the russian invasion of ukraine through a burmese lens - The Russian Invasion of Ukraine Through a Burmese Lens

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent humanitarian catastrophe have become major topics of interest for Burmese netizens. Global media coverage and analyses have provided a short diversion from the strife, conflicts, and bombings that have become a regular fixture across Myanmar.

Having roughly similar landmasses and population sizes, the two countries also share the geopolitical predicament of bordering extremely powerful authoritarian neighbors. As images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their homes and the ravages of war flood screens across the globe, the people of Myanmar feel both sympathy and empathy toward their Ukrainian counterparts.

The string of decades-old refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, the Rohingyas’ 2017 exodus into Bangladesh, and the hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes more recently provide a common thread of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Those involved in resistance efforts against the State Administration Council (SAC), as Myanmar’s junta styles itself, have portrayed Ukraine as being intimately linked to their own country’s political struggle.

Views on the Russian invasion follow Myanmar’s current political divide, with the SAC said to be supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and its supporters have thrown themselves fully behind the Ukrainian cause. The junta and its foreign ministry have been officially silent about the invasion, but their shoot-from-the-hip spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told VOA Burmese that the Russians were working to consolidate their nation’s sovereignty and show the world that it remains a world power. This comes as no surprise, as the Tatmadaw under Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has cultivated closer ties with Russia since 2011 and the SAC has been currying favor with Russia since the coup.

Given the Tatmadaw’s perennial obsession with sovereignty, the SAC’s reiteration of pursuing “peaceful coexistence through an independent, active, and non-aligned foreign policy,” and deeply entrenched fears over China launching its own “special military operations” into Myanmar to protect its interests there, this stance is at odds with every domestic consideration. It also shows the SAC’s efforts to ingratiate itself with what is now the regime’s sole international friend.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The NUG has released statements condemning the Russian invasion, saying that the Myanmar people stood in solidarity with the Ukrainians. Notably, Myanmar’s NUG-aligned permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, cosponsored and voted in favor of the U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion. NUG supporters hope to rally international attention to Myanmar’s own strife, which has evaporated and now more so due to Ukraine, and also to request arms and material support.

Netizens believe the international sanctions against Russia will also harm the junta, affecting the offshore bank accounts that the military supposedly keeps in Moscow. A prominent activist even claimed that Russia had demanded military and monetary aid from the SAC because of global sanctions. The David-versus-Goliath conflict, the Ukrainians’ resolve to defend their freedoms, and the poor performance of Russian military hardware are also helping to rally support for the People’s Defense Force (PDF) groups that have sprung up to try to dislodge the SAC.

Articles on the war attract an abundance of sympathetic comments praising the Ukrainians, wishing both them and the PDFs safety and success. Furthermore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for a no-fly zone struck a chord with anti-coup forces. Many of the SAC’s opponents believe that the junta has always been on the back foot and some have claimed that the only thing preventing them from a much-touted, quick, and decisive victory was the junta’s air power. Russian ceasefire violations have also reinforced views that the junta has no sincere interest in negotiations, and must be defeated militarily for Myanmar to return to a democratic path.

On the media front, state mouthpieces were more concerned with the junta’s legal defense at the International Court of Justice than the situation in Ukraine. However, a blithering commentary on the  February 27 edition of the Burmese-language Myanmar Alin claimed that the Ukrainians bore some responsibility for the war and for choosing a “poor leader.” The commentary, the fifth in a series denouncing military interventions, was more concerned with badmouthing detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi through supposed parallels with President Zelenskyy than addressing Ukraine or the Russian invasion as such.

Media outlets, both online and the handful still publishing under the junta’s restrictions, have been sympathetic to Ukraine. The Russian Embassy in Yangon complained that media platforms were using “biased or misleading sources.” The post only attracted ridicule, echoing as it did the junta’s explanations for clamping down on its opponents. Pro-military social media channels carry mixed messages, parroting Russian propaganda at times while also highlighting civilian casualties and the ravages of war. This is probably to poke holes in the NUG and its supporters’ constant claims that victory is just around the corner.

Despite showing solidarity with the Ukrainians, there is also growing resentment at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Western democracies. Pro-democracy camps have always been dismissive of ASEAN, and have found its support lacking when measured against the European Union’s efforts to support Ukraine. Netizens have also lampooned the U.N. and Western countries for their inaction on Myanmar and perceived difference in responding to the crises in Ukraine and Myanmar. Western statements of concern on Ukraine have attracted jabs, as many saw parallels with the international community’s calls for restraint and tepid statements in the months since the Myanmar military’s coup.

Anti-junta activists and netizens also bristle at material and financial support being rushed in to aid the Ukrainians, and ask why Western governments are unwilling to arm the PDFs. Last year, many anti-junta voices built up hype and hope that the international community was getting ready to mobilize military action against the junta under the Responsibility to Protect principle, but those hopes were quickly dashed. The NUG launched its military campaign in September, blaming the international community for failing to intervene. For the NUG’s vocal supporters, efforts to bolster the Ukrainians’ defense capabilities while ignoring the PDFs, even as China and Russia continue to ship arms to the junta, reeks of double standards as well as willful neglect.

The Russian invasion, the Ukrainians’ resolve, and the world’s responses will cast long shadows on global affairs, whose true impacts we have yet to fathom. Roughly 7,000 kilometers separate Kyiv from Yangon, but for many Burmese, the course of the Ukraine war will be a lodestar for their own struggle for freedom.