Recently, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, President of the Myanmar State Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, attended the Moscow International Security Conference in Moscow, Russia, and met with senior Russian officials. This is Hlaing’s second overseas trip since the February 1, 2021 military coup in Myanmar. Hlaing’s first overseas trip since the coup was to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in April 2021. He then made his second foreign trip to Russia. Through this, the level of Russia-Myanmar relations became clear.
It should be noted that Moscow’s relations with this unstable country in Southeast Asia have been around for quite some time. Burma (now Myanmar) gained independence from Britain in 1947, and since then the country’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, have been a major force in the conflict-torn country. Despite several years of civilian rule, the Tatmado was the sole ruler of post-independence Myanmar. Burma had good relations with the then-Soviet Union since the 1950s, and this trend has continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It should be noted however that although the two countries maintained good relations during the Soviet era, Burma/Myanmar was never ‘very important’ to Moscow. Russia has never interfered in Myanmar’s internal political process since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But Russia’s response sent a different message after the Tatmado overthrew Myanmar’s civilian government in a coup on February 1, 2021, and seized power. The West strongly condemned the coup, but Russia refrained from condemning it, and the Russian Foreign Ministry identified it as an “internal affair” of Myanmar. The coup sparked nationwide protests against Myanmar’s new military government, and the Tatmado used force to quell the protests. At least 70 protesters have been killed by the Tatmado in Myanmar since the coup. Russia has expressed concern over civilian casualties in Myanmar, but has also opposed Western proposals to impose tougher sanctions on Myanmar.
Within days of the coup, Russia’s policy towards Myanmar became clear. Most foreign diplomats stationed in Myanmar refrain from participating in the March 26 Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar, signaling their opposition to the military government. Representatives from just six countries attended the parade, with Russia sending the highest-ranking delegation. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin was present at the parade and he met with high-ranking Tatmador officials, including Hlaing, after the march. He described Myanmar as Russia’s “reliable ally and strategic partner” in Southeast Asia. Hlaing then presented Fomin with a Myanmar medal and a decorative sword.
After the coup, the Russian media (especially Russian state news agency RIA Novosti) portrayed the Tatmado as the only way to maintain the unity and peace of multinational Myanmar, and indirectly tried to justify the Tatmado’s seizure of power. In May, Myanmar Air Force Chief General Mong Mong Qiao visited Russia. There he visited Russia’s top helicopter exhibition, Helirasha, and discussed military technical assistance with top Russian officials.
In June, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a halt to arms supplies to Myanmar in light of the current situation, but 36 countries abstained. Among these countries are Russia and China. Hlaing visited Russia within days of accepting the offer. In Moscow, Hlaing met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, President of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, and Alexander Mikheyev, head of Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexporte. In an interview with Russia’s state news agency Tas, Hlaing thanked Russia for strengthening the Tatmado and commented that the “Russian-Myanmar friendship” is getting stronger by the day.
Hlaing is chairman of the “State Administration Council” set up by Myanmar’s military government and Myanmar’s head of state. Therefore, it was natural for him to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Russia. But there was no meeting between Hlaing and Putin. This is because Moscow is aware that the status of the country’s military rule is being called into question in the face of intense anti-government protests in Myanmar, and that is why Putin wants to maintain Russia’s international status by refraining from meeting Hlaing in person. . Moreover, according to international political analyst Samuel Ramani, Russia wants to ensure that Hlaing’s visit to Russia does not attract too much attention on the international scene, and that is why Putin does not meet with Hlaing.
But while Hlaing has yet to meet with Putin, Hlaing’s visit is likely to lead to a new arms deal between Russia and Myanmar. After meeting with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu Hlaing, he said Myanmar would further enhance the “tested” partners and “military-technical cooperation” between the two sides.
Interestingly, China, Myanmar’s northern neighbor, is considered the Tatmador’s main political-economic ally. The three countries/organizations that are considered the most important by Myanmar are China, ASEAN, and Russia. After the coup last February, Hlaing attended an ASEAN meeting and visited Russia, but did not visit China. Anti-government protesters in Myanmar see China as the main force behind the coup, and have attacked Chinese installations in various parts of the country during the protests. China is not satisfied with the current situation in Myanmar, and a Chinese diplomat commented that China does not want to see the current situation in Myanmar.
But Russia, a close ally of China, has reacted differently to Myanmar’s military government since the coup. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited Myanmar just two weeks before the coup. According to Western diplomats, the Tatmado had informed Moscow of the impending coup and that Moscow had expressed tacit support for the coup. Whatever the reality, Russia has been the most positive country in Myanmar’s military rule since the coup. The question is, what is the reason for Russia’s role?
First, the Tatmado has ruled Myanmar’s main power since the 1950s, so Moscow is essentially building its relationship with the Tatmado. Even now, the Tatmado is the only way to influence Moscow in Myanmar. Moscow has nothing to do with Myanmar’s political parties, civil society or ethnic rebel groups, and Russia’s socio-economic ties with the country are very limited. In this regard, if Russia is to maintain its current influence in this strategically important country, it has no choice but to cooperate with the Tatmado.
The current commander-in-chief of the Tatmador, Senior General Hlaing, is known to be a strong supporter of Russian-Myanmar relations. He has visited Russia six times so far, and is expected to have warm relations with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu. In 2020, he was a guest at the parade marking Russia’s Victory Day in Moscow. The Victory Day Parade is a very important event in Russia and one of the main tools of the Russian government to create a sense of patriotism among the Russian people. The Soviet Union, as part of the Allies in World War II, won the war against Germany at great cost, but Russia’s contribution to victory is now almost universally recognized in the Western world. That’s why Hlaing earned Moscow’s trust by attending this parade.