Guest Column

Can a UN Arms Embargo on Myanmar Work?

By David Scott Mathieson 24 August 2021

The crisis in Myanmar has slipped from the headlines. In a predictably peripatetic news-cycle world, the continued post-coup crackdown, Covid-19 surge and humanitarian catastrophe evinces little international attention. The corroded global conscience has been gripped by the debacle of Afghanistan, the Delta variant and pandemic social disorder in multiple countries.

Many of the condemnatory statements being released by Western states, much reduced now that the crisis has been sub-contracted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), remain ‘deeply concerned’. Crucially, they have refused to recognize the junta’s ‘interim government.’ That’s so far. But a combination of sanctions and the lackluster efforts of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General Special Envoy Christine Burgener Schraner have replaced calls for the Responsibility to Protect. In other words, worn tools of inaction. Often included among these, but rarely elaborated on, is the option of imposing a UN arms embargo on Myanmar. But is that actually feasible?

Hopes were certainly bolstered by the non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution passed on 18 June, the text of which stated: “(I)n line with the Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire as supported by the Security Council in its resolution 2532 (2020) of 1 July 2020, the need to de-escalate violence, and in that regard calls upon all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”. That has been interpreted as a call supporting an arms embargo. The resolution, which had been delayed due to divisions within ASEAN, was passed with 119 votes, 36 abstentions, and one no vote from Belarus, Europe’s pariah state.

ASEAN split their votes with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines voting for the resolution and Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei abstaining. This doesn’t bode well for either ASEAN mediation or the likelihood of a comprehensive arms embargo.

On May 5, 200 international groups, including human right organizations and Myanmar community support groups, called on the UN Security Council to institute a global arms embargo. The statement called for “(a) comprehensive UN arms embargo on Myanmar should bar the direct and indirect supply, sale, or transfer of all weapons, munitions, and other military-related equipment, including dual-use goods such as vehicles and communications and surveillance equipment, as well as the provision of training, intelligence, and other military assistance. Such an embargo should be accompanied by robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms”. This wording is identical to a call by 137 groups in February.

Western military assistance to Myanmar has been restricted for years. Rigid arms embargoes were imposed by individual states for three decades. The United States (US), Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the European Union (EU) have had long-standing sanctions on the sale of weapons to Myanmar, including even dual-use technology. Those measures were maintained over the past decade, even as these states sought enhanced interaction with the military. However, those embargoes were ineffective in stopping atrocity crimes against the Kachin, Rohingya, Karen and Shan ethnic minorities.

There are an estimated 42 countries who have imposed arms embargoes on Myanmar over the past three decades. Many of these are EU member states or are aligned with the various common positions imposed since 1996. South Korea suspended defense ties and a ban on arms exports in March.

There are several obvious reasons why a call for a UN arms embargo faces intractable impediments to succeed. First, it’s highly unlikely to work because much of the firepower being directed at ordinary people is domestically manufactured. The Myanmar military produces almost all of the light arms and ammunition it needs to kill civilians and put down urban uprisings: the same hardware it used to wage war against insurgents and ethnic civilians throughout Myanmar.

This network of defense industries (Ka Pa Sa) are located mostly in central Myanmar, in Pyi, Bago and other locations, with an estimated 38 facilities in total. Anyone who has visited the Defense Services Museum in Naypyidaw will have been struck by the evident pride in domestic military self-sufficiency; perhaps also seized by just how over the top this pride, to the point of mania, really is. The Ka Pa Sa manufacture everything from small arms, ammunition, anti-personnel landmines, mortars, uniforms, mess kits, soccer balls, army rum and many other items. The military has constructed this system with a large amount of foreign assistance, particularly German, and in later years from North Korea, Ukraine and Russia, but now largely runs the system independently.

Watching police officers in diverse towns such as Dawei, Yangon, and Mandalay firing live rounds against unarmed civilians, the shots mainly come from the German-designed Heckler and Koch Gewehr 3 (H&K G3) 7.62mm assault rifles, once the standard infantry weapon for the Myanmar military, designated Burma Army Type 63 or BA63. These were provided by the German firm Fritz Werner starting in the 1950s and through a close partnership up until the 1990’s. Many of these weapons were transferred to the Myanmar Police Force as the Ka Pa Sa started to manufacture the MA series of assault rifles (with Israeli assistance) in the early 1990s, which the military now uses.

Should the members of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the civilian resistance fighters of the People’s Defense Forces target the network of Ka Pa Sa – its facilities, supply chains, raw materials and personnel – that could potentially have a serious effect on production and supplies. Harrying domestic manufacture of armaments and non-lethal supplies (food, uniforms, basic equipment) could impact internal military morale and drive increased defections.

One officer from a defense factory who recently joined the CDM and fled to the border with India told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar service that much of the raw materials for the factories is sourced from the Chinese defense firm China North Industries Group (NORINCO) and transited through Singapore. However, it is unclear to what extent the trail of spare parts and raw materials are sourced outside Myanmar. That is one potential avenue for further investigation: resupply, replenishment and sourcing links to the domestic arms industry.

The next major impediment is the continued close links the military has with Russia and China. China accounts for half of the arms exports to Myanmar, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report of March 2021 estimating that, between 2016 and 2020, China accounted for 48 percent of imports. India accounted for 16 percent and Russia 15 percent.

China has been a major arms supplier for over 30 years, including NORINCO, and several large aerospace companies.  China has supplied numerous fighter planes to the Myanmar Air Force, including F-7 fighters in the early 1990s and, in recent years, the joint China and Pakistan manufactured JF-17 Thunder fighter. Much of the lavish arms sales from the early 1990s was disappointing in terms of quality, but China remains a major supplier and also trainer of Myanmar’s armed forces. Jane’s Defence Group reported that Chinese supplied drones, the CH-3A ‘Rainbow’ surveillance UEVs, have been deployed in Mandalay to observe demonstrations.

The 74th Armed Forces Day Parade in March 2019. / The Irrawaddy

China is also one of the major suppliers of weapons to the ethnic armed organizations, especially the United Wa State Army. Beijing, or more likely local officials in Yunnan, is the single biggest outside arms supplier to Myanmar’s multiple conflicts.

Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has turned to Moscow in recent years, expanding a relationship that started two decades ago and which has seen thousands of Myanmar personnel trained in Russian defense establishments. The commander in chief’s visit to Russia in June signaled continued firm ties, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu expressing support for the junta leader. Arms sales have continued, with the Moscow Times reporting that the military had imported US$15 million worth of radar equipment since the coup. Just days before the military takeover, Justice for Myanmar reported that the military was buying Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and Pantsir-S1 short range air defense systems.

The air force originally purchased second-hand MiG-29 fighter jets from Belarus, since sourced from Russia, and have announced plans to buy SU-30 fighter jets and Yak-130 training aircraft. These air assets sales should be a focus of intense attention for any arms embargo campaign, given how much more frequently air strikes, especially ones conducted at night, have been directed at civilian targets such as those in Kayin State in late March. An arms embargo campaign must also widely condemn the continued sales or support of helicopter gunships, such as the Mi-35 which has been used against both insurgents and civilians, as well as ground attack aircraft.

Ukraine is an often unacknowledged arms supplier to Myanmar. In 2004, the military purchased an estimated 1,000 BTR-3U armored personnel carriers (APCs) to be assembled in Myanmar, although the exact number in the order of battle is unclear. The BTR’s include German-made Deutz diesel engines and American-made General Motors Allison automatic transmissions. These vehicles made an appearance on the streets of Yangon in February (and were not manned by Chinese soldiers as was widely reported at the time) but are not reported to have been used against protesters.

Israel has had a long relationship with the Myanmar armed forces, since establishing formal ties in 1953. Israeli officials have helped train elite units, assisted with intelligence gathering and sold patrol boats to the navy, as well as providing technology for the domestic manufacture of the Uzi submachine gun, primarily used now by the police. It was a police officer firing an Uzi at unarmed protestors in Naypyitaw that resulted in the Spring Revolution’s first casualty: 19-year old Myat Thet Thet Khaing, who was shot in the head. Israel is reported to have suspended arms sales to Myanmar following an order in the Supreme Court in 2017, but this has not been confirmed.

Another challenge is one of unacknowledged but naked hypocrisy. Proponents of an arms embargo are calling on some of the world’s largest arms dealers to support imposing an embargo on one country, when the US accounts for the majority of arms sales globally, significantly more than China and Russia. The United Kingdom lauds its principled approach to Myanmar, but lavishes weapons on Saudi Arabia, resuming its sales of some £1.4 billion earlier in 2021 after a pause of two years following an outcry over the bombing campaign in Yemen. The Biden Administration has suspended sales to Saudi Arabia for the same reason, but continues to supply half of the weapons to the Middle East.

It is doubtful if Washington will dilute any diplomatic capitol to exert pressure on its allies in Israel and the Ukraine in order to have a questionable effect on the ability of the armed forces to violently suppress resistance in Myanmar. The Biden Administration resumed military support to Ukraine in March with a US$125 million arms sale. The credibility of the West suffered a crushing blow in its scramble out of Afghanistan.

So how could an arms embargo actually work? Who will provide leadership? Human right groups, beyond the flash-in-the-pan issuance of ‘joint letters’, have publicized no clear plans for how an arms embargo could operate. The special rapporteur Tom Andrews has done little more than repeat the rhetoric of condemnation and called for an arms embargo, but has failed to articulate how it could work. His mandate is ill-suited to taking a leadership role in any campaign for an arms embargo: he is an independent expert who reports to the UN Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Andrews may also be keeping one eye on his future in US politics, so cannot be relied upon to push the Biden Administration or Congress hard and expend political capital for a ban on arms sales.

International leadership for an arms embargo could be spearheaded by the venerable troika of the Special Advisory Council-Myanmar (SAC-M): former UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, and Chris Sidoti and Marzuki Darusman, from the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. Formed following the February 1 coup, but conceived before it, the SAC-M has formulated what it calls a ‘Three Cuts’ approach to pressuring the military: cut the weapons, cut the cash and cut the impunity. It has assembled some fine understanding of the cash and impunity cuts, with Chris Sidoti especially vocal on interdicting the military’s financial sector. But the SAC-M website has no details on cutting weapons. Nevertheless, given the more legible approach of the trio and their background on Myanmar going back years, they have the skills, energy and commitment to corral the global community into at least discussing forms of an arms embargo.

A junta soldier on the Taungoo-Thandaunggyi road in Loikaw in June 2021. / CJ

An arms embargo requires concerted diplomatic efforts backed up by skillful research and documentation. Where to get all the necessary details to make an effective arms embargo feasible? There are two possible sources that offer the best chance of success, if the West directed the requisite funding and technical support. The first is increased support for groups such as Justice for Myanmar, which has done the most impressively forensic work on the finances and arms supplies of the Myanmar military. This clandestine collective is effectively producing the schematics for sanctions and to scupper arms supply chains. It should receive even more resources: they are doing far more important and relevant work than the UN, Western governments and international research and rights organizations.

Another source of activity is to create numerous funds for investigative journalism and academic research, utilizing the human capital of the many Myanmar people who have been displaced or exiled by the coup. Increasing investigative journalism funding for Myanmar media outlets is one step, including The Irrawaddy, Burma News International, Myanmar Now and others. Another is for donors to fund projects dedicated to uncovering the domestic arms industry. Following the threads of domestic and international supply chains and finding ways to harry and disrupt production, recruitment and supply could be as effective as armed action.

This could be a component of what Western donors should have supported ten years ago: an ‘Understanding the Military’ initiative, which scrutinizes the internal dynamics of the armed forces and questions some of the canards built up around its size, internal culture and psyche, fissures and strengths, local economic behavior and relationships with varying communities. In other words, a Myanmar-driven research focus to assess the military’s vulnerabilities.

There is already some fine work being pursued by the Myanmar media and in academia, with the recent publication of crucial data on Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and top generals by the Institute of South East Asian Studies. The answer to toppling the military will always be a home-grown endeavor; trust in the West to assist on this should be tempered.

Calling for an arms embargo takes multi-staged, painstaking work, not just the rhetoric of performative activism. If there is no sincerity in pursuing an embargo, stop talking about one. The world has a responsibility to protect the expectations of people in Myanmar. Further failure will only compound the post-coup betrayal.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar

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