BANGKOK, Thailand – Military-ruled Myanmar is a pariah state to many because of its dismal human rights record, slapped with an arms embargo by the U.S. and European Union. But to some of the world’s other top weapons dealers, Myanmar is just another customer.
India, the world’s most populous democracy, and North Korea, Asia’s most repressive dictatorship, are both suppliers to Myanmar’s military, and neither has signaled it would stop business after the junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests last month.
As is the case with the biggest suppliers to Myanmar — Russia, China and Ukraine — such arms sales may be widely criticized for helping the regime stay in power, but they don’t clearly violate any laws, treaties or international agreements.
“Together these countries can supply anything Burma could possibly want, and they have more or less done so in the last 15 years,” said Siemon Wezeman, a researcher for the Arms Transfers Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI.
Most known arms transfers to Myanmar are legal, and some are even reported to the United Nations. But other transactions are murkier, as countries more sensitive to international opinion apparently try to mask their activities. Analysts say these include India, as well as Israel and Singapore. [Pseudo’s note: Read an excerpt below from another report]
The only restrictions on selling military equipment to Myanmar, also known as Burma, are self-imposed. The tightest embargoes are maintained by the United States and the European Union, while several other nations, such as South Korea, have less sweeping or informal sanctions.
The U.S. and European restrictions ban sales and re-sales of virtually all military-related equipment to Myanmar. But it is difficult to stop third parties from selling used equipment and licensed technology.
As a result, the junta has become the eager client of countries that “have garnered reputations for being willing to supply almost any regime,” said Dr. Paul Holtom, another SIPRI researcher.
Myanmar’s army of more than 400,000 is the second-largest in Southeast Asia after Vietnam’s, and bigger on a per capita basis. Because it is one of Asia’s poorest countries, its military has until recently operated without much of the sophisticated weaponry of its neighbors, but has made huge modernization efforts since 1988.
The reasons for selling to Myanmar are many — and first among them is profit.
By far the largest amount of Myanmar’s arms have been imported from China, according to SIPRI’s register of transfers of major conventional weapons. Its database, which represents conservative estimates, shows Myanmar importing $1.69 billion in military goods from China between 1988 — when the current junta took power after violently crushing a pro-democracy uprising — and 2006.
Goods bought from China over the years have included armored personnel carriers, tanks, fighter aircraft, radar systems, surface-to-air missiles and short-range air-to-air missile systems.
Russia comes in second at $396 million, then Serbia and Ukraine.
Geopolitical considerations also play a role in weapons sales to Myanmar.
India, for instance, had been a harsh critic of the 1988 crackdown. But it apparently overcame its aversion to dealing with the regime after watching China gain a commercial, political and military foothold in Myanmar, posing a potential strategic threat, especially as it opened up the prospect of Indian Ocean access for Beijing.
India also sought to enlist Myanmar’s cooperation in its long-running struggles against separatist groups in its northeast.
India shows up on SIPRI registry beginning in 2005. India has confirmed the delivery of two secondhand, British-made BN-2 Islander light transport aircraft, but insists they are not fitted out for military use. Reports of transfers of light artillery, armored personnel carriers and tanks remain unconfirmed.
Most controversial has been the planned sale of Indian-manufactured ALH attack helicopters. Various parts of the aircraft are supplied or made under license from several countries that embargo arms to Myanmar. Anti-junta campaigners insist the sale — which is now in limbo — would be in violation of the EU embargo, and have put India on notice that it could endanger commercial links with Europe.
India denies supplying weapons to Myanmar, but has acknowledged the two countries have defense agreements to help fight rebels on their common border.
Many countries are eager to unload aging equipment, and Myanmar is a willing buyer. Russia, Serbia and Ukraine, for instance, all have large Cold War-era defense industries and leftover hardware, and are intent in wringing profit from them.
Israel is also considered by arms researchers to be a major supplier of weapons and arms technology to Myanmar, though few details can be verified. A 2000 report by the London-based publication Jane’s Intelligence Review detailed extensive alleged links, but the Israeli government denies any arms sales.
The most mystery shrouds the junta’s deals with North Korea, widely believed to have supplied weapons such as Scud-type missiles that other nations are unwilling or unable to provide.
Details of Pyongyang’s dealings with Myanmar are hard to verify, because the two nations are among the world’s most secretive. Impoverished North Korea is cited by researchers as a “source of last resort” for arms buyers who cannot obtain what they want elsewhere.
Pyongyang is also hampered by the low quality of its arms.
“Burma does not (yet) need North Korea to supply rather inferior weaponry when it can get better stuff from Russia, China or a host of other nations,” Wezeman wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
Still, SIPRI lists Pyongyang as delivering 16 large artillery pieces to Myanmar in 1999, but reports in such publications as Jane’s Intelligence Review and Far Eastern Economic Review suggest much more extensive dealings.
Myanmar is said to have sought to purchase submarines from Pyongyang — a deal believed to have fallen through — and surface-to-surface missiles such as Pyongyang has supplied to other nations.
Much of Singapore’s activity in Burma has been documented by an analyst working in Prime Minister John Howard’s direct chain of command, in the Office of National Assessments. Andrew Selth is recognised as an authority on the Burmese military. Now a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, Mr Selth has written extensively on how close Singapore is to the junta.
Often writing as “William Ashton” in the authoritative Jane’s Intelligence Review, Mr Selth has described in various articles how Singapore has sent the junta guns, rockets, armoured personnel carriers and grenade launchers, some of it trans-shipped from stocks seized by Israel from Palestinians in southern Lebanon.
Singaporean companies have provided computers and networking equipment for Burma’s defence ministry and army, while upgrading the bunkered junta’s ability to network with regional commanders — so crucial as protesting monks take to the streets of 20 Burmese cities, causing major logistical headaches for the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military.
“Singapore cares little about human rights, in particular the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma,” Mr Selth writes.
“Having developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces and defence industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries would find hard to match.”
Singapore’s Foreign Minister, George Yeo, is the current chairman of ASEAN.
Mr Selth says Singapore also provided the equipment for a “cyber war centre” to monitor dissident activity while training Burma’s secret police, whose sole job seems to be ensuring pro-democracy groups are crushed.
Monitoring dissidents is an area where Singapore has particular expertise. After almost five decades in power, the Lee family-controlled People’s Action Party ranks behind only the communists of China, Cuba and North Korea in leadership longevity, skilled in neutralising opposition.
“This centre is reported to be closely involved in the monitoring and recording of foreign and domestic telecommunications, including the satellite telephone conversations of Burmese opposition groups,” Mr Selth writes.
Singapore Government companies, such as leading arms supplier Singapore Technologies, dominate the communications and military sector in Singapore. “It is highly unlikely,” Mr Selth writes, “that any of these arms shipments to Burma could have been made without the knowledge and support of the Singapore Government.”
He notes that Singapore’s ambassadors to Burma have included a former senior Singapore armed forces officer, and a past director of Singapore’s defence-oriented Joint Intelligence Directorate, people with a military background rather than professional diplomats.
He writes that after the 1988 crackdown, when the junta killed 3000 protesters, “the first country to come to the regime’s rescue was in fact Singapore”.
When I interviewed Singapore Technologies chief executive Peter Seah at his office in Singapore, I asked about the scale model of an armoured personnel carrier made by his company on his office table. He said ST sold the vehicles “only to allies”.
Does that include Burma, I asked, given that Singapore controversially helped sponsor the military regime into ASEAN?
Mr Seah was non-specific: “We only sell to allies and we make sure they are responsible.” He didn’t say how. ST and Temasek don’t respond to questions about their activities in Burma.