What’s Behind Myanmar Military Chief’s Europe Voyage?

A closer look at Min Aung Hlaing’s goodwill visit to Germany and stopover in Austria.

What’s Behind Myanmar Military Chief’s Europe Voyage?
Credit: Min Aung Hlaing Facebook Page

Starting from April 22, Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing embarked on a goodwill visit to the Federal Republic of Germany with a stopover in Austria. His trip, made at the invitation of his German counterpart, signals the continuing importance that Berlin, as well as Europe more generally, plays in Myanmar’s development as well as the future prospects for the advancement of military-to-military ties following further easing of existing restrictions.

Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Europe comes as little surprise. Despite sanctions imposed by European countries and the European Union (EU) more generally, several European states continue to play an important role in Myanmar’s development, not just in standard areas like the economy but also in supporting peace efforts and helping address lingering human rights concerns, including the troubling situation in Rakhine State. And since Myanmar’s opening in 2011 and after the election of democracy icon turned opposition leader turned State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Western states have eased some previous restrictions on the country and enhanced engagement (though an arms embargo remains in place).

Germany in particular has long had a good relationship with Myanmar. Bilateral ties also had a military component that lasted for decades until things cooled following the military crackdown in 1988, and the EU also subsequently imposed a ban on weapons exports to Myanmar. The relationship has warmed over the past few years, which has led both sides to explore future possibilities that could emerge in the military realm too. Germany, including its ambassador Christian-Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, also continues to engage with the military on a range of issues including ending the decades-old civil war.

Min Aung Hlaing himself is no stranger to Europe. Indeed, he was just there last November, where he addressed the European Union Military Committee in Belgium and met with EU officials to discuss military ties before also visiting neighboring Italy for a number of engagements with the government as well as a few defense companies. This trip, made with a delegation of other high-level military officials, came primarily in response to the invitation of Chief of Defense of the German Armed Forces General Volker Weiker. Notably, it precedes State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s own Europe tour which is expected to kick off soon, with her itinerary including Belgium, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.

As with his previous trip to Europe, Min Aung Hlaing’s visit so far has proceeded as expected: with a number of courtesy calls and visits with officials and companies focused on the defense realm. During the stopover in Austria, on April 23 he visited the Austria Army Museum in Vienna and had other engagements, including one at the Myanmar embassy there. And on April 24, he was accorded a guard-of-honor welcome by Chief of Defense Staff of the Austrian Armed Forces General Othmar Commenda at the Austrian Defense Ministry. Both sides reportedly discussed various subjects including officers from Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) attending military training courses. He then visited Diamond Aircraft Industry, where he and his delegation got a tour of the facilities and then embarked various aircraft produced by the firm (he himself went on board a DA-62 aircraft).

On April 26, the delegation arrived at Tegel Airport in Berlin and were welcomed by several officials before beginning that Germany leg of their visit. The trip there is expected to touch on a range of issues but also focus on enhancing their defense relationship. Nonetheless, unsurprisingly, the hype around the trip will largely be around the issue of what we might expect on the lifting of remaining European restrictions on Myanmar and what that might mean for military-to-military ties moving forward.