Singapore ‘tightens screws’ on Myanmar generals with arms trade crackdown

The UN says Russia, China and India continue to send weapons to Myanmar even as the Singapore route is blocked.

An honour guard of Myanmar soldiers marching. They have their weapons fitted with bayonets on their shoulders. They look serious.
The Myanmar military continues to receive weapons, mostly from Russia and China, according to the UN [File: Ye Aung Thu/AFP]

Bangkok, Thailand – Singapore has responded to United Nations pressure by cracking down on sales of weapons through its territory to Myanmar, delivering a serious blow to the embattled generals, who seized power in a coup more than three years ago.

Thomas Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that the city state’s government “immediately responded” to his 2023 report that found Singapore-based entities had become the third largest source of weapons materials to the military and were “critical” to its weapons procurement.

“My subsequent report to the Human Rights Council found that exports of weapons materials from Singapore to Myanmar had dropped by 83 percent,” Andrews said. “This is a significant step forward and an example of how governments can make a difference for those who are in harm’s way in Myanmar.”

Singapore’s crackdown has raised costs for army chief Min Aung Hlaing and his forces at a time when they are facing unprecedented battlefield disasters – struggling to quell opposition against their rule in the country’s heartland, and failing to push back against a coalition of ethnic minority and majority Bamar resistance forces that have forced the military out of territory bordering Thailand, China and India.

In what analysts see as a sign of the generals’ increasing desperation, they have imposed a sweeping conscription law in a bid to boost their ranks.

Min Aung Hlaing inspecting troops at the annual Armed Forces Day parade. His is standing on the back of an open-topped jeep-like vehicle. It is night time.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the February 2021 coup, presided over last month’s Armed Forces Day with the military under unprecedented pressure [Aung Shine Oo/AP Photo]

Andrews’s 2023 report, The Billion Dollar Death Trade, provided details of more than $1bn of transfers of arms and related materials to Myanmar’s ruling generals, officially styled as the State Administration Council (SAC). The report revealed that 138 Singapore-based firms were involved in the transfer of $254m in weapons materials to the SAC from 2021 to 2022. It did not name the companies, unlike the sections on China, Russia and India.

In response, the spokesperson of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government appreciated Andrews’s efforts “to provide information to aid Singapore’s investigations into whether any offences were committed under Singapore law”.

It added that the country had taken a “principled position against the Myanmar military’s use of lethal force against unarmed civilians and has worked to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”.

At least 4,882 civilians have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been tracking the toll, and the military has been accused of war crimes in its use of air power and attacks on civilians.

“Singapore has been quietly tightening the screws on Myanmar,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC. “While there’s more they could do, Singapore deserves a lot of credit for quietly bringing the pressure on the military government in the past year.

“For decades, Singapore was the primary financial conduit for Myanmar. It is a much less permissive environment for the junta and their cronies today, forcing them to reroute their transactions through different jurisdictions. It doesn’t stop the financial flows, but it imposes new costs.”

Power to disrupt

In his recent follow-up report to the UN Human Rights Council, Andrews noted that there was no evidence that the Singaporean government had any knowledge of the transfers that were taking place.

A Sukhoi Su-30 fighter takes part in an aerial display it is releasing flares with the flames lighting up the night sky.
Russia remains a major supplier of military equipment, including jet fighters, to Myanmar [File: AFP]

He also described how, after the 2023 findings were published, and following diplomatic efforts, the Singapore government launched an investigation into the findings and welcomed Andrews to the city-state, where he provided further information to assist with the investigation.

After the US imposed sanctions on 21 June 2023 on Myanma Foreign Trade Bank and the Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore also gave the green light to UOB and other Singapore banks to stop servicing Myanmar-linked accounts.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), established by lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, who were overthrown in the coup, said Singapore’s intervention had significantly curtailed the generals’ procurement abilities.

“Singapore’s actions have highlighted the power that ASEAN members possess to disrupt the Myanmar military junta’s acts of terrorism against its own people by cutting off their access to weapons, finance, and legitimacy,” said NUG cabinet minister, Sasa.

“Every bullet and dollar provided to the junta translates into more death, destruction, pain and suffering for the people of Myanmar.”

Sasa called on other countries within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help end Myanmar’s “reign of terror” and stressed that removing the generals from power would benefit the stability and prosperity not only of the region but the world.

“The catastrophic crisis created by the junta in Myanmar has already spilled across international borders, impacting ASEAN and our neighbouring countries. If the junta proceeds with its forced conscription laws, it will only exacerbate the crisis, leading to further instability in the region,” the minister told Al Jazeera.

The military regime is currently under immense pressure following advances by anti-coup forces that have seen it lose hundreds of military outposts in northern states and several key towns along the Chinese border, as well as in western Rakhine state.

An alliance of ethnic Karen and anti-coup fighters has also forced the military into a retreat from the strategically important town of Myawaddy on the Thai border.

A view of a camp for people displaced by the fighting in Myanmar. It's on the banks of the Moei river, which separates Myanmar from Thailand. The buildings are of bamboo and palm.
More than 2.5 million people have fled conflict and insecurity as a result of the coup [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

Russia and China continue to be the military’s main source of advanced weapons systems accounting for more than $400m and $260m, respectively, since the coup, according to Andrews’s 2023 report. During Armed Forces Day last month, Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, was again guest of honour, as many countries chose to boycott the occasion.

To further crack down, Al Jazeera understands that Andrews is examining the ways in which the SAC accesses the global finance system to repatriate foreign revenues and procure weapons.

Regional action needed

The humanitarian crisis triggered by the coup – more than 2.5 million people have fled conflict and insecurity since February 2021, according to UN estimates – has put growing pressure on Southeast Asian countries over their failure to effectively respond to the crisis or restrain Min Aung Hlaing.

ASEAN, which Myanmar joined in 1997, has been split between countries wanting to take a tougher line, including Singapore, and those calling for engagement, such as Cambodia.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin this week told the Reuters news agency that as the SAC was “losing strength”, it was a good time to open talks with Myanmar.

The Thai leader’s intervention came as it emerged that Thailand had allowed the military to fly home government officials, military officers and their families who had abandoned Myawaddy via Thailand.

Increasingly embattled and isolated, the SAC has begun mandatory military conscription amid battlefield casualties and reports of desertions.

Security analyst Anthony Davis wrote recently that the army “almost certainly numbers around 70,000 troops supported by militarised police and militia units organised under a unified command structure”.

Activist group Justice for Myanmar urged Singapore to speed up prosecutions to hold Myanmar military arms brokers to account for breaching export controls and to deter others seeking to profit from the trade, wherever they might be.

“We welcome the steps Singapore has taken to disrupt the junta’s arms brokers, but the government needs to do far more to block the junta’s access to funds, arms, equipment and jet fuel. It is unacceptable that there are notorious Myanmar cronies still operating and even living in Singapore and Singapore has still not imposed any sanctions on the junta and its businesses, in contrast with the sanctions imposed on Russia [over Ukraine],” the group’s spokesperson Yadanar Maung said.

But even as the Singapore route is squeezed, Maung worries dealers are finding alternative shipping routes.

One such country might be Thailand. Andrews’s report noted how entities operating there had already been involved in shipping spare parts for advanced weapons systems, raw materials and manufacturing equipment for the SAC’s weapons factories.

“There are signs that Thailand is an increasingly popular destination for cronies and arms brokers, which will no doubt continue in the absence of coordinated international action against the junta,” Maung told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera has contacted the Singapore embassy in Yangon for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera