Russia’s attempts to pivot to Asia were greeted politely and initially with interest up to this point by nervous Southeast Asian countries anxious for another geopolitical player but things are beginning to look different as it fails in Ukraine and the people of Myanmar make strides in throwing off the yoke of their authoritarian and increasingly despotic government.
The crumbling regime of Myanmar’s despotic military rulers is gradually losing control over the country with a UN report at the beginning of September suggesting that 52% of Burma’s territory is now under the control of the National Unity Government (NUG) with only 17% of the country including key urban centres controlled by an overstretched military unable to mount and sustain major ground offensives. The precarious situation of General Min Aung Hlaing and his junta in Nay Pyi Taw is worsening with the democratic forces only being held in check in key areas by crucial military support from both China and Russia with Russian military jets supplied to the junta, in particular, acting as a lifeline. Last week, Myanmar’s junta leader met President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok as the Kremlin leader’s fortunes are also in reverse while the United States moves forward with its geo-political and trade policy in Asia which is strengthening.
Last week, at an economic event in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, the leader of Myanmar’s military junta General Min Aung Hlaing hailed Russia as a world leader and preserver of global stability.
In an obsequious address, while meeting the Russian leader, Myanmar’s strong man hailed him, in his own words as ‘not just the leader of Russia but a leader of the world because you control and organise stability around the whole world.’
Ukrainian forces, in a lightning offensive, score the biggest success in the war so far with critical Putin allies saying the war is already lost for Russia
The conference came as Ukrainian forces in the country’s Kharkiv region scored their biggest success in the war so far by launching a lightning offensive which saw Russian forces retreating at all points for up to 3,000 square kilometres and a rising chorus of criticism from the most unlikely quarter in Russia, the far right who are openly and vociferously suggesting Putin’s war in Ukraine is already lost.
The deteriorating situation for the Russian army in Ukraine is similar to the situation in Myanmar where the junta, known as the Myanmar State Administrative Council, has been losing ground since the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) last year and its own defence forces which have attracted widespread popular and patriotic support.
Indeed, the struggle in Myanmar is being seen by younger populations throughout Asia as a struggle against authoritarianism and a battle for a future where coups or a country’s military can no longer override democratic rights.
Chinese propaganda targets the United States
This is also the subtext or theme of the new economic pact, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) being promoted and negotiated with Asian countries by the Biden administration in Washington.
This is linked with raised tensions between America and China over Taiwan which are being seen and heard on Chinese propaganda networks aimed at Southeast Asian countries including Thailand which in local languages, propagates the idea that the United States is a threat to economic stability and progress.
Despised Tatmadaw in Myanmar are losing ground with over 90 strategic bases taken since the 2021 coup
Meanwhile, the popular People’s Defence Armed Forces (PDF) in Myanmar are working with ethnic militias who have long fought a struggle for autonomy against the Tatmadaw, the now reviled forces of the central government in Thailand’s western neighbour which since the coup in February 2021 has reportedly lost control of large swathes of the country including 90 strategic bases over the last 17 months to the democratically elected government formed from the results of the November 2021 General Election which sparked the coup three months later and which is led by the National League for Democracy, the party of Myanmar’s iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi
It is little wonder that General Min Aung Hlaing found time last week to meet with President Putin given the significance of Russian support to his tottering regime in the form of fighter aircraft.
Hunter Marston is an academic researcher and analyst who works with the National University of Canberra in Australia.
Myanmar’s depleted military struggles to defend 17% of its territory, unable to mount offensives
He noted that the only thing protecting the junta’s beleaguered forces from the growing ranks of Myanmar’s People’s Defence Armed Forces (PDF), the military arm of the National Unity Government (NUG), are the Migs and other fighter aircraft supplied by Russia and which are being used indiscriminately against the armed forces ranged against the junta but which are still gaining ground.
He said that Russian-supplied fighter aircraft were ‘one of the only things allowing them to keep the PDFs (People’s Defence Armed Forces)’ at bay. ‘Otherwise, they would be suffering more losses than they already are.’
Iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi handed down jail terms in closed court hearings condemned worldwide
In mid-August, the former de facto leader of Myanmar before the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further six years in prison with hard labour on trumped-up charges of corruption by a court sitting behind closed doors to be added to an earlier sentence of eleven years.
The trial and sentence were roundly dismissed and rejected by the international community including the European Union’s foreign policy chief Mr Josep Borrell who condemned the proceedings and called on the junta to release her.
Legitimacy of regime in Nay Pyi Taw questioned
This followed the execution of 4 political prisoners in July by the increasingly desperate and despotic junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing, a move which horrified the world community and clearly shows that the regime in Nay Pyi Taw has burned its bridges as it increasingly runs afoul of even ASEAN member states although Thailand along with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have shown themselves willing to work with the regime whose legitimacy is openly and increasingly questioned.
This was seen by the attendance of Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at the 7th Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Bagan Myanmar in early July together with counterparts from China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
UN briefing paper shows that Myanmar’s military is on the back foot in an open war with the population
On September 5th, a briefing paper prepared by UN envoys to the war-torn country noted that the government in Nay Pyi Taw only controlled 72 out of 330 townships in the country while the National Unity Government (NUG) now controlled directly 52% of Myanmar’s territory.
It also noted that the junta was being openly confronted and challenged in a further 23% of the country while the regime’s over-stretched armed forces were losing recruits and were being forced into a defensive posture concentrating its power on the key cities.
The junta, it concluded, only exercised real control over 17% of the country at this time.
Junta’s forces cannot field 1,000 soldiers in a military operation as it defends roads and city links
An analyst quoted in the report disclosed that the military junta was no longer capable, despite superior air power and equipment being resourced from China and Russia, of launching military operations with up to 1,000 soldiers due to its depleted ranks and efforts to defend its positions, particularly roads and transport in and out of key cities.
‘What the junta is doing now is defensive to control cities and transport routes and fight the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) that it feels are a threat. That’s all. In Sagaing and Magwe, it mainly controls towns and roads. Elsewhere it only raids villages and torches homes based on tip-offs,’ it disclosed.
Russian bear tries to pivot to Asia with discounted crude and energy supplies but countries are wary
The situation in Myanmar and Russia’s attempts to pivot to Asia because of US and European sanctions were initially greeted warmly in Southeast Asia and Thailand with only Singapore opting to impose sanctions on Putin over the invasion of Ukraine while Thailand did support the United States and western countries in a UN resolution condemning the invasion but was neutral on other UN motions.
Russia has been seen by Asian capitals as a potential balancing option at this time for countries such as Thailand who are increasingly anxious over the deepening rift and state of tension between the United States and China.
One key benefit for Asian countries has been an opportunity to buy Russian energy at knockdown prices due to the sanctions on Moscow and Putin’s need to fund his floundering war effort.
Thailand signed a deal with Moscow but exports have plummeted because of US and international sanctions
In May, Thailand signed a deal with Russia to strengthen trade ties which targeted $10 billion in turnover but at the same time, the reality has been that the war has caused Thailand’s exports to Russia to decline substantially with reports of problems by Thai firms getting paid despite the ambitious plans for Moscow to buy more Thai rice, fruit and cars with Russia helping Thailand to develop its technology sector.
In June, Mr Kittinan Yingcharoen, the boss of the Office of Overseas Trade Promotion stationed in Moscow reported that Thai exports to Russia plunged by nearly 80% in March and April.
There are now reported plans to reroute trade with Russia through another country as Russia, like the Myanmar junta regime, has become a pariah state in western countries with established and respected firms decoupling from its economy much the same as Myanmar since the 2021 coup.
Vietnam, once a Russian ally, is cagey about Moscow’s wartime overtures with rising US investment as top firms exit China including interest from Apple
Vietnam is also being targeted by the Kremlin with the Russian bear through Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, trying to rekindle the cold war era alliance although Vietnam is seen to be somewhat cagey about its position as Thailand’s fellow ASEAN member with free trade deals with the United Kingdom and European Union, has much to lose.
The country is beginning to attract more firms exiting China than Thailand with reports that Apple is exploring the possibility of opening a production hub in Vietnam which remains a one-party Communist State but has a stronger demographic base than Thailand and is one of the kingdom’s arch competitors for inward investment.
Myanmar to launch MTube in its territory
The failing regime of General Min Aung Hlaing announced at the beginning of September that it is launching its own version of YouTube as the junta, like the regime in Moscow, further censors critical internet media coverage and access to information.
The new video-sharing outlet will be called MTube and is being created by a state expert panel in Nay Pyi Taw to counteract what the regime labels ‘fake news’ from the existing market leader YouTube which the regime has been censoring in the limited part of the country it maintains control over.
Steady progress on US trade pact as ministers from 13 Indo pacific countries gather in Washington DC
In the meantime, last Friday saw ministers from 13 Indo-Pacific countries including Thailand in Washington DC to negotiate the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which aims at forging a new standardised trade agreement based around 4 key pillars which encompass data exchanges, standard labour rights, supply chain guarantees and anti-corruption measures including strong environmental standards.
If finalised, the pact would facilitate stronger ties with the US economy and see a harmonised market for 40% of the world’s GDP although, significantly, without cuts in tariffs.
The countries that are partners in the framework as well as the United States include Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.