It's hardly a surprise but an affirmation of the obvious. Myanmar's military regime is being backed, supported and protected by both Russia and China. What's new is that the specifics of this assistance have come to light in a landmark United Nations report uncovering the extent of arms and munitions transfers to Myanmar, beset by longtime military rule, amid spurts of democratic governance, but overall isolation and indifference.
"Despite overwhelming evidence of the Myanmar military's atrocity crimes against the people of Myanmar, the generals continue to have access to advanced weapons systems, spare parts for fighter jets, raw materials and manufacturing equipment for domestic weapons production," said UN Special Rapporteur, Tom Andrews. The report released last week from the UN rights monitor, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), asserts that a series of front companies, along with lax enforcement, have allowed firms to avoid arms sanctions and provide weapons.
The Billion Dollar Death Trade: International Arms Networks that Enable Human Rights Violations in Myanmar has emerged as the most detailed study on post-coup arms transfers to the military since the regime seized power in February 2021. "Russia and China continue to be the main suppliers of advanced weapons systems to the Myanmar military, accounting for over $400 million and $260 million respectively since the coup, with much of the trade originating from state-owned entities," Mr Andrews said.
"However, arms dealers operating out of Singapore are critical to the continued operation of the Myanmar military's deadly weapons factories," the study asserted. The report reveals that $254 million of supplies have been shipped from dozens of entities in Singapore to the Myanmar military from February 2021 to December 2022. The overview adds that "payments for hundreds of millions of dollars of arms transfers are moving through Singapore banks".
Though Singapore's official policy is to, "prohibit the transfer of arms to Myanmar", and that it has decided "not to authorise the transfer of dual-use items which have been assessed to have potential military application", the Special Rapporteur called upon the Singapore government to "enforce its policies to the maximum extent possible".
Mr Andrews, a former Maine Congressman stated sharply, "The Myanmar military and its arms dealers have figured out how to game the system. That's because sanctions are not being adequately enforced and because arms dealers linked to the junta have been able to create shell companies to avoid them."
On 11 April 2023, the Myanmar military attacked Pazi Gyi Village in Sagaing Region, killing 170 people, among them 40 children, which underscores the impact of an unfettered arms trade to the regime. Russia supplied the Yak-130 aircraft that dropped the bombs as well as Mi-35 type helicopters which gunned down civilians.
More specifically Russia's US$370 million in sales to the Myanmar military includes SU-30 fighter jets, MiG-29 fighter jets, Yak-130 combat capable aircraft, and military aircraft/helicopter spare parts. According to the UN report, "Russia's continued post-coup transfers of arms to the Myanmar military has violated international humanitarian law."
Since the coup, over 40 state-run and private suppliers based in China, including Hong Kong, transferred $267 million worth of arms and materials to the Myanmar military. Again the report cites, "Through its transfer of fighter jets, spare parts for fighter jets, tanks, and military helicopters, China has violated international humanitarian law."
Even before the current generals came to power in February 2021, Myanmar's military regime was shielded from criticism in the UN Security Council.
So lucrative is the arms trade with Myanmar that other countries such as India and Thailand have supplied the military too. India has sent $51 million in arms and dual-use supplies to Myanmar. Thailand, for its part, has sent $28 million in spare parts and raw materials to the military.
Even before the current coup d'etat in 2021, Myanmar endured military rule between 1962 and 2011. The regime has battled ethnic conflicts with the Shan and Karen Christian minorities. In 2017 Myanmar expelled almost a million of its Rohingya Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh.
What can be done? Mr Andrews asserts that tightening sanctions remain crucial, "Member states have not adequately targeted key sources of foreign currency that the junta relies on to purchase arms, including most significantly Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise".
Pressuring Myanmar's military regime is not so simple, given China's clear strategic interest in the resource-rich country.
John J Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'.