From the Archive

Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing, Russia’s Putin and Their Ilk Must Not Prevail

By Aung Zaw 3 August 2022

Russia is a major supplier of military hardware to the Myanmar regime, and enhanced military-to-military ties, which began even before the junta seized power in February 2021, have only been stepped up since the coup. With the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Naypyitaw on Wednesday for talks with junta leaders, The Irrawaddy revisits this commentary originally published in March of this year, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, examining the implications of the junta and Moscow’s show of mutual support.

The generals who have engaged in brutal atrocities and applied a scorched earth strategy in Myanmar will surely be following the news from Ukraine closely. The immediate question that arises is, do they want Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invading army to succeed? Perhaps.

As the invasion of Ukraine was beginning, Myanmar, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), sounded decidedly out of step with the rest of the world when a spokesperson for Myanmar’s military council voiced support for Putin’s aggression, offering two reasons.

“No. 1 is that Russia has worked to consolidate its sovereignty,” he said. “I think this is the right thing to do. No. 2 is to show the world that Russia is a world power.”

Of course, this is garbage. The junta’s quick show of support for Russia’s aggression is hardly surprising; Russia is a major supplier of military hardware to the regime, and enhanced military-to-military ties have been cemented since the coup.

Moscow sent a high-level military delegation led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Myanmar two weeks before last year’s coup. Moscow knew of the coup in advance and promised to supply arms, training, hardware and surveillance technology to the regime.

Since the coup, the two sides have exchanged numerous visits. Indeed, the relationship has grown worryingly warm. However, this Russia-Myanmar friendship doesn’t include the Myanmar people.

For their part, the oppressed people of Myanmar loathe both Russia and China, and whoever else supports the regime.

On March 27 last year, the regime celebrated Armed Forces Day, which historically has marked the day the people took up arms against the occupying Japanese in the 1940s. On the same day, the regime’s forces slaughtered more than 100 people across the country, making it the bloodiest single day since the generals seized power less than two months earlier. By that point, the international community including most Western nations had long since condemned the military regime, but Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin chose to travel to Naypyitaw to attend the 76th annual Armed Forces Day commemorations.

Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing addresses troops during the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2017. / Cncds

Soon citizens, farmers, schoolteachers and children were bearing the brunt as Russian-made jet fighters and helicopters were deployed to drop bombs and fire missiles and machine guns at them. Many have died since the regime launched a brutal war against its own people.

Not only Russian but also Chinese-made weapons have killed many innocent people in Myanmar. They, too, are implicated in the post-coup human tragedy in Myanmar.

Like Putin and his army, Min Aung Hlaing and his soldiers behave like foreign invaders, but they do so in their own country. The regime faces strong resistance, encountering many form of protest as well as armed rebellion across the country.

A year after attempting to stage a coup, the Myanmar regime still does not control the country or the people.

Did Min Aung Hlaing underestimate the Myanmar people?

Since Russia launched its invasion, Ukraine’s people have displayed great bravery. This has been well noted in the international community; the reaction from the West has been tough and Russia is being cut out of the global financial system.

Both Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Putin have underestimated the people they seek to subdue, and the resistance to their aggression. Should Putin fail to assert control over Ukraine, Min Aung Hlaing’s “grand strategy” of bringing Russia into Myanmar’s political landscape after the takeover will seem as delusional as his coup plan itself.

He must be worried. Days after the invasion of Ukraine, after the spokesman expressed the regime’s stance in support of Moscow, top brass in Myanmar held a meeting to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on and consequences for Myanmar. The generals are worried about the West’s financial sanctions—Myanmar’s arms dealers have bank accounts in Russia—and the supply of hardware will slow. Since the coup, the West, including the US and the EU, has imposed stiff sanctions on the Myanmar military, state-owned companies and business cronies of the regime, but more needs to be done.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin (second from left) and General Mya Tun Oo (left), a member of the Myanmar military regime’s governing State Administration Council, attend the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2021.

At the meeting, it is understood that the generals were also curious about China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Details are sketchy but it seems they were mostly interested in China’s strategic goals, and how they—and future China-Myanmar relations—might be impacted if Russia botches its invasion of Ukraine.

In its public pronouncements, the Chinese government has urged all sides to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine.

Since the military takeover in Myanmar on Feb. 1, China has repeatedly insisted that the armed forces’ seizure of power from the democratically elected government is Myanmar’s internal affair, including at the UN Security Council (UNSC) and at Human Rights Council meetings. The Myanmar people dislike China and its stance toward the coup, just as they dislike Russia for the same reason. Since the coup, China has faced massive anti-China protests in Myanmar and boycotts of Chinese products.

China-backed factories in Myanmar have been torched and threats against China-backed gas pipelines issued. Beijing has voiced serious concern over the security of its pipelines; anti-junta groups in Myanmar have countered by saying that whether or not they are blown up is an “internal affair”, mocking China’s own rationale for blocking other nations’ attempts at the UN to condemn the military takeover.

In the meantime, the generals are likely to beef up security for Chinese interests and projects in Myanmar, and Min Aung Hlaing will do whatever is necessary to accommodate both Russia and China. At the end of the day, his aim is to rule the country with his blood-soaked hands, and he will make friends with either Russia or China in order to achieve this.

There is some pride at stake for Min Aung Hlaing in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: The general wants to show the people of Myanmar, and especially his opponents, that his allies are winners. If things go badly for Putin, the Myanmar people will feel vindicated and Min Aung Hlaing and his hardline thugs will feel they have attached themselves to the losing side.

Since the coup, Myanmar has quickly descended into chaos. As the human and economic costs of the long and bloody coup attempt mount it will only become more difficult for the regime to exert control and consolidate its grip on the country.

Myanmar military coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing greets Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin and delegation members during the Armed Forces Day reception in Naypyitaw. / Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing website

Min Aung Hlaing’s regime sees Myanmar’s citizens as enemies; therefore, its coup has failed. Lacking legitimacy, the regime in Myanmar today is a pariah. If murderer-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his military are allowed to win, the Myanmar people will forever remain slaves, subject to tyranny.

Dark days lie ahead for both Ukraine and Myanmar. The resistance in Ukraine has already earned the admiration of the entire world, just as the efforts of Myanmar’s various resistance forces, including groups engaged in armed rebellion, have surprised many at home and abroad.

Knowing they would be fired upon, a group of Ukrainian soldiers guarding a military facility on Snake Island in the Black Sea told a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself”. In Myanmar last year, protesters, faced with rows of soldiers and tanks, exclaimed: “Fuck the coup!”

We cannot allow Min Aung Hlaing or Putin to succeed, or let one feel vindication in the success of the other.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar in Revolt as People Choose to Fight the Brutal Regime

Will ASEAN Invite Myanmar’s War Criminals to Its Summit?

Myanmar Junta Boss Min Aung Hlaing’s Delusions of Grandeur