Guest Column

Russia’s War in Ukraine Poses Problems for Myanmar Military

By Bertil Lintner 4 May 2022

Russia’s war against Ukraine is bound to create a crisis for Myanmar’s military and its arms procurement programs. Both Russia and Ukraine have been among the main suppliers of military hardware to Myanmar, but that is bound to change. Ukraine, a country now ruled by a democratic government supported by the West, will not like to be seen as a supporter of a brutal military dictatorship in Southeast Asia. And Ukraine, too, now needs to rebuild and strengthen its arms industries in order to support and supply its own armed forces who are engaged in a war with Russia that may not end anytime soon.

That said, Ukraine’s role as an arms exporter to Myanmar was never as significant as Russia’s. However, according to the United Nations Independent Fact-finding Missions of Myanmar, since 2015 Ukrainian entities have sold BTR-4 armored personnel carriers, MMT-40 light tanks and 2SIU self-propelled howitzers to Myanmar, and have even looked into the possibility of those weapons being manufactured jointly with Myanmar’s defense industries. Ukrainian-produced BTR-4s were seen in Yangon both before and after last year’s February 1 coup.

The main suppliers, the fact-finding missions say, were Ukroboronprom and Ukrspecexport, Ukraine’s two main arms producers. Asked by the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle last year on August 27 if they would stop cooperating with the Myanmar military post-coup, a spokesperson for Ukroboronprom replied that they export war material “in accordance with Ukrainian law and international obligations” and that the military technical cooperation agreement, which was signed in 2015, was still valid under the new junta. But that agreement may end soon, and in any case there is no way Ukrainian companies would be able to ship weapons to Myanmar under present circumstances.

Russian arms imports are far more important to the Myanmar military and soared in the years before the invasion of Ukraine. The agreements with Russia were part of an effort to offset the previously heavy dependence on China, which was seen by high-ranking Myanmar military officers as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. In addition to Russia being the source of MiG-29 fighter jets, Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, transport helicopters, Yak-130 ground attack aircraft and light armored vehicles, over 7,000 Myanmar military officers and military-connected scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s. They can be found at the Omsk Armour Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy, and the Kazan Military Command Academy, while some are serving as cadets with the Russian Air Force. Days before last year’s coup, Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Myanmar to finalize preparations for the delivery of Russian-made radar equipment, PantsirsS1 surface-to-air missile systems, and Orlan-10E surveillance drones.

The friendship continued even after the coup. Russia’s deputy defense minister, Alexander Fomin, had private talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in late March last year and was guest of honor at the Armed Forces Day celebrations in Naypyitaw on March 27. Russia’s state-run Tass news agency quoted Fomin as saying that Myanmar was “a reliable ally and a strategic partner of Russia in Asia.” In a video shown on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV, Fomin was seen shaking hands with Min Aung Hlaing after having received a medal and a ceremonial sword from the coup leader.

In June, Min Aung Hlaing flew to Moscow where he did not meet Russian strongman Vladimir Putin but held talks with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council. Reuters reported on June 21: “Defense ties between the two nations have grown in recent years with Moscow providing army training and university scholarships to thousands of soldiers, as well as selling arms to a military blacklisted by several Western countries for alleged atrocities against civilians.” During his visit to Moscow, Min Aung Hlaing also attended a religious ceremony at the Myanma Theravada Buddha Vihara Monastery in Moscow, to which he and his family are among the donors. The monastery is located 14 kilometers east of downtown Moscow and was opened on 1 July 2015 to serve Myanmar military officers undergoing training in Russia.

The Korean People Army’s (KPA) Chief of General Staff General Kim Gyok Sik and General Thura Shwe Mann sign a MoU at the KPA’s Ministry of Defense in Pyongyang on Nov 26, 2008.

In early September, Min Aung Hlaing’s deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win, traveled to Moscow together with the Sitagu Sayadaw, once a well-respected Buddhist leader and now a puppet of the military. The occasion was to attend the closing ceremony of the 2021 International Army Games, an annual Russian military sports event organized by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The 84-year-old monk stayed at the Myanma Theravada Buddha Vihara Monastery while photos published in the junta’s mouthpiece, the Global New Light of Myanmar, showed Soe Win sitting together with senior Russian military officers watching what was called “a competition of tank squads from the Russian Federation, China, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan.” Future arms deals were also most certainly on the agenda.

Given the close relationship between Moscow and Naypyitaw, it is not surprising that Myanmar’s military leaders have sided with Russia in the conflict in Ukraine, as junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did in an interview with the Myanmar service of Voice of America on February 24: “No. 1 is that Russia has worked to consolidate its sovereignty…I think this is the right thing to do. No. 2 is to show the world that Russia is a world power.” On February 27, Myanmar Alin, the Myanmar-language version of the Global New Light of Myanmar, published a two-page commentary titled “Lessons from Ukraine for those who haven’t learned from history” by a writer using the pseudonym ‘Myint Myat’. The article referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “puppet of the West”, while Putin was praised as a “visionary leader” who had had the “foresight to quietly build up his country’s military and economic strength.”

But such shows of support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may have no impact on a desired, continuous supply of military hardware from Russia. Since the invasion, Russia has become subject to economic and financial sanctions including the exclusion of several major Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging transfer system, with the only exception being payments for energy imports. Those restrictions will make it almost impossible for the Myanmar military to pay for Russian arms purchases. Nor is Russia likely to accept barter deals similar to those that the Myanmar military had with North Korea, a major arms supplier in the early 2000s: rice for guns.

Some outside observers have speculated that China will fill the gap, but Chinese arms exporters also want to get paid in cash, and hard currency is in short supply in crisis-ridden Myanmar. Chinese credits and loans may make up for that, but then there is the perennial question of dependence on China, which the Myanmar military for a long time has tried to reduce. Opening up the country and normalizing relations with the West in 2011/2012 was an outcome of that policy, and so were the efforts to diversify arms purchases by reaching out to countries such as Russia and Ukraine.

At this crucial juncture in the Ukrainian war and with Myanmar facing bankruptcy, the North Koreans are reported to have returned, and that will make it possible for the Myanmar military to, once again, use a barter system to keep the guns flowing into the country. According to well-placed inside sources, cordial relations between Pyongyang and Naypyitaw were actually revitalized as early as shortly after last year’s coup — and that relationship was made public in a curious article in the Global New Light of Myanmar on April 17 this year. The headline read “Foreign embassy families participate in Thingyan festival at Yangon Mayor’s Maha Thingyan Pandal.” But the text, and the photo, that was published under the headline, showed only one such group of “foreign embassy families”: The North Korean ambassador Jong Ho Bom and his companions who, according to the paper, were “cordially greeted” by Soe Thein, the junta-appointed Chief Minister of Yangon Region. At the time of his appointment in February this year, Soe Thein was also the deputy managing director of the military-owned conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). He has also served as the Defence Ministry Auditor General, so he is a person well-versed in the art of striking arms deals with foreign countries.

It is still not certain exactly what shape the renewed military relationship with North Korea will take. Missile development is one area that has been suggested by sources. Relations between Myanmar and North Korea were cordial until October 1983, when North Korean agents detonated a bomb in Yangon, killing 18 visiting high-ranking South Korean officials, as well as three Myanmar citizens. Contacts between Myanmar and North Korea resumed in 1993 with a series of secret meetings between diplomats from both countries in Thailand’s capital Bangkok. In June 1999, the Director of Procurement of the Armed Forces visited Pyongyang, followed by another secret trip in November 2000. In July 2003, a group of technicians from North Korea was seen at the Monkey Point naval base in Yangon, and aircraft from North Korea’s national airline Air Koryo were observed landing at military airfields in central Myanmar.

The official re-establishment of ties came in April 2007. Confirmed arms shipments from North Korea to Myanmar were first limited to conventional weapons and technology transfers, including a major purchase of 130mm Type 59 field guns in 1999. It was also confirmed that North Korean tunnelling experts arrived in June 2006 at the new capital Naypyitaw, where the country’s military government is reported to have built an extensive underground bunker complex. In 2008, Myanmar took delivery of 30 units of 240-mm truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems from North Korea, weapons that were first used in the war in Kachin State in 2012 and later, in 2019, against the Arakan Army in Rakhine State.

In November 2008, a high-level Myanmar delegation led by General Shwe Mann, then number three in Myanmar’s military hierarchy and now an opposition politician, visited North Korea where they were taken to see defense industries and radar stations and expressed interest in buying radar systems and surface-to-air missiles, as well as more sophisticated artillery from Pyongyang. There were also, at that time, unexplained visits by North Korean freighters to Myanmar ports, which raised suspicions of potentially more sophisticated arms deliveries. It is now clear that those shipments were connected to Myanmar’s secret missile programs. Myanmar began receiving ballistic missile technology from North Korea in 2008, and over 20 Korean missile specialists were in the country until early 2015.

Most of the raw materials for the missile project were produced in Myanmar, with some parts imported from North Korea via China, and with North Korean specialists providing expertise. None of the Myanmar officers involved in the projects spoke Korean, but some of the North Koreans, who were in Myanmar for years, are said to be fluent in the Burmese language. While they always kept a low profile in Myanmar, it was not unusual to see them dining at the Pyongyang Koryo restaurant, a North Korean eatery in Yangon that was eventually closed in 2018. It is uncertain whether some of them have come back since the coup, but technology and know-how are certainly being transferred, the sources say. It is also known that 31 Myanmar military technicians were sent to North Korea for a two-month training course in 2015, well after Myanmar’s then President U Thein Sein had announced in 2012 that the country had severed relations with North Korea, so despite official assurances, military-to-military relations were never completely severed.

Myanmar’s military partnership with North Korea was one of the most important issues that prompted the United States and the West to change its Myanmar policy from that of isolation and boycotts to engagement in the early 2010s. Normal relations could only be restored if Myanmar severed its relations with North Korea — and when that was done under ex-general U Thein Sein’s presidency between 2011-2016, Myanmar changed from being an international outcast to becoming the darling of the West. Last year’s bloody coup has set the clock back to where it was during the darkest years of absolute military rule, and with it has come the imposition of new sanctions imposed by the West.

It is, as always, difficult to predict what the Myanmar military intends to do when it comes to arms purchases. There may be no doubt that China will take advantage of the military’s predicament and offer everything and anything in providing transfers and financial assistance but  — given the traditional Sinophobic mindset of Myanmar’s military leaders — it is plausible to assume that they are looking for alternatives. Seen in the context of the Ukrainian war and Myanmar’s severe financial difficulties, it would make sense for the generals to turn an old trusted ally: the North Koreans. That is already happening, and we can only wait and see to what extent the generals are prepared to go in that relationship — and how the outside world is going to react to a renewed alliance between Pyongyang and Naypyitaw.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

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