Russia's Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin (L) being presented with a sword by Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on March 26. Photo: AFP

India did the right thing by dissociating from other “Quad” members to join the defense attachés of Myanmar’s neighboring countries and attend the parade on March 27 in Naypyidaw to mark Armed Forces Day – although pro-American proxies in the media have voiced some misplaced indignation. 

Evidently, New Delhi attaches high importance to security cooperation with Myanmar. This reflects a realistic assessment that the Myanmar military remains an enduring factor in regional politics and current history. A “boycott” of the military is impractical while cordial ties have proved to be helpful to safeguard the security of India’s volatile northeastern regions. 

Bangladesh also has taken a similar pragmatic attitude, despite the Rohingya issue. Indeed, compulsions of geography cannot be ignored in inter-state relationships.

In fact, eight defense attachés of resident diplomatic missions in Myanmar took part in the ceremony in Naypyidaw, drawn from the 42 foreign embassies in that country – many of which don’t have resident defense attachés. These eight countries included three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and two veto-holding UN Security Council members – Russia and China. 

In a notable development, Russia was represented by Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, a key figure in the security establishment in Moscow. Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, received him.

The Russian press quoted Fomin as saying that Moscow “adheres to a strategic line to intensify relations between the two countries” and considers Myanmar “a reliable ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific region.”  

This screengrab provided via AFPTV and taken from a broadcast by Myawaddy TV in Myanmar on March 27, 2021, shows Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin (C) attending Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyidaw. Photo: AFP/Myawaddy TV

Moscow’s reliable friend

The Kremlin has given a powerful, resonant signal. Apart from being a gesture of support for the military leadership of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, whom Moscow regards as a reliable friend – the general has visited Moscow six times in as many years – it puts a firewall against the “color revolution” that Western intelligence – the US and UK in lead roles – has been fomenting in the Bamar-majority cities of Yangon and Mandalay in the recent weeks. 

With battle lines openly drawn among the big powers, the prospect of the United Nations imposing any sanctions against Myanmar is receding – although UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is seeking another term in office with US support, is nowadays generally helpful by voicing opinions.

The clumsy, unprecedented move by the chiefs of defense of eight NATO countries and Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to issue a condemnatory statement against the Myanmar military on Saturday only shows what a high-stakes diplomatic pirouette Myanmar is becoming.

Fomin’s visit highlights the geopolitical struggle endemic to our transformative era. Warning bells must have rung in Moscow after the mobilization of the pro-Western non-Bamar ethnic separatist groups to create another “front” for the Myanmar military.

The attack by the so-called Karen National Liberation Army – make no mistake, the KNLA was a creation of British intelligence – on the military and its capture of a military outpost on Saturday morning on the remote eastern border with Thailand is an indicator of the shape of things to come. 

In that bloody encounter, eight government soldiers including a second lieutenant were captured by the separatist guerrillas and 10 killed, including a lieutenant-colonel who was deputy battalion commander.

A Karen National Liberation Army soldier surveys what remains of a small village of 30 people that was set ablaze by Burmese troops in March 2002 near the Myanmar-Thailand border in Myanmar’s Karen State. Photo: AFP

A protracted guerrilla war

This is an important turning point, as the Western powers intervening in Myanmar have made their first lethal move to bleed the Myanmar military in a protracted guerrilla war with the minority ethnic groups in the remote lawless borderlands, even as it is brought under pressure by protesters in the central region who are animated from London by the British Broadcasting Corporation and kindred media organs such as Radio Free Asia plus social media. 

The game plan is to stretch the military’s resources and demoralize and fragment it by entrapping it in virtual civil-war conditions. China has a troubled relationship with the Myanmar military and has no intentions of stepping in despite Western taunts and provocations.

That leaves Russia as the mainstay of support of the military. For the regional countries bordering Myanmar – China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos – it will be a source of great concern that the security situation can degenerate into anarchical conditions, as happened in Afghanistan or Iraq, Syria and Yemen after Western interventions. To be sure, the Myanmar saga is far from a binary of democracy versus autocracy.

(Alas, Indians, whose grasp of their country’s neighborhood is generally very poor, lack understanding of the stark realities of Myanmar’s complex transition to democratic rule, warts and all.) 

Significantly, after a period of hiatus, student-led protests are reviving in Bangkok, too – eerily similar to the protests in Yangon and Mandalay. The protesters in Bangkok are calling for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha (who is supported by the military) and for the replacement of the country’s semi-democratic constitution.

Pro-democracy protesters hold placards in front of the pictures of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a rally calling to reforms in the monarchy, outside the Siam Commercial Bank Head Office on November 25, 2020, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: AFP/Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto

Protests spreading

In last week’s protests in Bangkok, activists splashed a royal portrait with paint and attempted to set it on fire. 

The prestige of the king, a venerated figure, and the country’s strict lèse-majesté law, are for the first time openly in the protesters’ crosshairs. As in Myanmar, there is also a thinly veiled evangelist agenda.

The Thai king and Buddhism are not only cultural symbols for the deeply religious Thai nation but also emblems of national unity through centuries – similar in many ways to Hinduism through millennia of Indian history and civilization. 

In the contemporary setting, when institutions such as the Myanmar military or the Thai monarchy are attacked, discredited and weakened, the outcome will be anarchical conditions that can be exploited to create pro-Western surrogates in the region – and for the evangelist mission to create Christian enclaves in a brave new Asia under Western tutelage.

Indeed, the Pope selected Myanmar and Thailand (and Bangladesh) for undertaking visits in the most recent years. (India reportedly was cool to a papal visit.) 

What is the geopolitical agenda here? Evidently, both Myanmar and Thailand can provide an access route for China to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Malacca Strait off Singapore, which is a Western outpost in Southeast Asia. (Ironically, Singapore, a police state basically, is towering high as the most vociferous ASEAN country to clamor for Western democracy in Myanmar.) 

Second, Myanmar and Thailand give potential beachheads to the Bay of Bengal, which has been until recently an exclusive Indian lake, bypassing the Malacca Strait. Whereas, for the US, control of the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait means control of the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, which is crucial to an “Asian Century.” 

A monitor displaying US President Joe Biden (top L), Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (bottom L), Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (top R) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, meeting on March 12, 2021. Photo: AFP/Kiyoshi Ota

Trapped in history

This is where Indian strategists have to think very very carefully and in depth – and with a farsighted vision – as to where the country’s interests would ultimately lie. Alas, when Indians propagate the Quad and the “Indo-Pacific” concept, they blithely overlook that nations are trapped in history, and history is trapped in nations too.  

Enter Fomin. Russia senses that India is passing through a particularly challenging phase in its post-independence history, torn between its strategic autonomy and the Western alliance that sections of its elites are longing for.

Moscow sees that the US is systematically institutionalizing the Quad and transforming it as a multinational alliance. We can see only the Russian footprints on the sand today, although Moscow is also carrying forward India’s long-term interests in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. 

Ideally, this should be a joint Russian-Indian-Chinese common enterprise of three emerging powers with overlapping strategic interests to transition toward a democratized world order away from the oppressive, unequal Western-dominated one of the present day. That may appear wishful thinking in the prevailing circumstances; nonetheless, it remains a thoughtful wish.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.