A United Nations report charged on Monday that at least 15 companies from seven countries, including Israel, had sold military hardware to Myanmar’s armed forces since 2016, when the military began a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that drove more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority into neighboring Bangladesh in what international investigators branded a “genocide.”
The finding is part of a major report focused on the way the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has gained control of a massive economic empire in the country, including over 140 companies spanning the tourism, banking, jade and ruby mining, construction, gas, pharmaceutical, beverage, real estate and other industries.
These activities allow the Tatmadaw, which is constitutionally independent of the government, to fund itself without resort to state coffers — and, the UN report warned, grant it impunity to commit abuses and war crimes without meaningful oversight from political leaders.
“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 abuses,” Marzuki Darusman, the Indonesian human rights lawyer and former attorney general who chairs the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said in a statement.
A wide array of international groups have shown killings, rapes and the torching of villages carried out on a large scale by Myanmar security forces in the context of the Rohingya campaign. Myanmar’s government has denied abuses and said its actions were justified in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
The seven countries that have traded arms with Myanmar since the 2017 conflict with the Rohingya began were listed in the report as Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Ukraine, Singapore and Israel.
Specifically, the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries “agreed to provide four Super-Dvora Mk III fast attack craft to the Myanmar Navy. Two were delivered in April 2017,” the report said.
A private Israeli firm, TAR Ideal Concepts, was also named.
“In October 2016, TAR Ideal Concepts, an Israeli military and police equipment and training company, posted photographs on its website of its personnel training the Tatmadaw Special Operations Taskforce,” the report said.
It did not suggest the foreign companies listed in the report had directly violated any laws. But it said their ties to the Tatmadaw pose “a high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law. At a minimum, these foreign companies are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s financial capacity.”
Israel is not the worst offender, as other nations — the report named China, North Korea, India, Russia and Ukraine — engaged in “major” arms deals, while sales by Israeli state-owned bodies were limited to the two warships delivered in 2017, and Jerusalem stopped selling arms to Myanmar after an early-2017 High Court of Justice decision on the subject.
The report read: “In April 2017, Israel Aerospace Industries, an Israeli State-owned enterprise, delivered two attack frigates to the Tatmadaw Navy. This delivery followed the filing of a petition before the Israeli Supreme Court in early 2017 seeking a prohibition on implementation of a defense cooperation agreement signed between Israel and Myanmar on the basis of the conduct of the Tatmadaw in northern Rakhine in October 2016. As a result of a subsequent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court, military export licenses were revoked and there has been no further defense cooperation.”
But Israel was nevertheless faulted “in particular” for the sale’s alleged violation of the Arms Trade Treaty because “it had knowledge, or ought to have had knowledge, that they would be used in the commission of serious crimes under international law.”
Five countries — Israel, Russia, China, Ukraine and North Korea — failed to stop arms transfers “although they expected or ought to have expected, based on the facts or their knowledge of past patterns of the Tatmadaw, that the weapons would be used in acts that violate international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
Similarly, all seven countries named, the report charged, “knew or ought to have known” that selling arms to Myanmar “would have a direct and reasonably foreseeable adverse impact on the human rights of people in Myanmar. This is contrary to the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], to which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], Israel, Russia, and Ukraine are all State parties. China is a signatory.”
It also faulted the named states for failing “to effectively apply human rights due diligence to the transfers.”
The fact-finding mission called for a full international embargo on arms sales to Myanmar and targeted sanctions against businesses with connections to the military.
The report, initiated by the UN’s Human Rights Council, focused mainly on the activities of two central military-dominated conglomerates in Myanmar — Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corp. It said nearly 60 foreign companies have dealings with the businesses controlled by the two companies.
The mission also investigated human rights violations against ethnic groups in other parts of the country, documenting the abuses in an initial report issued last year.
Military leaders in charge of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corp. are among officials that last year’s report said should be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Monday’s report urged the UN and member governments to immediately impose targeted sanctions against the wide array of companies run by the military, and encouraged companies to do business with firms unaffiliated with the military instead.
The US lifted longstanding economic sanctions against Myanmar in 2016. But it has reimposed some sanctions against members of the military, citing the army’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is already being sanctioned by the US for the Rohingya campaign. In July, Washington barred him, his deputy Soe Win, and two subordinates believed responsible for extrajudicial killings from traveling to the US.
Myanmar’s military objected to the sanctions, saying they were a blow against the country’s entire military and that the US should respect investigations into the Rakhine situation being conducted by the army.
The US sanctions against top commanders are useful and have a cumulative effect, Christopher Sidoti, an international human rights lawyer and former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, told The Associated Press.
At the same time, he said they were small and symbolic — “only a start” — and more actions were needed, such as freezing bank accounts.
In the past decade, as Myanmar transitioned from a military regime to a civilian government dominated by the military, businesses have poured investment into one of the region’s fastest growing economies. The long-isolated country of more than 60 million people has huge economic potential, but the crisis over the treatment of Rohingya and other ethnic minorities has raised the risks for investors.
Beyond the two Israeli firms, the report points to South Korea’s Inno Group, which is building a “skyscraper city” in Yangon in a joint venture with MEHL. Posco Steel Co. also has joint ventures with military related companies, as does Pan-Pacific, an apparel maker that according to its website began operating in Myanmar in 1991 and is a supplier of shirts and other garments to many fashion brand names.
Some foreign investors in Myanmar have conducted human rights assessments in response to criticism over their activities in the country, including Japan’s Kirin Holdings Co. Ltd., which has taken stakes in Myanmar Brewery Ltd. and Mandalay Brewery Ltd.
But dozens of foreign companies still conduct business with Myanmar partners that have ties to the two big military-linked conglomerates, the report said. Others rent office space from them or operate in industrial zones that are owned by MEHL.
The fact-finding mission did not propose sweeping sanctions against Myanmar.
“Removing the Tatmadaw from Myanmar’s economy entails two parallel approaches. In addition to isolating the Tatmadaw financially, we have to promote economic ties with non-Tatmadaw companies and businesses in Myanmar,” Darusman said. “This will foster the continued liberalization and growth of Myanmar’s economy, including its natural resource sector, but in a manner that contributes to accountability, equity and transparency for its population.”
Israel has been accused of selling weapons and military services to human rights violators around the world for decades, including to apartheid South Africa, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and in recent years to South Sudan, despite a near-universal arms embargo over the bloody civil war there.