Arms and Allies: Comments on Junta Chief’s Russia Visit and Beyond

Three days after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar and condemning its military’s seizure of power, on 21 June 2021, the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing boarded on a special jet to Russia on a weeklong trip that would realign Myanmar’s foreign policy priorities amid growing post-coup isolationism. Though the said purpose of the visit was to attend the Moscow Conference on International Security, junta chief’s latest overture to Russia was indeed an elaborate arms shopping trip and a part of the regime’s desperate quest for global legitimacy and allies. While it may appear to the coup leader that the key to Kremlin’s heart is always through lucrative arms deals, developments suggest that Moscow’s reciprocation fell short of a full embrace.

In his meeting with Russian Defense Minister General Sergey Shoygu, Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing expressed his gratitude, saying, ‘Thanks to Russia, Tatmadaw has emerged as one of the strongest armies of the region.’ Russian military hardware, technology and training have been the lifeblood in Myanmar military’s modernization and diversification campaign that has started since Min Aung Hlaing assumed the position of Joint Chief of Staff in 2010. The outcomes of Min Aung Hlaing’s latest visit to Moscow in terms of arms purchase have not been disclosed. However, it was recently mentioned by the head of Russia’s AK Bars shipyard that an ASEAN country (possibly Myanmar) wants the company to build a patrol ship plant in that country and train its crew. Myanmar’s ‘notorious’ tycoon U Tay Za also flew in from Singapore, sat in meetings with regime leaders and was a part of Min Aung Hlaing’s entourage during the visit. Throughout the 2000s, U Tay Za’s business empire was integral to Tatmadaw’s plan to buy weapons from overseas while evading harsh sanctions from Western countries.

There are substantial reasons to assume that arms trade may account for a dominant part of the regime’s foreign policy reach out. Lucrative arms deals will be strategically used to buy silence or seek alliance of neighboring or influential countries. A country’s foreign policy is ideally shaped by the interests, values and aspirations of its people. However, in case of post-coup Myanmar, where the ruling regime stands at odds with the people’s interests, diplomatic outreach thrives on the trade of killing machines. Since domestic contracts for Russian arms companies have been slowly decreasing, Moscow is likely to exploit such opportunity to the fullest. India, a neighbor of Myanmar, is also likely to respond positively to such gestures considering that the country is seeking to boost its military export as a part of Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign and eyeing on a achieving a $26-billion defense industry, with US$5-billion defense exports by 2025. 

Having extensive arms deals with neighboring and odd ball regimes have already reaped benefits for the junta. The United Nations General Assembly’ June resolution on Myanmar can be considered as an example. Belarus was the only country to vote against UNGA’s call to “prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”. The stance of Belarus, another authoritative regime, may owe to the country’s defense ties with Myanmar. Belarus is one of the largest arms exporters in the world and ranked 19th in Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s list of top 25 arms exporter 2016-20. According to Justice for Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation accounts for 13 percent of total Belarusian arms export. Belarus and Myanmar, under the previous junta regime, formed a joint commission for defense tech cooperation. Myanmar was the first country to procure Belarusian Kvadrat-M SAM missile system. The Eastern European country’s arms factories were visited by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in 2014 and by a parliamentary delegation led by the speaker of former USDP hybrid regime Major General Khin Aung Myint (rtd.) in 2017. Following junta’s killing spree on March 27 (Armed Forces Day) which took more than 100 lives all over Myanmar, Belarusian state media has published propaganda calling the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement activists ‘terrorists’.

Tatmadaw’s extensive reliance on Russian arms industry has also prompted the latter to assume an unusually vocal role in support of junta regime following the February 1 coup. Russia maintained a policy of describing the military takeover as a purely ‘domestic event of a sovereign state’ and contributed significantly in diluting statements from the United Nations Security Council condemning the coup. Russian support for the regime made a glaring manifestation when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander V. Fomin, in full military uniform, attended Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day celebrations, received medal and a ceremonial sword as a gift from a regime and expressed hope of more robust military ties in coming days. Myanmar’s democratic reform in the early 2010s coincided with an elaborate modernization campaign of its military. Former President Thein Sein voiced the need to create what he described as a ‘World Class Tatmadaw’. Min Aung Hlaing has been at the helm of Myanmar’s military since the modernization campaign started. One of the major goals of this campaign was to diversify the sources of Myanmar’s weaponry, i.e., reduce the reliance on Chinese military hardware. China’s historic support for Myanmar’s communist guerillas and its existing liaisons with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) has always prompted Tatmadaw to keep a cautious eye on its reliance on Beijing. Its relationship with Moscow, on the other hand, has been free of such historic baggage. As a result, between 1999 and 2018, Myanmar’s import of military hardware from Moscow (US$ 1.5 billion) stands closely with its import from Beijing (US$ 1.6 billion).

Coup leaders’ shopping spree comes at a time when Myanmar economy has been on the verge of a major collapse due to post-coup unrest and impact of covid-19. The World Bank has made prediction that by the end of 2021, Myanmar economy is likely to contract by 10 percent, a sharp reversal of its previous estimation made in October 2020 that the country might see a 5.9 percent growth in its economy. According to the estimation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the country’s population living below poverty line has doubled, going up to 25 million from 12 million. Even before coup, average income for more than 83 percent of households have been halved. According to World Food Programme (WFP), more than 3.4 million people, mostly in urban areas, will be hungry by the end of this year. In Junta’s attempt to make the economy functional, private banks have been threatened with fines and nationalization. Severe cash shortages, however, have made regular banking operations barely possible. As the country’s legal economy is about to go through a significant shrink cancelling the economic gains made over a decade, Myanmar’s illicit economy is likely to get a major boost. Previous military regimes have also encouraged unsustainable resource extraction as the easiest source of revenue. This would undoubtedly lead to environmental degradation and conflict with local populace where these resources are located at. Narcotic trade is also likely to receive a boost. Thailand has already seen a surge in the influx of methamphetamine pills. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also released a warning in this regard.

Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar army has not fought a single battle against external aggressions. Rather, its heavy-handed policy towards the ethnic groups and refusal to accept federalization envisaged as one of the founding principles of the country, have plunged Myanmar into a perpetual civil war. The coup and subsequent unrest have displaced an estimated 230,000 people in Myanmar. Tatmadaw’s offensives have disrupted the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and made the region the fifth largest source of refugees in the world. So, the great question, however, lies not on where these arms come from, but on where these arms will be used. The people of Myanmar are always on the receiving end of Tatmadaw’s bullets and salvos. A country’s foreign policy and diplomatic maneuvers is supposed to bring investments, new technologies, peace and progress. Under Myanmar’s regime, one can expect nothing but death and destruction.

M.D. Amin
M.D. Amin
M.D. Amin is a Bangladesh-based journalist and independent researcher. He is also working as a Consultant to Shokoler Jonno Sushashon (Good Governance to All), a civil society organization. He has completed his graduation and postgraduation in cultural anthropology.