Myanmar’s military usually celebrates Armed Forces Day with a grand parade in the country’s capital as Chief General Min Aung Hlaing – in full dress – inspects his troops from an open-top 4×4.
Last year, as the generals celebrated the occasion with their usual pomp, security forces across the country launched deadly attacks on protesters opposing the February coup, killing some 160 civilians in a single daytime.
This year they are accused by the United Nations and others of committing atrocities that constitute crimes against humanity. The United States, Britain and Canada all announced new sanctions on arms dealers and the Air Force on Saturday.
But the military has not let its international isolation dampen the mood.
He has been preparing for Sunday’s parade for several weeks, and it looks like Russia – another pariah after its invasion of Ukraine in February – will once again be a guest of honor.
“[Russia and Myanmar] have a close and very important relationship. Russia has been a regular arms supplier and the junta has traveled to Moscow to see the weapons firsthand and meet with Russian military officials and arms dealers,” said Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur. United Nations on Human Rights in Myanmar.
Alongside Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, who attended the parade in 2021, several Russian pilots are expected to demonstrate new fighter jets the military recently purchased, underscoring the increasingly close relationship of the regime with Moscow, its greatest source of arms. .
Indeed, the Burmese army was one of the few to come to the defense of the Kremlin after the invasion of Ukraine, describing the attack as a “proper action” for the VOA Burmese news network.
In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in late February, Andrews identified Russia as one of three states – the others being China and Serbia – to have supplied weapons to Myanmar since the coup. of state despite their use against civilians.
While Russian and Chinese arms exports have shown no signs of slowing down, Serbia, which delivered rockets and ammunition shortly after the military took over, has since said it would stop. all future sales.
Belarus, India, Pakistan, Ukraine, South Korea and Israel were also flagged in the report as having sold military equipment to Myanmar before the coup.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which provides data on the international arms trade, shows that arms sales between Myanmar and these countries peaked around 2018-2019, but declined shortly before. that the generals do not take power.
Other countries have not terminated relations either, with Japan continuing to provide training for officers and cadets, according to Human Rights Watch.
Yet, while Myanmar’s military arsenal includes weapons and equipment from many countries, Russia remains its main international defense partner.
Justice for Myanmar (JFM), a rights group that investigates military investments in the country, on Sunday revealed a list of 19 Russian arms suppliers who have supplied equipment to the army, calling for them to be punished.
Although the relationship is longstanding, it has become particularly important to the regime since the coup when the military overthrew Myanmar’s elected government and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, the military has cracked down on the people of Myanmar in a series of violent attacks, killing at least 1,707 people as of March 25, according to the Political Prisoners Assistance Association. It also faces civilian rebel groups and growing resistance in border areas where it has fought ethnic armed groups for decades.
At the top of Russia’s list of state-run defense conglomerates is Rostec, a complex network of 15 holding companies and 70 entities, many of which have supplied the Myanmar military with equipment such as fighter jet parts, helicopter gunships and ground-to-air missile systems.
One of Rostec’s largest subsidiaries, Rosoboronexport, has sent multiple shipments of arms and equipment, including artillery, to the military since the coup and has previously touted the importance of its relations with Myanmar.
The head of Rosoboronexport said in July 2021 that he was enjoying “close cooperation” with Myanmar’s armed forces and earlier this month a military delegation visited Russia to see an exhibition of weapons where they met with a senior manager of Rosoboronexport to discuss “strengthening cooperation”. according to Myanmar’s official media.
Military officials also reportedly met with Russian officials in Myanmar.
Members of the Eurasian Economic Union, which has five member states including Russia and Belarus, met with the military in the capital Naypyidaw last week to discuss “bilateral trade promotion and defense services”, according to Myanmar’s official media.
At least three Rostec officials, including a chief expert from Rosoboronexport, are also currently in Myanmar, a source with knowledge of the situation who declined to be named told Al Jazeera. Rosoboronexport operates an office in Myanmar.
“Rostec is the most important Russian company for the Myanmar military, supplying a wide range of weapons and equipment, including fighter jets and helicopter gunships that the Myanmar military relies on for strikes blind airlines across the country,” JFM spokesman Yadanar Maung said. AlJazeera.
Along with Rosoboronexport, JSC Tactiles Missiles Corporation is also a major supplier of air force technology to the Myanmar military, shipping air-guided weapons readiness systems directly to the office of the Chief of the Army of the air in 2019. Another company, JSC Concern VKO, also known as Almaz-Antey, also supplied the Burmese army with parts for the maintenance and repair of surface-to-air missiles.
The last shipment was received almost three weeks after the 2021 coup, according to the JFM report.
The military’s interest in strengthening relations with Moscow is part of an effort to diversify its roster of defense partners and distance itself from China, according to David Mathieson, a leading independent analyst on Myanmar.
“[The military] recognizes that they need an ally that is not China. It’s part of a long-held view of international relations that the military has had, where they don’t like to rely on a single major player,” Mathieson told Al Jazeera.
Mathieson also notes that the gradual move away from Beijing could be due to the sale of “substandard” Chinese equipment which, while often cheaper than Russian weapons, is of lower quality and more likely to require regular repairs.
Defense relations with Russia are also less complex than with China.
The two countries have no common land border and Moscow’s arms sales are almost exclusively to the military, unlike China which has also sold arms to other groups within Myanmar, including those who are currently fighting against the army.
Russia is also providing Myanmar’s military with more effective air combat systems – with air strikes being a key part of the generals’ strategy against their adversaries – while China’s capabilities are more focused on land and sea.
“Russia is probably their closest supplier of the kinds of things they need, which are helicopter gunships and small attack aircraft,” Mathieson said.
Army attacks, particularly airstrikes and the use of helicopter gunships, have displaced more than 440,000 people, the UN said in March.
“They need each other”
Analysts say the strength and importance of Russia’s relationship with Myanmar’s military means that, even if Moscow’s attention and resources are diverted to its own war efforts in Ukraine, the flow of arms between the two countries should remain significant.
“If anything, as Russia continues to isolate itself, its relationship with Myanmar could become that much stronger as other partners pull back,” said Jon Grevatt, Asia news chief. -Pacific at Janes, a defense intelligence organization.
“Also, because of COVID-19, countries like [Myanmar] are better placed to deal with a restriction or disruption in the supply chain from Russia, as the focus is on developing local capabilities to produce spare parts locally and even provide maintenance locally.
Myanmar’s defense budget is about $2.5 billion a year, of which only about $500 million is allocated to defense procurement – a fraction of the true cost of Russian weapons. For example, the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets that have been used in attacks in northern Myanmar have an estimated list price of $47 million each, almost a tenth of its total budget, although the actual price varies by year and model.
Since the army cannot afford to buy all of its military equipment from Russia in dollars, there is a good chance that its purchases will be supported by the transfer of raw materials, including precious stones and wood. , according to Grevatt. It is an approach that also makes it easier for both parties to circumvent international sanctions.
The measures so far appear to have had little serious effect, according to the UN’s Andrews report from February, but that hasn’t deterred calls for additional arms embargoes and sanctions against the two countries. .
However, experts say it is unlikely to hinder the flow of arms from Russia to Myanmar.
“[Russia or Myanmar] won’t come out. This is something that will pass through thick and thin. They need each other and they know they are stronger together. They help each other – [Myanmar] can get military hardware and Russia can get raw materials,” Grevatt said.
“When your friends dwindle by the wayside, those you have left automatically become more important.”