Burma caught using Swedish weapons in war against rebels

Inquiry launched into how anti-tank rifles were found on soldiers in breach of EU sanctions
  • @AndrewBuncombe

The authorities in Stockholm have launched an investigation into how new Swedish-made weapons made their way to Burma in breach of EU sanctions where they were used by troops in military operations against ethnic rebels.

The Swedish Agency for Non-Proliferation and Export Controls (ISP) confirmed that an investigation had been launched after it was handed details about several high-performance M-3 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapons that were recovered by Kachin rebels who had been battling Burmese troops in bloody and ongoing clashes.

“We have the serial numbers for these weapons and with this you can know the where, when and what – the detailed information,” said an ISP spokeswoman. “We hope we will be able to trace how they got there.”

While the EU and the US has suspended most sanctions against Burma in recognition of reforms that have been introduced by the nominally-civilian government of President Thein Sein, bans on the sale of weapons remain in place. In any sale to a foreign country, US or European arms manufacturers are obliged to enforce an end user agreement that stipulates the arms cannot be sold on to restricted nations such as Burma.

The M-3 weapon, also known as the recoilless rifle and capable of firing a variety of ammunition including armour-piercing grenades, is produced by Saab Bofors Dynamics, part of the Saab group and one of the world’s top 30 producers of arms. A spokesman, Sebastian Carlsson, said the company was cooperating with the ISP inquiry and was looking at the issue with “serious eyes”. “We don’t like our products ending up in Burma. We don’t sell to Burma,” he said.

Asked how the arms found their way to Burma in breach of both EU sanctions and Swedish law, he declined to speculate. He said the company sold the product to 20 nations but declined to identify them.

The Swedish investigation was launched after veteran journalist and author Bertil Lintner was shown several of the weapons during a recent reporting assignment to Kachin state and revealed his discovery in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.

Kachin is located in Burma’s north-east and since June last year has been the location of fierce and widely-condemned battles between ethnic rebels and Burmese troops, who have been accused of repeatedly breaching ceasefire agreements and of human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. The UN’s chief humanitarian official, Baroness Valerie Amos, recently tried to visit and urged the Burmese authorities to allow the UN to provide emergency aid to 40,000 people there deemed to be in desperate need.

Last night, a senior member of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), said they had been able to recover the weapons after Burmese troops had sought to destroy an armaments cache. Speaking from Laiza, capital of the KIA-controlled area, the official who asked not to be identified said the armaments were of high quality. “We would like to know where it came from,” he said.

How the weapons made their way to Burma remains unclear. In his report, Mr Lintner said the new, lighter model of weapon he discovered had only been sold to two countries in Asia – Thailand and India. India is known to be one of several nations that have in the past supplied weapons to the Burmese junta, partly from a desire to equip Burmese troops to launch actions against militant groups that operate in India’s north-east but which have their bases inside Burma.

India’s Ministry of Defence said last it was looking into questions sent to it by The Independent. Thailand’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to queries. Likewise, there was no response from Burma.

Activists claimed the episode underscored how the EU did not have sufficient monitoring of its weapons’ embargo. Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, said: “The EU must now introduce specific monitoring of the arms embargo. European weapons are being used in a conflict where the Burmese Army is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilians. It makes a mockery of the arms embargo.”

Hkun Htoi Layang, a London-based official with the Kachin National Council, said he was shocked by the revelation that European-produced weapons were being used in the operations against the Kachin. He urged British foreign office minister Hugo Swire to raise the issue of human rights when he visits Burma this week. “They are burning the villages and shooting civilians on sight,” Mr Layang said of the Burmese army’s actions in Kachin, which borders China.

The incident will be of particular embarrassment to the authorities in Sweden. Last week, organisers of the Right Livelihood Award, the so-called “alternative Nobel prize”, recognised the work of British-based  Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). In an acceptance speech, Anne-Marie O’Reilly condemned the “hypocrisy” of the UK government in “courting” authoritarian regimes to sell arms.

“Sweden must urgently find out which third party country sold these weapons onto Burma and ensure sales and licensing arrangements with that country are stopped,” CAAT said in a statement. “Then, as must the UK, it needs to reconsider its priorities. Why push exports which ultimately make the world less secure when similar skills and resources are needed for beneficial sectors such as renewable energy technology?”

The fight for Kachin: A conflict reignited

Violence in Burma's Kachin state reignited last year, ending a ceasefire agreement that had been in place for 17 years. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, says Kachin people are routinely discriminated against inside Burma and wants autonomy, but within a federal arrangement.

The violence has forced tens of thousands of people into refugee camps, located in areas that international organisations are not always able to reach.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Burmese troops were involved in a range of abuses and had razed homes, pillaged properties and tortured and threatened civilians, sometimes in the hope of obtaining information about the KIA fighters. HRW called on both sides to observe the rules of war to protect civilians.