Brutal violence is unfolding in the military dictatorship of Burma; innocent civilians peacefully protesting military rule have been gunned down in the streets, including men of the cloth.
Just as Russia stands behind much of the trouble that the world is having with the crazed fundamentalist dictator of Iran, so to it has played a major role in bolstering the Burmese military junta that is now wrecking havoc upon southeast Asia, up to and including blocking UN action against Burma just as it has repeatedly done in regard to Iran. Here are two blasts from the past to help us remember that Russia’s foreign policy is every bit as vile and insidious as was that of the USSR:
The Asia Times, April 2006:
Russia has never let human-rights abuses get in the way of a good bilateral relationship. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union overtly supplied arms and concessionary loans to anti-Western allies such as Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and North Korea. Although the Soviet collapse in 1991 undermined those ties, President Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000 has seen Russia move to re-establish itself as a military ally to small countries that are willing to stand up against the United States.
So when Myanmar’s General Maung Aye recently visited Moscow, he was following in a long tradition of isolated regimes that have appealed for help to an uncritical Russia in times of need. Although Myanmar (known as Burma before 1989) was never Moscow’s closest ally during the Cold War, the Soviet leadership did favorably view Yangon’s visceral anti-Western isolationism. Moscow and Yangon established diplomatic relations in 1948, soon after Burma gained its independence. The Yangon Technical University, Inya Lake Hotel and Sao San Tun Hospital in the mountain town of Taunggyi were all built by the Soviet Union as gifts to Burma in the 1950s and 1960s, and remain a legacy of once-dynamic ties.
Relations stagnated after Myanmar’s military took power and withdrew from the world in pursuit of its “Buddhist path to socialism” policies, which philosophically didn’t exactly jibe with the Soviet Union’s vision for world revolution. After the Cold War, and increasingly isolated because of Western pressure over its poor human-rights record, Myanmar and Russia in 2000 signed a joint declaration related to forging friendly relations. Economic and military ties have since strengthened, and Myanmar appears to have become Russia’s destination of choice for re-establishing a strategic foothold in the region. “We view relations with Myanmar as a priority of Russian foreign policy in Southeast Asia,” Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told journalists after meeting with Maung Aye on April 3.
Foreign Minister Mikhail Lavrov also met with his counterpart from Myanmar, Nyan Win. “Russia prioritizes interaction with Myanmar in combat against international terrorism, crime and drug-trafficking,” Lavrov said. Myanmar wishes to strengthen “the friendly relations between our governments, peoples and armed forces”, Maung Aye said. “We have rubber, gas and oil, and there are opportunities for cooperation in production,” he said in Moscow, and urged Russian businessmen to invest in Myanmar. Both Maung Aye and Nyan Win reportedly reiterated that they had a feeling “as if visiting one’s own brother”. Russian business has expressed interest in Myanmar’s mineral resources, hydropower projects, transport and communications, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Mikhail Kamynin said on the eve of Maung Aye’s visit. He also said, “Myanmar’s traditional exports of rubber, rice, fruits, seafood and sewing articles are in demand in Russia.”
A number of other deals were signed, including an agreement on cooperation in combating illegal-drug trafficking, an upgrade of an anti-trafficking agreement signed in 1997.
Guns and oil
More significant, Russia’s Zarubezhneft oil company inked a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar’s Energy Ministry, paving the way for the energy concern to bid on future oil and gas exploration and production concessions. The oil deal was understood to be Myanmar’s trade-off in exchange for Moscow’s readiness to supply more arms to the increasingly isolated regime.
Myanmar officials were understood to seek Russian assistance in upgrading the country’s air-defense system, notably by procuring Russian-made Tor-M1 and Buk-M1-2 missile systems. On April 5-6, Maung Aye also visited St Petersburg, Russia’s main hub of naval wharves. Details of that visit were not made public. A project to build two plants in Myanmar to repair and upgrade the country’s Soviet-designed aircraft was also discussed. Contracts on Russian arms supplies to Myanmar are expected to be signed during a visit to Yangon this year by Russia’s army chief of staff, Yuri Baluyevsky.
By arming Myanmar’s regime, Moscow would in effect be serving Beijing’s interests. Myanmar has become one of China’s major outposts for securing its maritime oil supplies from the Middle East, which must pass through the narrow Strait of Malacca. Chinese leaders have voiced their concern that in a potential future conflict, the US might aim to blockade the strait and starve the Chinese economy of fuel sources. Russia’s help in arming and improving Myanmar’s military-oriented installations, then, indirectly helps to shore up China’s energy security.
The visiting Myanmar delegation included Tay Za, Yangon’s most powerful and best-connected businessman. Tay Za serves as the Myanmar representative for Russia’s aircraft maker MAPO and the Russian helicopter firm Rostvertol in Yangon, and he was believed instrumental in the 2002 deal that saw Russia sell 10 MiG-29 jet fighters for US$130 million to Myanmar’s generals.
Myanmar-Russia military-to-military ties are steeped in history. In 1995, General Tin Oo traveled to Russia and agreed to buy Mi-17 military transport helicopters and other military hardware. After that visit, Russian technicians and military advisers started to visit Myanmar regularly, while Yangon reportedly sent some 1,000 air force officers and technicians to Russia for training. Part of the MiG-29 jet-fighter deal included a Russian agreement to provide training to Myanmar’s pilots.
There are potentially bigger deals in the pipeline that could have important strategic significance to Southeast Asia. In 2001 Myanmar’s generals clinched a deal with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) to construct a 10-megawatt nuclear test reactor in Myanmar. In January 2002, after photographs of groundbreaking for the plant circulated in the Western diplomatic community, Myanmar authorities informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intention to construct the reactor, which they said would be used strictly “for peaceful purposes”.
Although Myanmar is a signatory to the 1992 Non-Proliferation Treaty, many observers believe the junta might pursue a nuclear weapon through such a facility to keep its US and Western European critics at bay – similar to North Korea’s style of nuclear brinksmanship. Media reports claimed then that Myanmar scientists were receiving nuclear training in Russia. Those concerns were allayed when Myanmar hit hard economic times and was unable to continue financing the facility’s construction. During Maung Aye’s visit, however, his delegation and Russia’s Kurchatov nuclear research center reportedly signed a new cooperation blueprint, opening the way for a revival of the controversial project.
These days Myanmar might receive more credit from Moscow to purchase made-in-Russia military wares and nuclear technology. Awash with petrodollars, Moscow has recently demonstrated a willingness to extend sizable loans to sell its sensitive military technologies to Myanmar, similar to the financing arrangements made for allies by the United States’ Defense Department.
For instance, the Russian government recently pledged to extend a loan of up to $1 billion to Indonesia to buy Russian-made defense and military equipment over the next five years, General Sjafrie Syamsuddin, secretary general of the Indonesian Defense Ministry, said last week. Russian arms exporters have in recent years prioritized Asian markets. China and India remained main buyers of Russia’s military hardware as the country’s arms exports reached a record $6 billion in 2005. And Putin announced on March 31 his hope to extend Russia’s arms trade deeper into Southeast Asia.
Diplomatic pressures are growing against Myanmar’s few friends and allies to help change the hardline regime’s authoritarian ways. “China and India must convince Myanmar to hasten democratic reform,” Ong Ken Yong, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary general, said on March 30. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged China and India to put more pressure on Myanmar’s military government over its human-rights record. “We need China to be more active on this front … and India as well,” she said while visiting the region last month. However, nobody’s mentioning Moscow – at least not yet. Russia’s leaders have failed to express any concerns about Myanmar’s abysmal rights record. “We have treated each other with deep and great respect and understand the current situation of each country and have never tried to interfere in each other’s internal affairs,” Russian Embassy official Alexey Semenikhin said in early February. But as their military-to-military connections expand, Myanmar’s and Russia’s internal affairs are becoming inextricably intertwined
The Guardian, May 2007:
Russia has agreed to supply Burma with its first nuclear reactor, in a move that is likely to dismay the United States and raise fresh fears about the spread of nuclear technology around the world. Russia’s atomic energy agency said it had reached a deal with Burma’s military junta to build a nuclear research centre. The plant will have a light water reactor with a capacity of 10MW. It will use 20% enriched nuclear fuel, the agency said.
Burma’s science minister, U Thaung, signed a memorandum of understanding in Moscow on Tuesday with the agency’s chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, officials said. A contract setting out where the plant would be built – and exactly how much it cost – would be agreed later, they added. The deal will irritate the Bush administration at a time when US-Russian relations are already in deep trouble over a range of issues ranging from missile defence to the future of Kosovo. It comes ahead of a difficult EU-Russia summit today and tomorrow in the Volga town of Samara.
Burma has been under US and international sanctions since 1990, when the military junta refused to accept the election victory of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then Russia, along with China, has become a major backer and supplier of arms to the Burmese regime. The US is also unhappy about Russia helping Iran to build a $2bn (£1bn) nuclear facility at Bushehr. Washington suspects Iran of developing nuclear weapons.
Yesterday Russia’s federal atomic energy agency insisted that Burma had a right to peaceful nuclear technology – and said that there was “no way” it could use the reactor to develop nuclear missiles. The agency’s spokesman, Sergei Novikov, told the Guardian: “It’s impossible to use it for anything other than civilian purposes. It can’t be used for military nuclear programmes.” Asked why Burma’s government wanted a nuclear reactor, he replied: “I don’t know.” Mr Novikov then suggested: “They want to make a first start in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.” The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also rejected criticism. “No one is arguing about the right of every state to have peaceful nuclear energy,” he said. “We can only welcome achievements in this sector of industry, which is very developed and very safe from the point of view of non-proliferation.”
Russian officials say the research centre – which will include laboratories and a facility for processing and burying nuclear waste – will produce only a small amount of electricity. Its main purpose will be to produce medical isotopes for use in cancer treatments. They conceded, however, that Burma would probably build a much larger nuclear reactor at some point. The atomic agency pointed out that the project in Burma, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would come under International Atomic Energy Agency control. Yesterday, however, an IAEA official said Burma had not “informed” it about the plan. Any reactor would be subject to safety inspections by the UN agency, the official said.
Construction of the reactor will be handled by the state-owned Atomstroiexport, which is controlled by Russia’s atomic agency. “We are currently at the state of declaration of intentions,” its spokeswoman, Irina Yesipova, told the Guardian yesterday. The deal is a long time in coming. The project was first floated in 2000 but apparently collapsed in 2003 because of Burma’s inability to find the hard currency needed to pay for construction costs. Under the deal, about 350 Burma scientists would be invited to Russia to learn about nuclear technology, Mr Novikov said. Analysts believe the country’s military leadership has sought Russia’s help in an attempt to balance its traditional and lop-sided dependence on China. Intriguingly, the move comes a month after Burma restored diplomatic relations with North Korea after a gap of 15 years. Burma’s capital, Rangoon, suffers from frequent power cuts as the country’s economy struggles under the weight of decades of economic mismanagement. Some 240 miles north of Rangoon, the junta’s newly built capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is basking in light, visitors report. The military has run Burma since 1962. It ignored Ms Suu Kyi’s landslide 1990 election victory. She has been under house arrest ever since.
As well as Burma, Russia is already building seven nuclear power plants in Iran, China, India and Bulgaria. It also agreed on Tuesday to refurbish four old nuclear reactors in Hungary, built in the early 1980s. The Kremlin insists all countries have a right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. Moscow’s most controversial project is the construction of Iran’s first nuclear power station in the Gulf seaport of Bushehr. To Washington’s delight, work on the project stopped earlier this year in a row over unpaid bills. The US accuses Iran of developing an illicit nuclear bomb programme – a charge Tehran denies. Russia’s state-owned company Atomstroiexport, will build Burma’s new nuclear reactor. Yesterday’s Kommersant newspaper put the cost to Burma’s military regime at $50m-$70m (£25m-£35m).