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Myanmar’s Anti-Democratic Junta Seeks Russia’s Help on How to Run an Election

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As Russia finds itself increasingly isolated on the global stage since its invasion of Ukraine last year, it’s become desperate to find friends wherever it can. This week, Vladimir Putin, who has avoided international summits like the G20 as he faces an international war criminal arrest warrant, welcomed North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, where the leaders were believed to have discussed an arms deal. But that wasn’t the only recent diplomatic visit from an Asian pariah state.

Last week, a delegation from Myanmar visited Moscow and signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between the two country’s election commissions, according to Myanmar state media.

For the past decade, non-governmental organizations and foreign governments have sent observers to monitor elections in Myanmar, with 1,000 international observers accredited to observe the 2015 election and over 100 international observers monitoring the 2020 election.

But since a 2021 military coup plunged the country into violent political turmoil, organizations that would monitor the vote have decided to sit out the next election held by the junta in order to avoid giving an expected “sham” process any semblance of legitimacy.

Read More: How Myanmar's Fragile Push for Democracy Collapsed in a Military Coup

When exactly Myanmar will hold its first election since the coup is not yet clear. It was originally scheduled to be this year but has been postponed until at least 2025, as the junta continues to extend its state of emergency and enact laws that bar meaningful opposition.

Now Myanmar is turning to its longtime partner in Russia, which has supplied the junta with weapons it has used against its own citizens, to learn how to run an election. The Myanmar delegation’s Moscow visit from Sept. 6–12 included discussions on “voter education” and “effective media utilization,” among other topics. “The delegation also explored Russia’s election methods, conditions for conducting elections, campaign procedures, and cultural aspects,” state media reported.

U Thein Soe, the chair of Myanmar’s election commission, was also invited to observe the Russian presidential election next year, where Putin is expected to be re-elected to his 5th term leading a country that consistently rates as authoritarian in the Economist Democracy Index and whose regional and national elections are frequently criticized as pre-ordained.

The new cooperation agreement is a way for Russia to show that it still has allies, says Anna Matveeva, a visiting senior research fellow at the Russia Institute in King’s College London. And for Myanmar, she adds, Russia’s support gives the junta’s eventual election a much-needed endorsement where it might otherwise have none.

“There will be some kind of facade of legitimacy,” says Matveeva. “To some extent, I think they will try to ensure that it will be procedurally right. They’ll want to ensure that there’s participation. But certainly, this procedure and participation will be under a certain degree of control.”

This comes as Myanmar finds itself an outcast among its usual diplomatic partners. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has long abided by a policy of non-interference, has been divided on how to deal with Myanmar—a tension that reared its head again earlier this month as Southeast Asian leaders gathered in Jakarta for the group’s latest summit. While some countries like Indonesia and Thailand have chosen to engage in quiet diplomacy in the hopes of fostering peace in Myanmar, others including Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have outright condemned the junta’s actions and boycotted its efforts to engage in defense cooperation.

Read More: The People of Myanmar Have Rejected the Generals. ASEAN and the World Must Do so as Well

As division over Myanmar renders ASEAN less relevant, the junta has begun aligning itself with states that have also been largely rejected or sidelined by Western institutions. It was granted dialogue partner status to the China-led security bloc Shanghai Cooperation Organization earlier this year, and it is now seeking to join BRICS—a bloc originally comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa and expanded this year to include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, and the United Arab Emirates, that presents an alternative to Western-dominated economic order. (China and India have also conspicuously steered clear of criticizing Myanmar’s junta.)

“The objective for Myanmar to cooperate with Russia is not to counter any existing structure, because they know this is not their playing field,” says Amara Thiha, a doctoral researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo. Rather, he says, the junta is “trying to get involved in a new architecture.”

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