BANGKOK – When Moscow rolled out the welcome mat for the Commander of the Burmese Air Force, General Maung Maung Kyaw, it was a signal to the junta that Russian-made weapons will be sent to the nation of Southeast Asia, even as the international community sees it as an outcast after the February coup.
The Air Force chief’s trip to Moscow last month included a visit to HeliRussia, the country’s largest helicopter exhibition, and talks with Russian officials over the planned purchase of military equipment, according to Myanmar and the Russian media.
The gesture was also a manifestation of defiance by Russia, which continues to snub Western governments which have led international outrage in the wake of the coup and the junta’s ensuing crackdown on the wave of anti-coup anger. State that erupted across Myanmar.
The death toll among protesters following the coup stands at more than 860 this week, according to the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, a human rights group in Myanmar.
Not lost on observers based in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital, is the diplomatic lifeline Russia has thrown at the junta, giving it a veneer of international legitimacy that it has struggled to secure. even from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Russia had also joined with China in protecting the United Nations military regime as a permanent member of the Security Council.
The junta “jumped at the opportunity to have an important and militarily strong ally, especially in the West,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based think tank.
The Burmese military has also sought good relations with Vietnam, a longtime Russian arms buyer, and “there could be a club relationship with the three – Vietnam has not said a single word about it. coup, ”said Khin Zaw Win.
Other analysts say there could be a broader calculation behind Russia’s open arms, since Moscow has seen a steady decline in arms exports since 2010. Russia is still the main supplier of military equipment to Asia. Southeast, ahead of the United States, France and China. Myanmar, according to one observer, serves as a “gateway” to this lucrative market.
A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) finds that Russia’s arms trade in Southeast Asia, from 1999 to 2018, reached around $ 10.7 billion, followed by the United States in $ 8.2 billion, France at $ 3.5 billion, Germany at $ 2.9 billion and China at $ 2.5 billion. The trade is driven by Vietnam, home to Southeast Asia’s largest army, which accounts for 61% of Russian arms supplies, according to SIPRI, which tracks the global arms trade.
Myanmar ranks second after Vietnam, having purchased around $ 1.5 billion in military equipment from Russia during the period 1999-2018, accounting for 39% of its total arms imports, according to SIPRI. Russian arms exports to Vietnam amounted to $ 6.5 billion, with Malaysia buying $ 1.4 billion coming in third and Indonesia in fourth with $ 1.1 billion.
Russia’s close ties to the Tatmadaw generals, as the Myanmar Army is called, have come to the fore since Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief, staged the 1st February to overthrow the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy, which was preparing for its second term.
Russian-made military assets were on display on the morning of the coup as convoys of light armored vehicles rolled through the streets of Myanmar’s main cities to enforce the seizure of power.
Analysts say Russia thrives on arms sales to Myanmar because the military had limited options for decades when the country was subjected to multilateral arms embargoes for years as it was under the harshest grip of the country. its previous junta. These restrictions have been enforced by the United States, the European Union, Australia and Japan, among other arms producers.
“China, Russia, Belarus and several other states do not have such restrictions and have supplied Myanmar and will likely continue to do so even after the coup,” said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI. “These states can meet all of Myanmar’s equipment needs.”
In addition to boosting arms sales, which dominate Myanmar’s imports from Russia, support for the junta offers Moscow a way to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia.
“As the relationship develops, we can expect to see more military exercises between the Russian and Burmese armed forces, and an increase in visits by Russian ships to the country, which will allow Moscow to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, ”said Ian Storey, senior researcher at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank. “The Kremlin is keen to demonstrate that Russia’s turn to the east is not just a turn to China, but that Russia is a great power in the whole of the Asia-Pacific.”
The depth of these intimate ties was evident in Min Aung Hlaing’s engagement with Moscow before the coup. He has visited Russia six times, making it his most popular diplomatic destination. And it was during an interview with Russian media in June last year that Min Aung Hlaing dropped a broad allusion to his ambitions to enter politics following the general election held a few months later.
Just days before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing received Russian Defense Minister General Sergey Shoygu. They signed a deal for new weapons including Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and Orlan-10 E surveillance drones – the first time Russia exported them.
Min Aung Hlaing’s turn to Russia was seen by Myanmar-based analysts and diplomats as Tatmadaw’s move towards a diverse supply and a reduction in his dependence on China, the main supplier of supplies. arms of Myanmar. In the two decades from 1999 to 2018, China supplied Myanmar with $ 1.6 billion in military materiel, followed by Russia with $ 1.5 billion. The bulk of Russian supplies were to bolster Myanmar’s air power, with the purchase of Russian fighter jets such as the MiG-29, SDU-30 MK and JF-17.
“The coup provided Russia with another authoritarian friend,” Storey said. Russian President Vladimir Putin “will be happy that America’s efforts to promote democracy in the country have been undermined, perhaps fatally.”