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Tue 20 August 2019
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The United Nations has urged the international community to sever ties to companies linked to the Myanmar military, which has perpetrated genocide towards its Rohingya population.


The United Nations has provided a glimpse into the economic interests behind Myanmar’s military and exposed the web of businesses and arms deals that helped finance one of the greatest crimes of the 21st Century.

In a report it has outlined how companies from countries including France, Belgium and Switzerland have helped fund military operations in Myanmar by entering into business ventures with firms controlled by key members of the country’s military.

It also names a range of defence companies that has supplied the country with fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers since 2016 – the period Myanmar’s army carried out a campaign of terror that has few parallels.

Starting in 2016, the military launched a series of offensives against the Rohingya ethnic group in Rakhine state under the pretext of “counterinsurgency operations”. It justified the crackdown as a response to a series of small attacks on police outposts, but collectively punished the entire Rohingya population – whether they were male, female, young or old. 

The bloodbath eventually culminated in the final months of 2017 when more than 700,000 people were forced to flee across the border leaving behind towns and villages which were burnt to the ground. Some estimates claim the army’s brutality resulted in the deaths of more than 25,000 people, while thousands more were raped, mutilated or burnt. The UN referred to it as genocide.

Yet, companies around the world are still entering into business deals with those responsible and the money is helping to finance further human rights abuses, including a renewed campaign in Rakhine. 

The deals are conducted with impunity because few world leaders have implemented any meaningful restrictions or sanctions.

The UN says that many of the transactions are made through two of the country’s most prominent businesses, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). These companies are owned by senior military leaders, including Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Senior General Soe Win – both of whom have been accused of war crimes.

The UN mission explains: “MEHL and MEC own at least 120 businesses involved in everything from construction to pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking. Both companies, along with at least 26 of their subsidiaries, hold licences for jade and ruby mining in Kachin and Shan states.”

It’s astonishing that the British and other governments are so resistant to stopping companies financing the military.

Mark Farmaner

Meanwhile, defence companies including state-owned firms from countries such as India, Israel, China, Russia and Ukraine, have been directly tied to arms deals.

The UN is now urging the international community to sever all ties to the companies linked to the military and implement a global arms embargo. This comes despite all previous recommendations to sanction military leaders and refer the country to the International Criminal Court being ignored. 

The UK Government, which is the lead country on Myanmar at the UN Security Council, has been one of the most reluctant to act. 

“The British Government has shown an astonishing reluctance to impose any kind of sanction on the Burmese military,” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said.

“To date, the only sanctions the British Government has supported is stopping a small number of junior military personnel from taking holidays in EU member states. The holiday ban doesn’t even apply to military head Min Aung Hlaing.”

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Burma Campaign UK has been urging the government to implement the UN’s recommendations, including placing sanctions on military companies.

But the UK has so far refused to publicly support the UN Security Council referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, given no support to a global arms embargo, and failed to impose conditions on aid grants and loans that prevent British aid from using military companies, Mr Farmaner explained.

“There is no single measure which will force the military to change its behaviour, so everything that can be done must be done,” he added.

“The UN fact-finding mission has made a large number of recommendations, of which sanctioning military companies is just one. Not selling arms to the military, or giving them money to buy arms, should be a no-brainer. 

“It’s astonishing that the British and other governments are so resistant to stopping companies financing the military.”

While much of the Government’s inaction took place under Prime Minister Theresa May, there is little suggestion of a fresh approach by her successor, with Mr Farmaner branding Boris Johnson’s record on Myanmar “dire”.

He said: “He ignored warnings of what was about to happen to the Rohingya and failed to act afterwards. Even as the Burmese Army was slaughtering Rohingya children during the military offensive in 2017, the Foreign Office was defending training the Burmese military. 

“The training was only cancelled after Downing Street overruled them. When Jeremy Hunt took over from Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary we saw a strengthening in approach and tone, although still not much practical action on sanctioning the military.”

A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “We continue to support the important work of the [UN] fact finding mission and are studying their latest report and recommendations in detail.”

Main photo: A Rohingya child cradles another child at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox Bazar in Bangladesh in December 2017

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