Israeli Defense Ministry, Company Accused of Helping Myanmar Military Spy on Opponents

By The Irrawaddy 16 January 2023

A group led by an Israeli human rights lawyer has asked the country’s attorney general to investigate allegations that the Israeli Ministry of Defense and a spyware firm from the country helped the Myanmar military commit crimes against humanity.

Eitay Mack filed the application for a criminal probe into the activities of the ministry and Cognyte Software Ltd. on Jan. 2 on behalf of more than 60 Israeli citizens including a former speaker of the country’s legislature, academics and human rights activists.

The application concerns a tender Cognyte won in 2020 from state-owned telecom Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) to supply a fixed data lawful interception gateway, knowing that it would provide the Myanmar military with capabilities to tap the calls of activists, journalists and politicians, according to Justice for Myanmar (JFM), a group of covert activists exposing the regime’s crimes. MPT’s joint operators are Japan’s KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation.

Since 2021 the Southeast Asian country has been ruled by a brutal military regime, which has killed more than 2,700 people amid a nationwide uprising. Since the coup, the junta has tried to crush the resistance by all means, including using an array of surveillance equipment to intercept its opponents’ communications. In its 2021 country report on human rights in Myanmar, the US State Department found that “the regime regularly monitored private electronic communications through online surveillance.” Norwegian telecom operator Telenor Myanmar in 2021 announced its departure from the country as its presence in Myanmar required it to help the military regime conduct surveillance of its clients. It sold its operation in Myanmar last year.

At the same time, the junta has been launching air strikes against civilian areas it claims are resistance strongholds. The UN and other international bodies have condemned the aerial attacks as crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, the application alleges that Israel’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have failed to uphold a 2018 vow to stop all Israeli military exports to Myanmar and for all Israeli defense companies to end their activities there.

Mack said Israel’s Defense and Foreign ministries lied, and Cognyte’s interception system could help the Myanmar military hunt down democracy activists and journalists. The advocate explained that Cognyte can’t operate in Myanmar on its own, and needs an export license and a marketing license from the two Israeli ministries to transfer the company’s system to Myanmar.

“This is why Cognyte and all the Israeli officials who allowed its operation in Myanmar must be brought to justice,” Mack said.

Spyware used in manhunts

A leaked memo from a meeting of the regime’s counterterrorism bureau held in December shows how the junta relies on the intercept software.

During the meeting a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) chief said his department had reported to the junta’s Transportation and Communications Ministry that it needed to buy “high-end technological gadgets.”

Another meeting participant, Deputy Security and Border Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Khun Thnat Zaw Htoo, suggested intercepting phone calls and hacking social media accounts to get resistance information.

“If CID and military intelligence could form a team to hack them, we could get more information,” he discussed.

In his response, Deputy Transport and Communications Minister U Aung Kyaw Tun said he could not discuss all the details as some technology was still in the acquisition process but “we will collaborate.”

Cognyte, formerly Verint Systems, has a history of selling surveillance technology to notorious regimes, including South Sudan. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund decided to exclude the spyware firm over human rights concerns.

JFM said the Israeli firm has partnered with Myanmar company Khine Thitsar, including its website on its partner and vendor list. The rights group also claimed that the company received a payment from Cognyte in October 2021, more than eight months after the military coup.

The activist group called on Israel’s attorney general to take urgent action following the application for a criminal investigation into Cognyte’s business in Myanmar.

JFM spokesperson Yadana Maung said: “Israeli officials and those in Cognyte who have enabled the supply of arms and dual use goods to the Myanmar military, aiding and abetting international crimes, must be held accountable.”

Israel has a long history of providing arms to the Myanmar military. The application for a criminal investigation against Cognyte and the Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries follows a similar 2018 submission by Mack seeking a probe into the aiding and abetting of atrocities by Israelis who exported arms to Myanmar; and a 2022 application requesting a criminal investigation into corruption over Israeli arms companies’ dealings with the Myanmar broker Dr. Tun Min Latt and his conglomerate, Star Sapphire Group, for importing reconnaissance drones and aircraft parts for the Myanmar Air Force.

Star Sapphire Group is partnered with two military-owned business conglomerates — Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) — in numerous ventures, sources said.

Tun Min Latt was indicted on Dec. 13 on drug trafficking, money laundering and transnational organized crime charges in Thailand after a police raid in Bangkok last year. Among the documents seized during the raid were bankbooks and the title document of a luxury condominium owned by the adult children of Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.