Russia and Myanmar junta to host ASEAN counter-terrorism exercises despite boycott by dialogue partners

Updated on July 20, 2023

The defence ministries of the Myanmar military junta and Russian Federation are slated to continue co-hosting meetings and counter-terrorism training this year with their counterparts from neighbouring Asian states. 

In early June, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as India and China sent representatives of their defence ministries to the Russian city of Khabarovsk to attend the final planning conference of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. Russia and the Myanmar military junta have served as joint chairs of the working group since 2021. 

According to an announcement by Russia’s Defence Ministry, participants plotted out troop deployment scenarios in preparation for a counter-terrorism field training exercise to be held in Russia in September. Participants also discussed the manpower and capabilities that each country would bring to the exercise.

Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East and the headquarters of the country’s Eastern Military District, may be the site of the September exercise. 

Russia has remained one of the chief suppliers of arms and equipment to the Myanmar military even after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and embroilment in an ongoing war.

The field exercise, which will involve armed troops simulating responses to terrorist attacks, will follow a tabletop exercise scheduled to be hosted by the junta in Myanmar in August. The purpose of both exercises is to improve coordination between the personnel of different military forces in responding to armed attacks.

The military exercises planned for August and September will provide junta troops with battle training that may later be applied in Myanmar, where they have already committed numerous and egregious human rights violations, often under the pretext of fighting terrorism. 

The junta considers the publicly-mandated National Unity Government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and the People’s Defence Forces (PDF)—formed in order to lead a resistance movement against the military coup of February 2021—to be terrorist organisations. 

The scheduled joint military exercises with the junta are proceeding despite violating the principles of the Five Point Consensus that ASEAN reached in April 2021, two months after the coup. In formulating the consensus, the regional bloc appealed for an immediate end to violence and dialogue among all parties to the internal conflict in Myanmar, which the junta flouted after initially appearing to agree.

The military regime has used its co-chairmanship of the working group to justify the February 2021 coup, and has used it to seek regional support for its violent crackdown against political opponents.

In December 2021, the junta gave a presentation at a working group meeting titled “The recent terrorist actions taken [sic] place in Myanmar,” according to Australian Defence Department records released to the activist group Justice For Myanmar.  

The junta manages the website of the regional working group, where it publishes junta propaganda vilifying the NUG, PDF and anti-junta ethnic armed groups in a section titled “Terrorist News.” 

While the ASEAN member states as well as China and India have participated fully in the counter-terrorism working group under the leadership of Russia and the junta, the defence ministries of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States (US) have boycotted the meetings since 2022. 

Myanmar Now sent written requests for comment to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and to the defence ministries that have participated in the counter-terrorism working group. 

Spokespersons for the US, Australian and New Zealand defence ministries confirmed they will not participate in the upcoming counter-terrorism exercises.

“Russia and Myanmar’s military regime have consistently used their co-chairmanship of these engagements to promote and justify their violence and disregard for the rule of law, and imply support by the ADMM-Plus and its members for their actions,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a spokesperson for the US Department of Defense, told Myanmar Now.  

“The United States is deeply committed to multilateral cooperation and ASEAN centrality in a free and open Indo-Pacific, but views Russia and the Myanmar military regime’s actions under their co-chairmanship of the Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism as a clear breach of ASEAN values and their responsibilities as co-chairs,” he added.

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence told Myanmar Now, “Each invitation is considered on a case-by-case basis in terms of New Zealand’s interests. On this occasion we will not be attending nor participating in the tabletop or field training exercises.”

A spokesperson for Malaysia’s Defence Ministry declined to comment, and Myanmar Now received no response from the remaining defence ministries.

The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) as a whole is chaired by Indonesia’s defence minister, Prabowo Subianto. The junta has also participated in a number of ADMM activities under Indonesia’s leadership. 

Earlier this month, the junta’s defence attaché to Indonesia, Brig. Gen. Phyo Zaw Soe, represented Myanmar at the 20th ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Meeting in Bali.  

In May, the junta participated in the ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting and was granted leadership for the following cycle. The junta also currently chairs the ASEAN Air Chiefs’ Meeting and is expected to host a meeting of regional air force chiefs in Myanmar later this year.

Myanmar Now also uncovered information showing that Indonesia hosted Myanmar military representatives at the ASEAN Military Operations Meeting and the ASEAN Defence Interaction Program this year.

In March, Myanmar army personnel attended a meeting of the military medicine working group, co-chaired by Australia and Brunei, which is also preparing for exercises this year. 

In February, the junta joined a maritime security tabletop exercise co-chaired by Thailand and the United States. 

Although the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups usually holds both tabletop and field training exercises every three years, Lt. Col. Meiners confirmed that there will be no field training exercise on maritime security. He declined to say whether the decision was related to Myanmar and Russia’s participation in the group. 

Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for the activist group Justice For Myanmar, criticised ASEAN for allowing the junta to lead the counter-terrorism group and called for the remaining activities to be halted. 

“It is unfathomable that Indonesia, as chair of ADMM, has decided to support the junta to lead military exercises that help train troops currently committing war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Yadanar Maung said. 

“This further shows the absolute failure of the Five Point Consensus. ASEAN can’t even prevent its own activities, which it has full control over, from supporting the junta’s violence,” she added. 

While details of what the upcoming drills will involve have not been made public, the last ADMM Plus counter-terrorism exercises, held in Guilin, China, in 2019 may provide a clue. 

Co-chaired by China and Thailand, the exercises incorporated live ammunition drills and team coordination training for air assaults, mobile strikes, reconnaissance, sniper activities and intelligence gathering. Over 800 military personnel reportedly participated, using 10 aircraft and 60 armoured personnel carriers as they trained to respond to various scenarios involving attacks on urban areas. 
“We’ve learned from each other and improved our capabilities in combat planning, command coordination, and actual operations,” a Chinese anti-terror commander commented at the end of the 12-day exercise in 2019.

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