Russia says to boost military ties with Myanmar as junta leader visits

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meets Myanmar's Commander in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Moscow

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Myanmar's junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that Moscow is committed to strengthening military ties with it, Russia's RIA news agency reported.

Rights activists have accused Moscow of legitimising the junta, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, by continuing bilateral visits and arms deals.

"We are determined to continue our efforts to strengthen bilateral ties based on the mutual understanding, respect and trust that have been established between our countries," RIA quoted Shoigu as saying at a meeting on Tuesday.

Min Aung Hlaing was in the Russian capital to attend a security conference and had earlier met Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's Security Council.

Defence ties between the two countries have grown in recent years with Moscow providing army training and university scholarships to thousands of soldiers, as well as selling arms to a military blacklisted by several Western countries.

Little light was shed on how cooperation between Russia and Myanmar may develop and whether Moscow would be willing to sell more military equipment there.

Since the army seized power and removed Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government, troops have put down pro-democracy demonstrations and strikes and killed or arrested hundreds of protesters.

Addressing a Moscow conference on Wednesday, Min Aung Hlaing repeated that the army took power by force because Suu Kyi's party won the election through fraud - an accusation rejected by the previous election commission and international monitors.

With Myanmar being one of the traditional export markets for the Russian weaponry, rising tensions there provide Moscow with a good chance to increase military sales, Alexey Kirichenko, Associate Professor at the Institute of Asian and African Countries at the Moscow State University, said.

"This makes it possible for Russia to conclude lucrative contracts... The situation in the country is very difficult, and the Burmese military needs to build up their military potential," he said.

On Tuesday, Myanmar security forces backed by armoured vehicles clashed with a newly formed guerrilla group in the second biggest city Mandalay, resulting in at least two casualties.

Russia said in March it was deeply concerned by the rising number of civilian deaths in Myanmar. President Vladimir Putin does not plan to meet Min Aung Hlaing on his visit to Moscow, Kremlin has said.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, Katya Golubkova and Gleb Stolyarov, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)