Russia Seeks Arms Market, Foothold in SE Asia in Courting Myanmar’s Isolated Junta

Analysts say Moscow is strengthening ties amid Western sanctions.
Russia Seeks Arms Market, Foothold in SE Asia in Courting Myanmar’s Isolated Junta Myanmar soldiers at a military skills competition in Russia, in an undated photo.
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Russia is strengthening ties with Myanmar’s increasingly isolated junta in a bid to grow its global arms market and expand its influence in Southeast Asian regional affairs, political analysts said Monday, following Moscow’s confirmation of plans to deliver military equipment to the nation.

Myanmar’s military seized power from the government on Feb. 1 in response to what it said was a fraud-tainted victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the country’s November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing 1,038 people and arresting 6,033, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Western governments have responded with sanctions, calling on the regime to hand back power to the NLD, but the junta has indicated it has no plans to step down and has been forced to shift its diplomatic focus elsewhere amid its growing status as an international pariah.

In June, the U.N. General Assembly voted not to sell weapons to the junta amid its brutal crackdown on unarmed civilians. The U.S. and 118 other countries voted in favor of the resolution, but 36 countries, including Russia, abstained.

Last week, Russian officials announced plans to deliver an air defense weapons system to Myanmar’s military. And on Monday, the head of Russia’s military technology department confirmed the aid will arrive in “a timely manner,” speaking to the junta’s General Staff General Maung Maung Aye, who is in Moscow leading a delegation to the International Military Technology Forum (IMTFA) 2021.

The announcements followed an Aug. 23 meeting between Gen. Maung Maung Aye and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin, during which the former pledged more cooperation between the two countries in military affairs and technology.

Meanwhile, junta spokesman Maj. General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy online newspaper last week that relations with Russia are “stronger than ever.”

Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a group of former military officers, said the military’s close ties with Russia and other powerful nations would allow the junta to “reap the benefits [it] deserves,” despite being ostracized by the West.

“That is why Russia, which is still a leader in military technology, is recognized as an ally,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday.

Seeking buyers

Other analysts pointed out that the increased ties work both ways and said that, as a leader in the global arms market, Russia would not miss out on the opportunity to sell weapons while the West sanctions Myanmar’s military.

“Russia wants to sell its weapons and at the same time opposes pressure from the U.S. and the E.U.,” said Dr. Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based Myanmar political analyst.

“When it needs to find buyers for its weaponry, it has to deal with a country like ours. On the other hand, the junta is forced to work with such an ally for its own benefit.”

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing traveled to Russia in June, visiting arms and military vehicles manufacturer Rosoboronexport, and meeting with company officials on military technical cooperation. Myanmar has been a major customer of Rosoboronexport for many years.

Myanmar accounts for only 0.07 percent of Russia’s exports, but its market for arms has grown in recent years. The value of arms, military-related equipment, and nuclear material exports to Myanmar grew from less than U.S. $8 million in 2014 to more than U.S. $115 million in 2020, accounting for 51 percent of all exports.

A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that Russia had recorded some U.S. $10.7 billion in arms sales to Southeast Asia from 1999 to 2018—more than any other country. Of that, Myanmar’s military bought U.S. $1.5 billion, the second most after Vietnam, the study said.

Investment opportunities

Analyst Dr. Sai Kyi Zin Soe said Russia’s interest in Myanmar is not limited to the weapons trade.

“It sees Myanmar not only as a major arms customer, but also as a strategic country for geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia,” he said.

“Additionally, while most foreign investors are leaving Myanmar, Russia seems to be considering expanding its investment there.”

Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin told the official Myawaddy TV in June that Southeast Asia is a key hub for global economic development. He noted the nation’s abundant natural resources and transportation opportunities, which he suggested could produce benefit for Russia in terms of both military affairs and geopolitical influence.

Zaw Pe Win, an economist, told RFA the junta expects to receive economic investment from Russia, which is seeking oil and mining opportunities.

“Russia, I think, is only interested in trading weapons and defense equipment, and investing in oil and the mining of metals,” he said.

According to a 2018 statement from the Russian Embassy in Yangon, Russian companies are currently operating a steel factory in Myanmar’s Shan state and engaging in oil exploration in the country.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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