ASEAN aiding and abetting the Myanmar junta’s atrocities through counter terrorism military training in Russia

September 30, 2023

ASEAN has provided military training to the illegal Myanmar junta in the name of “counter terrorism”, deepening the bloc’s complicity in the junta’s atrocities. The ASEAN training exercise involved tactics that the junta can deploy in its campaign of terror against the people, using weapons that are in the junta’s arsenal.

As part of the exercise, military contingents from participating countries have collaborated in multinational teams to attack simulated “terrorist” enemies.

On September 29, 2023, Russian state-controlled media reported that 700 personnel participated in the ASEAN training exercise, taking place under its Eastern Military District at a training ground in Primorsky Krai. Justice For Myanmar cannot verify the accuracy of this figure. The exercise ran from September 25-30.

According to the same report, the exercise saw combined motorized rifle units, consisting of military personnel from India, China, Laos, Myanmar and Russia, clearing, blocking and destroying pre-prepared strongholds of mock terrorists, with the support of tank units on T-80BVMs, crews of 120-mm Sani mortar systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and crews of helicopters. This was followed by crews of Ka-52 “Alligator” helicopters and Su-25 “Rook” aircraft launching attacks with unguided aircraft missiles and bombs against terrorists in a village. The report indicates that the exercise supported military personnel of the participating countries to gain combat experience.  

The ASEAN exercise is taking place against a backdrop in which the junta is carrying out indiscriminate aerial attacks against the people of Myanmar and civilian structures. Airstrikes have targeted religious buildings, schools and medical centres that shelter civilians fleeing from the junta’s attacks and provide humanitarian assistance.

A report released this month by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the Myanmar military “increasingly rely on air and artillery strikes on villages and other populated areas, burning of villages, executions and killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, forced displacement, denial of humanitarian access, and persecution”. The High Commissioner called on the UN Security Council to refer the Myanmar situation to the International Criminal Court.

The junta is intensifying the commission of atrocities under the pretext of “counter terrorism”. For instance, junta propaganda attempted to defend the Pazigyi massacre, in which its air force killed at least 168 people, as a “counter terrorism” operation against the legitimate government of Myanmar, the National Unity Government (NUG) and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which the junta has illegally designated as terrorist groups.

It is notable that many of the weapons used in the ASEAN military exercise are currently in the arsenal of the Myanmar military, including 120 mm mortars, battle tanks and Russian attack helicopters, further boosting the junta’s capacity to make use of these arms in its continued, widespread atrocities against the people.

The ASEAN counter terrorism exercise showing the use of tactics with clear parallels to the junta’s ongoing campaign of terror. Source: Russia's defence ministry

The aftermath of a Myanmar junta campaign against civilians in Thay Pyay Aye, Sagaing Region, on February 28, 2022, in which the junta cleared a large portion of the village. Source: Myanmar Witness

The ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) Plus Experts' Working Group on Counter Terrorism Field Training Exercise 2023 is a multinational joint military exercise being hosted by Russia and co-chaired by the Myanmar junta. The exercise follows an earlier table-top exercise of the counter terrorism working group organised in Myanmar from August 2-4, 2023. In propaganda published after this table-top exercise, the junta implied that it gained “invaluable experiences” for its campaign against the NUG and PDFs.

While it is positive that ASEAN partners Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the USA and significantly, an ASEAN member state, Singapore, refused to attend the exercise, ASEAN as a bloc has deepened its complicity in the junta’s atrocities by proceeding with the exercise under the Chairpersonship of Indonesia.

Russian state media lists participants in the exercise as Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and the illegitimate Myanmar junta. However, an examination of photographic and video evidence shows that the core military contingents came from Russia, the Myanmar junta, China, India and Laos, with a limited presence of military personnel from Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Justice For Myanmar has not been able to confirm the reported presence of Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines, but it should be noted that these countries participated in the tabletop exercise hosted by the junta in August, and a June planning conference for the field training exercise in Russia. Justice For Myanmar condemns the governments that participated in these activities with the junta.

ASEAN fostering military ties between Russia and Myanmar junta

By allowing the junta and Russia to lead the counter terrorism working group, ASEAN has been enabling the deepening of military cooperation between the two. As co-chairs of the counter terrorism working group since 2021, the junta and Russian military have held a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings, including the visit of a Russian military delegation to Myanmar in February 2023 as part of ADMM.

In November 2022, a delegation led by Russian military Colonel General Kim Alexei Rostislavovich visited Myanmar and met with junta head and war criminal Min Aung Hlaing. According to Myanmar junta propaganda, the visit involved discussions on defence cooperation.

Russia remains a principal supplier of arms to the Myanmar junta. According to a May 2023 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, between February 2021, when the military attempted a coup, and December 2022, Russian companies, including state-owned entities, had shipped at least US$406 million of arms, raw materials, and associated supplies to the Myanmar military and known arms brokers. These Russian arms transfers included Su-30 fighter jets, rocket launch systems, MiG-29 fighter jets, spare parts for Yak-130 combat aircraft, and a variety of transport and attack helicopters and reconnaissance and light attack drones.

Images published in Russian state media show the presence of General Maung Maung Aye at the exercise, an EU-sanctioned war criminal who is the chief of general staff for the army, navy and air force, the third highest position in the Myanmar military. The EU sanctions designation notes that he is “actively participating in the purchase of arms from Russia”.

General Maung Maung Aye with Admiral Viktor Liina, Russia's Pacific Fleet Commander, at the ASEAN counter terrorism exercise. Source: RIA

The junta is also publicly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has supplied weapons to Russia. Analysis of customs clearance data published by Nikkei Asia suggests that Russia has been repurchasing military supplies that were previously exported to Myanmar, including parts for tanks and missiles. The motive behind these repurchases is believed to be the improvement of older weapons intended for use in Ukraine, with the assistance of countries that have longstanding military ties with Russia. In August 2023, Russia used 120 mm Myanmar mortar bombs in Ukraine.

ASEAN must stop aiding and abetting the junta’s international crimes

The Myanmar military’s participation in ADMM helps it access arms and equipment, build its military capabilities, develop its arms industry and wrongly gain international legitimacy. ASEAN’s provision of diplomatic, military, technical, financial and intelligence support aids and abets the junta’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity, which it commits with total impunity. This undermines ASEAN’s “peace plan for Myanmar” also known as the Five Point Consensus. How can ASEAN resolve the crisis in Myanmar while it is actively aiding and abetting the junta’s atrocities?

ASEAN must immediately bar the junta from ADMM at all levels, including removing navy head Moe Aung from the leadership of the ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting. Failing that, ASEAN members and dialogue partners should refuse to attend all platforms and activities in which the junta participates.

The UN Security Council and foreign governments must urgently step up and impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo to block the junta’s access to funds, arms, equipment and jet fuel, and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.