Talk of bringing an end to decades of internal conflict does not seem to have deterred Burma’s army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, from continuing to seek weapons and military hardware from allies near and far, with the commander-in-chief most recently undertaking a goodwill visit to Israel with just such intentions.
Following similar trips to Pakistan, India, Belarus and Ukraine in recent years, the Israel visit earlier this month was the first by a Burmese military leader since the late Gen. Ne Win made the journey in 1959.
Observers say the army chief’s jet-setting in recent years is clear indication of the reputational boost that the Burma Armed Forces have enjoyed since the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein began initiating political and economic reforms in 2011. In its push to modernize its military arsenal, the Burma Army has arguably been one of the biggest beneficiaries of a reform program that has included greater media freedom and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
The army chief’s visit to Israel also highlighted the decades-long military ties between the two countries, which for years were downplayed or denied altogether.
“It is quite possible now that Burma has improved its relations with the Western world, that a company like Elbit can operate more openly without being scrutinized by, for instance, American policy makers. Elbit Systems is a big company which is active all over the world,” said Bertil Lintner, a veteran Swedish journalist who has author several books on Burma.
On his visit from Sept. 6-11, Min Aung Hlaing toured Elbit Systems, an Israel-based defense manufacturing company that, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, has done business with Burma in the past. A Jane’s report from March 2000 said the company won a contract in 1997 to upgrade three squadrons of Chinese-supplied jetfighters in Burma.
Elbit Systems has about 12,000 employees, and operates as a “high technology company” supplying “a broad portfolio of airborne, land and naval systems and products for defense, homeland security and commercial applications,” according to the firm’s website.
The company was one at least three defense firms visited by Min Aung Hlaing, who also toured an Israeli naval base, the country’s Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv and a memorial to fallen soldiers in the Gaza Strip.
In visiting Israel, the Burma Army chief may have had his eye on a much bigger prize, according to Eitay Mack, a human rights lawyer in Jerusalem who is critical of Israeli arms exports to nations with checkered human rights records. The show of “goodwill” between Israel and Burma might speed along the day when Min Aung Hlaing heads a similar delegation to Washington, Mack told The Irrawaddy, noting the close US-Israel relationship.
“I think that the military junta is using the transition to gain more legitimacy at the international level. They wanted to show that they are good friends of the United States’ best ally [Israel],” said Mack, who added that in turn, the Israeli government may have hosted Min Aung Hlaing to position itself as a go-to arms supplier as shipping weapons and hardware to the once ostracized Burma Army becomes increasingly palatable among the international community.
“I think that Israel is trying to put its feet in Burma,” Mack said. “I think they are thinking about current and future military contracts, such as selling military equipment and technologies and security services.
“They think the transition the Burmese government is making will succeed. That’s why they want to put their feet there before the European Union and other countries,” he added.
While the United States and European Union lifted most economic sanctions on Burma in response to Thein Sein’s reforms in 2012, both still maintain arms embargoes.
Though no such prohibition is holding back Israel, Mack said forging closer ties with the Burma Army carried with it major risks, given the poor human rights record of the armed forces under the country’s former military regime, and extant concerns about its present day conduct.
Human rights advocates have criticized the military over ongoing hostilities between government troops and ethnic armed groups in the country’s north and east, as well its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma. A long-sought nationwide ceasefire between Naypyidaw and the country’s ethnic armies remains elusive.
“I think Israel is taking a big risk,” said Mack. “Nobody knows now if the transition [in Burma] will succeed. Nobody knows for sure what will happen after the November election. Even now there are a lot of human rights violations by the Burmese government.”
While Burma struggles to rebuild after the most serious flooding in decades, Mack accused Min Aung Hlaing of focusing solely on courting defense firms, with no consideration for enlisting Israeli construction companies or other industries that might help flood victims recover.
Haaretz, a leading Israel-based newspaper, reported that the Burma Army “is apparently purchasing Super Dvora patrol boats,” based on a Facebook post from Min Aung Hlaing that appeared to indicate as much.
The Israeli Embassy in Rangoon noted the army chief’s visit on its website, saying the visit had “shown the strong ties of friendship and cooperation between the two armed forces and governments of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the State of Israel.”
No details of military deals or the substance of discussions between officials from the two countries were disclosed. The Israeli Embassy did not respond to requests for comment made via email and over the phone on Friday.
Israel was likely keeping tight-lipped about details of the visit because of lingering concerns about the optics of any dealings between the two militaries, according to Mack, who added that the Israeli public was aware of the history of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burma Army.
The Jane’s report said military ties between Burma and Israel date back to the 1950s, with Israel over the years selling military hardware and providing technology and training to the Burma Army. After the Burmese government’s crackdown on mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, military-to-military ties were increasingly facilitated by Singapore, according to the report.
Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s, told The Irrawaddy via email that Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Israel underscored in a very public manner both countries’ interest in expanding a defense relationship that in the past has tended to remain largely below the radar.
“To that extent, it marks an important watershed,” he said.
“Significantly, it stands to offer the Tatmadaw [Burma Armed Forces] a range of battle-tested, state-of-the-art systems suitable for both conventional and counter-insurgency conflicts that for political reasons major Western arms manufacturers are still unable to offer to Myanmar,” Davis added.
While military ties between Burma and Israel have the added benefit of the two countries’ decades of diplomatic relations, Burma has not been shy about seeking out a wider array of arms suppliers.
In recent years, Burma has bought weapons from a variety of sources, among them North Korea, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and, naturally, Singapore.
Min Aung Hlaing also visited India in July, touring a combat helicopter production unit, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, in Bangalore. He also toured a shipyard and naval aviation facility, and a production line of the automobile manufacturer Tata Motors.
Jane’s reported on July 30 that border security concerns were likely raised in New Delhi while at the same time the Indian government actively seeks to assist the Burma Army with modernization of its military.
“India is understood to be urging greater coordination of efforts to interdict cross-border movement by Assamese, Manipuri, and Naga rebels from the country’s northeast,” read the Jane’s report.
In his visit to Belarus in November 2014, Min Aung Hlaing reached a bilateral agreement establishing a committee to oversee military-technical cooperation between the two countries, Jane’s reported.
As has been interpreted regarding its geopolitical and economic outreach in recent years, analysts say Burma is similarly looking to expand its circle of friends in the military sphere.
“It is clear that the Burmese military would want to diversify its procurement of weapons to lessen its dependence on China,” said Lintner.