When million-dollar arms sales knock on the door, human rights violations and war crimes fly out of the window. As the United Nations (UN) grapples for a reaction to the military coup in Myanmar, both China and Russia, two veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), refused to support a statement condemning the army takeover - a collective statement that warrants consensus from all 15 members.
The two big powers have long thrown their protective arms around Myanmar because of longstanding political, economic and military relationships with the troubled Southeast Asian Nation. Russia and China have often provided support for each other (“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”), even though they do not always vote in accord.
Perhaps what is most significant is the fact that Russia and China are two of the major arms suppliers to Myanmar and will therefore protect the country from any form of UN military or economic sanctions. Although it does not officially release figures for its annual military budget or provide a breakdown of its expenditures on arms purchase, Myanmar purchased over $2.4 billion worth or arms between 2010-2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’ (SIPRI) database. China accounted for about $1.3 billion in arms; Russia $807 million; India $145 million; and South Korea $90 million.
Siemon Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms and Military Expenditure Programme at SIPRI says these arms purchases included warships, combat aircraft, armed drones (UAVs), armored vehicles and air defense systems from China while Russia supplied fighter aircraft and combat helicopters.
India, currently a non-permanent member of the UNSC, provided a second-hand submarine, the first large submarine for Myanmar, plus equipment and missiles for warships built in Myanmar.
“India is a rather new arms supplier and seems to aim to reduce Myanmar’s links to China - and it has, in the past, expressed concerns about Chinese influence in Myanmar and in (potential) Chinese military installations and bases in Myanmar,” said Wezeman.
India and China, both nuclear powers, have had several military confrontations in their ongoing border disputes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas. Among other arms suppliers to Myanmar, Wezeman pointed out, are South Korea, Belarus and Israel.
Several members of the European Union (EU) have also supplied equipment considered ‘major arms’ by SIPRI - despite EU sanctions, which include a seemingly strong ban on supplying equipment or support to Myanmar’s military.
Dr. Natalie Goldring, representative of the Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy at the UN and is a Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University, told IPS any attempts to impose sanctions through the UN Security Council would have to overcome the objections of Myanmar’s top two weapons suppliers, both of whom have vetoes on the Security Council.
“China has already blocked a UN Security Council statement that would have condemned the recent military coup. That action suggests that they would also block any attempts to impose economic or military sanctions.” Before the coup would have been the right time for countries to stop supplying Myanmar with advanced military weaponry, she said, adding that “stopping arms transfers now is still better than waiting until later.”
“It’s long past the time for weapons suppliers to come to terms with the fact that the useful lifetime of these weapons can easily extend beyond the rule of the governments the weapons have been sold or given to. As five of the world’s six top weapons suppliers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Russia, France, China and the UK) have a special responsibility in this regard,” Dr Goldring declared.
In a statement condemning the coup, US President Joe Biden said, “United States removed sanctions on Burma (the US has long refused to recognize the name change to Myanmar) over the past decade based on progress toward democracy.” “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” he said. “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack.”
A State Department spokesperson, Ned Price told reporters February 3 the United States provided nearly $135 million in bilateral assistance to Burma in FY2020. “I should mention that only a portion of that, a very small portion, is assistance to the government. But we’re undertaking that review”. The vast majority actually goes to Rohingya, to civil society, and not to the Burmese military, said Price.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch, said the Security Council’s abysmal failure to address Myanmar’s past appalling human rights abuses assured the military they could do as they please without serious consequences. “That approach should end now,” he added.
The Security Council, he said, should demand the immediate release of all detained political leaders and activists, and the restoration of civilian democratic rule. Targeted sanctions should be imposed on those military leaders responsible.”
Meanwhile, the G7 Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, along with the High Representative of the European Union, have unanimously condemned the coup in Myanmar.
“We are deeply concerned by the detention of political leaders and civil society activists, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and targeting of the media.”
“We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law. The November election results must be respected and Parliament should be convened at the earliest opportunity,” the G7 ministers said in a statement.
Calling for the de-militarization of Myanmar, Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), said war is the language of death. “Civil wars are a refusal to recognize the humanity of our brothers and sisters. Violence never begets peace. War negates national harmony. The fruits of conflicts are bitterness, divisions and wounds that take years to heal. Seek unity, yes, but not by fear or threat.”
Speaking of militarization, Wezeman told IPS that Myanmar has started, in recent years, to modernize its armed forces in a more serious way, acquiring advanced combat aircraft (MiG-29, SDu-30MK and JF-17), advanced and basic trainer aircraft (K-8, Yak-130 and G-120TP) and various armored vehicles to replace or add to those in service.
Myanmar has also acquired several types of air defense systems (which it did not really have before) and its first submarine. It has acquired new warships and has started building its warships of local design (but suspected to lean heavily on Chinese help in design and using imported weapons, sensors and engines).
In general, it seems Myanmar has embarked on building more capable armed forces against the various rebel force in Myanmar but also more capable against other states. Compared to its neighbors - China and India, and even Thailand - the Myanmar armed forces operate with fewer major arms and less advanced weapons systems, Wezeman said.