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North Korea, China and Russia are arming Myanmar's military, U.N. report finds

By SHIBANI MAHTANI | The Washington Post | Published: August 5, 2019

HONG KONG A U.N. report released Monday found countries including North Korea, Russia, China and India supplied arms to Myanmar's military in recent years, including weapons used in a crackdown against Rohingya Muslims that has been described as genocidal.

The most extensive study on the military's financing to date also found that dozens of Myanmar companies some of which spent years on a United States blacklist before sanctions were lifted in 2016 donated more than $10 million to the military, responding to a call to fund the Rohingya campaign in 2017. After the army expelled some 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar, these companies have helped to build infrastructure over the site of massacres.

Two years after their expulsion, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain in refugee camps in Bangladesh, with no clear timeline to repatriate them to Myanmar, nor a plan to address their grievances should they return.

"The revenue the military earns from domestic and foreign business deals substantially enhances its ability to carry out gross violations of human rights with impunity," the U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission that put together the report said in a news release. It pinpointed 140 companies owned or controlled by the military.

A Myanmar military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.N. mission is mandated to investigate human-rights violations committed by the Myanmar military, and called a year ago for military leaders to be investigated for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Monday, it called for an arms embargo against Myanmar and sanctions against the military.

The United States recently imposed a visa ban on Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy. Washington, along with the European Union and Canada, has also imposed economic sanctions on lower-ranking Myanmar generals and troops.

"We'd like to see action extended to full economic sanctions, targeted against the people who lead the military and the military as an institution," said Chris Sidoti, a member of the U.N. mission.

The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, exercised total rule over the country until 2011, when it gave way to a military-backed government. The country held democratic elections in 2015 in which Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power as the de facto leader of a civilian government, but the military continues to hold significant sway over parliament, key ministries and the economy.

It also controls two conglomerates known as Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader, is the chairman of the first conglomerate.

The 2015 elections prompted the United States under President Barack Obama to drop long-standing economic sanctions against the country that were meant to chip away at the dominance of the military leaders and their affiliates. But the Rohingya atrocities in 2017 once again relegated Myanmar to pariah status, and Western businesses have largely stayed clear.

The report highlights the complicity of some of these formerly sanctioned companies, which still maintain close ties with the military, in the crackdown on the Rohinga in Myanmar's Rakhine state. After the purge began in August 2017, the report says, Min Aung Hlaing held ceremonies to solicit donations "in support of the Tatmadaw's military and other activities in northern Rakhine against the Rohingya."

"During these meetings, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made statements describing the conduct of the Tatmadaw in northern Rakhine, outlined the policy and military objectives of the 'clearance operations,' denied the existence of the Rohingya and advanced justifications for the Tatmadaw's acts," the report says. The ceremonies yielded over $10 million in donations.

The U.N. mission also highlights continued cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar, a long-standing relationship that was meant to have ended once the Southeast Asian country started liberalizing after six decades of isolation. The report notes that Myanmar has likely purchased a range of weapons, including rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles, from one of North Korea's primary arms traders, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation. The company is subject to U.N. Security Council sanctions.

"Arms relationships are very much a part of this long-standing relationship between these two countries," said Sidoti. "The [Myanmar] military has shown very little sign of change, and it seems to be quite clear that it is still involved in arms trade with North Korea."

The U.S. government has faced pressure from human-rights groups to impose harsher sanctions against Myanmar. Rights groups say the visa ban against Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader, still falls short and will not lead to accountability nor hurt the military's revenue streams.

Support for the military and its Rohingya campaign remains high in Myanmar, and many within the country believe the international community's response has been disproportionate. On Saturday, pro-military protesters demonstrated against the U.S. visa ban, and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon warned staff to avoid the area.

"Americans, get out!" the protesters shouted. A former member of parliament, Hla Swe, who also served in the Myanmar military, appeared on stage in full tactical gear and condemned Suu Kyi and her government for not condemning the sanctions.

"We are ready to defend our country from outsiders!" Hla Swe shouted.

The Washington Post's Cape Diamond in Yangon contributed to this report.

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