Since the February 2021 military coup, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar, at least 2,400 civilians, including prodemocracy protesters and activists, have been killed by the junta. Over one million people have been internally displaced and tens of thousands have fled the country to become refugees in Thailand and surrounding nations.
The United States and the European Union were quick to impose sanctions on General Min Aung Hlaing and the other leaders of the coup. Unfortunately, Russia and China have not only refused to condemn the coup, but they have also blocked United Nations action against the junta at the U.N. Security Council. Even worse, they continue to trade with the regime supporting them economically.
In return for China and Russia’s support in the UN, the Myanmar generals have publicly approved of the Ukraine invasion, calling it an “appropriate action.”
On Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, held on March 27th, Moscow sent an official representative to the country’s capital Naypyidaw. On the same day, security forces killed protesters, but the Russians remained silent. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has hosted junta-leader Ming Aung Hlaing three times, including a meeting with Vladimir Putin. In August, junta leaders announced plans to import gasoline and fuel oil from Russia.
In October, the U.S. sanctioned executives of a Burmese company Dynasty International Company Limited who were procuring Russian weapons for the junta through Belarus. The European Parliament has also accused Russia and China of selling weapons to the junta. The EU issued a resolution stating that by selling fighter jets and armored vehicles to Myanmar, China and Russia are, “directly responsible for the atrocities committed with those arms”. The same resolution condemned Russian ally Serbia for providing the junta with rockets. Furthermore, thanks to China, Myanmar is the first Southeast Asian nation to receive a Chinese submarine.
Russia and Myanmar are both faced with effective blacklisting from U.S. international payment systems and have been in talks with each other about how to settle their trade without using US dollars. Both countries are running short on dollars; however, the ruble is considered a non-convertible currency and the Myanmar kyat has been in steady decline since the coup and stands at 2,099 kyat to the dollar at time of writing. Consequently, the two countries are exploring various options for circumventing financial sanctions such as direct barter for Russian fertilizer and weapons.
On April 2nd, 2022, Beijing pledged their support for the junta, “no matter how the situation changes”. The US and other western nations have frozen the regime’s assets held in foreign banks, but China continues to invest in the Myanmar. In fact, China is Myanmar’s largest investment and trading partner. In 2022, China stepped up its investment in a stretch of the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) called the Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). In addition to providing China with much needed liquid natural gas (LNG), CMEC will also afford China a seaport with access to the Indian Ocean.
In April of this year, the Myanmar junta’s de facto foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin was hosted in Beijing where the junta was awarded a new consulate and $100 million in economic aid. While other organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have barred Myanmar from attending their summits, China arranged for Myanmar to host this year’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Forum, which includes China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The war in Myanmar has been ongoing for nearly 70 years. And while Russia has been selling Myanmar weapons for over 20 years, China has been a principal partner of the various regimes since the beginning.
Before World War II, Burma had been a British colony. During the war, General Aung San, the father of Nobel Prize winning pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, fled to China to get support for independence. In China, he was intercepted by Japanese intelligence who sent him to Japan for education. He later returned to Burma as head of the newly-formed Japanese puppet government in the country. He later switched sides and began fighting against the Japanese. After the war, the allies began negotiating Burma’s independence with him.
The country is home to some 135 ethnic groups, many of which were concerned that their interests would not be represented after independence. Consequently, in 1947, Aung San along with the leaders of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan ethnic groups signed the Panglong Agreement guaranteeing autonomy to the states dominated by each of the three ethnicities and the right to secede after ten years. Aung San was assassinated shortly afterwards. Burma was awarded independence in 1948, and fighting broke out almost immediately as the Burmans failed to honor the Panglong Agreement.
The Karen National Union (KNLA) formed in 1949 and represented one of the largest ethnic groups. It was the first to take up arms and fight for autonomy within their ethnic state. Various other ethnic groups began taking up arms including the Karenni Army (1949), Pa-O National Army (1949), Mon National Army (1958), and Kachin Independence army (1961). Throughout the entire history of the Burmese conflict, China has often backed the military government, ethnic Chinese resistance groups, or other ethnic armies which supported China’s economic interests. Sometimes, China has backed both the government and the resistance fighters. Despite ethnic conflicts and low-intensity civil war, Burma managed to maintain a series of three parliamentary governments until 1962 when General Ne Win seized control of the country. Suffering more severely under military than parliamentary rule, other ethnic armies began to form such as the Arakan Liberation Army (1968), Wa National Army (1969), Shan State Army-North (1971), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (1980), Rohingya Solidarity Organization (1982), All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (1988), and China National Army (1988) among others. The fighting went on for more than twenty years with more and more ethnic resistance armies being formed and joining the fight.
The ethnic areas are rich in minerals and energy which the successive regimes have sold to China. The regimes also fund themselves by supporting the trade of opium and methamphetamine (yaba). The drugs are smuggled out of Burma and sold in Thailand, by ethnic armies in partnership with the regime. The United Wa State Army, which has received support from China and has at times sided with the government regime against the other ethnic resistance armies, were considered the largest opium dealers in the world in the early 2000s.
From 2008-2015, a new constitution was drafted and political liberalization began to take hold. In 2015, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the national election in a landslide. While the NLD was officially in power by law, the military still held enough appointed seats in the parliament that the NLD was nearly powerless to enact legislation opposed by the military. In 2019, the NLD won re-election, but was ousted in a military coup shortly after. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has since been sentenced to 26 years in prison.
Since the coup in 2021, fighting in the ethnic areas has intensified with large numbers of Burmans and city people joining the fight against the military junta. However, the largest and most powerful ethnic resistance army, the Arakan Army, has not joined the fight. Most observers believe it is because they, along with the United Wa State Army, have been paid by China to stand down.
Disregarding the regime’s human rights abuses and suppression of the general populace, China continues to be one of Myanmar’s top trading and investment partner. Unable to settle their trade in dollars or kyat, China and Myanmar have agreed to use yuan for cross border trade. For Beijing, this is yet another win because it is a small step toward the internationalization of the yuan.
Through its engagement with Myanmar, Russia is able to bypass U.S. and EU sanctions, and obtain much needed funding for its war in Ukraine. At the same time, China’s trade and investment in Myanmar provides Beijing with cheap energy and raw materials, expanded internationalization of the yuan, and additional votes of support in the UN. Additionally, China will have a port on the Indian Ocean, dramatically increasing China’s maritime power and its threat to both US and Indian interests.