Israel says it stopped selling weapons to Myanmar months ago

In interview, Myanmar envoy denies ethnic cleansing, says Rohingya minority left of their own volition and torched their own villages

Rohingya refugees carry supplies through the Jalpatoli refugee camp in the 'no mans land' between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Gumdhum district on September 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Dominique Faget)
Rohingya refugees carry supplies through the Jalpatoli refugee camp in the 'no mans land' between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Gumdhum district on September 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Dominique Faget)

The Foreign Ministry stated categorically on Thursday that it was no longer selling weapons to Myanmar, which has been accused of ethnic cleansing, amid an international outcry against the arms sales.

While admitting it had sold weapons to Myanmar in the past, the ministry said it had frozen all military sales several months ago.

The statement referred only to weapons sales, but made no mention of other security-related products, like surveillance technology or military training services.

The ministry statement came after it summoned Myanmar Ambassador to Israel U Maung Maung Lynn for a dressing-down, after which he apologized for an interview he gave to Army Radio Thursday morning in which he seemed to indicate that Israel was still selling weapons to his country.

In the telephone interview, Maung Lynn, speaking with a heavy accent, appears to say “there is a new, another contract, according to my knowledge.” However, the Myanmar Embassy spokesperson in Tel Aviv later claimed that Maung Lynn had said “there isn’t a new, another contract,” reversing the meaning.

In a separate, television interview in October, Maung Lynn said he was unaware of Israel putting restrictions on how the weaponry and military technology could be used.

“The [Israeli] government asked me from some clarification. I came to explain, but they only listened. No comments,” he said.

Under Israeli law, the end use of defense exports is supposed to be an issue of consideration before a company can be allowed to sell to a particular country.

Gilad Cohen, Foreign Ministry deputy director general in charge of the Asia and Pacific desk, said after the meeting the ambassador retracted his comments and apologized. The ministry pointed out that it had already rebuked Maung Lynn several days ago for making similar comments.

Eitay Mack, an Israeli activist and lawyer who has led the fight against arms sales to human rights violators, condemned the Foreign Ministry’s statement.

“How’s the Israeli public supposed to resolve the contradiction between the Myanmar ambassador and the Foreign Ministry? Why is the Foreign Ministry incapable of putting out a statement that is simple and morally correct, that the State of Israel has permanently frozen defense exports, of every type, to Myanmar?” Mack said in a message to The Times of Israel.

On Monday night, a group of Israeli activists and lawmakers from both left- and right-wing parties staged a protest outside the Knesset, calling for Israel to halt arms sales to Myanmar.

Last month, hundreds of religious leaders in the United States signed a petition calling on Israel to stop exporting weapons to Myanmar over the Asian nation’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya population.

Their letter joined one written weeks before by dozens of Israeli rabbis and community leaders, including a former government minister, who called for an end to the arms sales and the passage of a law that would forbid defense exports to countries that commit gross human rights violations.

The Defense Ministry is directly responsible for the oversight of arms sales, but the Foreign Ministry also weighs in on the decisions of which countries can receive Israeli arms.

Israel’s defense exports are largely secret, with the list of countries to which Israeli firms can sell weapons kept classified.

However, in the case of Myanmar, that secrecy was not an issue as most of the proof came from public and highly visible statements made by an Israeli company that sold defense technology to Myanmar and by the country’s own commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The Defense Ministry also has three publicly acknowledged positions for officials who facilitate arms sales to Myanmar and other countries in South Asia.

Following a 2015 visit to Israel, Hlaing announced that his country was purchasing the Super Dvora III patrol boat, which is manufactured by the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.

Last year, the Israeli defense contractor TAR Ideal Concepts also announced that its CornerShot, a gun extension that allows the user to shoot around corners, was “now in service in Myanmar’s Special Operations Task Force.”

In September activists petitioned the government to cease exports to Myanmar.

At the beginning of the month it was reported that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had frozen military export licenses to the country.

“The Israeli defense minister has discreetly but significantly decided to block military export licenses for Myanmar,” the French Intelligence Online magazine, which focuses on international intelligence issues, reported Wednesday, citing anonymous sources.

In the Army Radio interview Maung Lynn also claimed that there had been no ethnic cleansing of the 400,000 Muslim Rohingya population. Rather, he explained, the Rohingya all fled of their own free will. They did this, he claimed, either because their relatives were wanted by the authorities for involvement in terror activities, or because they realized they could have better living conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

He also said that the army was not responsible for the torching of more than 200 Rohingya villages, saying the residents burned down their own villages after they left, perhaps in order to gain world sympathy.

This photo taken on October 9, 2017 shows Rohingya refugees wait after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang on October 9, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR)

Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from what Myanmar’s military has called “clearance operations.” The crisis started in August, when Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces, leading to a brutal crackdown in which soldiers and Buddhist mobs have killed men, raped woman and burned homes and property to force the Rohingya to leave.

Nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border following the violent crackdown. The UN has called the campaign a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” and others have said it amounts to genocide.

Earlier this month US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed Myanmar’s security forces and “local vigilantes” for what he called “intolerable suffering” by the Rohingya. Although the military has accused Rohingya insurgents of triggering the crisis, Tillerson said that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued.”

“After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” Tillerson said in a statement.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the Myanmar Embassy’s response.

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