Arms embargo on Myanmar’s junta would reduce, but not end, civilian deaths: experts

A weapons embargo against Myanmar’s junta would likely reduce the number of civilians killed by security forces but observers and analysts disagree by how much, as many of the arms the military uses are produced inside the country.

On Feb. 22, former U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, who serves as U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that countries should stop selling arms to the junta, citing a brutal crackdown on civilians since the military seized power in a coup last year.

The report called out permanent Security Council members China and Russia, as well as India, Belarus, Ukraine, Israel, Serbia, Pakistan and South Korea, for selling the weapons, which Andrews said are almost certainly being used by the military to kill innocent people.

Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday, Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), said countries that sell arms to the Myanmar military must reconsider their actions.

“It’s very important to understand whether these arms you sell for your commercial interests are meant to protect ordinary people or are for killing them and committing crimes,” he said. “Myanmar’s dictators are getting weapons because arms companies are focusing only on their financial gains. The people of Myanmar are being tortured or killed with these weapons. We need to be aware of this.”

Aung Myo Min also called on the larger international community to help end arms sales to the Myanmar’s military.

In the 13 months since its Feb. 1, 2021, coup, the junta has cracked down on its opponents through attacks on peaceful protesters, arrests, and beatings and killings. The military regime has also attacked opposition strongholds with helicopter gunships, fighter jets and troops that have burned hundreds of villages they accuse of supporting anti-junta militias.

As of Friday, more than 1,600 people had been killed since the coup and some 12,300 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization based in Thailand.

Andrews’ report states that China, Russia and Serbia have been selling arms to Myanmar’s military both before and after the coup, while the other nations sold arms to Myanmar for years prior to it.

The U.N. high commissioner said in his statement that China and Russia continued to provide Myanmar with fighter jets and armored vehicles and had promised to sell more despite the military’s attacks on communities since the coup. The Serbian government has decided to sell rocket launchers and artillery shells to the junta, while reports suggest that Pakistan has provided it with mortars and grenade launchers.

The U.N. in June 2021 said that member states should not sell arms to the junta, but Andrews said countries have not followed the recommendation.

Domestic production issues

A member of the anti-junta People’s Defense Force paramilitary group in Magway region’s Yesagyo township told RFA that he believes the killing of innocent civilians in Myanmar would drop dramatically if countries were to stop selling weapons to the military.

“They fire at our villages from warplanes and shell our homes. They attack civilian homes and open fire on refugee camps. They use these weapons to launch military operations. Villages were set on fire using these weapons,” he said. “If the military didn’t have these weapons, they wouldn’t have the ability to commit these crimes and the harm they inflict on the people would decline.”

But junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun has denied any wrongdoing by the military and the countries who have provided it with weaponry. He called the former U.S. lawmaker’s words hypocritical. 

“The arms trade is going on everywhere in the world. The U.S. is also the world’s largest arms seller, followed by China and Russia,” he said. “But regardless, most of the weapons used by our security forces are Myanmar-made.”

Myanmar has been working on a policy of self-reliance in the production of arms and that the junta’s interactions with other countries are not solely for purchasing weapons, but to improve political, social, and international relations, Zaw Min Tun said.

Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said that enacting and enforcing an arms embargo will be difficult for the U.N. Security Council when China and Russia hold veto powers and will not even accept formal talks on the issue.

But he acknowledged that even if the council could put an end to foreign arms sales to Myanmar, killings will continue for as long as the military produces its own weapons domestically.

“If we can make the most of an arms embargo, we might be able to stop aircraft-related issues, like air strikes,” he said. “The deadliest weapon is the heavy artillery. Mortars and Howitzers have caused many casualties. It can be generally assumed that even if an arms embargo is implemented, it will have little effect so long as domestic production capacity doesn’t drop.”

Military analysts have also suggested that U.S. and EU bans on arms sales to Myanmar are likely to be ineffective, noting that North Korea has been able to continue purchasing and producing weapons, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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