The South Asian country Myanmar, which has a population of almost 55 million people, as well as reserves of gas, precious stones and other resources, is quite interesting from the point of view of trade and investment. In addition, it has an important strategic position with access to the Andaman Sea of the Indian Ocean and to the land borders of the Asian giants, namely, China and India. It is not surprising that major world powers such as China, India and the United States want to include Myanmar in their sphere of influence. The Russian Federation also has certain interests in Myanmar.
Myanmar and the Russian Federation actively exchange high-level visits and develop economic cooperation. Russia supplies Myanmar with heavy industry and mechanical engineering products, and it imports local agricultural products and textiles. The two states are also successfully developing military and military-technical cooperation. Over the past decades, Myanmar has acquired dozens of units of combat aviation from the Russian Federation, such as Yak-130 aircraft, MiG-29 fighters, and Mi-35 helicopters. In January 2018, as a result of a visit to Myanmar by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Russian warships were granted the right to a simplified procedure for entering Myanmar ports. At the same time, Russia and Myanmar signed a contract for the supply of six multi-purpose 4+ Su-30SM fighters to Myanmar. Many Myanmar officers have received and are receiving training in Russian military universities.
Parliamentary elections were held in Myanmar in November 2020. Most of the seats went to representatives of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The election results annoyed the Myanmar military, which is a separate political force in the country. Generals have ruled the country for many decades and have their own “Union Solidarity and Development Party”. According to the results of the elections, representatives of this party won fewer seats than expected, and the Myanmar military said that fraud had taken place. They also expressed the opinion that the NLD has plans to appoint its members as the heads of the ethnical regions of Myanmar, and that this could lead to an aggravation of interethnic conflicts and the resumption of civil war, which with periods of intensification and de-escalation has been going on in Myanmar for more than 60 years, and is now considered to be over only formally.
On February 1, 2021, the military leadership of Myanmar removed President Win Myint and the leader of the ruling NLD party Aung San Suu Kyi from power. The leadership of the state fell to the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, General Min Aung Hlaing. According to Myanmar laws, the Armed Forces of the country have the right to take such steps in emergency situations, but the pro-Western media called the incident an illegal coup. The actions of the military were condemned by the United States, which immediately threatened the new Myanmar government with its sanctions. The coup was also condemned by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, other Western and pro-Western countries, and international organizations. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, expressed deep concern about the incident.
Russia did not condemn the actions of the Myanmar military. The close contacts of Myanmar’s military leadership, including Min Aung Hlaing personally, with Russian colleagues probably played a role, and his opinion on the results of the November elections seemed quite convincing to Moscow. In addition, having taken power into their own hands, the Myanmar military promised to hold new fair elections.
However, despite all the arguments of the Armed Forces of Myanmar, a significant part of the country’s population was dissatisfied with the military coming to power. Protests began, which were suppressed not only by the police, but also by the army.
The split over the events in Myanmar has affected not only the international community, but also the ASEAN countries. Thus, the new leader of the country, Min Aung Hlaing, was not even invited to the ASEAN summits held in October 2021.
It should be recalled that the ASEAN countries are largely dependent on two global competing forces, namely, China and the USA. And Singapore, which can be considered one of the most pro-American members of ASEAN, where even the bases of the US Navy and Air Force are located, played a significant role in the refusal to invite Min Aung Hlaing.
By the beginning of February 2022, according to reports, about a thousand people, including dozens of policemen, had been killed during the riots in Myanmar. Then the leaders of the ASEAN countries repeated their affront by refusing to invite a Myanmar representative to the next summit.
On February 24, 2022, the Russian military special operation began in the territory of Ukraine, which globally divided the world into two camps and dramatically intensified anti-Russian sentiments in the pro-Western part of the international community. Perhaps the growing pressure from the West has given an additional impetus to the rapprochement between Russia and Myanmar, who understand that they are in similar situations and should support each other.
In March, Myanmar received the first two of the six Su-30SM fighters acquired by the country under the above-mentioned contract from 2018 accompanied with Russian instructors and technicians.
In June 2022, the most recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) was held in the Russian Federation, and for the first time in the entire existence of this event, a delegation from Myanmar visited it. The Myanmar and their partners from the Russian Federation discussed such issues as, for example, the possibility of participation of Russian companies in oil and gas production in Myanmar.
Another promising area of Russian-Myanmar cooperation is tourism. Myanmar’s closest neighbor, Thailand, has long been a world tourist leader and one of the most popular destinations for vacationers from the Russian Federation. Myanmar has the same natural and cultural attractions and may eventually repeat Thailand’s success.
Also during SPIEF-2022, the possible use of the Russian Mir payment card in Myanmar was examined.
Since July 1, 2022, a visa-free regime has been introduced in Myanmar for citizens of the Russian Federation.
On July 10, 2022, Min Aung Hlaing paid a visit to Russia. In Moscow, the Myanmar leader met with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The parties agreed to continue developing military cooperation. Min Aung Hlaing also visited the cultural capital of the Russian Federation, St. Petersburg. On July 14, he met with the governor of the city Andrey Beglov, with whom he discussed the opening of the Myanmar consulate in St. Petersburg, as well as the organization of direct flights between the city and the international airport under construction in Yangon.
It can be concluded that relations between Russia and Myanmar are developing steadily and successfully, and the current difficult international situation rather contributes to their further strengthening, and not vice versa. It should be recalled that for many years Myanmar has been forced to balance between the United States and China. For China, its territory is one of the outlets to the sea and the opportunity to transport oil brought by tankers from the Middle East to the Myanmar coast. For the United States, the territory of Myanmar is an opportunity to restrict access to the sea for the PRC and get close to its borders, thereby creating a threat to Chinese security. Therefore, the two superpowers are constantly trying to strengthen their influence in Myanmar. And the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the country until February 2021, was forced to maneuver between Beijing and Washington, while constantly fearing to fall under the excessive influence of one or the other. Interestingly, when the course of the Myanmar leadership indicated a tilt towards Beijing, in 2016 there were terrorist attacks that initiated an ethnoreligious conflict, which was called the “Rohingya genocide.” As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi, previously very popular in the West, began to turn into a persona non grata there, and the threat of Western sanctions loomed over Myanmar. Thus, perhaps, the coup of 2021 benefited even Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party, thereby allowing her to leave the stage in time. Now Myanmar’s military leadership can start plotting its course anew.
In 2021-2022, the United States imposed a number of sanctions against the Myanmar leadership, and in March 2022, Washington officially recognized the “Rohingya genocide.” Therefore, Myanmar’s relations with the West are seriously damaged, and their future is in question. And China has not condemned either the Rohingya-related events or the coup of 2021, and now the PRC is Myanmar’s main economic and political partner. Nevertheless, the Myanmar leadership fears excessive dependence on its powerful neighbor and needs a force capable of balancing the influence of the PRC. Now that the military, which has long-standing friendly ties with Moscow, is in power in Myanmar, Russia, in their understanding, can become this force. Perhaps ties with the Russian Federation will help Myanmar find a balance in its foreign policy and receive all possible benefits from international cooperation while maintaining independence. Russia, in turn, will also benefit a lot from cooperation with Myanmar and other countries of the rich Southeast Asian region.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.