In the wake of a coup and the reinstatement of a military-led government in Myanmar in early February, the Russian government has demonstrated cooperation with and possibly legitimized the control of the junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing through meetings and arms deals. The military junta took over when democratically elected officials, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were set to be sworn in on February 1st, 2021. The coup has been denounced by the UN General Assembly, as well as human rights groups, and some neighbouring countries and Western powers, while Russia has hosted visits with the junta leader and maintains military ties.
“We are determined to continue our efforts to strengthen bilateral ties based on the mutual understanding, respect and trust that have been established between our countries,” said Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defence Minister, who met with Min Aung Hlaing in Moscow for a security conference in late June. In contrast, the UN General Assembly’s resolution displays sharp global criticism for the military government of Myanmar, and importantly “calls on all member states to prevent the flow of arms to Myanmar.” However, this compromise draft of the resolution’s statement on arms is much less forceful than previous iterations, at the request of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Mass protests since the coup have been met with violent repression and arrests by the junta. Myanmar is at risk of civil war as the military’s violence continues and citizens engaging in guerrilla tactics and ethnic armed organizations fight back. A continuation of Russia’s export of arms to the Myanmar military takes advantage of a dangerous conflict that the international community should be united in efforts to de-escalate. The sympathy of powerful players like China and Russia, as well as the non-interventionist stance of ASEAN, have made action in the international community difficult.
The UN General Assembly’s statement calling for an arms embargo and condemning the junta is a step in the right direction, despite the abstention of 36 countries, including Russia, and being watered down. As countries like Russia and China continue their support for the Myanmar military, the rest of the world must be firm in their rebuke of the military takeover and ongoing violence in order to prevent civil war and the failure of the state, which would threaten the lives and well-being of the citizens of Myanmar.
Russia has a history of military ties with the Myanmar military, as 39% of the country’s arms imports from 1999 to 2018 came from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. If Russia ignores the call for an arms embargo and continues to show support, or at least not rejection, of the military junta, conflict and violence in Myanmar are more likely to persist.
An outright civil war is very possible; pro-democracy groups and armed ethnic organizations, which are now allied with the National Unity Government in opposition to the junta despite the NLD leader’s previous repression of these ethnic groups, are resisting the government’s violence by engaging in armed struggles against the military. Myanmar risks devolving into a failed state, as the economy and public health systems are at risk of collapse, which would send a wave of refugees out of the country. With an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar cannot handle more instability. The country faces a looming, acute humanitarian crisis without international intervention.
The UN and its members must continue to call upon Myanmar’s government for the release of political prisoners, opening of the country to humanitarian aid and the media, and the end of violent repression of speech and protest. ASEAN should take stronger action, at the very least for the sake of the credibility of its influence in the region. Most importantly, no country that desires peace should continue to supply the Myanmar military with the tools of its violence against its citizens. The international community must strongly assert the need for an arms embargo and put pressure on Russia to cut off its flow of arms to Myanmar.
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