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The international arms network behind Myanmar’s deadly conflict

The Republic of Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most diverse countries. Despite this, Myanmar has been devastated by perpetual conflict since the end of World War II. The most recent conflict began on May 5, 2021, when the military junta successfully carried out a coup. Unlike previous military takeovers, this time the people would not be silenced, having experienced democracy.

What started as peaceful protests soon turned into an armed struggle as the younger generations took up arms alongside ethnic armies who have long been fighting for autonomy. In the three years since the civil war began, the world has watched the immense and increasing brutality of government forces against their people. Yet it is the people who, against all odds, have been gaining ground, liberating their country from military oppression.

Myanmar Military Forces (MMF) are utilising any weapon, from small arms to attack aircraft. Their use has led to the deaths of at least 50,000 people since 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). The NGO Myanmar Witness has created a guide to small arms and light weapons used in Myanmar based on local and open-source investigations, with similar guides produced by the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies.

Despite heavy international sanctions, military forces have continued to build up their military equipment and stockpiles. Last year, a United Nations report unveiled the international arms network that supplies the Myanmar military.

The report estimated that as of May 2023, at least $1 billion USD worth of arms, dual-use goods, equipment, and materials to manufacture weapons had been brought into Myanmar. Russia and China were no surprise among the nations behind these imports but were joined by India, Singapore, and Thailand. The latter two are the most surprising because both are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organisation that condemned the coup. Despite various sanctions, Myanmar Military Forces (MMF) continue to receive imported weapons from multiple countries and have developed the capability to manufacture weapons by reverse-engineering existing designs.

International allies have also been arming the rebel forces to supplement weapons the rebels have seized from MMF. However, this is more difficult to analyse due to the various groups operating in Myanmar and limited reporting. These groups include, but are not limited to, the Arakan Army, Karenni People’s Defence Force, People’s Liberation Army, Chinland Defense Force, People’s Defence Force, and Karen National Liberation Army. This piece will collectively refer to them as rebel forces unless referencing a specific unit.

NGO reports have uncovered various small arms utilised by MMF throughout the country. These include Kalashnikov (AK), Armalite (AR), and Heckler & Koch (HK)-style platforms, among others. The source of these weapons is not unilateral. Many of the initial weapons used by MMF were from legacy stockpiles of American weapons, including M16s and M4 assault rifles, left behind from the American withdrawal from the region in the 20th century. Over time, these stockpiles have gradually been replaced by imports from various countries, but the conflict has increased the demand.

The 2023 UN report on the international arms trade supporting MMF included $406 million from the Russian Federation, $267 million from China, $254 million from Singapore, $51 million from India, and $28 million from Thailand. Of the $1 billion worth of arms, $947 million is from direct military sales. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar has identified multiple state and private-owned companies responsible for the import of arms.

Despite such investment, it has not been enough to keep up with equipment losses to rebel forces. As such, Myanmar’s military-industrial complex began to increase the amount of internally manufactured weapons. Myanmar has been developing its own weapon manufacturing apparatus since before 2021 to become self-sufficient amid continuous arms embargoes. There are at least a dozen military factories spread throughout Myanmar known as KaPaSa factories, but there could be as many as 25. However, they are not operating alone and are receiving assistance from international partners, including various licensing agreements. 

Documents from 2019 disclosed by Justice for Myanmar show an Israeli company supplying parts that could be used to manufacture weapon parts. Yangee Lee, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, said in a statement, “Foreign companies are enabling the Myanmar military – one of the world’s worst human rights abusers – to produce many of the weapons it uses to commit daily atrocities against the Myanmar people.” This was part of a separate UN report by the Special Advisory Council titled “Fatal Business: Supplying the Myanmar Military’s Weapon Production,” released in January 2023, detailing weaponry manufacturing and supply chain. Companies included those from the countries mentioned earlier but were also joined by those registered in Austria and the United States. These companies’ involvement varies from tooling machines to software and raw materials, but all play a part and should be held accountable for their involvement, especially in their home countries.

Rebel forces have also turned to producing their own weapons, ranging from pistols to landmines, in makeshift factories set up in villages around the country. However, unlike MMF, the rebels utilised any materials they could access, including street light poles, and took directions in weapon manufacturing from the internet. Recent media coverage has shown the use of 3D printing of weapon parts and the conversion of commercial agriculture drones to carry mortar rounds to expand the domains of warfare that rebel forces can effectively use. Rebel forces are supported by donations, with reports of them also directly receiving weapon imports. This is seen with the Arakan Army, which China supposedly supports due to the significant investments made by Chinese businesses in the southwestern state of Rakhine, including deep-sea ports and gas pipelines. It can be surmised that China is no longer confident that MMF will win this conflict and is ensuring the security of its investment.

Beyond the use of small arms and support weaponry, MMF has become heavily reliant on various support weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, and fixed-wing and rotary attack aircraft in close air support roles. Most of these have come from Russia and China over an extended period but are also produced in Myanmar. In February 2024, the head of the military junta, Min Aung Hlaing, announced he was continuing to modernise his artillery units and sending artillery soldiers to study abroad. This is a mark of the ever-increasing international ties, which include bilateral support, as seen in the use of artillery shells manufactured in Myanmar in the war in Ukraine. 

Myanmar can produce large-calibre artillery ammunition, including 76 mm, 105 mm, 122 mm, 130 mm, and 155 mm shells, and 122 mm and 240 mm rockets. These KaPaSa factories are, therefore, an essential part of MMF’s ability to continue fighting and must be a high-priority target to bring the conflict to an end. These are, however, harder for the international community to target in the current manner due to the level of independence of the industry. The primary way that these must be targeted economically is through tracing and hitting the supply chain.

The Myanmar Air Force uses multiple aircraft, including fixed-wing Russian Mig-29, Yak-130, Chinese K-8, and FTC-2000G. Rotary aircraft include the Russian Mi-2, Mi-17, Mi-24, and Mi-35. All of these require a complex logistics network, which has continued to operate at an ever-increasing level despite the sanctions and embargoes. Surprisingly, there are also no embargoes on aviation fuel, a significant failure in the world’s response to the conflict. This is in part due to the specificity of the sanctions on the weapons themselves, which have allowed parties to circumvent them with relative ease and without wide condemnation, as seen by Israel’s involvement in supplying the Myanmar military.

It is without a doubt that international players are propping up Myanmar’s military forces in clear violation of international sanctions. However, collecting evidence of these continued illegal acts remains complex. With various domestic and international parties involved and only a small group of NGOs working in the country to report their findings, we still do not know much. What is clear is that the people of Myanmar require the support of the wider world to end the conflict and bring a prompt and lasting return to democracy. The best way to accomplish this is by removing all loopholes in the arms trade and cutting off Myanmar’s military forces.