Myanmar leader shops for support, weapons in Moscow

With both regimes increasingly isolated on the world stage, Myanmar’s top general has been in Moscow to meet senior officials from Russia’s defence ministry, pledging deeper military ties and cooperation on nuclear energy.

“They frankly exchanged views on further promotion of existing friendly relations and military-technological cooperation,” Myanmar state media reported, following a meeting between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

Russia has emerged as one of the most important backers of Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a coup in February 2021, despite a 2020 election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The new regime has little international legitimacy and has struggled to control a country that erupted first in mass protests and then armed resistance against its rule.

Even Russia has avoided giving formal recognition to the military as the government of Myanmar, agreeing to allow the ambassador appointed by the overthrown government to keep his seat at the United Nations. And while Min Aung Hlaing has made multiple trips to Russia since the coup, he has not been granted a much-coveted audience with President Vladimir Putin.

But even as many Western nations have imposed sanctions on the military, its leaders and business interests, Russia and China have continued arming the regime, even as it turns its weapons on its own civilians, killing more than 2,000 people in less than 18 months.

“The Putin regime is aiding and abetting the Myanmar military’s war crimes and crimes against humanity, which it is committing on a daily basis with total impunity,” said Khin Ohmar, chairperson of human rights organisation Progressive Voice.

One of the most crucial pieces of support has been to the regime’s air force, whose commander is also part of the delegation in Russia. The military is facing fierce resistance from newly formed anti-coup armed groups, known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), as well as more established ethnic armed organisations, which have fought for political autonomy for decades.

While these allied groups have surprised many analysts with their battlefield victories since the coup, none has warplanes, so the military’s air dominance gives it a distinct advantage.

Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst, says the “military’s current counterinsurgency campaign relies critically on Russian and Soviet-era air frames” for attacks, supply lines, evacuations and troop transport.

“Without a reliable supply of spare parts, air-launched munitions not produced in-country, and some training assistance, the air force would soon be in serious trouble,” he added.

Civilians forced out

The UN says some 700,000 people have been forced from their homes as a result of the fighting since the coup, with Min Aung Hlaing vowing to “annihilate” the military’s opponents.

Earlier this month, local media outlet The Irrawaddy reported that two of six promised Russian Su-30 fighter jets arrived secretly in Myanmar in March.

On Thursday, Radio Free Asia reported that military helicopters opened fire in Tabayin township in Sagaing region, a PDF stronghold, forcing 4,000 civilians to flee from 15 villages.

In a recent report, Amnesty International said it documented eight air strikes targeting villages and a camp for internally displaced people between January and March of this year in Kayah and Karen states, where prominent ethnic armed groups operate.

“In almost all documented attacks, only civilians appear to have been present,” the report said.

Amnesty says the military has used Russian MiG-29s and Yak-130s, and Chinese F-7s and K-8s.

“Indiscriminate air strikes are a key tactic of the illegitimate junta, as it wages a nationwide campaign of terror. The junta uses Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships to attack the people of Myanmar and raze whole communities,” said Ohmar, accusing Russia of profiteering from atrocities.

Davis says Russia “has been the main beneficiary” of the military’s efforts to avoid over-reliance on China “particularly in terms of sales of military aviation”. He said this pattern of diversification began more than a decade ago.

Myanmar sources much of its weaponry from Russia and China [File: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA]

“Since the coup, perennial suspicions over growing Chinese ambitions in Myanmar in the upper echelons of a now embattled military have only gone to underscore the benefits, political, military and economic, of a closer relationship with Russia,” he said.

The Myanmar military also caused a stir by claiming Min Aung Hlaing discussed the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” during a meeting on his trip with Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear energy corporation, which also oversees nuclear weapons.

But Guillaume de Langre, a Myanmar energy expert and former government adviser, dismisses talks of nuclear energy as unrealistic.

“Myanmar doesn’t have a single nuclear scientist. So, either Russia is willing to build and operate power plants and the full supply chain, from fuel to waste, or Myanmar has to spend the next decade training nuclear scientists,” he said.

De Langre also argues the coup “put the power sector on a highway to bankruptcy” and the military regime “doesn’t have much credibility as a buyer or as guarantor of the security of infrastructure projects”.

ASEAN defence meeting

Min Aung Hlaing’s week-long visit – state media reported he returned to Yangon on Saturday night – comes at a time when the military finds itself increasingly isolated, and with Russia facing an international backlash over its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

The Myanmar military regime, known officially as the State Administration Council (SAC), on Wednesday expelled the United Kingdom’s top diplomat after he refused to present credentials to Min Aung Hlaing and sought to downgrade his status from ambassador to charge d’affaires ad interim.

The UK’s defence attaché for Myanmar tweeted that the regime was moving “further into the diplomatic wilderness”.

Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), long known for its policy of not interfering in internal affairs, has given the SAC the cold shoulder, refusing to allow Min Aung Hlaing or his foreign minister to attend high-level summits after the regime’s failure to make progress on a jointly agreed five-point plan to address the crisis.

But some would like to see more action, including the exclusion of the regime’s defence minister, who has been allowed to continue attending ASEAN gatherings.

This month’s ASEAN counterterrorism meeting is to be co-hosted by Russia and Myanmar and will start in Moscow on July 20.

“It is absurd that ASEAN is allowing the aggressor Russia and the terrorist Myanmar military to co-chair a counterterrorism meeting, which will only fuel their deplorable acts of terror,” Ohmar said, urging democratic nations to boycott the event.

Australia and New Zealand have already pulled out of the meeting, but Japan, South Korea and the United States have not yet made their decisions public, despite all three imposing sanctions on Moscow.

Myanmar’s military is likely to politicise the meeting.

During a previous virtual meeting in December, the military included a session accusing its political opponents of “terrorism”, according to emails from Australia’s Department of Defence, which were obtained in a freedom of information request by campaigning group Justice for Myanmar.

“I urge their governments to … withdraw from that meeting and all future meetings with the Myanmar military junta,” Ohmar said.

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