On September 7, the head of Myanmar’s military government, Min Aung Hlaing, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia.
The two leaders used the forum, intended to ramp up investment in Russia’s Far East, to attack the West and counter criticism of their use of military force (Russia against Ukraine, Myanmar against its own people).
This was Min Aung Hlaing’s second visit to Russia this summer and his third since leading a military coup in February 2021 to oust elected Myanmar leaders. He heaped praise on Putin, with whom he held a meeting for the first time.
Min Aung Hlaing claimed Putin controls and organizes “stability around the world” and attacked Washington’s opposition to stronger Myanmar-Russia ties.
“The reason for the condemnation [by the United States] of cooperation between our countries lies in the desire to unbalance global stability,” Min Aung Hlaing said, according to Russia's Sputnik news site.
“In a multipolar world, we — both Russia and Myanmar — want to maintain peace and stability. ASEAN also plays a big role in this. And the United States is dissatisfied because it wants to create a unipolar world.
“Such interference by the U.S. is always carried out under the pretext of democracy, human rights and creating dependence on the dollar."
That characterization of Russia and Myanmar as peace-seekers is false.
Russia and Myanmar have been major sources of instability in their respective regions. Critics say they are undermining the global world order through actions that include crimes against humanity.
Writing for The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio argued that international condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the ouster of Myanmar’s democratically elected government has led to a “toxic convergence” of the two regimes – something he called “pariah-state solidarity.”
“[I]ncreasingly isolated from the West, Myanmar’s military regime has looked to Moscow for advanced weapons systems and technical training of military officers that it may soon struggle to get elsewhere, and also a hedge against becoming too reliant on China, which has also chosen to recognize the [military] government,” Strangio wrote.
“For Russia, closer relations with Myanmar offer a chance to drum up arms sales, while undermining the Western attempt to rally a global coalition to counter Russian adventurism in Ukraine.”
The United States has not criticized Myanmar and Russia merely for ramping up bilateral cooperation. It has criticized Russia for approving the sale of fighter jets to Myanmar’s military as it carried out a campaign of ethnic cleaning against Rohingya Muslims, which the U.S. and others say constitutes genocide.
Russia has ramped up military support for Myanmar since the 2021 coup – essentially throwing it, as the International Crisis Group wrote, “a lifeline as it struggles to quash domestic resistance and secure international legitimacy, thus further antagonizing countries pushing for Myanmar’s return to democracy.”
Myanmar’s military rulers returned the favor by supporting Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, claiming Moscow is working “to consolidate its sovereignty.”
Following Min Aung Hlaing’s unannounced visit to Russia in July, the two countries announced they would deepen defense collaboration.
On September 6, Russia and Myanmar signed a roadmap for cooperation over what Russian state news agency TASS called “peaceful use of nuclear energy.” There is wide speculation that Myanmar may seek a nuclear bomb.
“The junta is turning Myanmar into a revisionist rogue state, which has been obviously inclined to support policies that undermine international order for its own short-sighted gains,” Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia program, told Polygraph.info.
“I think Russia's support [will] strengthen and accelerate Myanmar's road to [becoming a] rogue state, so it will pose serious threats to the stability and prosperity of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).”
Ye Myo Hein and Lucas Myers, the Program Coordinator and Associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, recently outlined how the Myanmar military’s war on its own people is affecting the region.
“From the direct impact of cross-border violence to second-order effects, such as refugee crises and drug trafficking, a weak state beset by conflict at the juncture of South and Southeast Asia could prove to be a long-term problem for the geo-strategically vital, and tense, Indo-Pacific,” they wrote.
The analysts wrote that Myanmar's military and those aligned with it have created instability along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and India, and even with its ally China.
Myanmar military forces have repeatedly launched incursions into Thailand (and a Myanmar fighter jet violated Thai airspace). A pro-junta militia in Myanmar killed Indian citizens, sparking anger in the Indian border town of Moreh. In addition, Ye Myo Hein and Myers wrote, "stray artillery shells frequently landed on Chinese territory along the border," prompting "a stern warning from Beijing."
Then there are the refugees.
As of August 8, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 903,000 people had been internally displaced in Myanmar, and 42,300 been displaced to neighboring countries since the February 2021 coup.
The UNHCR also estimates that more than 742,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape Myanmar regime violence and persecution in Rakhine State in 2017.
According to other estimates, 1 million or more Rohingya refugees are now in Bangladesh.
More than 13 million people in Myanmar are believed to be facing moderate to severe food insecurity.
And while Min Aung Hlaing focused on the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – a 10-member political block that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – is also dismayed by events in Myanmar.
Last month, government ministers from ASEAN states condemned a lack of progress on their peace plan for Myanmar, warning action could be taken over “non-compliance.”
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has been particularly vocal. He called out Myanmar’s military government for executing pro-democracy activists and jailing deposed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Abdullah said Myanmar should be excluded from political representation at ministerial-level ASEAN meetings unless it makes a concerted effort to end the conflict in the country and return to democratic rule.
Russia’s invasion has also caused energy and food prices to soar worldwide, sparking a global food crisis affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations.