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SCMP: Junta explores diplomatic tie

Junta explores diplomatic ties beyond China

South China Morning Post
5 July 2000
William Barnes in Bangkok

The first visit by a Burmese foreign minister to Moscow in 21 years
is a signal of the ruling junta's determination to pursue an independent
foreign policy, even under China's long shadow.

Win Aung, accompanied by officials from the defence, energy, industry
and railway sectors, arrived in Moscow on Monday, and received a warm
reception. His Kremlin counterpart, Igor Ivanov, said Russia considered
Burma to be "a promising partner in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific
region in general".

The Rangoon regime is still far from abandoning its close ties with Beijing,
but the visit shows it wants to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket,
analysts said.

"India, the rest of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations),
a lot of people, want to pull Burma away from China. Only in their dreams
will they wholly succeed," one military observer said. "But this indicates 
some of the concerns of neighbours are probably reflected within the military
establishment in Rangoon, too."

In recent years, Russia's presence in Burma has been a shadow of the Soviet
Union's during the Cold War, when the communist empire's huge embassy in
Rangoon was supposed to have been turned into a regional listening centre.
Delegations from the Soviet Union made frequent trips to Rangoon after the
dictator General Ne Win embraced his own quirky brand of socialism soon
after his 1962 coup.

Ne Win withdrew from the non-aligned states' conference at a meeting in
Cuba in 1979, signalling that he would not allow what he perceived as Soviet
meddling in the meeting to jeopardise Burma's relations with China. Even so,
the wily old general liked to keep the country roughly equidistant from the
two regional powers, India and China.

This policy was abandoned, to the consternation of the rest of the region,
when the military junta, a pariah after the army's vicious suppression of
dissent in 1988, was forced to accept China's offer of political and arms
support. Few of China's rivals, Russia and India included, like the idea of
China gaining easy access to the Indian Ocean or the prospect of Burma
being turned  into another Tibet.

Some Burmese officers also appear worried. "There are reportedly strong
differences within the armed forces now over the degree to which Burma
has  come to rely on China for its arms, their indifferent quality and the
access  that China has apparently been given to some Burmese military
facilities," said Andrew Selth, an Australian expert on Burma's military.

In the early 1990s India aligned itself with the democratic movement in Burma,
but there has been a noticeable softening towards the military regime in 
years. The Indian army chief of staff, General V. P. Malik, arrived in Rangoon
yesterday for his second visit in six months.

In 1996 the junta wanted to order a number of Russian MiG-29 jet fighters but
had to shelve the order for lack of funds. It has, though, obtained at 
least four
squadrons of Mi-2 and Mi-17 helicopters from Russia.

The details of the so-far limited relationship between post-Soviet Moscow and
Rangoon are not really the point, however: the fact is that Rangoon is looking
for new friends or reviving old relationships - and is succeeding.

Even as the Indian general arrived, powerful junta member Lieutenant-General
Khin Nyunt led a 20-member delegation on a visit to India's arch-rival, 
said diplomatic sources, confirming an initiative that went unreported in 
state media.