Myanmar Army used Israeli drones, armored vehicles and spyware during the military coup

A soldier is seen on top of an armored vehicle believed to be made by Gaia Automotive Industres as he rolls through the streets of Naypyitaw, Myanmar, February 15, 2021. (photo by REUTERS)

After nearly a decade of an often controversial democracy, Myanmar’s forceful backslide into military rule has so far continued to stand strong despite widespread pro-democracy protests and strikes across the country. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in South East Asia. It neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India.

The New York Times on Sunday published a report which claims that government budget records revealed that “Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents,” were used by the generals to carry out their coup despite various sanctions and international arms embargoes which prohibit such systems from being exported to the country.

Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has taken power.  He has long wielded significant political influence, successfully maintaining the power of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – even as the country moved towards democracy.

“The military is now using those very tools to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters risking their lives to resist the military junta and restore democracy,” Ma Yadanar Maung, a spokeswoman for the Justice For Myanmar group that monitors the Tatmadaw’s abuses, told the Times.

On the Israeli front, the article cited three Israeli defense manufacturers suspected of violating international arms embargoes: Elbit Systems, Cellebrite and Gaia Automotive Industries.

The report found that Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit, which claims to have had “no dealings with Myanmar since 2015 or 2016” allegedly supplied spare parts to repair military grade Elbit drones in late 2019.

In 2018 however, Israel was supposed to have blocked all military exports to the Southeast Asian nation, after reports emerged that alleged Israeli weaponry was being sold to the Myanmar Army, which had been accused of genocidal actions towards the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.

According to the Times report, U Kyi Thar, chief executive of Myanmar Future Science, a company which claims to be an “educational and teaching aid supplier,” confirmed that his company began the repair work on the drones in late 2019 and continued into 2020.

“We ordered the spare parts from the Israeli company called Elbit because they have good quality and Elbit is well-known,” he told the Times.

The report added that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw chief who led the military coup last month, visited Elbit’s offices during a 2015 trip to Israel.

In addition to Elbit, the report claimed that the latest government budget in Myanmar included “MacQuisition” forensic software, which is designed to extract and collect data from Apple computers.

The US-based company that designed the software was bought last year by Israeli cybersecurity company Cellebrite.

This is not the first time Cellebrite has been criticized for its involvement in suppressing peaceful protests. Last summer, international pressure led the company to stop selling its services to Hong Kong and China.

Human rights activists have also criticized the company’s $30 million contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), claiming the agency used Cellebrite technologies to spy on asylum seekers and political activists.

A spokesperson for Cellebrite told the Times that it stopped selling to Myanmar in 2018, and that BlackBag had stopped selling to the country once it was acquired by Cellebrite.

In addition to the BlackBag allegations, one of Myanmar’s top human-rights lawyers, U Khin Maung Zaw, who is currently representing ousted civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, told the Times that Myanmar police have presented in trial evidence acquired through Cellebrite technologies in 2019 and 2020.

Cellebrite came under fire in 2018, during a widely criticized trial in which Khin Maung Zaw represented two Reuters journalists who uncovered evidence of a Rohingya massacre the year before.

After it had come to light that Cellebrite forensic technologies were used to gather data from the detained reporters’ phones, the company added the ability to remotely suspend licenses, in a way which erases software from the machinery, rendering the device essentially useless.

“The cybersecurity department is still using that technology,” Khin Maung Zaw told the Times. “To my knowledge, they use Cellebrite to scan and recover data from cellphones.”

The report also alleged that both Cellebrite and BlackBag denied any affiliation with a known “middleman” for international arms deals named Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Htun.

The report said that the day after the Times reporter posed “extensive questions” about the relationship between Cellebrite and MySpace International – which was founded by Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Htum – the entire MySpace International website was taken down.

The third Israeli company mentioned in the article is Gaia Automotive Industries, whose armored vehicles military experts confirmed were used by the Myanmar military during the coup on February 1 in the capital Naypyidaw.

The vehicles did not go into mass production until after the 2018 arms embargo.

Gaia Automotive head Shlomi Shraga told the Times that he had “not seen” any photos of Gaia’s armored vehicles cruising through Naypyidaw, stressing that Israel’s Defense Ministry licenses all of his exports.

The Israeli High Court of Justice heard oral arguments about whether the state must halt arms sales to Myanmar in light of incontrovertible evidence of the regime’s war crimes against its own Muslim minority population. The court promised that it would hand down a decision in the near future.

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