By Narayanan Ganesan*
Myanmar’s coup leader and de facto head of state, General Min Aung Hlaing, made two visits to Russia in 2022. These visits are the culmination of bilateral ties which have increased since 2014.
Relations between Myanmar and Russia are centered on the military. Myanmar has long relied on Russia for post-graduate training of its military officers, especially those in the air force. While China has proven to be a great power ally at a time when Myanmar was subject to widespread international sanctions, which have been imposed intermittently and to varying degrees since 1962, better relations with Russia offer the military junta the opportunity to interact with international leaders and gain international recognition.
Ties with Moscow also allow the army to diversify its arms purchases away from China, its traditional supplier of development aid and armaments. The military is wary of China’s support for ethnic Wa, Kokang and Kachin armed groups, which control large swaths of territory along the long China-Burma border.
Myanmar has come to rely on Russian fighter jets, helicopters and air defense systems to engage armed ethnic groups that have stepped up attacks on the military. The Kachin, Karen and Karenni ethnic armed groups trained and fought alike alongside the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) – the armed wing of the National Unity Government. Russian fighter jets and helicopters, considered superior to Chinese alternatives, were regularly used in adverse combat conditions.
It is not uncommon for sanctioned regimes to assist each other in advancing their common development and security interests. North Korea and Iran, subject to a series of sanctions, have done so historically. Russia and China, Myanmar’s security and economic bosses, are threatened by Washington and Western countries. Despite their rivalry from 1970 to 1990, they enjoy a more productive bilateral relationship. Russia enjoys cordial relations with India and Vietnam, its Cold War partners.
Sanctioned regimes with converging interests can circumvent the deleterious effects of sanctions by sourcing development and other needs from isolated regimes. But forming a coalition of sanctions-compliant states to strengthen sanctions enforcement risks alienating countries not aligned with the United States and European Union. This limits the kind of economic responses available to the international community.
Sanctions against Myanmar are complicated by China’s good relations with Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. The attempt to isolate China by the United States and Europe would be difficult because many Asian countries have strong trade relations and share development interests with Beijing.
ASEAN was highly critical of the military coup in Myanmar and isolated the military regime by excluding its officials from ministerial meetings. ASEAN’s collective stance against the coup in Myanmar is strongly supported by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Member countries have also reduced their trade and investment in Myanmar. But the Indonesian inspiration Five Point Consensus Plandesigned in April 2021 to contain political violence and bring Myanmar back to a modicum of normality, was pushed back by the military junta.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempts to engage the Myanmar regime as President of ASEAN have been reduced to nothing and Indonesia seems ready to support the status quo when it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship. The UN secretary-general’s special envoy, Noeleen Heyzer, has also failed in her attempts to engage all parties, including former state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Malaysia is Myanmar’s most outspoken critic, openly dealing with the shadow government of national unity. But ASEAN has little influence over Myanmar’s policies toward Russia. Singapore was branded unfriendly by Russia when it openly criticized its war in Ukraine, Indonesia continues to have cordial ties with Moscow, and Malaysia bought a Russian plane in August 2022.
China and Russia can collectively help Myanmar with continued development, infrastructure and military aid to help offset the effects of international sanctions. This means that ASEAN can do little to prevent Myanmar-Russia relations from developing, even if their relationship bodes ill for Southeast Asia.
*About the author: Narayanan Ganesan is a professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum