Russia’s Lopsided Engagement Policy

Published on June 30, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Gulf Times – July 1, 2009

Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation’s bilateral relation with the Union of Burma (also known as Myanmar) is unambiguously lopsided toward the ruling military junta. Though the two countries neither share a similar culture nor the same political system, they have teamed up as good darlings.
While the United States and the European Union are largely sufficed with sanctions, Russia grasped the opportunity to find a friend in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of Cold War. Russia’s engagement with the Burmese military regime is primarily based on economic interest and a lingering rivalry with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Russia seeks to expand its participation in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, Russian-Myanmar relations have good and promising prospects. We want and we’re ready to expand cooperation with Myanmar in all directions.” said Mikhail Fradkov, the then Russian prime minister, in April 2006. The announcement was followed by a number of investments.
In September 2006, JSC Zarubezhneft Itera Oil and Gas Company of Russian Federation and Sun Group of India agreed with Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) to explore oil and gas in offshore Block M-8 in the Mottama gulf off the Tanintharyi coast.

In March 2007, Russia’s Silver Wave Sputnik Petroleum Pte Ltd. signed a deal with MOGE to explore and produce oil and gas in onshore B-2 block in Kachin state.

Rosatum, the Russian Federal Nuclear Agency, reported in 2007 that it had signed a deal with the military junta to build a nuclear research reactor in Burma. The agreement also provided training for hundreds of the military people to work at the future research center.

The aforesaid points explicates why Russia chooses engagement over sanctions. This strengthened bilateral relationship has prevented Russia from speaking out for human rights and democracy in Burma.

In January 2007, Russia, joined by China and South Africa, vetoed the U.N. Security resolution on Burma. The resolution called for the military junta: to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners; to cease attacks on the country’s ethnic minorities, and to begin a democratic transition.

The resolution also called for a halt in the widespread use of rape by the armed forces and to support efforts by the International Labor Organization to end forced labor. The Burmese ambassador, Kyaw Tint Swe, praised the two veto-wielding powers and South Africa for opposing the resolution.

“We find attempts aimed at using the Security Council to discuss issues outside its purview are unacceptable,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the United Nations. The defeat of the resolution dashed the hope of getting the U.N. Security Council’s intervention in Burma. Had Russia and China approved the resolution, the picture of Burmese democratic movement could have been different.

The unsuccessful attempt of the Security Council emboldened the Burmese military junta’s intransigence nature. Subsequently a few months later, the world watched the brutality of the military on its own people during the September 2007 democracy uprising.

Russia, along with China, does not like the idea of internationalizing Burma’s political problem with the assertion that it is Burma’s internal matter and does not pose a threat to international peace and security. The two countries pursue engagement to establish a strong presence economically and militarily. This entails Moscow’s discreet relations with Naypyidaw.

Though the international community urges Russia to use its friendship with Burma to put pressure on the military generals, no substantive action has been taken. Moscow occasionally justified its policy by citing the engagement example of Burma’s neighboring countries, which have not yielded any democratic change.

The ongoing trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate and general secretary of the National League for Democracy, has prompted Russia to make somewhat intriguing message on June 20th. 

Russia hopes that the trial of “Myanmar Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be unbiased, strictly comply with national laws and humanitarian standards, and take into account the international opinion,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russia should not only speak out on the trial of Suu Kyi, but also on other human rights abuses and the urgent need for a democratic transition. It will be very effective if Russia, as a veto power at the U.N. Security Council, can set aside its differences with the United States and its allies for a coordinated international strategy on Burma.

As long as the rift remains within the U.N. Security Council members, and between the Western nations and the Eastern nations, the world will continue to watch the suffering of the Burmese commoners in the hands of the military generals.

It is now time for Russia to be on the right side of history by listening to the vast majority of the Burmese people, and not too complacent with the military junta.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum ( and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.