CHIANG MAI – While Russia intensifies its bombardment of Ukraine, fewer bombs may fall in Myanmar’s raging civil war pitting a coup-installed military junta against new pro-democracy resistance armies and long-standing ethnic armed groups.
Both Russia and Ukraine are among the Myanmar military’s main suppliers of arms, weapons and hardware, imported wares that are now being used to lethal effect against anti-junta fighters and civilian populations in a conflict that has mushroomed nationwide.
Those weapon flows, however, will likely slow to a trickle or halt altogether due to the escalating war in Ukraine, a geopolitical ripple effect that could significantly impact the course and potentially the outcome of Myanmar’s civil war.
If Russia prevails, Moscow will likely move quickly to demilitarize Ukraine, meaning its money-making arms export industry will be brought to a screeching halt.
If Russia’s invasion fails, Ukraine’s democratic government would likely not want to be seen as supporting Myanmar’s brutal military dictatorship through arms sales, particularly after the support and sympathy Kiev has recently received from the West.
Meanwhile, future military cooperation with Russia will be greatly hampered because any payments for arms would need to be run through Russian banks that are now sanctioned by the West.
On March 2, seven major Russian banks were excluded from the SWIFT messaging transfer system, with exceptions granted only for financial institutions handling energy payments.
On March 1, 141 of the 193 United Nations members voted for a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thirty-five countries abstained and only Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria voted with Russia against the resolution.
Myanmar voted for the resolution but that was only because it is still being represented by Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the pre-coup government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Eager to placate its allies and benefactors in Moscow, Myanmar’s junta has openly supported Russia’s invasion.
On February 27, the Myanmar-language junta mouthpiece Myanmar Alin published a two-page commentary titled “Lessons from Ukraine for those who haven’t learned from history” by a writer using the pseudonym “Myint Myat.”
The article, published three days after Russia’s invasion, referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “puppet of the West” while Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was praised as a visionary leader “who had had the foresight to quietly build up his country’s military and economic strength.”
The commentary was published two days after junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun supported the invasion in an interview with the Myanmar-language service of Voice of America, in which he said that “Number 1 is that Russia has worked to consolidate its sovereignty. I think this is the right thing to do. Number 2 is to show the world that Russia is a world power.”
Putin’s military, Zaw Min Tun went on to say in a separate official statement that was also released in Russian, had “carried out what was justified for the sustainability of their country’s sovereignty.”
To be sure, Naypyidaw has strategic cause to side with Moscow. Russian arms imports to Myanmar have soared in recent years in an effort to offset the Tatmadaw’s previous heavy dependence on China, a reliance many high-ranking military officers saw as a threat to national sovereignty.
Russia has supplied the Tatmadaw with MiG-29 fighter jets, Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, transport helicopters and Yak-130 ground attack aircraft and light armored vehicles. The fighters and gunships have recently been used to bomb areas where resistance fighters are known to be active but have often hit civilian targets.
More than 7,000 Myanmar military officers and military-connected scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s. They have enrolled at the Omsk Armour Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy and the Kazan Military Command Academy.
Some are even serving as cadets with the Russian Air Force to train on the Moscow-made equipment now in Myanmar’s arsenal.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Myanmar bought US$809 million worth of military hardware and related equipment from Russia in the decade ending 2019, the most recent year for which data has been compiled. The research shows the rest of the $1.5 billion spent came from other sources, mainly China.
Days before the Myanmar military’s February 1, 2021 coup, Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Myanmar to finalize preparations for the delivery of Russian-made radar equipment, Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and Orlan-10E surveillance drones.
The presence of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin at Naypyidaw’s Armed Forces Day celebrations last March 27 was a clear indication of the close relationship between the two sides, which if anything has been strengthened, not weakened, since the coup.
In June 2021, Myanmar junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing paid a visit to Moscow, where he received an honorary professorship at the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military University.
That honor came at a time many Western countries and UN investigators have condemned the senior general’s role in perpetuating what many see as “genocide” against the Rohingya and overthrowing Myanmar’s quasi-democracy.
Min Aung Hlaing has long been welcome in Moscow. In June 2013, he traveled to Moscow at Shoigu’s invitation to discuss arms deals and what was then referred to in the official Myanmar media as “matters of mutual interest.”
During another visit in June 2016, Russia and Myanmar signed a military cooperation agreement that the Russian news agency Tass said paved the way for “multifaceted cooperation” that “will have enough instruments to do everything possible to strengthen combat readiness of the Armed Forces of Myanmar and Russia.”
Ukraine’s arms supplies to Myanmar, to be sure, have not been as robust as Russia’s. According to the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, since 2015 Ukraine has sold BTR-4 armored personnel carriers, MMT-40 light tanks and 2SIU self-propelled howitzers to Myanmar.
It has also looked into the possibility of joint manufacturing with Myanmar’s defense industries.
The Ukrainian-produced BTR-4s were seen in Yangon before as well as after last year’s February 1 coup. The main suppliers, the UN mission says, are state-owned Ukroboronprom and Ukrspecexport, Ukraine’s two main arms producers.
When asked by the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle on August 27, 2021, if they would stop cooperating with the Myanmar military after its democracy-suspending coup, a spokesperson for Ukroboronprom said that it export war material “in accordance with Ukrainian law and international obligations” and that a military-technical cooperation agreement signed in 2015 was still valid under the new junta.
That interview prompted Justice for Myanmar, a website run by pro-democracy activists, to issue a statement on September 8 saying that “individuals and companies procuring arms for the Myanmar military must be sanctioned immediately and denied access to the international financial system and global markets, including Singapore, where some arms dealers operate.”
Those type of sanctions are now in place against Russia, meaning countries that continue to transact with Moscow run the risk of facing secondary Western sanctions. That raises questions about whether the Myanmar military will be able to find a way to pay to keep all its cadets enrolled in Moscow and, more crucially, acquire spare parts and munitions for its Russian-made equipment.
That will apply crucially for the upkeep of Russian-made helicopter gunships, which have been used extensively in the war against the Kachin Independence Army in the far north and the Karen National Union on the Thai border.
The gunships have also been used for bombarding civilian targets in Kayah and Chin states, and northern Sagaing Region.
Putin and Min Aung Hlaing have become birds of the same feather as international pariahs. And regardless of what columnists such as “Myint Myat” writes or junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun says, the days when the Myanmar military could freely import military equipment from Russia – as well as Ukraine – are now dead and gone.