Guest Column

Russia Plots Its Next Moves on the Myanmar Chessboard

By Bertil Lintner 5 April 2021

The presence of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin, dressed in his full colonel-general uniform, at the Armed Forces Day celebrations in Naypyitaw on March 27 has caused dismay in the country and raised eyebrows among many foreign observers. Even the Chinese, close allies of Myanmar’s military leaders, are usually more discreet than that. It has also been reported that on the day before the Feb. 1 coup, a group of Russians and Myanmar colleagues were having a party in Yangon, where the vodka flowed freely. Apparently they were celebrating the opening of a military high-tech multimedia complex in which the children of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have a financial interest. It goes without saying that they also toasted the coup that was going to be launched the following day.

Myanmar coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing greets Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin at the Armed Forces Day dinner in Naypyitaw on March 27. / Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s website

While Beijing has vital strategic interests in Myanmar—the only neighboring country that provides the Chinese with direct access to the Indian Ocean—distant Russia is more concerned about making money. With Western embargoes in place and a desire on the part of the Myanmar military policy to reduce its reliance on Chinese armaments, the country has over the past few decades become a lucrative market for the Russian war industry. Russia sold its first consignment of four MiG-29 jet fighters to Myanmar in 2001. That sale was followed by another ten MiGs in 2002. In 2006, the state-owned Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, now restructured as the United Aircraft Corporation, opened an office in Yangon. The Myanmar Air Force has also acquired at least nine Russian-made Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunships, as well as twelve Mi-17 transport helicopters. The Hinds were used during an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2012-2013 and in Kokang in 2015. Russia has also sold heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers to Myanmar, and Russian-made tanks and armored personnel carriers have been obtained through Ukraine.

Moreover, Russian military instructors have been spotted at a Myanmar airfield, presumably to assist in maintenance of the attack helicopters. Such training is not new however; probably as many as 5,000 Myanmar soldiers and scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s, more than from any other Southeast Asian country. In 2007, Russia signed an agreement to build a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar, but construction has yet to be started and may not ever materialize.

In June 2010, before the election in November that year which led to the formation of a quasi-civilian government led by ex-general Thein Sein, the military announced that they would no longer send personnel to Russia for training. The announcement was probably part of a new policy to open up to the West and—again, and now in a different way—lessen the dependence on China. But long after that became official policy, Myanmar military personnel were present at a number of military schools and training facilities in Russia, including the Omsk Armor Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy, and the Kazan Military Command Academy. Some were also serving as cadets with the Russian Air Force.

On the soft-power side, the Russian language is being taught at Yangon University of Foreign Languages and there is a Russian cultural center in the old capital as well. There may not be many people in Myanmar who are eager to study Russian, but Moscow’s schemes for closer links with Myanmar’s military leadership was helped when the West’s turned its backs on Myanmar in the wake of the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands Muslim Rohingyas in 2017. Russia and China have in their capacity as permanent members of the UN Security Council veto powers that have been used consistently to block any attempts to take action against the murderous Myanmar generals.

But Russia’s involvement in Myanmar cannot be explained solely in the context of making money. The erstwhile Soviet United was once a major power in Asia and also a bitter enemy of not only the United States but also China, which saw the leaders in Moscow as “revisionists” and “traitors” to the communist cause. The Soviet Union had a close alliance with India and pro-Moscow regimes were in power in Vietnam, Laos and, after the Vietnamese intervention in 1978/79, also Cambodia. North Korea was neutral in the rivalry between the world’s two most powerful communist nations.

All of that disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the beginning of Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule in Russia, which then became a separate country. It needed the firmer hand of his successor Vladimir Putin to restore some of the old glory, and now the Chinese became allies in common cause against the United States and its power in the Indo-Pacific region. Russian influence over its old allies has vanished, but Myanmar has become a willing new partner in Moscow’s plans for playing a greater role in regional affairs.

Myanmar’s relations with Moscow have had many ups and downs since independence in 1948. There was no shortage of Leftists in Myanmar in the 1950s, but neither of the two communist parties at the time was leaning towards the Soviet Union. The Communist Party (Red Flag), led by the firebrand Thakin Soe, was staunchly Stalinist. From his jungle camp in the Arakan Yoma, he denounced the new party chief Nikita Khrushchev for condemning Josef Stalin at the 1956 congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Thakin Soe also vowed to shoot down any Soviet airplane which flew over his territory. When Myanmar’s military government called the rebels for talks in Yangon in 1963, Thakin Soe made his entry accompanied by a team of uniformed young women and placed a portrait of Stalin in front of him on the negotiating table. The other, much stronger Communist Party of Burma (CPB) became Maoist and, after the 1962 coup, began to receive massive, military support from China. In line with Beijing’s policies, the CPB denounced the Soviet Union as “revisionist.”

Reflecting the limits of Soviet influence in Myanmar in the 1950s, Alexander Kaznacheev, a Soviet diplomat who defected in the summer of 1959 to the West from his posting in Yangon and later wrote a book titled Inside a Soviet Embassy, refers an odd character called U Ba Tin (no relation to CPB theoretician yebaw Ba Tin alias H.N. Ghoshal) as “or man” in the country. U Ba Tin was a popular lawyer, a devout Leftist—and a romantic poet. Shortly after the Soviets had launched their first Sputnik in 1957, U Ba Tin had married an attractive young village girl and showed up at the Soviet embassy in Yangon. According to Kaznacheev, U Ba Tin showed him and other diplomats a poem he had written in praise of the Soviet Union. It lauded the Sputniks as stars that were leading Myanmar towards communism. The theme was coupled with the idea of the man’s own wedding; he likened his young wife to a Sputnik who would lead him to a similar paradise.

Apart from the friendship with U Ba Tin, the Soviet diplomats did have some contacts with the Burma Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, which was seen as a kind of above-ground communist party. But it was obvious that they could not rely on Myanmar’s Leftists in order to maintain some degree of influence in the country. Relations were therefore good with the elected government of U Nu, who in November 1955 paid a visit to Moscow. Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin paid a high-profile return visit to Myanmar in December. Khrushchev promised to build a hotel on the shores of Inya Lake in the capital, a hospital in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi and to provide the prestigious Yangon Institute of Technology with new premises.

That did happen, but by and large the Soviet Union treated Myanmar with benign neglect verging on discreet sympathy both before and after the 1962 coup. The only major event in post-coup relations came in April 1973 when men loyal to the then imprisoned opium king Khun Sa kidnapped two Russian doctors at the Soviet-built hospital in Taunggyi. It was not until August 1974 that the doctors were released, and then through Thailand. Khun Sa’s men had told the Thais that the two doctors would be released unconditionally. But by strange coincidence Khun Sa was released shortly afterwards. What actually happened is hardly a secret: General Kriangsak Chamanan, the commander of the northern Thai forces, had been called in by Yangon to negotiate with Ronald Chang, Khun Sa’s uncle, for an exchange of prisoners.

That kidnapping incident marked a low point in relations between Myanmar and the Soviets, but Radio Moscow did maintain a Myanmar language service until the collapse of the union. It was always rather bland and had few listeners in Myanmar. They were therefore surprised when Radio Moscow in 1989 began broadcasting commentaries by Dr. Vasiliyev, a prominent historian, who called the 1988 pro-democracy movement in Myanmar “a genuine popular uprising against a feudal military system” and said that the military officers who ordered their troops to open fire on the students…were responsible for driving people into the streets to demonstrate.” Radio Moscow also featured interviews with prominent pro-democracy activists, among them Thakin Chit Maung, who warned that there “may be bloodshed” if martial law wasn’t lifted before the elections which had been promised for May 1990.

But that was during the glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. The Yeltsin years 1991-1999 showed minimal interaction between Myanmar and Russia. Then came the Putin era, and Russia began to show interest not only in arms sales and military cooperation but also in Myanmar’s oil and gas industry. Playing “religious diplomacy,” one of the first companies from the Russian Federation that became involved in Myanmar was one from the autonomous Russian republic Kalmykia, a Buddhist republic in European Russia. According to a report on Russian website Kommersant, on March 20, 2007, Kalmykia’s Kalmneftegaz “wins Burma’s Crude, Gas Tender on Religious Fellowship.”

But arms sales have been far more important for Russia’s central authorities than investment in the energy sector. In June 2013, Min Aung Hlaing paid his first of several visits to Moscow at the invitation of Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. A military cooperation agreement was signed in 2016 followed by a visit to Myanmar by Shoigu himself in January 2018. During talks with Min Aung Hlaing, Shoigu stressed that “Russia is set for development of partnership, strengthening of the armed forces’ combat readiness” and that the militaries of both countries “support regular contacts.” The Russian news agency Tass reported at the time of the visit that the two countries had agreed to “big plans for future cooperation.”

What that “future cooperation” will look like is far from clear in today’s, conflict-ridden Myanmar. There isn’t even a functioning government in power in Naypyitaw. Public anger with Russia runs deep after Fomin’s insensitive performance on Armed Forces Day—the same day that more than a hundred protesters were gunned down by the Myanmar military. And that animosity is not going to go away even if the coup-installed government manages to survive the current uprising against it.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades. He currently works as a correspondent for Asia Times. His views are his own.

 

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