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Russia Seen Advancing SE Asian Ambitions Through Myanmar Generals

Myanmar's commander-in-chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing inspects officers during a parade to commemorate the Myanmar's 72nd Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2017.

Analysts say Russia is increasing arms sales to Myanmar’s military and steadfastly standing by Myanmar’s coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, an alliance they say will further Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions across Southeast Asia through future weapons sales.

Meanwhile, leaders of at least 10 of ethnic rebel groups have declared their support for the country’s anti-coup movement.

Anthony Davis, a security analyst with the Jane’s Group in Bangkok, said Moscow “very clearly” wants to further its ties with Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, through sales, primarily to its air force and, to a lesser extent, its army, while wanting to foster ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, a regional economic union.

“Russia has established a strong beachhead not just in Myanmar but in Southeast Asia via Myanmar more generally,” he said, adding he was not surprised Russia and China were backing a proposed ASEAN summit on the crisis.

“ASEAN is a body that they wish to have good relations and wish to influence in a way that is positive for them,” Davis said. “But I don’t think they have any more illusions about what ASEAN can achieve than is true of many states in the West.”

ASEAN has long been criticized as unable to act in a crisis, with member country leaders often citing the trade bloc’s mantra of noninterference in neighbors’ internal affairs.

Analysts said the 10 ASEAN members, largely one-party states and military-backed governments, deserved to be pilloried for their lack of moral backbone following the coup.

“This is a very significant test for ASEAN for whether it’s able to deal with a significant crisis in its own backyard,” said Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “China actually reasonably wants a degree of stability here.”

“Russia however will continue to be — when there is an authoritarian regime that pops up — Russia’s there to support it,” he said, adding that Russian media had trumpeted Moscow’s support for Hlaing as a defense of Myanmar democracy.

“ASEAN essentially is muddled in dealing with the same problems it usually has which is it can’t achieve anything without consensus and it’s not going to achieve consensus,” he said regarding the bloodshed in Myanmar. “I’m not very optimistic, no,” he said.

Military hardware is being displayed on Armed Forces Day, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021.
Military hardware is being displayed on Armed Forces Day, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021.

Russian-made weapons

Murg said Russia was moving forward on new arms sales, which was highlighted by the presence of deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin at the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw March 27, following a visit by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a week before the coup.

“Bringing someone at the level of deputy minister of defense certainly signals that Russia’s there and Russia’s going to continue supporting the regime in Myanmar,” he said.

On the night of the parade, Tatmadaw deployed airstrikes against ethnic Karen rebels, forcing more than 12,000 civilians to flee into the jungles on the Thai border, an attack that struck a nerve with the leaders of Myanmar’s roughly 20 ethnic insurgencies.

General Yawd Serk, leader of one rebel group, the Restoration Council of Shan State, condemned the attacks after an online meeting of 10 rebel leaders promoting a united front against Tatmadaw, telling reporters that military generals must be held accountable.

“I would like to state that the [10 groups] firmly stand with the people who are … demanding the end of dictatorship,” he told Agence France-Presse after the meeting.

Analysts said the prospect that Russian-made weapons were being used against civilians had aggravated tensions and anti-Russian sentiment among protesters and insurgents — who had stuck a truce with the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi — alike.

Davis said Russian-made Yak-130 fighter jets had been used by Tatmadaw in combat since 2019 and it was possible, they were used in the strikes on ethnic Karens, as they are designed for night attacks and are highly maneuverable at low altitude.

“They have a history of this sort of operation. It would have made sense to use them again in this particular strike,” he said. “What took place on the night of 27th to the 28th of March suggests strongly that they were Yak-130s.”

Ross Milosevic, a risk management consultant who conducts field research in Kayin State, also known as Karen State, said a variety of Russian-made air- and land-based weapons were also being used against civilians.

That included attack helicopters and MiG jets, truck-mounted heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which were being used to break up opposition roadblocks in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.

Milosevic said the military’s use of Russian and Chinese-made weapons had aggravated local sentiment and was leading to a consensus among insurgencies that a new deal needed to be struck with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to forge a united front against Tatmadaw.

At the same time, he said underlying mistrust among the ethnic groups must be dealt with before a treaty can be struck, potentially with the backing of Western countries and a joint army set up from the ethnic militias.

“Then involve the NLD (National League for Democracy) to provide a promise and a constitutional right of independence and autonomy for each individual ethnic state. I think you will find that they could all work together and push against Tatmadaw and the generals,” he said.