The Tatmadaw’s special relationship with Russia

The recent, historic first meeting between the presidents of Myanmar and Russia came after years of close ties forged by the Tatmadaw and Moscow that included plans for nuclear cooperation.


The recent meeting between U Htin Kyaw and Mr Vladimir Putin was the first between the heads of state of Myanmar and Russia, though there have long been high-level contacts between the armed forces of the two countries.

Htin Kyaw held talks with the Russian strongman on the sidelines of the Russia-ASEAN summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 19. The meeting came a few days before State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and US Secretary of State Mr John Kerry held talks in Nay Pyi Taw.

The two meetings focused attention on a significant difference in the relationships between Myanmar and the two superpowers: Russia has developed close ties with senior members of the military establishment while the US has been an enthusiastic supporter of Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

On May 17, a few days before Kerry met Suu Kyi in the capital, US President Barack Obama extended executive sanctions against Myanmar for another 12 months, though he lifted them on seven state-owned enterprises and two military-owned banks.

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“Myanmar has changed and it has changed much for the better, and so has our bilateral relationship as a result,” Kerry told a joint news conference with Suu Kyi. “Just as President Obama has made Asia a priority of his presidency, he has made Myanmar a central focus of our policy towards Asia. He has visited this country twice, significant.”

The news conference came only days after the summit held to celebrate 20 years of Russia-ASEAN relations ended by approving the Sochi Declaration, on political, security and economic cooperation.

Nuclear factor

The declaration devotes considerable attention to energy cooperation. Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed to explore cooperation in oil and gas, electric power, energy efficiency, civilian nuclear energy and renewable energy and ways of enhancing energy security.

During President U Thein Sein’s term, the Union parliament in November 2014 passed a bill intended to pave the way for an agreement on improving military ties with Russia, including information sharing and training for intelligence officers.

In 2007, Russia signed an agreement to build a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar. The agreement provided for the research facility to have a 10 megawatt light-water reactor, but no progress has been reported on the project.

Although Myanmar had insisted that the reactor would be used for peaceful purposes, Western countries were critical of the agreement. Nuclear collaboration with Russia increased after the Thein Sein administration came to power in 2011.

At the May 22 news conference in Nay Pyi Taw, Suu Kyi said that the United States “didn’t push us” on the issue of nuclear cooperation with Russia, although she acknowledged that it was a sensitive issue two years ago. “Secretary Kerry mentioned it [nuclear] in passing,” she said, adding that she was not aware of any public discussion of the issue in recent years.

“Of course, we know, everybody knows, that Thailand and Burma are two of the countries which have not yet signed that anti-nuclear proliferation agreement, and perhaps this is a matter of concern to some, but then you’d have to ask the Thais the same question: Why have they not yet signed this agreement? And it does not mean that we don’t intend to sign it. I think we are all working towards a world where there will be no need for nuclear weapons.”

Dr Sai Khaing Myo Tun, visiting professor at the Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna, believes it unlikely that the NLD government will negotiate with Russia on nuclear technology transfer in the short term.

One reason why no such talks were likely for the time being was the role of the military.

“The government must negotiate with the Tatmadaw and get an agreement,” Sai Khaing Myo Tun told Frontier, adding that public opinion would also have to be taken into account in any such negotiations.

“Regarding the use of nuclear technology, public opinion is very important,” he said.

“It is important whether nuclear knowhow is used for peaceful purpose or making weapons and arms race. Myanmar’s increasing demand for energy might necessitate nuclear energy one day. But when we need it, who will give us necessary technology: US or Russia, we don’t know.”

At a news conference in Nay Pyi Taw on May 13, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the military was cooperating with President Htin Kyaw on the reform process.

A retired veteran academic who asked not to be named said he doubted whether nuclear cooperation between Myanmar and Russia was likely to be a major concern for the US. Myanmar does not need nuclear power and the US knows that very well, he said.

A retired Tatmadaw officer said Suu Kyi would need a balanced approach if she was to pursue nuclear cooperation with Russia, partly to avoid criticism from the Western countries that have been her core supporters.

“It’s about politics, I think,” said Lieutenant-Colonel (Rtd) Aung Myin Thu. “Politically, the Tatmadaw can’t cross the line over Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.

Economic focus

At his bilateral meeting with Htin Kyaw in Sochi, Putin focused on trade and economic ties. However, the two countries do not have extensive economic relations and the closest contacts involve military exchange programs and training.

“Russia-Myanmar bilateral trade is expected to reach $500 million in 2017,” said Sai Khaing Myo Tun. Russia had expressed interest in importing more agricultural products from Myanmar, he said. “I think this sort of relationship is beneficial to Myanmar. It is important for Myanmar to stay on the right foreign policy between the East and West. Being aligned to one side might cause trouble and the present government seems to acknowledge that fact. A country’s foreign policy must be based on the interest of the people or the national interest.”

A senior lecturer said Suu Kyi needed to accept that relations with Russia were a legacy of ties forged by previous military governments. She would need to tread carefully on relations with Moscow to avoid upsetting the Tatmadaw.

“The meaning of the meeting between Putin and Htin Kyaw was to legitimise the previous work done by generals; it is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi showing acceptance of the relationship between the Tatmadaw and Russia,” he said.

Title photo: AFP

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