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On 27 June this year a Burmese delegation led by Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of the Burmese parliament, landed in Moscow. They had a busy schedule: meetings with Russian Duma members, meetings with Russian military and foreign affairs luminaries to sign a weapons deal, and tours of the Kremlin. Only weeks before, a Russian deputy foreign minister, Aleksey Borodavkin, visited Naypyidaw to hammer down details of that weapons deal. This is not the first time Russia has gotten close to Burma, and it will not be the last.
This is the story of a secret and sustained partnership of convenience between two governments, each desperate to fulfill its aspirations. The Burmese military government wants legitimacy. Russia wants to be a serious world power once more.
There are superficial similarities that would ease the minds of both parties. The intimacy between business and government is extremely high in both countries; both are controlled by only one party; both have jailed dissidents; both rely on its military power to assert its will on separatist regions; both rely on the extraction of natural resources for its economic growth. But that’s where the similarities end.
Above all, Russia and Burma face different internal challenges. Essentially, Burma is trying to run out the clock, and Russia is racing against the clock. Burma is waiting for the elected administration to be accepted as legitimate, waiting for the sanctions to be lifted, and waiting for the aging Aung San Suu Kyi to die. Russia on the other hand is racing to milk its resource advantage for all its worth, racing to keep its military up to date, and racing to keep its demographic disaster from becoming an unmitigated catastrophe.
Perhaps cognisant of the differences between them or perhaps not willing to be seen as a new overt supporter of pariah states, Russia has been apprehensive in responding too openly to the Burmese government’s overtures. Aleksey Borodavkin, impresario of Russian political initiatives in the world’s pariah states, has been assigned to Moscow-Naypyidaw relations, as well as handling Russian initiatives in Pyongyang and Tehran. As well, Borodavkin’s portfolio includes exporting Russian nuclear technology.
Yet, while Russian Prime Minister Putin and Russian President Medvedev are conspicuously absent from meetings with Burmese officials, all signs point to Russia’s full cooperation with Burmese requests.
The military relationship between Russia and the Burmese regime extend back to 1963, immediately after Burma’s military coup in 1962, when the USSR supplied approximately three military helicopters. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia has ten recorded deals starting in 1995 to sell helicopters, fighter jets, short-range air to air missiles, beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and towed guns to the Burmese military. Three of those deals have been concluded in the past two years.
The recent spurt of activity between Naypyidaw and Moscow, in contrast to the EU’s and the US’s sanctions, is not restricted to just the conventional. In an overt act of support, Russia and China blocked a September 2007 US-sponsored UN Security Resolution to impose global arms sanctions against Burma amid then-ongoing violence against pro-democracy dissidents. Russia has also repeatedly issued statements saying the ongoing civil war with ethnic nationalists is an internal problem, was not a cause for concern over international security, and should be handled as an internal problem in 2007 and 2009.
In the 2009 statement of support, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that global sanctions designed to isolate Burma would be counterproductive, enhance the military’s xenophobic tendencies and not improve the poor economic standing of the Burmese.
In 2007, the Russian nuclear agency, Rosatom, announced plans to assist in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Burma; however, Rosatom distanced itself from the project following international pressure.
According to The Irrawaddy Magazine, three nuclear reactors were completed in March 2010, after work had begun in 2007. The Irrawaddy cited eyewitness accounts that claimed Asian-looking foreigners were seen entering the construction site in northern Mandalay division, sparking concerns of North Korean involvement.
Despite Russia’s official distancing from the nuclear reactors’ construction, Russia has not hesitated to offer opportunities for Burmese students to study nuclear physics in Russian universities. In addition to attracting students from the Defense Service Academy, the military’s finishing school, Russia also attracts civilians. In an interview with The Irrawaddy, one student on his way to Russia claimed, “There are lots of Burmese civilians who are just interested in physics.”
In addition to receiving an admonition to learn as much from the Russians as they could, one army deserter claimed soldiers were offered incentives to marry Russian women, with scientists as a particular target. The reasoning behind the incentives was not explained. Dr. Andrew Selth, an Australian expert on Burma, told The Irrawaddy that most Burmese students struggle to complete their coursework, despite their previous Russian language training.
Chinese investments in Burma may attract headlines, but Russian dealings also attract the interest of the Burmese military regime’s top associates.
Tay Za, owner of the Myanmar Avia Export company and a close associate of the Burmese military, is also believed to be the main liaison on all weapons deals between the Burmese military and the Russian government. Myanmar Avia Export has known ties with two Russian military hardware suppliers, and Tay Za was present on Shwe Mann’s June 2011 junket to Moscow.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Sean Turnell of Australia’s Macquarie University stated that the Russian-Burmese relationship will not deliver positive economic changes as most of the transactions have been off-record, and he further stated that Burma’s recent privatization of key industries have resulted in “parasitic” oligarchs similar to the results of Russia’s botched privatization processes of the early 1990s.
The partnership is not perfect. They do remain competitors in some fundamental aspects, particularly in the energy extraction field: while Burma is developing its natural gas blocks, its largest competitor is Russia, whose reserves equate to a quarter of the world’s total. But, as expounded in the previous two essays, Burma’s is uneasy about its relationship with China, and needs a Plan B – Russia is by no means the perfect match, but as Moscow eyes a greater security presence in Southeast Asia, and Burma looks to alternative world powers for political support, their relationship of convenience could develop into a strong alliance.