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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 10, 2007
Why Russia’s mum on Myanmar

The current civil and political situation in Myanmar presents an opportunity for several major powers, namely Russia, China, India and the United States. Of these, Moscow has been working in concert with China to maintain the military-led status quo in Myanmar in order to preserve Russian interests.

For Russia, Myanmar is of growing economic interest since entering into various arms-for-energy access deals with the poor Southeast Asian country. In May, for example, Russian nuclear equipment export monopoly AtomStroyExport forged an

agreement to construct a nuclear research center in Myanmar – an arrangement both sides say would be dedicated to only civilian uses, but one that has raised possible proliferation concerns among some Western countries.

Meanwhile, leading foreign energy trade company Zarubezhneft, natural gas producer Itera, and Silver Wave Sputnik Petroleum are all currently producing from Myanmar's off-shore oil deposits - often working alongside the Chinese energy giant PetroChina. Myanmar purchased 15 Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters for approximately US$150 million in 2001 and it is now negotiating with Russia's state-controlled arms exporter Rosoboronexport for the establishment of an air defense system using the Russian-made Tor-M1 and Buk-M1-2 missile systems.

These business dealings - with a special emphasis on the energy-related deals - are important to Russia’s broad geo-strategic designs. Russia, which is currently one of the world’s leading exporters of natural gas, is on the path to achieving a near monopoly on the fuel source throughout Europe. It is most likely utilizing its growing access to Myanmar’s oil and natural gas deposits to drive forward its apparent aim of monopolizing Europe's energy industry and possibly expanding its economic and political interest further into Asia.

A recent Russian foreign ministry statement in the wake of recent street protests and security forces’ armed response warned that "urgent steps must be taken to prevent the escalation of tensions" in Myanmar. The statement inferred that Russia supported the government’s crackdown to stop the escalation of hostilities and restore stability. Russia has also made it clear that it does not support the imposition of new economic sanctions, which many Western countries have recently advocated to hit the military regime’s finances.

Opposition to Moscow’s non-interference policy has come from several sources, including, predictably, the US, which has called for harsh action and already imposed new sanctions against the regime, including new travel bans on senior junta members. One possible reason for the US’s strong push for political change in Myanmar is to undermine Russia’s and China’s growing economic and strategic interests there.

If the current regime were eventually deposed through popular pressure, it’s possible that a new democratic government would seek better relations with the United States and its European allies. That diplomatic realignment would likely come at China’s and Russia’s expense due to their close ties to the current military regime. Despite Beijing’s call for more democracy in Myanmar, China clearly favors a political transition where the current regime still has political control and explains its and Russia’s opposition to any new economic sanctions that would potentially weaken the military’s grip on power.

India is also a factor in the strategic struggle for influence in Myanmar. India has bid to build better bilateral relations with Myanmar towards the aim of securing new energy deals. Yet New Delhi was recently stripped of its "preferential buyer" status for certain offshore oilfields off Myanmar’s western coast.

Soon after removing India’s preferential buyer status, the junta entered into negotiations with Russian and Chinese oil companies. Possible Indian interests are limited at best since it has been pushed aside by China. It is most likely that the Indian government opposes Russia and China in an attempt to maintain some form of business relations with the country.

What actions and strategies Russia may adopt as the global call for action against Myanmar’s regime grows is still a wildcard. It is not clear whether Moscow would back an active international intervention that still preserved its interests or a more passive campaign of noncommittal rhetoric.

It is also still difficult to tell whether the US’s call for change will be able to generate a global consensus at the United Nations that leads to new multilateral sanctions against the regime, although with Russia’s and China’s veto powers on the UN Security Council that seems unlikely. It is clear, however, that Russia has recently extended its economic interests into Myanmar and hence has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. With additional reporting by Asia Times Online.


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