Israel Urges Myanmar Gov't to Refrain From Harming Protesters

Foreign Ministry issues first statement on crisis in Southeast Asia, where 13 protesters have been killed.

Israel is concerned by the situation in Myanmar, and urges the government to demonstrate restraint and refrain from harming demonstrators, the Foreign Ministry said Saturday in its first official statement on the unfolding crisis in the South East Asian country.

The ministry summoned Myanmar's ambassador to Israel last week to clarify reports that at least 13 anti-government protesters had been killed in his country.

The officials who met with the ambassador of Myanmar, also known as Burma, delivered a curt message stating that Israel is hoping that calm is renewed and that security forces do not employ violence against demonstrators.

Israel "has no form of leverage to apply on Burma," a ministry official told Haaretz. Whereas some diplomats favor condemning Myanmar's treatment of demonstrators, others believe there is no reason for Israel to become involved.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is currently at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, has so far refrained from commenting on the subject.

"We're following the events and are trying to find out what's happening there," a senior Foreign Ministry official told Haaretz.

In 1994, a former Israeli ambassador to Myanmar, Uri Noi, told the Foreign Ministry that the embassy there should be shuttered. "There's no point carrying on with this sort of regime," Noi said.

Israel's relationship with Burma has deteriorated gradually over the past four decades, but the two countries enjoyed warmer ties after Burma gained independence in 1948 - the same year as Israel - up until the 1970s. Both countries achieved independence from the United Kingdom.

The main reason for not severing ties with Myanmar, Foreign Ministry officials say, is nostalgia. Burma was the first South Asian country to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem. In 1961, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, visited Burma and even spent some time at a Buddhist monastery.

Democratic rule ended with a military coup in 1962. Since then, Burma has been led by a military junta, which renamed the country Myanmar in 1989.

According to former officials in the Israel Defense Forces, by 1967 the two countries had weapons deals and military connections. Israel sold Burma 30 Spitfire airplanes and trained Burmese technicians. The Israel Defense Forces even sent a military attache to the capital, Rangoon, which was later renamed Yangon.

But the Six-Day War in 1967 changed the nature of the Israeli-Burmese relationship. Burma, as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), demanded Israel withdraw from Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Israel denies selling weapons to Burma or Myanmar.