Russia said it was seeking to deepen ties with Myanmar’s military junta as its deputy defence minister held talks with the country’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup against the democratic government last month.
In the most high-profile visit to the country by a foreign power since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was overthrown, Alexander Fomin on Friday said Moscow was “committed to a strategy aimed at bolstering relations between the two countries.”
The show of support for the military junta contrasts sharply with condemnation from western powers, and comes as Moscow seeks greater influence in the south-east Asian country. Neighbouring China is Myanmar’s pre-eminent foreign partner, but successive governments have worried about relying too heavily on Beijing for diplomatic and economic support, and have cultivated ties with other powers in the region.
Footage of the visit broadcast by a television channel owned by the Russian ministry of defence showed Fomin and junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing exchanging gifts before beginning extended discussions with their delegations. “The parties positively assessed their rapidly developing mutually beneficial relations in the military sphere and reaffirmed their intention to make the most of the existing potential in order to deepen military and military-technical co-operation in the spirit of strategic partnership,” Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement published by Interfax, a Russian newswire.
Russia has been Myanmar’s second-largest source of arms since 2008, supplying $835m worth of products compared with $1.5bn from China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia, alongside China, also initially blocked a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the coup in February.
Friday’s talks followed a visit by Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu to Myanmar a week before the military takeover, where he agreed a number of arms deals including for surveillance drones. Min Aung Hlaing has also visited Russia six times, according to local media, most recently in June last year to attend celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of Russian Victory Day, which commemorates victory over Nazi Germany. The Russian visit was a rare show of support for Myanmar’s military, which has faced widespread opprobrium and the prospect of a return to international isolation following the coup, which it justified with allegations of fraud in an election in November.
The US and UK on Wednesday imposed sanctions on two sprawling and opaque conglomerates linked to Myanmar’s military in an attempt to put pressure on the junta’s finances. The junta has embarked on a violent crackdown on protests, firing live ammunition into crowds and killing 320 people, including 11 on Thursday, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an advocacy group. Almost 3,000 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced. But Myanmar’s military has also faced defections within the diplomatic corps, with country’s ambassadors to the UN and UK publicly breaking ranks with the generals. Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of her National League for Democracy party remain in detention, but deposed MPs have formed an interim shadow government, which on Friday was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group from the University of Oslo.