Official representatives of the Myanmar military were among those touring the Israel Defense and Homeland Security Expo in Tel Aviv on Tuesday – even though Israel claims it has stopped selling arms to the country.
The international community has imposed harsh sanctions on Myanmar for severe human rights violations. The United Nations has accused the Myanmar military of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya survivors are considered to be refugees. International organizations have also reported this year on new war crimes against Buddhists in the western part of the country.
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Dozens of representatives of foreign militaries – including from countries who do not maintain official diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Indonesia – were among those examining the Israeli goods, including new models of weapons, drones and cyber tools. Representatives of South Sudan – another country accused of serious human rights violations – were also seen at the expo.
In 2017, Haaretz reported that countries involved in civil wars and severe human rights violations were among the roughly 100 states that sent delegations to the ISDEF expo that year. Since then more serious revelations of what is happening in Myanmar have been reported – and Israel has said it has completely stopped arms deals with the country. Nonetheless, a military delegation was allowed to come to Israel this year too, and to freely examine the latest technological military innovations. Myanmar officials were seen taking special interest in the booth of the Indian government at the expo.
In response to a question from Haaretz as to why Israeli companies are showing equipment to Myanmar representatives when they are not allowed to sell to the country, sales representatives at a number of booths said they were unaware of such a ban.
Others told Haaretz that they were permitted to show their wares because the countries “understand the limitations themselves.” Myanmar military representatives at the expo refused to answer questions from Haaretz on whether they intended to purchase the items they were examining.
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Attacks by the Myanmar military on the Rohingya minority were described last year by UN investigators as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." Human rights groups reported that since August 2017, the army has used mass executions without trial against the Rohingya, sexually assaulted members of the minority group and burned down villages.
About 400,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and others are trapped along the border between the two countries. The refugees tell of systematic rape and murder.
The defense ties between Israel and Myanmar have continued even after these atrocities were revealed and an arms embargo was imposed by the European Union, and the United States imposed sanctions on the sale of weapons to Myanmar.
In September 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled against the sale of arms to Myanmar, but the decision remained secret because the Supreme Court justices who heard the petition: Yoram Danziger, Anat Baron and David Mintz, imposed an exceptional gag order at the government’s request.
Since the ruling, Israel has steadfastly said it has stopped selling arms to Myanmar. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also told Haaretz that the arms sales have been stopped in response to a question during his visit to Brazil.
Figures from the Defense Ministry for 2018 show that Israel’s defense exports totaled about $7.5 billion. Most of the sales were for missiles and missile defense systems, along with drones, radar and electronic warfare systems and cyber services. Most Israeli arms exports were to Asia, but it is estimated that this is mostly because of large purchases by India.
Chen Brill Egri, a campaigner for Amnesty International Israel, protested along with other activists outside the defense expo. “We were not surprised to discover that war criminals from all over the world were coming to the ISDEF arms expo as guests of honor,” she told Haaretz.
“An absolute majority of Israelis oppose weapons sales to criminal regimes and we were shocked to discover that generals from Myanmar are shopping in Tel Aviv for their apartheid regime, which is carrying out genocide with ethnic cleansing. For a long time we have not had any expectations from arms dealers, but it is the role of Israel’s Defense Ministry to prevent trade by Israeli companies with totalitarian countries that murder their citizens. It seems that in the future we will also have to go to the court, who will remind the Defense Ministry of its job,” said Brill Egri.
The organizers of the expo said it is an international exhibition with Israeli exhibitors and guests from over 90 countries, who register online. “The exhibition is open to anyone who registers,” said the organizers. Government officials confirmed that the expo is open and anyone can attend.
Emmanuel Nahshon, the spokesman of Israel's Foreign Ministry, said: “Israel does not sell arms to Myanmar and this policy has not changed.” Israel complies with UN decisions concerning the arms embargo on South Sudan, added the Foreign Ministry.
Despite the halt in arms sales, Israel continues to strengthen its civilian relations with the Myanmar government. For example, in December 2018 the two countries signed a cooperation agreement in the field of education. According to the details of the agreement obtained by Haaretz, the two countries will “cooperate to develop programs for the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons of the negative consequences of intolerance, racism, Anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a part of the school curriculum in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
The two countries will also encourage the development of other joint projects in the field of education, including encounters between educators and young people from both countries. Under the accord, which is considered standard and resembles those signed with other nations, both countries will act to encourage contacts and cooperation between academic institutions, schools and even preschools – as well as participation in conferences and training courses, educational and professional study tours.