Israel Tightening Security Ties With Myanmar, Despite Western Sanctions

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing's unannounced visit was the first time in 55 years that a military leader from the country formally known as Burma visited Israel.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing's Facebook

Myanmar’s military chief of staff made an official visit to Israel last week, the first military leader from that country, formerly known as Burma, to come here in 55 years. Myanmar is being sanctioned by the United States and European Union - though less stringently than before - due to its recent history of harsh military rule.

In an unusual move, the visit by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was not announced by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s office. The general met with Ya’alon, IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and President Reuven Rivlin.

Myanmar, which is holding elections in November, has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1955, and had reportedly scheduled this visit to open a new chapter in bilateral relations and advance security cooperation. Hlaing was accompanied by a delegation of senior military officers from the country’s ground, air, and naval forces.

Formerly ruled by a brutal military junta, the country was subject to widespread sanctions, though many have been rolled back after the country elected a civilian government in 2011 and began to institute reforms. There is still an EU embargo on arms sales to Myanmar, as well as business restrictions imposed by the United States.

During his four-day visit, Hlaing visited a number of military industries, like Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit and Elta. He also visited the Israel Air Force base at Palmahim, the Ashdod naval base and the Gaza Division base. The Myanmar military is apparently purchasing Super Dvora patrol boats; in a post on his Facebook page, Hlaing reports that he and the delegation “rode and examined” a Super Dvora 3 patrol boat during a visit to the Ashdod naval base, “which is the same type of speed coastguard vessel Myanmar Navy has ordered.”

A report by Amnesty International 10 years ago stated that Israel was exporting weapons to Myanmar even though it was considered a consistent violator of human rights and was under the EU weapons embargo, which is still in place, although other EU sanctions were removed in 2012. Israel has previously sold Myanmar air-to-air missiles, while Israeli companies upgraded parts of the country’s arsenal. It was also reported that Myanmar purchased 155 mm cannons made by Soltam in the late 1990s.

“The junta in Burma is notorious, and has been accused of committing serious human rights violations, particularly against the country’s Muslim minority,” said Eitay Mack, a human rights lawyer who is seeking to improve public oversight of Israeli arms exports. “What’s serious about this visit is that there are meant to be elections in Burma in November, and just as the international community is trying to advance the reforms toward a civilian regime, Israel is giving legitimacy to representatives of the junta.”

To encourage the social, political, and economic reforms Myanmar’s civilian government was making, the Obama administration lifted some of the sanctions that had targeted Myanmar’s military rulers and their business cronies. Nevertheless, the administration regards the regime there as fragile and the blacklist of individuals and companies who had ties to the old regime remains. Secretary of State John Kerry visited there in August 2014 and called on its leaders to work harder to improve human rights.