Myanmar’s genocidal military is still a friend to Israel

Public pressure has forced Israel to halt arms sales to the brutal military junta, but the state’s political support remains strong.

Myanmar's military marches in a parade in the city of Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. ( BY 4.0)
Myanmar's military marches in a parade in the city of Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. ( BY 4.0)

The message that the world was silent during the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust is routinely cited by the State of Israel and its Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. And yet, Israel itself is complicit in silence surrounding a present-day atrocity: the crimes committed by the Myanmar military junta, which Israel is supporting with weapons, training, and political backing. Although legal, media, and public pressure has forced some change in Israel’s defense export policy to Myanmar, political support for the junta has remained strong. 

Since the end of British rule in Myanmar in 1948, different parts of the country have been rocked by relentless civil war. The military junta took over the government in the 1960s, and in the early 1990s, the United States and the European Union placed an arms embargo on Myanmar due to its security forces’ involvement in severe human rights abuses. The embargo remains in place to this day, driven by both the junta’s suppression of Myanmar’s democracy movement, as well as its crimes under international law in ethnic minority areas.

In September 2015, two months before Myanmar’s elections, which were expected to expand the country’s democratic space, a Myanmar delegation that included senior war criminals arrived in Israel to visit the defense industries and air and naval bases. At first, the visit was kept secret in Israel, including, unusually, from Israeli military reporters. But Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing decided to publicize the visit — which included a trip to Yad Vashem — and post photos of it on his Facebook page.

During the visit, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which included the sale of technology and military training, as well as intelligence cooperation. On the basis of this MOU, Israeli companies have sold rifles, military training, battleships, observation and surveillance UAVs, and a mobile phone hacking system to Myanmar.

In October 2016, the junta took advantage of an attack on a number of guard posts on the border with Bangladesh, which was carried out by the armed separatist group Arakan Rohinya Salvation Army (ARSA), and which includes a small group from the Muslim Rohingya minority, as an excuse to launch a large-scale military operation. The brutal assault included the burning of villages and houses, the killing and forced disappearance of civilians, torture, and the rape of women and girls. By December, at least 30,000 Rohingya had been displaced.

A pattern of violence

The massacre of the Rohingya was the latest episode in a decades-long pattern of state and genocidal violence by Myanmar against the minority group. Since the 1970s, the junta’s security forces carried out carefully timed waves of violence against the Rohingya.

The previous major wave, which presaged the 2016 massacre, occurred in 2012. Between June and October of that year, the junta destroyed thousands of homes, murdered and injured hundreds of people, and displaced about 140,000 members of the Rohingya. The security forces then refused to allow about 120,000 Rohingya to return to their homes, and placed them instead in what the UN called concentration camps.

In addition to numerous UN warnings, a 2014 report by researchers from Harvard University stated that the junta’s military forces had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic minority areas. A May 2015 report by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., stated that human rights violations and conditions in Myanmar indicated a high risk of escalation toward genocide against the Rohingya.

The Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar to avoid the persecution from the Myanmar military, seen at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. December 9, 2017. (Johanna Geron/Flash90)
The Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar to avoid the persecution from the Myanmar military, seen at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. December 9, 2017. (Johanna Geron/Flash90)

None of this appeared to influence the Israeli government, and especially not the Foreign and Defense Ministries, when they signed a security agreement with General Min Aung Hlaing in September 2015.

Five months before the resumption of the massacre in Rohingya, a report by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, dated June 28, 2016, stated that the junta’s crimes against the Rohingya may amount to crimes against humanity. A month after the massacre resumed — on Nov. 29, 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, once again warned that Myanmar may be committing crimes against humanity. The European Parliament also passed a resolution on Dec. 13, 2016 condemning Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya .

Genocide against the Rohingya

In December 2016, a group of human rights activists demanded that the head of the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency at the Defense Ministry, Racheli Chen, halt all defense exports to Myanmar, particularly due to the resumption of massacres against the Rohingya that began in October that year. Chen rejected the demand, and at the same time refused to confirm if there were indeed ongoing Israeli defense exports to Myanmar, claiming that it was a confidential issue. An urgent petition was subsequently filed to the Israeli High Court on Jan. 22, 2017, calling for an end to all defense exports to Myanmar.

Three days later, then-Israeli Ambassador to Myanmar Daniel Zohar-Zonshine organized an event at Yangon University to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day —  as if he were oblivious that the Myanmar military was committing war crimes and crimes against humanity that same time, receiving weapons and military expertise from his home country.

On March 15, 2017, the Israeli Foreign and Defense Ministries responded to the petition and sought to reject it in limine (outright), arguing that the High Court did not have substantive jurisdiction to scrutinize defense export policy. The two ministries continued to show disinterest in the severity of the situation in Myanmar. The petition did not seem urgent to the High Court either, and so it scheduled a hearing for months later, in late September of that year.

Commander in Chief of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot during a trip to Israel, September 9, 2015. (SF Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook)
Commander in Chief of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot during a trip to Israel, September 9, 2015. (SF Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook)

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of another attack on Myanmar army positions, the junta intensified its crimes by launching a “military operation” in August 2017 that led to the burning of hundreds of villages and killed at least 10,000 people. The security forces and their allied militias separated the Rohingya men and boys from their families and executed them. Women and girls were taken to various homes, subjected to gang rape, and then murdered or severely injured. All this led to the flight of about 800,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The UN announced that this operation was a clear example of ethnic cleansing, and on March 12, 2018, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng announced that it may amount to genocide. On Aug. 27, 2018, a report by a UN special commission of inquiry concluded that Myanmar security forces had committed the crime of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, and had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Myanmar states of Shan and Kachin. The commission recommended that those responsible for the crimes be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, or in a special tribunal.

Turning a blind eye

After the Israeli High Court held an open hearing for the petition on Sept. 25, 2017 (except for one stage in which the state presented confidential information to the judges), attorney Shosh Shmueli, who represented the Foreign and Defense Ministries in the proceeding, applied for a sweeping and retroactive gag order, including over all documents submitted in the case that had already been published. This sweeping request was denied, but a gag order was issued solely to the court’s ruling.

Two days after the hearing, Myanmar’s ambassador to Israel was one of a few foreign diplomats who participated in a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Israeli settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, held in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

This was followed by a campaign of silencing and whitewashing of the Myanmar regime. In a November 2017 meeting with the rabbis of T’ruah, a liberal American-Jewish organization, the Israeli deputy consul in New York tried to explain away Israel’s arming of Myanmar on the grounds that “both sides commit war crimes.”

At the same time, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials worked behind the scenes to soften criticism of Myanmar in the Israeli media by claiming there were ties between the Rohingya separatist organization and the Islamic State (ISIS). The claim was not backed by any evidence.

Human rights activists protest Israeli arms exports to Myanmar outside the ISDEF 2019 expo in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019.
Human rights activists protest Israeli arms exports to Myanmar outside the ISDEF 2019 expo in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019.

The Foreign and Defense Ministries were dealt another blow in November when, in two interviews with Israeli journalist Ya’akov Ahimeir and with the IDF radio station, Myanmar’s ambassador to Israel admitted that his country was purchasing weapons from Israel to circumvent the U.S. and European arms embargo.

The ambassador stressed that Israel did not impose any conditions or restrictions on Myanmar’s use of Israeli weapons. He also claimed that an arms deal was signed back in 2015, that a new deal had been signed during his tenure, and that another arms deal had partially ended but was still ongoing.

The ambassador further claimed that the Rohingya were setting fire to their own villages and leaving not because of rape, murder, and torture, but because of the favorable conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Rather than condemning the extermination of the Rohingya, the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned and reprimanded the ambassador for confirming the countries’ arms deals in the media.

Following strong public and media pressure, all Israeli security companies ceased operations in Myanmar in early 2018. However, Israeli military equipment remains in the country, and despite the change in defense export policy, Israel’s political support for Myanmar remains firm. 

On May 17, 2018, the Myanmar ambassador to Israel attended a reception in honor of the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. On May 28, 2018, then-Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely posted on her Twitter account a photo of her participation in the signing ceremony of an agreement for educational cooperation between Israel and Myanmar, with the caption Educational agreement with Myanmar, we continue to cooperate with our friends around the world.

Myanmar military representatives at the ISDEF 2019 expo in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019. (Oren Ziv)
Myanmar military representatives at the ISDEF 2019 expo in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019. (Oren Ziv)

According to the agreement, unveiled by the journalist Noa Landau in Haaretz, the two countries will work together to develop, among other things, official curricula for schools in Myanmar on Holocaust education and its lessons, as well as on the negative consequences of intolerance, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia. Each of the countries may also, under the agreement, present its views on how the history of the other country is presented in textbooks and request “corrections” if necessary.

In September 2018, a group of Israeli educators demanded that the Foreign Ministry cancel the agreement. They claimed that it is inconceivable for the Myanmar junta to have the right to intervene in Israel’s curricula while it is actively engaged in genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The educators further argued that a joint curriculum would only be used to legitimize and whitewash the junta’s ongoing crimes. Only in October 2019, following public pressure, did the Israeli Foreign Ministry announce that the agreement would not be implemented.

Moreover, despite the cessation of arms sales in July 2018, journalist Gili Cohen of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation revealed that Myanmar’s military attaché was still attending conferences and tours held by the IDF. Journalist Noa Landau later revealed that representatives of the Myanmar army were also present at a weapons exhibition in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019. Following public criticism, the Foreign Ministry announced in July 2019 that Myanmar would no longer be able to send representatives to arms exhibitions in Israel.

A continuation of the same policy

A few months later, journalist Noa Landau revealed that the Israeli Ambassador to Myanmar, Ronen Gilor, had expressed on Twitter public support for the leaders of Myanmar in the ongoing proceedings against them at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for genocide against the Rohingya. Gilor wrote: “Encouragement for a good decision and good luck!”

The following morning, when I was interviewed by the IDF radio station about this news, I said: “Israel has never condemned the crimes committed by the Myanmar regime… there has never been any condemnation of what is happening there… Israel has provided military support to the Rwandan regime during the genocide, the military regime in Guatemala during the genocide, the Serbian regime during the war in Bosnia. It is simply the continuation of the same line, and now on social media things are more visible.”

Rohingya refugees at the Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State, Myanmar, December 14, 2012. (DFID Burma/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Rohingya refugees at the Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State, Myanmar, December 14, 2012. (DFID Burma/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A few hours after my interview, the Foreign Ministry published its first response regarding the severity of the situation in Myanmar: “Israel strongly condemns the atrocities that took place in the Rakhine region against the Rohingya.” That was the first time the State of Israel explicitly condemned the massacre and ever officially used the word “Rohingya.”

This condemnation of the atrocities against the Rohingya, three years after one of the most devastating massacres in its history, did not stem from the Foreign Ministry’s sudden discovery of a conscience. Rather, it likely came from the understanding that Ambassador Gilor’s tweet could serve as evidence of criminal intent (“mens rea”) of senior Israeli Defense and Foreign Ministry officials who approved defense exports to aid and abet Myanmar forces in their crimes.

In August 2018, a group of human rights activists submitted a request to the Israeli attorney general to open a criminal investigation against Israelis who aided and abetted the perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. A decision on this demand has yet to be made.

In the meantime, Israel has still not joined the UN and various governments in calling on Myanmar to allow the Rohingya to safely return home from their refugee camps, just as Israel itself has prevented Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants from returning to its territory

The façade of democracy

Earlier this year, the Myanmar military led by General Min Aung Hlaing raided the parliament building and arrested several hundred people, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party whose status as an international human rights icon has recently been upended by her support for military crimes against the Rohingya and other minorities after the 2015 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi remains in detention along with the rest of the party leadership. 

The military justified its actions by citing unsubstantiated allegations that massive forgeries had been discovered in the recent elections held in November 2020. (During the same elections, the retired military officers’ straw party was markedly weakened.) As for Aung San Suu Kyi, the army alleged — with no evidence provided — that she illegally smuggled walkie-talkies into the country and violated local regulations to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The media in Israel and the rest of the world presented the events as a military coup and a brutal setback to Myanmar’s democratization. In practice, however, many citizens of Myanmar, especially those belonging to the religious and ethnic groups that make up a sizable minority of the general population (the exact number is unknown), have not experienced any democracy or even a break from state-sponsored repression in decades.

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a lecture on politics and education at the University of Warsaw, Poland, September 12, 2013. (Krzysztof Kuczyk/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a lecture on politics and education at the University of Warsaw, Poland, September 12, 2013. (Krzysztof Kuczyk/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Despite a preliminary process of democratization from 2011 to 2015, the Myanmar military effectively remained outside civilian control. The army and its allies continued to control all walks of life in the country, and their officials were guaranteed representation in parliament, along with a veto power that blocked serious reforms. The head of the military was also granted the authority to appoint the ministers of interior, defense, and borders. All the while, under the guise of security imperatives, the military has incessantly plundered the country’s natural resources to enrich its officers and associates.

Under these circumstances, although Aung San Suu Kyi held the official title of “state counselor” (equivalent to the prime minister in other countries) until her arrest, it would be more accurate to define her as a civilian member of the military junta. Viewed from this angle, the recent events in Myanmar are not so much a military coup designed to overthrow a democratic regime (that never existed), but rather a move by the military to change the balance of power between civilian and military elements within the junta that runs the country.

This artificial arrangement allows the junta to continue de facto controlling the state, while at the same time receiving loans and assistance from Western countries, with the latter lifting sanctions and turning a blind eye to human rights violations and to civil society’s subordination to the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, for her part, spent 15 years under house arrest and led the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. Her stance on the matter stems not only from cynical political calculations, but also from her personal history and beliefs. For example, she appeared before The Hague in December 2019 to defend her country from allegations of genocide — not because she was forced to by the military, but because she and many of her nationalist voters support the military’s racist and violent policies against the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Beyond arms deals

Immediately after the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the full military takeover of the country, mass demonstrations and strikes in the private and public sectors erupted in Myanmar’s major cities, paralyzing the country. Given the military’s supreme control over the country, it seemed back in February that the junta itself was allowing the demonstrations to take place for its own considerations. In spite of several dozens killed and injured, there was apparently no top-down order to massacre the protesters, only specific decisions made by soldiers and police officers on the ground.

The number of dead and wounded has been growing rapidly since the beginning of March. The quick deterioration sparked fears of deadly suppression similar to that against Myanmar’s democratic movement in 1988, when the army executed some 10,000 protesters. This concern, however, seems to have elicited little attention from the State of Israel and particularly its Foreign Ministry.

Ambassador Gilor — who wished Myanmar officials success in the genocide trial in The Hague — continues, at least in public, to refrain from criticizing the military and its atrocities, relying instead on vague, non-committal tweets about a “harsh period” and a “hope for the return of peace.” On March 12, he tweeted: “VIVA MYANMAR! [Myanmar] is here to stay; will prosperous; will live in PEACE”.

As of April 11, the Myanmar military has executed more than 700 civilians since the Feb. 1 coup. The army even warned on state television that protesters could be shot in the head or back, pointing to a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killing.

Beyond arms deals, there is another reason Israel cannot break its silence on what is happening in Myanmar: it, too, has a military that prohibits, under the 1967 Order of the Military Commander (No. 101), demonstrations and political rallies in the occupied West Bank. This order is upheld through violent and often lethal means, with Israeli security forces wounding and killing Palestinians who demonstrate against the Israeli military dictatorship, torturing Palestinian detainees, arresting students and political activists, and holding some of them in administrative detention without trial.

Israel will not interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs, and accordingly Myanmar will not interfere in Israel’s “internal affairs” in the occupied territories.

Adv. Eitay Mack, together with Israeli human rights activists, filed the petition with the High Court of Justice, the demand to open a criminal investigation, and the demand for the revocation of the education agreement mentioned in the article.

Translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman.