Commentary

Increasingly Isolated, Myanmar and Russian Butchers Embrace

By Aung Zaw 16 September 2022

At last, his wishes were fulfilled.

Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing held his first, and long-awaited, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Moscow-organized Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia’s main eastern provincial capital, last week.

Min Aung Hlaing and Putin at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum-2022 in Vladivostok, Russia on Sept. 9.

Min Aung Hlaing insisted Putin was “a leader of the world”, and praised the architect of the Ukraine invasion for bringing “stability” to the international arena. “And we would describe you not just as the leader of Russia, but also as a leader of the world, because you are controlling and organizing stability all over the world.”

Worshipping at Putin’s feet, he gushed, “With your help, the country is developing intensively… One can say that when you started to rule the country, Russia moved to a leadership position globally.”

So it is now official: Myanmar has joined the Russia camp. Myanmar’s traditional “active, independent and non-aligned foreign policy” was buried alive in Vladivostok.

Even before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia several times and Moscow sent a high-level military delegation shortly before the takeover on Feb. 1, 2021. Since then, it has only increased its deliveries of military hardware, cementing its status as a major ally and arms supplier of the Myanmar military. Myanmar, meanwhile, has publicly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the outset.

Myanmar can never ignore China, its giant neighbor, but the isolated Naypyitaw regime’s forging of a broader alliance with Moscow represents a fundamental shift in the country’s foreign policy.

During Min Aung Hlaing’s latest visit, the regime and Russian state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom signed a roadmap for further nuclear energy cooperation including the possible implementation of a modular reactor project in Myanmar.

Min Aung Hlaing (right) with Rosatom director general Alexey Likhachev after signing a nuclear cooperation roadmap on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia.

Myanmar already buys oil from Russia and at the forum, Min Aung Hlaing invited local businessmen to invest in the country, claiming—falsely—that it is now fully under his control. He also suggested replacing US dollars with China’s yuan, Russia’s ruble and India’s rupee for use in commercial and financial transactions.

The talks between Myanmar and Russia covered wider economic cooperation including direct flights between the two countries to boost tourism and the oil and gas trade. We will see whether such cooperation actually materializes.

The two countries’ relations moved into higher gear in recent months after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s brief visit to Naypyitaw in August. Myanmar and Russian leaders hailed the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations and Lavrov called Myanmar a “friendly and longstanding partner” when visiting Naypyitaw

At the Vladivostok forum, Putin became one of the first international leaders to meet Min Aung Hlaing since the military’s power grab in 2021. Seated next to the Russian president, Min Aung Hlaing remarked, “Our relations are developing positively.”

Back in Myanmar, his audience with a powerful world leader has raised Min Aung Hlaing’s profile in the hardline military camp. The state-run newspapers touted the success of the trip and showered him with praise, covering the event as if it was the news of the century. “Min Aung Hlaing is a leader who enables Myanmar to stand tall on the international stage,” crowed one mouthpiece.

As expected, the regime’s opponents and a majority of Myanmar citizens jeered at the claim. To most, Putin and Min Aung Hlaing are a match made in hell. Since the coup, Myanmar citizens have been on the receiving end of Russian jet fighters and helicopters, which the Myanmar military has used to attack not only resistance fighters but also civilians, including entire villages. Ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar are on edge over Moscow’s continuing delivery of military hardware and its order of six SU-30 multiple role fighter jets, two of which have been delivered.

To those in Myanmar, Putin and Min Aung Hlaing’s handshake in Vladivostok is a menacing sign and can only mean one thing: more trouble for the country.

The meeting is evidence of the Kremlin’s desire to counter its deteriorating ties with Western capitals, as well as Western sanctions, by pivoting towards Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where it is looking to sell oil and/or military hardware, and upgrade ties.

“No matter how much someone would like to isolate Russia, it is impossible to do this,” Putin told the forum.

Such words are music to Min Aung Hlaing’s ears. His regime also faces Western sanctions and increased isolation. Myanmar, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has been shunned from ministerial-level meetings and annual summits in its own region since last year. In a departure from its non-interference policy, the regional grouping has been speaking up on the escalating conflict in Myanmar. Putin’s backing will give Min Aung Hlaing confidence to defy the West’s “bullying”, tighten his control over the country and legitimize his rule.

Regime mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar’s Sept. 12 edition with a  front page story on Min Aung Hlaing’s return home from Russia.

Behind their mutual embrace and defiant posturing, however, Putin and Min Aung Hlaing share a common problem.

Putin faces increasing sanctions and wrath from the US and Western Europe. At the forum, the Russian president showed determination and defiance of the West. While the Russian economy hasn’t collapsed as many predicted, he faces enormous pressure from outside. This week, when Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan, Putin said he was aware of China’s “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine—an indication that Xi is unlikely to offer Putin more concrete support.

At home in Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing, too, faces greater pressure every day.

As his military resorts to ever more grave human rights violations and war crimes, Myanmar’s economy is in trouble, foreign investors have fled the country and most analysts anticipate a protracted civil war scenario.

In July, the International Court of Justice ruled that a landmark case accusing the Myanmar military of genocide against Rohingya Muslims can go ahead.

For all his talk, Min Aung Hlaing has neither taken full control of, nor restored a sense of normalcy to, the country.

To the contrary, local and international media and other observers agree that his regime is in fact losing territory to the armed resistance groups that have taken up arms against his rule.

Even former UN experts on Myanmar said in a recent analysis that revolutionary forces have effective control over 52 percent of the territory of the country. The regime is increasingly in defensive mode.

Putin and Min Aung Hlaing loudly reject the sanctions imposed on them, willfully ignoring the reasons for them. In the case of Russia, it was the invasion of Ukraine. As for Myanmar, the regime overthrew an elected government and has committed gross human rights violations, summary executions and war crimes against the civilian population and resistance forces.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent message to Putin was inspirational.

After Ukrainian troops swept through the northeastern region of Kharkiv, sending occupying Russian forces fleeing—and prompting Russia to attack civilian power infrastructure with missile strikes—he said: “Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as scary and deadly for us as your ‘friendship and brotherhood.’” He added: “History will put everything in its place. And we will be with gas, light, water and food… and WITHOUT you!”

Myanmar, too, can look forward to a day when it is happy again—to a Myanmar without Min Aung Hlaing, war criminals and thugs.

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