Myanmar junta still able to access weapons and money overseas, says UN expert

FILE PHOTO:Fall of Myanmar town to rebels sends people fleeing into Thailand

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -International efforts to isolate Myanmar's ruling junta appear to have dented its ability to purchase new military equipment from overseas, but the military is still able to access money and weapons for its war against anti-coup forces, a U.N. expert said in a report published on Wednesday.

Myanmar has been plunged in turmoil since the military seized power from an elected government in a 2021 coup, which sparked financial sanctions imposed on the military, banks and other associated businesses by Western countries.

More than three years on, a protest movement against the coup has evolved into a full-blown civil war, with the military accused of launching air strikes on insurgents and civilians alike as it has lost control of large swathes of territory.

A report by the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, found the value of weapons, dual-use technologies, manufacturing equipment and other materials imported by the junta amounted to $253 million in the year up to March 2024.

That was a third less than the previous year, the report said, thanks to efforts by Singapore to prevent its companies from aiding the junta.

Andrews told Reuters that the progress showed that sanctions and other international efforts can have an impact on the junta's ability to resupply, and therefore reduce the military's ability to launch attacks like air strikes that have killed civilians in their villages.

"The very means by which they are attacking these villages are dependent upon their access to weapons and materials supplied from overseas," Andrews said.

Myanmar's military denies accusations it has committed atrocities against civilians and says it is fighting "terrorists." Officials have played down the impact of sanctions and say they only delay the military's plan to return the country to democracy.

Andrews looked at purchases by entities controlled by the junta's defense ministry, identifying $630 million in military procurement between 2022 and 2024.

Exports from Singapore dropped from more than $110 million in the 2022 fiscal year to just over $10 million, the report said.

However, Myanmar's neighbor Thailand partially filled the gap. Companies registered in Thailand transferred weapons and related materials worth $120 million in the 2023 fiscal year, compared with $60 million the year before, the report said.

"In a striking example, in 2023, Thailand-registered companies became the SAC’s source for spare parts for its Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters that Singapore-registered companies provided previously," the report said, referring to the junta's formal name, the State Administration Council.

"The SAC uses these helicopters to transport soldiers and conduct air strikes on civilian targets, such as the April 2023 attack on Pazigyi village in Sagaing Region that killed approximately 170 people, including 40 children."

Thailand's foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the country's banking and financial institutions follow protocols like other major financial hubs, adding that the government will look into the UN Special Rapporteur's report.

It did not respond to the report's assertion that Thailand-registered entities had transferred weapons and related materials to the Myanmar junta.

"This is a matter of policy which has to be carefully considered, particularly the impact of sanctions on the wider population," ministry spokesman Nikorndej Balankura said in a statement, referring to Thailand's overall approach towards Myanmar, including imposing sanctions.

"In the past, Thailand has always taken the position not to support any action that impacts the wider population," he said.

Singapore's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment. A Myanmar junta spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin told Reuters in an interview in April that Thailand will not take sides and will address all concerns in the conflict.

The military said members of the armed resistance were killed in the Pazigyi village strike.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Yantoultra Ngui; Editing by Alistair Bell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)