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UN rights envoy urges action to stop Myanmar’s access to weapons, funds

Myanmar flag. (Unsplash)
June 28, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Financial institutions must do more to stop the Myanmar junta acquiring weapons, a U.N. human rights rapporteur said, singling out Thailand as the new main source of military supplies that Myanmar was getting through the international banking system.

Thailand said it was studying the report from the special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, adding that its banking and financial institutions follow the banking protocols of any major financial hub.

Many Western governments have imposed sanctions on the Myanmar junta that seized power in a 2021 coup and Andrews said international community efforts to stop the flow of weapons have had some success.

The junta’s procurement of weapons, dual-use technologies manufacturing equipment and material through the international banking system was down by a third from US$377 million in the 2022 financial year to US$253 million in 2023, he said.

But the junta had taken opportunities to skirt restrictions and its “forces continue to systematically assault Myanmar civilians using powerful weapons of war obtained from abroad,” Andrews said in his report.

The junta, known as the State Administration Council, or SAC, had altered its sources of weapons and military supplies and exploited gaps in sanctions regimes, changed financial institutions and taken advantage of the lack of political will on the part of governments to coordinate and enforce action, he added. 

“The SAC has identified and is aggressively seizing opportunities to circumvent sanctions and other measures taken by the international community,” said the rapporteur.

Andrews contrasted the response to Myanmar’s bloody crisis from two of its neighbors: Singapore and Thailand.

Singapore, long a major supplier of military equipment with close commercial ties with Myanmar, had “articulated a clear policy opposing the transfer of weapons”, in line with a U.N. General Assembly resolution that passed overwhelmingly after the coup.

Following an investigation by the Singapore government, exports to Myanmar of weapons and related materials from Singapore-registered entities using the formal banking system dropped from almost US$120 million in FY2022 to just over US$10 million in FY2023, according to Andrews.

‘Leading source’

Thailand, on the other hand, does not have an explicit public policy position opposing the transfer of weapons to Myanmar, Andrews said, adding that exports from Thailand-registered entities more than doubled over the same period, from just over US$60 million to nearly US$130 million.

“Many SAC purchases previously made from Singapore-based entities, including parts for Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters used to conduct airstrikes on civilian targets, are now being sourced from Thailand,” he said.

“Thailand has now become the SAC’s leading source of military supplies purchased through the international banking system,” he added.

Andrews noted that, as with Singapore, he found no evidence that the Thai government was involved in or aware of the transfers but noted that if it were to respond in the same way the Singapore government had, “the SAC’s capacity to attack the people of Myanmar would be significantly reduced.”   

Thailand’s foreign ministry said in a statement it had seen Andrews’ report and was looking into it.

“Many countries have been named and certainly these are countries where the majority of financial transactions in the region would pass through,” the ministry said.

“Our banking and financial institutions follow banking protocols as any major financial hub. So we will have to first establish the facts before considering any further steps.”

Andrews called on states that support human rights in Myanmar to halt the sale of weapons to it by their companies and for financial institutions to freeze relations with Myanmar’s state-owned banks.

The rapporteur said the findings in his report covered purchases via the formal international banking system and not military procurement pathways such as in-kind trade or purchases with hard currency.

While Singapore’s military exports to Myanmar had dropped dramatically, and those from Russia and China also declined, Indian exports remained constant, according to Andrews, while acknowledging some of Myanmar’s military procurement from those countries may have moved to informal channels.