Myanmar: new field of Russia, China cooperation

05/ 04/ 2006

MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev) 

The Moscow visit of second in command in Myanmar Vice-Chairman of the State
Peace and Development Council and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye is telling
in many respects. Russian business and diplomacy have made a breakthrough in
South-East Asia, a region where President Vladimir Putin attended the first
ASEAN-Russia summit in Kuala Lumpur at the end of last year. 

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), which unites the
region's ten countries, conducts summits only with its closest partners.
ASEAN's decision to make Russia a permanent participant of such summits (on
a par with the heads of state or government of China, India and Japan, to
name a few) reflected stronger political ties with Moscow and more active
business contacts. Energy projects have always been Russia's obvious
advantage. As for South East Asia, Moscow invests in oil and gas production
in Vietnam and supplies Thailand with know-how and technologies. Now the
Russian company Zarubezhneft has signed a memo of understanding in Moscow on
strategic cooperation in the oil industry with the Myanmar Ministry of
Energy. 

The second sphere, which opens the door to the world economy for Russian
business, is the export of arms. The Russian media report that in the case
of Myanmar, Russia will use an arrangement whereby the exports of Russian
arms are paid with energy assets. Like neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia and
Indonesia, Myanmar may purchase MIGs-29 and get an air defense system (Tor
and Buk), while the Russians could become the co-owners of its oil and gas
companies. 

All these reports would appear only in the business media if it were not for
the nature of the Myanmar military regime, or, to be more exact, Myanmar's
specific relations with the U.S. and Europe, which turn the whole thing into
a thriller. 

Every region has one or two regimes, which the U.S. or EU, or both, have
blacklisted. Some neighboring regimes are no more democratic, yet not all of
them get the sinister titles of dictatorships and are deemed outcasts. In
the Middle East, Syria is a good example, in Central Asia we have Uzbekistan
and in South East Asia -- Myanmar. 

It is easy to see that this is the time-tested political technology of
laying time bombs all over the world. These time bombs may be left intact,
but, if need be, they may be detonated (or used as an instrument of
blackmail) to destabilize the situation in the entire region. 

Last December, Myanmar's military regime was the subject of debate at the UN
Security Council, which listened to a report by two impeccable dissidents -
former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and Noble Prize winner
Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. The report mostly dealt with the
regime's measures to suppress the chronic rebel movements of national
minorities - alpine tribes whose economy is largely based on the growth and
sales of opium poppy. Havel and Tutu also described how government soldiers
raped women, used slave labor and took part in drug trafficking. 

An NGO from Myanmar also submitted a report to the Security Council claiming
the first report was almost exclusively based on information supplied by
dissidents and refugees who had a stake in making the domestic situation
sound bleak. 

An analysis of the recent documents filed by various sources after the
suppression of a riot in the Uzbek city of Andizhan, or many other similar
situations, shows that both sides are wrong (or right). Dissidents are as
unreliable a source of information as government authorities. This is too
bad because there are quite a few countries like Myanmar, but a very short
list of solutions to their problems. 

However, there is a political organization that looks at the situation in
Myanmar from a completely different angle. For many nations in ASEAN (which
also incorporates the Yangon regime), the situation in that problem country
is similar to what it was in other Asian countries 20 years ago. Those who
were spared foreign interference managed to overcome the
military-dictatorial stage without many losses. They hope that Myanmar's
society will follow suit, even despite its multi-tribe character. For most
ASEAN countries, Myanmar is not just a neighbor, but also an economic
partner. 

ASEAN is not an anti-Western bloc, but there are anti-Western attitudes in
its countries and those attitudes are fuelled not only and not so much by
the Muslim problem (the war in Iraq or the Palestinian settlement), but by
constant pressure on ASEAN because of Myanmar. This pressure, and
particularly concrete recipes for democratization through sanctions and
isolation, proves to ASEAN countries that they are dealing with people who
are either not competent or not very friendly and who can plunge the region
into chaos, as was the case with Cambodia during the war in Indochina. 

For this reason, ASEAN pursues a double-edged policy towards Myanmar - to
protect the military regime against inappropriate pressure and to help it
reform itself. 

It would be quite logical for Russia, which needs markets, to avail itself
of the classic Western mistakes and act according to the do-the-reverse
principle, winning ASEAN respect. But let's not forget that two other ASEAN
partners, China and India, are in a similar position. They have many
economic interests in Myanmar (and share borders with it). It is no accident
that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently urged Beijing and
Delhi to put pressure on the Yangon regime in order to bring about
democracy. Apparently, Moscow will now hear similar appeals from time to
time as well. 

As for China, it has all but monopolized energy and military cooperation
with Myanmar and has military bases and solid investments there. But the
technical capabilities of China, a neighbor and partner of Russia, are not
limitless. Here's a new case of Chinese-Russian cooperation on a third
country's market. 

This is a new case because we have witnessed a similar coincidence of
interests and cooperation in Central Asia, where Moscow and Beijing are
making good use of obvious Western mistakes, like in Uzbekistan. The Central
Asian republic's regime is also somewhat tough and the situation with
security and subversive movements is far from ideal, but in this case, being
too isolated is not a solution, but an irresponsible attitude. 

The political wisdom of Beijing and Moscow lies in offering an alternative
to the pressure and sanctions - a mild and gradual withdrawal from the
deadlock into which the country has driven itself. It remains to be seen,
however, if this alternative works - both in Myanmar and in Uzbekistan.