Russia’s enthusiasm for arms sales to Myanmar is limitless and driven by an appetite to ingratiate itself with the 10 nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), expand its regional influence, and bolster its bottom line.
The legality and morality of the February 1 coup are not issues for Moscow, nor are the 841 confirmed deaths of protestors and bystanders who were killed by the junta – many of them with Russian made armaments.
As the number two exporter of arms to Myanmar after China, Russia is finding like-minded authoritarians among the Southeast Asian bloc, which wants a draft United Nations resolution to drop a call for an embargo on arms supplies to the Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw.
In response to a resolution drafted by Liechtenstein, nine members of ASEAN, excluding Myanmar, have asked for the removal of a sentence calling for “an immediate suspension” of sales or transfers of weapons and munitions to Myanmar.
Close to 50 other countries are reportedly backing the move, which ASEAN says is key for keeping open channels for dialogue with the military. It’s also the type of political claptrap that undermines efforts to resolve one regional crisis after another.
But it is “the ASEAN Way,” a policy of non-interference and consultation which enables the authoritarian leaders of Southeast Asia to do as they please, and that includes the alleged atrocities and genocide inflicted upon Myanmar’s Rohingya in 2017.
The five generals responsible for the exodus of 740,000 Rohingya are also under investigation by the international courts and will face further scrutiny given the brutal crackdown that followed their ousting of an elected government.
That hasn’t stopped coup leader and army chief Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, vice commander-in-chief Vice-Sen. Gen. Soe Win, Lt. Gen. Aung Kyaw Zaw, Gen. Maung Maung Soe, and Brig. Gen. Than Oo from cutting arms deals.
Visits and meeting between Russian officials and Tatmadaw have not been uncommon, highlighted by a recent tour by the air force chief Maung Maung Kyaw, who traveled recently to Moscow and attended the HeliRussia exhibition, a showcase Russian military helicopters.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar a week before the coup and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin was on hand during the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw on March 27.
On the night of the parade, Tatmadaw deployed airstrikes against ethnic Karen rebels forcing more than 12,000 civilians to flee into the jungles on the Thai border, an attack which struck a nerve with the leaders of Myanmar’s many ethnic insurgencies.
There are about 20 of them and some are now unifying under the Federal Union Army and aligning with the National Unity Government, which consists of ousted lawmakers.
Analysts have long viewed Russian arms sales into Myanmar as a hedge against Chinese encroachment in the country’s north.
Min Aung Hlaing and his coterie remain distrustful of Beijing and its tacit support for ethnic Chinese insurgencies along their shared border. However, he has also counted on China and Russia’s support in the U.N. Security Council in watering down or vetoing any response to his coup.
An arms embargo is simply a small step, which should also be accompanied by no-fly zones. These would encourage some kind of dialogue between the military and protestors, who have been hunted down for the last five months.
It would also send a powerful message to Moscow, politely asking the Russians to butt out of a region they have little or no interest in – apart from arms sales – and remind ASEAN members that their relevance as an actor on the international stage is clearly wanting.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt