Analysis

UN Vote Puts Spotlight on Myanmar-Belarus Connection

By The Irrawaddy 7 July 2021

When the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning the Myanmar coup, calling on the military to restore democracy, release political prisoners and end its violence, and urging UN members to “prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”, many pundits hailed it as a significant move.

All five countries bordering Myanmar—China, India, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh—abstained from the vote, as did Russia and 30 other nations. Among other ASEAN members, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei also abstained, while Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines voted in favor.

A single country voted against the resolution: Belarus, a landlocked European country bordering Russia.

Why? It is one of the countries that continue to sell arms and air defense capabilities to the Myanmar military.

Belarus’ arms exports to Myanmar were hardly under the radar. But Minsk’s conspicuous show of support at the UN has prompted activists and journalists to start digging and find out just how deep the relationship between the two militaries goes.

Sales of military hardware from Belarus to Myanmar did not end with the coup on Feb. 1. According to Myanmar activists, an IL-62 cargo plane belonging to Belarusian cargo carrier Rada Airlines was spotted at Yangon Airport on Feb. 10. Though no one really knows what was on the plane, many assumed it was being used to export weapons to Myanmar.

An IL-62 cargo plane belonging to Belarusian cargo carrier Rada Airlines was spotted at Yangon Airport on Feb. 10, 2021.

It was reported that Myanmar was the first country to buy Belarus’ Kvadrat-M surface-to-air missile system, a modernized upgrade of the Soviet-era 2K12 Kub.

In a recent report on Euroradio, military expert Yegor Lebedok said he believed Rada Airlines specialized in arms supplies—not from Belarus, but from third countries. The report noted that the airline had permission to operate its transport business in Serbia—another supplier of hardware to the Myanmar military.

Interestingly, a delegation composed of officers from the Myanmar Defense Ministry and some Myanmar businessmen recently traveled to Belgrade, where they are said to have looked into purchasing “heavy machinery”.

Warm welcome in Minsk

Over the past decade, the Myanmar military and its associated politicians have quietly built up a good relationship with the leadership in Minsk, including Belarus’ autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko. The closer ties are hardly surprising. As they have with senior Tatmadaw figures, the EU and other Western powers have imposed sanctions and travel bans on Lukashenko and his regime for violating the fundamental rights of citizens and the brutal repression of protesters.

In 2008 the countries’ militaries formed a joint commission on military technical cooperation, which has held annual meetings to discuss arms sales, manufacturing, technology transfer and training.

Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich visited Myanmar in December 2011, as the country was beginning to open up under the quasi-civilian government of U Thein Sein, a former general. The countries agreed to step up trade and economic cooperation, including in the areas of vehicle manufacturing and technology transfer. The same month, Myanmar received a visit from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-level visitor from Washington in many years.

In November 2014, Myanmar military commander-in-chief (and current junta leader) Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited Belarus, where he held a meeting with Lukashenko.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing holds talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in November 2014. / Myawady

“I was informed about the results of the meetings, talks and visits to Belarusian companies. I like your approach. Our dialogue is meant for a long-term perspective and we should follow this path no matter what,” the Belarusian president said as he welcomed the Myanmar delegation.

Judging from press reports in Minsk, Lukashenko sees value in cultivating a relationship with Myanmar given its strategic location.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing poses for a photo with Minister of Defense of Belarus Lt-Gen Yuri Zhadobin and party in Belarus in November 2014. / Myawady

“This contributes to the country’s economic growth and can also be useful for Belarus, as our country runs joint projects with Myanmar. There are very promising and big markets nearby,” the head of state was quoted as saying in an official press release.

“We have no closed topics in our cooperation. We are ready to develop relations with Myanmar in all areas: from regular deliveries of goods to your country to buying products made in your country which are not produced in Belarus,” the Belarusian leader said.

He added that Belarus was also ready to cooperate with Myanmar in the military-technical sphere, including the training of personnel. “We do not hide this fact, and your visit is the evidence of this,” Lukashenko said.

A Myanmar Air Defense Command delegation headed by Lt-Gen Tin Maung Win visits Belarus in February 2020. / vpk.gov.by

In 2015, U Khin Aung Myint, a former military officer who served as culture minister under the previous military regime, and as Upper House speaker during the U Thein Sein government, visited Belarus and also met with Lukashenko. U Khin Aung Myint reportedly told the Belarusian president, “We need such reliable partners as Belarus.” The Myanmar delegation visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), which produces military vehicles.

In late November 2017, the Joint Belarus-Myanmar Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation held its 10th anniversary meeting in Naypyitaw. The Belarusian delegation was led by Igor Demidenko, first deputy chairman of Belarus’ State Military Industrial Committee (Goscomvoyenprom). The Myanmar side was led by Deputy Defense Minister Rear Admiral Myint Nwe, according to an official Belarusian bulletin.

The official press release stated, “Igor Demidenko stressed the readiness of the Belarusian side to cooperate in a wide range of areas, including repair and modernization of armaments and military equipment, deliveries, as well as production of advanced military products with the possibility of transferring relevant technologies.”

In mid-February 2020, Lieutenant General Tin Maung Win, commander of Myanmar’s Air Defense Forces, visited Belarus. An official Belarusian press release stated, “The guests visited a number of defense companies [and] got acquainted with their capabilities for the development, production, repair and modernization of air defense systems.”

It is important to note that Myanmar is interested in Belarus’ air defense systems and has received assistance from Minsk on air defense projects, capabilities and development.

Moscow provides Belarus with an advanced air defense system in order to integrate the country’s systems into Russia’s own national air defense system, and this is an area Myanmar’s generals, who have forged close ties with Moscow in recent years, are interested in. It is no secret that Myanmar’s military leaders are wary of Western intervention, and in particular fear a seaborne invasion.

Even amid the Myanmar regime’s increased killings of civilians and other atrocities, Belarus and the junta have agreed to expand ties. On June 25, a week after Belarus voted against the UN resolution calling for a Myanmar arms embargo, Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolai Borisevich met in Minsk with Dr. Aung Moe Myint, Belarus’ honorary consul in Myanmar.

Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolai Borisevich with Honorary Consul of Belarus in Myanmar Dr. Aung Moe Myint in Minsk on June 25, 2021. / MFA

“The parties had a substantive exchange of views on ways of expanding and intensifying bilateral cooperation in various areas,” according to an official Belarus statement.


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