Israel to Bar Myanmar Officials From Arms Expos

Decision to stop issuing visas for this purpose comes after Haaretz documented officers attending Tel Aviv expo, despite international embargo over serious human rights violations

A representative of Myanmar's military at the Israel Defense and Homeland Security Expo in Tel Aviv, June 4, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

The Israeli government will bar military representatives from Myanmar from attending arms expositions held in Israel as long as Myanmar remains under an international arms embargo over its human rights violations, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided.

The decision followed a Haaretz report that army officers from Myanmar, the East Asian country formerly known as Burma, had attended the Israel Defense and Homeland Security expo in Tel Aviv last month. From now on, the ministry said, requests for visas to attend arms expositions coming from the nationals of countries to which Israel refuses to sell arms will be rejected.

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Last year, the United Nations concluded that Myanmar had perpetrated ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar and are still classified as refugees. This year, international agencies also reported war crimes by Myanmar’s army against Buddhists living in the country’s west.

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Last month, Haaretz reported that the official visitors to the ISDEF expo in Tel Aviv included military representatives from several countries that don’t have official relations with Israel. According the Haaretz report, representatives from South Sudan, another country under an arms embargo over human rights violations, also attended the expo.

Arms sales halted

Israel insists that it has stopped all arms sales to Myanmar, but they prompted Haaretz to ask why, if that was the case, Myanmar officials were still being allowed to come to inspect the latest Israeli military technology on offer. Sales personnel at several of the Israeli booths said they were unaware that sales to Myanmar had been banned. Others said there was no problem with showing Myanmar officials the merchandise, since they understand the restrictions on their country.

The officials from Myanmar at the Tel Aviv exposition declined to respond to a question from Haaretz regarding whether they planned to buy the products they were examining. ISDEF’s organizers issued a statement to Haaretz at the time saying: “This is an international expo with presenters from Israel and around the world. The guests come from more than 90 countries and register online for the expo, which is open to anyone who registers.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said at the time that “Israel does not sell arms to Myanmar and this policy has not changed.” With regard to the presence of visitors from South Sudan, Nahshon said that “Israel complies with the UN resolutions on the arms embargo.”

Other government officials also said the arms expo was open to anyone who wished to attend, but to avoid future embarrassments of this kind, the Foreign Ministry decided to stop issuing visas to Myanmar army officers to attend such events in Israel.

Myanmar Border Guard Police in Tin May village, where the Myanmar government and military claimed the existence of Muslim terrorists.
Esther Htusan/AP

Last September, the United Nations described Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Human rights organizations have said that since August 2017, the Myanmar army has also subjected Rohingya to mass extrajudicial executions and systematic sexual violence and has torched many Rohingya villages.

Some 400,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Others have been trapped on the border.

Israel’s defense ties with Myanmar continued even after the crimes became known, and after an arms embargo was imposed on East Asian country by the European Union and the United States. In September 2017, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued a ruling on a petition filed by a lawyer, Eitay Mack, who had sought an order barring arms sales to Myanmar.

Usual gag order

In an exceptional move, the court issued a gag order at the state’s request on the contents of the ruling, but the government has insisted ever since that its arms sales to Myanmar have stopped. Israel has continued to boost its civilian ties with Myanmar in any event. In December 2018, for example, the two governments signed an agreement on cooperation in education.

As Haaretz reported at the time, the agreement calls in part for joint development of a school curriculum on the Holocaust and lessons on the negative effects of intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It also calls for peer-to-peer contacts between educators and students from the two countries.

Amnesty International’s Israeli branch said it expects Israel to refrain from selling arms to South Sudan and some other countries. “These decisions must be made not only by the Foreign Ministry, but also, and particularly by the Defense Ministry. This is the Israeli government’s obligation under international law and according to the conventions it has signed.”

The Israeli branch of Amnesty said the public campaign on arms sales will continue until the Israeli law governing oversight of arms exports and the Defense Ministry’s policies and regulations are changed.

According to Defense Ministry data, Israel exported about $7.5 billion around the world last year. The sales included missile systems, drones, radar systems and electronic warfare and cybertechnology systems. Most of Israel’s defense exports went to Asia, but that was mainly the result of several very large sales to India.