Who Supplies Arms To Myanmar’s Junta (Tatmadaw)?

Under Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar has bought Russian weaponry including MiG-29 jet fighters and the Pantsir-S1 missile system. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Reuters)

The Myanmar army has shaped the country’s politics and external affairs since it gained independence from the British in 1948.

For more than half a century the army ruled with an iron fist. Since the early 1990s, it was subject to various embargoes and sanctions from the European Union and the US.

In 2012, as the country underwent a so-called democratic transition some of these sanctions were eased, though an EU arms embargo is still in effect.

The following graphic shows which countries have provided weaponry to Myanmar since 1990, and identifies China, Russia, India, Israel and Ukraine as its major arms suppliers. Majority of Myanmar’s fighter aircraft, armoured vehicles, guns and naval ships come from China, while Russia is the main provider of surface-to-air missiles.

UN investigators on Monday urged the international community to server ties with top Myanmar companies which finance the military in carrying out atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in the country’s western Rakhine state.

A UN fact-finding mission has released a report detailing the degree to which Myanmar’s military has used its own businesses, foreign companies and arms deals to support a brutal crackdown which has forced more than 750,000 Rohingya to flee to bordering Bangladesh.

Tatmadaw Businesses

The report said military-owned conglomerates; Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) account for a huge share of the country’s economy.

“The revenue that these military businesses generate strengthens the Tatmadaw’s autonomy from elected civilian oversight and provides financial support for the Tatmadaw’s operations with their wide array of international human rights and humanitarian law violations,” said mission expert Christopher Sidoti, using the official name of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

Nearly 60 foreign companies have dealings with at least 120 businesses controlled by two military-owned firms, it said

“These foreign companies risk contributing to, or being linked to, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. At a minimum, they are contributing to supporting the military’s financial capacity,” it said.

Mission chair Marzuki Darusman said removing military from the country’s economy will foster the continued liberalization and growth of Myanmar’s economy.

“In addition to isolating the Tatmadaw financially, we have to promote economic ties with non-Tatmadaw companies and businesses in Myanmar,” said Darusman.

It said 45 companies and organizations in Myanmar donated over $10 million to the military in the weeks following the beginning of the 2017 clearance operations in Rakhine State.

“Officials of these companies should be investigated with a view to criminal prosecution for making substantial and direct contributions to the commission of crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity,” Sidoti said.

The report also mentioned two top private firms, KBZ groups and Max Myanmar helped finance the construction of a barrier fence along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Chinese Arms Export To Myanmar

Chinese state-owned enterprises are among the biggest suppliers of arms and military equipment to the Myanmar military, according to an advocacy group Justice For Myanmar and public domain information.

The group has listed 122 top business partners of the military government, which staged a coup on Feb. 1, ousting the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

The five biggest suppliers are listed as China North Industries Group (NORINCO), the Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. (CASIC), and the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC).

More than a dozen other suppliers were funded from China or Hong Kong.

A spokesperson from Justice for Myanmar said weapons supplied by NORINCO to the Tatmadaw were being used on unarmed civilians amid mass protests that have followed the coup.

Norinco also runs two copper mines in the country, which have been accused of evicting local residents and polluting the environment, the spokesperson told RFA.

Other Chinese investors include Wanbao Mining (Hong Kong) Copper Ltd., Yang Tse Mining Limited, and busmaker Yutong, as well as several textile companies.

A “Dirty List” published by Burma Campaign UK listed 12 Chinese companies as having ties to the Myanmar military, including most of those already mentioned in this article.

An open secret

Zhang Shengqi, chairman of the Myanmar-Burma Assistance Association, said it is an open secret among Chinese in Myanmar that Chinese companies have been selling weapons to the regime for a long time.

“It is no secret that China supplies arms to the Myanmar military,” Zhang said. “Ten years ago, the Chinese government moved its security defense line south from Yunnan province and into northern Myanmar.”

“It sees the whole of Myanmar as a security zone,” he said. “The stability of Myanmar directly impacts China’s national interest and its security.”

“If Myanmar had gotten closer to the U.S. [under a democratically elected government], then it would have fallen back into an endless civil war.”

China’s international infrastructure investment project, the Belt and Road initiative, currently includes the flagship China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has indicated that Beijing is willing to speed up the construction of the western, northern, and eastern ends of the CMEC.

Chinese state media reported last month that Wang is keen to promote an early implementation of the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zon, and New Yangon City.

The CMEC bisects the northern part of the country and ends at the $1.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine state along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. It includes plans for a U.S.$8.9 billion high-speed rail link from Yunnan, as well as gas and oil pipelines.

China is also increasingly dependent on rice imports from Myanmar, with rice imports soaring from 100,000 tons to 500,000 tons in the past decade, accounting for 65 percent of Myanmar’s total export trade with China.

“The military port and China-Myanmar oil pipeline in the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar will be a crucial strategic supply line, and Beijing has to protect it,” Zhang said. “These military investments and presence in Myanmar will aid its stability.”

“I can say with a clear conscience that the people of Myanmar have no choice,” he said.

Chinese scholar Si Ling agreed, saying that there is a co-dependent relationship between the two countries.

“Myanmar is dependent on China for many things, including technology and personnel,” Si said. “Beijing also has to consider geopolitical factors like the national security implications of what is happening in Myanmar on its southern border region.”

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An armored vehicle is shown on a city street in Yangon following days of mass protests against the military coup in Myanmar, Feb. 14, 2021.

Border area still quiet

A Chinese national who lives in the border region, and gave only a surname, Wang, said that while the authorities appeared to be firing on protesters elsewhere in the country, the border area had remained quiet since the coup.

He said there could also have been Chinese Communist Party (CCP) involvement in emergency censorship during the coup.

“I heard there was shooting … maybe of high pressure air guns, and also that they cut off internet access,” Wang said. “China is the best at this kind of technology.”

Rights groups — including Burma Campaign UK, Justice For Myanmar, Korean Civil Society in Solidarity with the Rohingya (KCSSR), and Korean Transnational Corporations Watch (KTCW) — are calling on companies to cut commercial ties to the Myanmar military.

Meanwhile, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said it had invited 18 of the companies mentioned in recent reports articles to respond.

Justice For Myanmar called on the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to the coup, and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.

Seven Countries Supply Arms To Myanmar

The fact-finding mission team on Rohingya also called for a full international embargo on arms sales against Myanmar, revealing that a number of companies from seven countries have been supplying weapons to Myanmar’s military amid the humanitarian crisis faced by the minority group.

There are 14 companies from China, North Korea, India, Israel, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine that have been supplying fighter jets, armored fighting vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers to Myanmar since 2016, said the report.

“These countries should have known that selling arms to Myanmar would have a direct adverse impact on the human rights of people in Myanmar,” it added.

The UN emphasized that arms transfer is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which North Korea, Israel, Russia and Ukraine are all state parties, while China is a signatory.

It stressed that the named states have failed to effectively implement human rights effectively.

“Therefore, further investigation is required in connection with the nature of weapons or related items that Myanmar may obtain from two businesses based in Singapore, which are not parties or signatories to the ICCPR,” the report said.

“That is why we have called for an embargo that will send a clear message: Dealing with the Tatmadaw from today on will have international legal consequences,” Darusman said during a news conference in Jakarta.

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

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