On 17 May 2023, Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, released an extensive report that sheds light on the ongoing arms trade to Myanmar’s military, which has continued since the coup in February 2021.
The report, published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), provides evidence that the military has imported at least $1 billion USD worth of arms and raw materials for the manufacturing of weapons.
The brutal attack on Pazigyi Village in the Sagaing Region on 11 April 2023, which resulted in the death of approximately 170 people, including 40 children, is a chilling testament to the devastating impact of unrestricted arms trade with the Myanmar military.
In his report, Andrews calls out UN Member States, including Singapore, for their role in enabling this trade through complicity, lax enforcement of bans, and the simple evasion of sanctions. He emphatically emphasizes the urgent need for Member States to act decisively and advocates for a complete prohibition on the sale or transfer of weapons to Myanmar’s military.
The report, named “The Billion Dollar Death Trade: International Arms Networks that Enable Human Rights Violations in Myanmar,” represents the most exhaustive study on post-coup arms transfers to the military.
It reveals significant networks and companies engaged in these transactions, operating out of Russia, China, Singapore, Thailand, and India.
Russia and China emerged as the chief suppliers of advanced weapon systems to Myanmar’s military, contributing over $400 million and $260 million respectively since the coup.
However, the report also shed light on the crucial role of Singapore, with entities based in the city-state instrumental to the Myanmar military’s lethal weapons factories.
According to the report, Singapore has become a major jurisdiction for the transit of spare parts, raw materials, and manufacturing equipment.
From February 2021 to December 2022, $254 million USD worth of supplies were dispatched from various Singaporean entities to the Myanmar military, often involving Singaporean banks.
Entities in Singapore are critical to the operation of Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries’ weapons factories (commonly referred to as KaPaSa, the Burmese acronym for DDI).
The Special Rapporteur has received no information indicating that the Singapore Government has approved, or is involved in, the shipment of arms and associated materials to the Myanmar military.
Singapore banks have likewise been used extensively by arms traffickers operating within Singapore and outside of it, with payments for hundreds of millions of dollars of arms transfers moving through Singapore banks.
The Special Rapporteur has decided not to list the names of Singaporean entities transferring arms to the Myanmar military in order to allow time for the Singapore Government and other UN Member States to take action.
The Singapore government has previously voiced its policy to “prohibit the transfer of arms to Myanmar” and has pledged not to approve the transfer of dual-use items that could potentially have military applications in Myanmar.
Andrews contended that if Singapore were to halt all shipments and facilitation of arms and associated materials to the Myanmar military, it would significantly disrupt the junta’s capacity to commit war crimes.
The report further recorded transfers from Thai-based entities, totalling $28 million USD, and Indian-based entities supplying $51 million worth of arms and related materials to Myanmar’s military since February 2021.
Andrews underscored the need to target primary sources of foreign currency that the Myanmar junta depends on for arms purchases, including the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.
He pointed out that no Member State has imposed sanctions on the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB), a crucial institution for the junta to receive foreign currency and buy arms. Andrews called for international sanctions against MFTB, suggesting it could greatly disrupt the arms trade.
Singapore prohibit arms transfers and denies transfer of dual-use items to Myanmar
However, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, presented a contrasting viewpoint in response to questions raised by Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Hougang SMC, Mr Dennis Tan, on 14th February 2023 about Singapore functioning as a “strategic transit point” for materials contributing to Myanmar’s military production.
Referring to a statement from former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo in 2007, Dr Balakrishnan asserted that Singapore has not substantially contributed to Myanmar’s defence sales and has not been involved in any defence sales to Myanmar in recent years. He reiterated that this policy still holds, even after 16 years, countering the claims of the recent UN report.
He emphasized Singapore’s strict adherence to its international obligations concerning international arms sales and transfers, and its commitment to UN sanctions and embargoes.
He also clarified that Singapore, despite the non-binding nature of the UN General Assembly Resolution 75/287, decided to prohibit arms transfers to Myanmar and deny the transfer of dual-use items with potential military applications.
While Dr Balakrishnan’s February statements may offer some reassurance to the international community, the UN report’s findings raise questions about Singapore’s efforts to maintain the arms embargo. It remains to be seen how these contrasting perspectives will be resolved.