April 22, 2021

Russia Plans to Strengthen Old Ties with Myanmar Junta

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Russia’s appetite for influence and lucrative arms sales in Southeast Asia has been whetted by the latest coup in Myanmar, where isolated generals remain distrustful of China but still require allies on the United Nations Security Council.

China’s investments had boosted in Myanmar under the now-deposed civilian government effectively led by former opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military, also known as Tatmadaw, benefitted through state owned enterprises brought under its control before Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won historic 2015 elections.

However, relations between junta leaders and Beijing have long been strained over Chinese interference across their common border – an existential threat not shared with Russia – and Beijing’s assistance to long-running ethnic insurgencies, including the sale of weapons to rebels.

Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Russia and China are both maneuvering to protect their vested interests in Myanmar.

Russia and China used their power in the Security Council to water down the world body’s response to the coup, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

China labeled the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” while Russia called it a “purely domestic affair,” and, according to The Irrawaddy, a news site, even asked the international community for “practical assistance to the new authority of Myanmar.”

That was despite the message from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said he would do everything in his power to pressure Myanmar and “make sure that this coup fails.”

Guterres has also consistently slammed the repression and violence inflicted upon protesters.

Numbering hundreds of thousands, resistance groups have held nonviolent protests, marching through cities, promoting boycotts and labor strikes in response to the Feb. 1 coup and the Tatmadaw’s refusal to accept the November elections results.

The United States, Canada and New Zealand have already imposed sanctions on military leaders and pressure is mounting on the European Union, Australia and Japan to follow suit.

“Faced with the threat of sanctions from the West, Myanmar sees Russia as a natural ally in thwarting Western pressure and in managing regime consolidation,” said Mohan Malik, visiting fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defense Department institution in Washington.

“Given China’s tendency to extract maximum concessions for its backing of the junta, Russia plays an important role as a counterweight to China both as an arms supplier and as a permanent member of the UNSC,” he said, referring to the U.N. Security Council.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Myanmar spent $2.4 billion on weapons between 2010 and 2019, including $807 million on Russian-made arms and $1.3 billion on Chinese munitions, often criticized as faulty.

Moscow has faced growing criticism at home from its own Muslim community incensed over Myanmar’s alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, blamed on Min Aung Hlaing.

Protests have erupted in Grozny, where Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov warned he would oppose policies that support the Myanmar junta and has reportedly found support among Muslims in the neighboring Caucasus regions and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

Analysts, though, said Moscow’s appetite for access to railroads, seaports and trade routes and its liking for barter deals, which appeals to the junta, would counter any opposition at home.

“The most interesting thing I think we see in the Russian case is some of the frankness on the Russian side about what this means for the future of Myanmar-Russian relations,” Murg said.

“You see defense contractors, others, basically licking their lips saying this is a new day, there are a lot of new opportunities for Russians in a post-coup Myanmar,” he said.


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