Burma/Myanmar: The People´s Defense Forces PDF between Tatmadaw, the minorities, the Wa and Russia and China
While the Western media at the moment don´t focus on Burma/Myanmar , the Hindustan Times is silent on the issue and cares more about Afghanistan at the moment, the Global Times issues headlines about the 100 anniversary of the CPC, a possible new strategic triangle China- Russia- Northkorea, the South Chinese Sea, Taiwan, Japan´s new white book and in a team with the People´s Daily issues more articles about the funny life of Uyghurs in China and the new Uyghur musical in Chinese television and cinemas, ,we try to use the Burmese main opposition outlet The Irrawady and The Bangkok Post to make a short synopsis of some improtant developments in Burma, especially about the armed struggle and foreign interference by China and Russia. Starting with the question:
“Emergence of People’s Militias in Myanmar: What Does It Mean?
By Tin Htar Swe 5 July 2021
The recent pictures of the charred bodies of an elderly couple in their 80s in a village in central Myanmar have shocked the world. They were found by their family when they returned to their village of Kin Ma in Magway Region. Villagers had been chased out of their homes when fighting broke out nearby between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and local resistance fighters who are supporters of the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
The family of the elderly couple told local media they decided to leave their parents in the village because they were too frail to take with them. After three days hiding in the jungle, the villagers returned and were dismayed to find their entire village razed to the ground.
Eyewitnesses said the security forces ransacked the houses before setting them on fire. The blaze was so large it was recorded by NASA’s satellite fire-tracking system at 15:22 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) on Tuesday June 15, according to Reuters. A total of 200 houses out of 240 in the village were burned down.
This shocking incident happened a few days after more than a dozen unidentified bodies were found in a village in Demoso Township in Kayah State in eastern Myanmar.
The corpses were found in Ngwe Taung when the villagers returned. They had fled in fear of their lives when intense fighting broke out between the army and the combined forces of the ethnic Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) and a newly organized militia, the People’s Defence Force (PDF).
The KNDF is a combined force of civilian fighters from the Karenni territories and other ethnic armed organizations.
Most of the corpses found were barely recognizable and some had been partially eaten by dogs, according to those who helped cremate the bodies. Some of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and some had headshot wounds.
Kayah State has experienced violent clashes between the military and local militias, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides, especially for the Myanmar military. According to the KNDF, the Tatmadaw lost nearly 200 troops. The military retaliated by using helicopters and heavy artillery to strike the resistance forces in the Karenni area.
Myanmar is witnessing attacks on innocent civilians by the military on an unprecedented scale. They are not restricted to areas where the army and the militias clash, but are also occurring in towns and cities.
Attacks on individuals are escalating across the country. In recent weeks, local administrators appointed by the military have been killed by unidentified assailants. They were accused of passing on information to the authorities about local residents suspected of opposing military rule. According to local media, in the month of June alone, more than two dozen local administrators were either gunned down or stabbed by assailants.
The coup makers claim the violent attacks were spearheaded by members of the PDF, a citizens’ militia formed by young protesters collectively known as Gen Z.
On June 22, a lieutenant colonel and another military officer were killed when security forces raided the hideout of PDF members in Mandalay. This was the first time a senior officer had been killed in an armed clash between the two forces. The security forces responded with heavy weapons in a bid to capture the PDF members holed up in the building. State media claimed four militia members died and eight were captured. This figure was hotly disputed by the PDF, which claimed it lost two of their fighters with six being captured.
Following the arrests of the PDF members in Mandalay, the military confiscated a large cache of arms and ammunition on a truck bound for Mandalay in Thabeikkyin Township. The weapons seizure indicates that the PDF, who have received military training in areas controlled by ethnic non-state armies, are better armed than previously thought. This could be a sign that more deadly armed resistance from the militias is to be expected.
The NUG has endorsed the PDF, but does not command or control it. Such loosely formed, shadowy armed groups are emerging in several areas of the country and appear to be actively involved in clandestine attacks on local administrators suspected of being military informants, and related facilities across the country.
The most spectacular attack took place on June 18 when a parked military truck with soldiers on board was bombed in east central Yangon. The truck was parked in front of an office of the junta’s proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. State media have yet to report on the incident.
Myanmar Now reported that PDF fighters claimed these daring assaults on military facilities were only possible because of the support and help they got from army soldiers. Major Hein Thaw Oo, a Myanmar military officer who broke ranks and joined the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), insisted there were many people like him who would like to join the CDM if given the chance.
Some may argue that using the tactics of assassinations and bombings to achieve political ends will put militias at risk of engaging in terrorism, but to most citizens, resorting to violence is the only option left as the international community has failed to intervene to stop the atrocities committed by the regime. This notion is shared by the NUG.
However, the International Crisis Group in a June 28 report, “Taking Aim at the Tatmadaw: The New Armed Resistance to Myanmar’s Coup”, urged the NUG to strengthen its military code of conduct.
“The NUG, even if it does not have command and control of these groups, should continue strengthening its military code of conduct, ensure that this code is widely disseminated, carry on publicly signaling the priority it gives to the document and use its influence to press all resistance elements to adhere to the provisions,” the group said in the report.
The report also pointed out that the diverse nature of the militias and communication problems present significant challenges to putting in place a unified chain of command.
Confronting the new citizen militias in many different locations, especially in towns and cities, will be a major challenge for the Tatmadaw, even as it faces a renewed escalation of fighting with non-state armies along the border.
With the overwhelming support the militias are receiving from within the country and abroad, it is highly likely that they will become much stronger, better armed and more structured. Evidence shows that the resistance force members are ready to give their lives to bring down the military dictatorship.
Tin Htar Swe OBE is the former editor of BBC South Asia Region and the BBC Burmese Service.
Means: Till now there is a rise I armed struggle by Bamar-Burmese and Burmese minorities, but the People´s Defense Forces PDF till now are not a centrally commanded and standardized people´ s army, but a loose bunch of militias, homegrown, bringing academics and some youth into the armed struggle. More and more Bamar militias against the junta, albeit probably not a new people’s army, especially since they are more likely to use terrorist methods than a real guerilla fight or hydrid warfare. The NUG does not seem to command the PDF has connection, but allegedly no control with the PDF, hasn´t officially declared it as its armed wing of the political struggle. However, the opposition ranks seem to become bigger, but o the other side there are also complaints about some inner struggles within minority militias. In the past you already had a split in the Karen against Bo Mya.´s KNU by Buddhist Karen who wanted not to support seperatism, but a federal united state Burma and teaming up with the NLD supporters and the Aung San Suu Kyi camp, but then also lead the Burmese army against the KNU to bring back Aung in a position with the help of the Burmese military. Now there seems to be big trouble in the Shan camp.
“In Myanmar’s Divided Shan State, a New Appeal for Unity; China Will Be Watching
y The Irrawaddy 13 July 2021
Last week, a newly formed Shan political organization known as the Shan State Front for Federal (SSFF) and a Shan political party, the Shan State Liberation Party (SSLP), called for a united front against the military dictatorship and urged reconciliation and a truce between two rival Shan armed groups.
It is reported that this new political group comprises Shan youth and intellectuals who want to see unity in Shan State.
They claim to fight for democracy, federalism, ethnic states’ rights and the right to self-determination. The group made its announcement on July 7. A few days later, on July 11, it declared war on the State Administration Council (SAC), the governing body established by the military after its coup in February. However, the newly formed Shan group remains something of a mystery, and it is not yet clear how much support it commands.
Meanwhile, the two rival ethnic Shan armed groups, the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), have been fighting over a territorial dispute for a month in the mountains of Kyethi Township, southern Shan State.
The war has forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes. Influential Shan monks have been trying to stop the conflict.
On July 8, the RCSS issued a statement in English and Chinese calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict in northern Shan State.
The statement also said that a combined force of SSPP and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) troops has been attacking military camps and strongholds of the RCSS in Namtu and Kyaukme townships. “These prolonged armed conflicts have been causing great difficulties for the local populations,” it reads.
But behind both the recent and past armed clashes, Shan analysts suspect that the powerful Wa armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is behind the SSPP and TNLA. This time, according to Shan observers, the SSPP and TNLA are deploying heavy artillery, suggesting some ethnic forces might have been involved in assisting the SSPP.
Both the Wa and the TNLA have denied claims the former is backing the latter.
Commenting on the ongoing conflict, Sao Pha, the general secretary of the SSFF, told The Irrawaddy that the group is unhappy to see armed clashes between the RCSS and SSPP and said that Shan people want reconciliation between the two Shan groups.
In Shan State, he said, the RCSS and SSPP are at loggerheads and engaged in a protracted armed conflict. The Shan are frustrated as two ethnic Shan armed groups are in conflict instead of targeting the Myanmar military.
In fact, these two major Shan forces have been fighting each other in northern Shan State since 2016-17. In recent years, the RCSS expanded its territory into northern Shan State, which shares a border with China. Notably, this conflict has worsened since the RCSS signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government of former President U Thein Sein in October 2015. Soon after, it expanded its forces to the north, resulting in clashes with the TNLA.
The RCSS is based along the northern Thai border but its troops have expanded their territory into central and northern Shan State bordering China. The SSPP is based in northern Shan State.
It is interesting to note that the armed clashes between the two Shan insurgent groups (and those involving several smaller ethnic armies including the TNLA) in Shan State have taken place along the route of China’s natural gas pipeline in Shan State. In the future, China plans to build major infrastructure projects, railroads and bridges in the area.
Since the coup in February, fighting has intensified between the RCSS and SSPP, as the military has been busy in Yangon and elsewhere trying to contain anti-coup protests.
In Manhlyoe, a town in northern Shan State’s Muse Township on the Chinese border that is home to a border checkpoint, this year SSPP commanders told RCSS troops to leave the area. This is where China plans to build one of the Myanmar-China Cross-Border Economic Cooperation Zones (CBECZs). The junta has reorganized the members of the central committee for the implementation of CBECZs. The committee is set to play a major role in drawing up implementation policies, in the management of the zones and in pushing to gear up the projects. Under the China Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement, the CBECZs are planned to be constructed in Shan and Kachin states, along Myanmar’s border with China.
To protect Chinese economic interests and upcoming major projects in Shan State in Myanmar, China has been heavily dependent on local security forces, international security companies and active armed groups in the respective areas.
RCSS leaders suspect that China supports the SSPP. Not long ago, RCSS senior leaders reportedly sought a meeting with Chinese officials at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. Details of the discussion were not disclosed but the contentious issue of the clashes and control of territory in northern Shan State was discussed.
If China and Chinese businessmen are in favor of the SSPP, this reflects a certain amount of calculation. Beijing thinks the SSPP is an unfailing ally helping China preserve influence in northern Shan State. More importantly some key figures in the SSPP leadership are former members of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma, such as General Sae Htin.
The Chinese feel they can trust them.
Some Shan political analysts say China may think the Thailand-Myanmar-based RCSS is close to Western-funded political organizations, and also has connections to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG). Moreover, in the context of the foundation of the Shan armed resistance movement, China sees the RCSS as historically anti-communist.
Therefore, China feels it can’t trust the RCSS.
It looks like the Shan militias are fighting each other, the apparently more pro-Western and anti-communist RCSS against the SSPP, which emerged from the CP Burma and is close to Beijing. The latter is supposed to be the guarantor of China’s oil pipeline. Now a Shan United Front also wants to get involved.However rumors exist : “ Shan analysts suspect that the powerful Wa armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is behind the SSPP and TNLA.”
This suspicion leads The Irrawady to another author who in return analyzes and justifies the istory, the culture and the political orientation of the Wa and comes to the convlusion: “The Wa may be Chinese puppets, but they are no Chinese stooges.”
“Silence on Coup Makes Strategic Sense for Myanmar’s Wa
By Bertil Lintner 12 July 2021
While the whole country has risen in revolt against the Feb. 1 coup—at first peacefully and then more violently when the military began to open fire on the protesters—there is one part of Myanmar that appears to be unaffected by the nationwide turmoil: the Wa Hills of northeastern Shan State. Ethnic groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have provided shelter to activists who have fled urban areas and even trained some of them in guerrilla warfare. Other ethnic rebels have at least issued statements condemning Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab, often working together with civil society organizations. Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic army, the 20,000-30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), on the other hand, has remained conspicuously silent since the coup.
But that doesn’t mean that all Wa agree with the stance that the UWSA and its political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), have taken. On March 25, 10 Wa civil society organizations, among them the Tang-yan Wa Youth Network, university students from the Wa Christian Fellowship and the Wa Women’s Network, sent an open letter to the UWSP/UWSA leadership urging them to say something about the killings and to publicize their stand on the movement for federal democracy. That hasn’t happened, though, and the issue at stake is the UWSA’s close relationship with the security services across the border in China. Those agencies do not want to get involved with any movement that wants to overthrow the coup-installed government in Naypyitaw—and the UWSA is an ally in China’s geostrategic quest for dominance in Myanmar and beyond. Put in plain words, China’s support for the UWSA gives Beijing leverage inside Myanmar, the only neighboring country that provides China with easy and convenient access to the Indian Ocean.
When Aung Min, then president’s office minister in the Thein Sein administration, visited Monywa, a town northwest of Mandalay, in November 2012 to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in the area, he openly admitted: “We are afraid of China…we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume support to the communists, the economy in the border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.” By “the communists” he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies, offshoots of the once China-supported Communist Party of Burma’s (CPB) powerful army, which collapsed after a mutiny among its hilltribe—mainly Wa—rank-and-file in 1989. And he was right. In fact, the UWSA, which like the old CPB is supported by China, has become even stronger and better equipped than the old party ever was.
The UWSA’s strength—and the scope of its arsenal—was demonstrated on April 17, 2019, when it celebrated the 30th anniversary of the mutiny against the elderly, orthodox Marxist-Leninist and mainly Burman leadership of the CPB. The CPB with its increasingly anachronistic policies had lost its importance to the Chinese, who are now more interested in exporting consumer goods than Maoist-style revolutions. The old CPB leaders were allowed to retire in China, and the UWSA and three other components of the erstwhile CPB were born. Those four former CPB forces also entered into ceasefire agreements with the then junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which suited China’s interests as well.
On that day, a bit over two years ago, thousands of Wa soldiers in impeccable uniforms goose-stepped in perfect formation past the grandstand where their leaders stood at attention. Then came an impressive display of surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery, mortars, rocket launchers, machine guns, assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and even a weaponized drone. Columns of civilians, mostly Wa tribesmen but also people from other ethnic groups from the over 30,000-square-km area that the UWSA controls along the Chinese border and in the south near Thailand, made their way to the parade grounds. Spectacular fireworks lit up the sky after dark and people cheered and danced through the night.
Needless to say, China’s security services do not want to see a war like the one the CPB once fought from the same areas. Such hostilities would mean instability in the border areas, a flood of refugees into China and a disruption of trade between the two countries. But China, almost the sole supplier of weaponry to the UWSA, wants it to be strong enough to deter the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, from even trying to bring its base area under central control. As Aung Min inadvertently admitted, the UWSA has become exactly what the Chinese want: a useful bargaining chip when they want to put pressure on the Myanmar government to get economic concessions. Moreover, before the coup, China was also eager to prevent Myanmar from straying too close to the West. But that is hardly an issue today as the West has condemned the coup and imposed sanctions on the Tatmadaw and affiliated entities.
Today, after the coup, China wants to be seen as a moderating voice that, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the opening of the 9th World Peace Forum in Beijing on July 3, is opposed to sanctions and other punitive measures and wants to see a solution to Myanmar’s current crisis “through internal dialogue and reconciliation.” Russia, the other main power that has come out against Western condemnation and sanctions in the wake of the coup, has adopted a similar view. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a visit to Jakarta on July 6 that his country supported ASEAN’s five-point proposal for restoring “normalcy” to Myanmar, which includes “a constructive dialogue to find a peaceful solution” to the upheaval.
But Wang is not so naïve as to believe that such a dialogue leading to reconciliation is possible, and Lavrov, an experienced diplomat, must realize that ASEAN’s five-point proposal is a nonstarter. Support for ASEAN’s “peace plan”, however, serves as a convenient cover for protecting other interests and opposition to the West’s sanctions policy. For the Russians, it is a question of protecting lucrative arms sales to Myanmar and other economic interests, as well as gaining a new ally in a region where Moscow’s influence has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. China’s long-term objectives go way beyond Russia’s, and access to the Indian Ocean is only one aspect of Beijing’s massive, all-encompassing and ultimately global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project, which President Xi Jinping launched in 2013. Myanmar’s strategically important location between South and Southeast Asia is of utmost importance to China.
There is no doubt that the Wa’s dependence on China is real and overwhelming, militarily as well as economically. Apart from being equipped with Chinese-made weaponry, the Chinese yuan, not the Myanmar kyat, is the preferred currency in the area under UWSA control. People are connected to Chinese mobile phone and internet providers, and petrol and diesel come from China, as do medical supplies and most of the food. Furthermore—and this has escaped the attention of the outside world—the UWSA-controlled area is the only part of Myanmar where nearly everyone has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Supplies and even many of the medics administering the vaccine came from Yunnan, across the border.
Nonetheless, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the Wa are hapless Chinese minions and compliant pawns in Beijing’s quest for regional and ultimately global dominance. Many Wa I have met are aware that the Chinese feel superior to them and, in many instances, refer to them as erstwhile headhunters and therefore uncivilized savages. There could be as many as 600,000 Wa in Myanmar—no one knows for sure—and another 400,000 in China, where they are also recognized as an ethnic minority. But what little most Chinese outside Yunnan know about the Wa comes from a series of music videos in which young girls, accompanied by young men beating drums, shake their long hair back and forth. The girls are dressed in red woven skirts with some kind of pattern that looks like it could be of hilltribe origin, and the young men are bare-chested. The problem is that those skirts are much shorter than the sarongs Wa girls would normally wear, and no female living in the hills, where water is scarce, would have hair that long because it would be impossible to keep it clean. Besides, young Wa men these days would not go around dressed in little more than a loincloth, even when taking part in cultural events in their home villages.
Tellingly, these dances are not performed in a rural Wa setting but in purpose-built theaters in front of big audiences. The famous “Wa hair dancers” are, in fact, the daughters of city cadres who are of Wa, Chinese, or mixed Wa-Chinese ancestry. According to Swedish anthropologist and Wa expert Magnus Fiskesjö, the Chinese have created “an official socialist-era image of the Wa as a member of the happy family of nationalities within the Chinese nation: as exotic dancers full of primitive energy, now sanitized and harnessed under Communist Party guidance—the socialist-era version of Wa primitivity.”
In line with this thinking, ethnic theme parks have been established in several Chinese cities where one of the main attractions is “real Wa headhunters” performing exotic dances. Young Wa, because of their dark complexion, are hired to perform not only as wild Wa but, according to Fiskesjö, as Africans, New Zealand Maori and American Indians.
These performers are Wa from Yunnan or Myanmar who have migrated to Chinese cities to find work in factories, and take part in such spectacles to earn some extra money. But it is easy to imagine what the Wa dancers themselves think about their ethnicity and culture being exploited and, in effect, humiliated in this way.
No central or local Chinese authority ever controlled, or even showed interest in, the Wa-inhabited areas of southern Yunnan—not until the communist takeover in 1949. Remnants of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT), who had not been able to flee to Taiwan along with their supreme leader Chiang Kai-shek, retreated into those areas and, more importantly, the Wa Hills of Myanmar. Those hills were only nominally part of Myanmar; at that time, headhunting was part of the way of life there, along with local wars and feuds between different tribes and clans.
In the early 1950s, the communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered southern Yunnan to prevent the KMT from trying to achieve their stated objective, to “reconquer the Chinese mainland”. Hardly any Chinese had been there before, and the PLA as well as the KMT were seen as foreign forces, so people did not know what to expect and were afraid of them. But the PLA, which needed local support and knowledge of the terrain to be able to push the KMT back into Myanmar, treated the Wa rather leniently. The KMT, on the other hand, could be very rough in its behavior towards the Wa and other tribes in the frontier areas.
After a few years of tolerance—and as soon as the KMT threat had been eliminated—the Chinese authorities brought in an entirely new oppressive system aimed at “uprooting feudal superstition”, as the Chinese communist jargon went. Weapons in the possession of Wa tribesmen, who were used to being armed because they depended on hunting, were confiscated and, according to Fiskesjö, all headhunting paraphernalia was destroyed. Social institutions that were important in Wa society were disbanded. Drum-houses, the main meeting place in every Wa village, were torn down and the Wa’s log drums were thrown out or burned. Only a few survive in a few faraway museums, such as those on display at the Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital.
According to Fiskesjö: “Roadside a nog [head-container posts planted along the approach to a village] were destroyed or abandoned; the fortifications protecting villages were broken up and demolished. The major rituals of the past were abandoned. Chief ritualists and other community leaders were demoted, marginalized, or even persecuted.” Wa elders Fiskesjö spoke to during his research in the area in the 1990s regarded 1958 as the key watershed: “Since in that year the Chinese shifted policy from reconciliation to enforcement.” Even the Wa had to become Chinese communists and were herded into people’s communes.
Although this happened in the Wa-inhabited areas of Yunnan, the bitterness based on memories of that repression is deep on both sides of the border. That resentment, and unhappiness with the disgraceful way in which the Wa are being treated in China today, are consequences of a long-standing, strained relationship between these proud tribesmen—regardless of where they live—and the Han Chinese.
Since the 1989 mutiny, the UWSA has built up what amounts to a well-organized, de facto self-governing state between Myanmar and China with its own administrative offices, courts, hospitals and schools. It may be argued that a lot of the wealth that has made this possible comes from the trade in narcotics—first opium and heroin and then methamphetamine—and that is something the Wa leadership cannot hide or escape from. Today, other sources of income exist, such as tin and rare earth metals.
But the way forward, for the Wa and the rest of Myanmar, would have to take into account the unique history of the Wa, and the fact that they have never been ruled by any central authority. Before independence, colonial presence in the area was limited to occasional flag marches up to what the British perceived as the border with China. Then, in the 1950s and well into the 1960s, KMT warlords and local chieftains ruled the Wa Hills. That was the case until the early 1970s, when the CPB took over the entire border area, including the Wa Hills. And after the 1989 mutiny, of course, the UWSP/UWSA became the new governing body.
An enlightened and democratic Myanmar government could through wiser policies than those of the past integrate the Wa Hills with the rest of the country. But the possibility of that happening seems remote: the military, with its chauvinistic approach to ethnic minorities, remains in power in Naypyitaw, and the Chinese are not likely to abandon their strategically important grip over the UWSP/UWSA any time soon. Sadly, the Wa issue is more likely to continue to exist as one of many sources of despair in the seemingly never-ending Myanmar tragedy. But, at least, it deserves a better understanding than what has so far been the case both in Myanmar and internationally. The Wa may be Chinese puppets, but they are no Chinese stooges.
While China still refrains from too open support for the Burmese military dictatorship, Putin-Russia tries to establish another pillar for his world role in a multipolar world, this time in ASEAN and especially in Indonesia, Laos and Burma. And as China is not openly delivering arms to the Burmese military, Russia thinks about it and also invited the Burmese dicator to a security conference in Moscow. Therefore we also find a good analysis about Russia in South East Asia and Asia in The Irrawady and The Bangok Post by Kavi Chongkittavorn ,a a veteran journalist on regional affairs: .
“Russia is back and it’s a little bit better
13 Jul 2021
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing prior to their talks in Moscow. Russia is pivoting towards Southeast Asia, and extending its hands to the reclusive Myanmar junta. AFP
Make no mistake, Russia is back in Southeast Asia, the region where its former empire reigned during the Cold War. This time, Russia is more sophisticated and more assertive, as another global power that can shift and change the present strategic environment in the most visible way. Today Russia is determined to break US-led sanctions and further integrate its economy with the region’s economic dynamics.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Indonesia and Laos last week sent a strong signal that Russia is treating Southeast Asia as one of its core interests. His trip came immediately following the recent visit by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing of the State Administrative Council (SAC) to Moscow. Besides conducting talks with Indonesia, Mr Lavrov also held a virtual special ministerial meeting with his Asean colleagues to commemorate 25 years of ties with Asean. Indonesia is currently the coordinator of Russia-Asean relations.
Unlike his previous visits, Mr Lavrov was in listening mood as Russia wanted to assure Asean members that it is still a valuable strategic partner of Asean and would like to have stronger engagement with the bloc from now on. His two-day trip to Vientiane was also significant, designed to demonstrate that the Russian leader cared about the landlocked nation and was willing to come for a visit. As the coordinator of Asean-US ties, Laos was disappointed that their planned virtual special ministerial meeting in late June was cancelled due to technical glitches. Efforts to reschedule the meeting have been fruitless.
In Jakarta, Mr Lavrov reiterated that Russia sees Asean as a strategic, reliable and predictable ally in international affairs. „In our contacts with Myanmar leaders, military leaders, we promote the position of Asean which should be, in our view, considered as a basis for resolving this crisis and bringing the situation back to normalcy,“ he said, adding that it is especially important for Russia and Asean to coordinate their approaches. So far, that has not yet happened.
More than officials would like to admit, some Asean members are concerned due to Russia’s overt support of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, which they perceive as a display of divide and rule strategy. It could have negative impacts in undermining the Asean endeavours in the future, especially pertaining to Myanmar’s quagmire. Unlike Russia, China, another strong supporter of Myanmar, has made it clear that Beijing does not want to see further problems inside the country and backs a solution by Myanmar’s stakeholders with support from Asean.
During the special ministerial meeting, Asean and Russia discussed their more diversified cooperation which now includes pandemic preparedness and responses to tackle the spread of Covid-19, political and security issues, ICT, emergency and disaster management, economic issues, and science and technology. Cooperation on science and technology in the context of sustainable development was also highlighted with the focus on the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy, especially in the area of alternative and renewable energy where Russia has expertise.
Both sides also stressed the importance of joint research and development of Covid-19 vaccines and medicines as well as the possibility of establishing production and distribution facilities in Asean, especially in Indonesia. Russia has already donated its Sputnik V to Vietnam and Laos to fight the spread of coronavirus. In his intervention, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said the special meeting demonstrated Russia’s continued support of Asean centrality and active participation in Asean-led mechanisms.
Concerning Myanmar’s SAC chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Moscow last month, which came at the height of international condemnation and amid Asean’s ongoing efforts to establish a modus operandi with Myanmar, further scrutiny is needed. Besides being a major source of arms imports, Nay Pyi Taw is well aware of Russia’s added strategic value during the crisis, as it never preaches and is willing to support the regime with whatever it needs without question. At present, Myanmar-Russia ties have been elevated to the highest level as a reward for Moscow’s backing.
The trip also sent strong optics to Asean as well as to other dialogue partners that Myanmar could easily embrace Russia if the Asean family and others decide to increase pressure and seek isolation of the regime. In fact, Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Moscow must be seen as a new diplomatic manoeuvre after Nay Pyi Taw realised that support from Asean and China would not be as solid as before. Some of the Asean members have been openly hostile toward the SAC. The regime’s recalcitrance to quickly implement the five-point consensus and is a barometer of its intent.
After the former Soviet Union decided to leave Indochina behind some 30 years ago, Moscow has been occupied with myriads of domestic challenges following the collapse of its empire and subsequent attempts to gain entry to the democratic world. Since then its profile in this region has been confined to trade links and economic cooperation, However, Russia has remained an active global power in the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.
Under the marathon leadership of President Vladimir Putin, for unknown reasons, Moscow has attracted admiration for its strong tactics and unwavering support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and besieged Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, not to mention the annexation of Crimea. This shows Moscow’s iron-clad determination and unchallenged status in the world.
In a broader strategic context, Russia can use its closer ties with Myanmar to counter the US hardline approach, creating some breathing room for the regime. In a similar vein, Myanmar’s quagmire can be used as an entry point for Moscow’s eagerness to have a strong footprint in mainland Southeast Asia and weaken the so-called indivisible security– the security alliance created by the US during the Cold War. After all, Myanmar is sandwiched by both China and India in the wider Indo-Pacific.
Moscow has been quite successful with similar tete-a-tete action in the Middle East, Latin America and Belarus. In addition, with the Biden administration’s intensified efforts to garner support from allies and friends in this neighbourhood, Russia has extra motivation to do the same and further rejuvenate ties and cooperation with its former fraternal friends and others. Another windfall could very well be more support and closer ties with countries possibly marginalised by Washington’s liberal norms and democracy drive.
However as the NUG doesn´t talk too much about a people´s army, declares the PDF not as its polificial armed wing, there might be some reasons behind it: THinkqble options: The PDF is just an outlet for angry young academic male Bamar teens and academics which settle to the jungle to become a real hero and guerilla fighter.But that might be no decisive and big numbers and not a people´s army at all. Maybe the PDF is for the NUG, too urban, too theoretcal, too idealistic and- improtant: small. Therefore the NGU might reject the idea of a people´s army as it might have no real growth potential or some NUG leaders think that they can use the spontaneus terrorist acts and the devotion of that young idealists to increase their leverage when the NUG verbally gives support to some terrorist youth acts., while on the other side showing the Bamar majority that the NGU doesn´t want to plunge the state into civil war or to the treshod of a failed state or proxy war. Maybe the Bamar- Buddism and its deep-rooted pacifism in the people is also a factor. However, while China is acting with restraints, Putin-Russia seems to try to make Burma, Laos and Indonsia to its new foreign pillars in South East Asia and the ASEAN, while the Global times speaks of a strategic friendship axis between China- Russia and North Korea in East Asia. .