Positive change is underway in Burma/Myanmar since President Thein Sein took office two years ago. The house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been lifted and her National League for Democracy has been giving unprecedented freedoms. The military-led regime has released hundreds of political prisoners and inked a series of cease-fire deals with ethnic minority rebels. Last month private-run newspapers for the first time appeared on sale in Burma, after decades of state monopoly on the press.
All positive signs in a country long isolated from much of the rest of the world.
In response to these developments the United States and other Western countries have begun rolling back sanctions. The European Union has gradually lifted part of the sanctions – mostly those dealing with certain government persons as well as some trade restrictions. An extensive arms embargo against Myanmar is still in place though.
Despite all the hopeful signs of progress, observers warn for major obstacles still to be solved. Though the military handed over political leadership to an elected government in 2011, it controls how far democracy can advance. Myanmar still faces major problems with regular outbreaks of religious and ethnic violence, causing death and destruction, forcing thousands to flee their homes. The military recently resorted to air raids on northern Kachin rebels, in response to alleged attacks on road and railway infrastructure. Experts worry that the military may use the internal violence to step in, regain control and set back the reform process.
While China traditionally has been Burma’s main arms supplier, other regional players are also reacting to the new political climate. India has long suspiciously regarded China as using Burma as its backyard, including a controversial military base on Burma’s Coco Islands.
But in the changing political climate India has shifted its position, warming (military) ties with its eastern neighbour, including a string of ministerial exchanges over the past year.
India has previously transferred military equipment to Burma including maritime patrol aircraft, light artillery and grenade launchers.
Last year it was revealed that M-3 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapons were used by Myanmar in battles against Kachin insurgents. Carl Gustavs have been sold to India in the past by Swedish Saab. While India has denied delivering lethal equipment to Myanmar, it is investigating the matter, after a Swedish investigation found serial numbers of the weapons pointing to India as the source.
Such a transfer to Burma would be in breach of the EU’s 1996 embargo, besides breaching contractual obligations to get permission from the country of origin.
More European military technology is soon to be seen in Burma. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, India’s state-owned radar producer Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) has secured a contract to equip three newly built Burmese frigates with its so-called RAWL-02 MkIII radars. These long-range search radars, which provide target indication to weapon control systems, are built under licence, as versions of Thales Netherlands LW-08 radar sold to India, including a transfer of technology.
Burma’s naval expansion is said to be in response to ambitious investments by the Bangladeshi Navy.
Normally the Dutch government requires that export of military goods built abroad under licence, is notified to the Dutch owner of the technology and then requires permission from the Dutch government [see factsheet in Dutch].
That raises questions on how The Hague has dealt with this order: has it been informed, and if so, why then has it granted permission for the Indo-Burmese deal, despite the ongoing European embargo? If not, then BEL appears to be in trouble with the Dutch government for breaching contract requirements.
[FS, 8 April 2013]
PS: Soon after this blog was posted Thales Nederland clarified to this blog that it had explained to BEL that it can not cooperate with the deal with Myanmar, as long as sales of military equipment containing Dutch technology would violate the current EU sanctions against that country.