlocks between 1am and 9am:

⚠ Confirmed: A near-total internet shutdown is in effect in #Myanmar as of 1 a.m. local time; real-time network data show national connectivity at just 14% of ordinary levels following state-ordered information blackout; incident ongoing 📉

📰Background: https://t.co/Jgc20OBk27 pic.twitter.com/wWWVzb0c0G

— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 14, 2021

There is also speculation that the recurring power outages experienced in the country in the past few days are related to the testing and setup of Myanmar’s version of The Great Firewall. Language decoding issues faced by some Myanmar netizens have also reinforced this idea, as noted by user @blahbla69235153:

Here Sir, many people are already facing this problem. When we send message to MPT 7979 (Mobile Operators) in Eglish , they reply in Eng but when we send in Burmese they reply in Chinese. pic.twitter.com/KHFpLT1iww

— hninayewai (@blahbla69235153) February 16, 2021

Amidst criticisms from Myanmar and from the international community, Beijing’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, denied that China had been “informed in advance of the political change” and said that the current situation was “absolutely not what China wants to see.”

Written by Oiwan Lam