Why Belarus opposes ban on arms sales to Myanmar

Soldiers on tanks taking part in Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar / Reuters

On June 18, at the UN General Assembly, Belarus was the only country out of 156 countries to vote against the resolution on human rights in Myanmar. Even though Myanmar itself voted for the resolution, Russia and China abstained, despite their clear support for the junta that had carried out the coup. 

But Belarus was against. It was at once explained by the crisis in relations between Minsk and the "collective West": it was a protest vote. However, Belarus' position can have another, much more detailed explanation. The UN resolution, among other things, implied a ban on arms supplies to Myanmar. A seller is not going to vote against the buyer and his own business, is he?

Home delivery

On February 1, a military coup began in Myanmar. Security forces ousted the country's leadership and imposed a state of emergency. Mass protests erupted in the country and were violently suppressed. So far, at least 800 people are known to have died.

And on February 10, Myanmar activists published photos of a transport plane of the private Belarusian cargo airline Rada Airlines at the airport of Yangon, the largest city in the country. It was an airplane of a rare model - a cargo variation of the Il-62. In 2020, only the Belarusian company had cargo planes of such a model left.

An IL-62 aircraft of the private Belarusian cargo airline Rada Airlines at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar

Activists also published photos of the plane inside. They show workers unloading boxes with unknown contents. This, of course, could be humanitarian aid. But the boxes look like military boxes that carry weapons.

Balkan connection

In mid-November 2018, Rada Airlines was suspected of transporting weapons from Bulgaria. Turkish air spotter Yuruk Ishik noticed that between November 8 and 15, the Il-62 aircraft, with registration number EW-450TR, made seven flights from Burgas. Each time it bypassed Turkish airspace and, being already over Iranian territory, switched off the transmitter. The plane was returning back via Turkish airspace.

Earlier, the Il-62 of Rada Airlines had been spotted in Belgrade, from where the weapons were also delivered. Local spotters recorded a video of the plane loading, the clip is dated November 3.

A military expert Yahor Lebyadok believes that Rada Airlines specializes in arms deliveries, but not from Belarus, but from third countries. Indirectly this is confirmed by the fact that the airline was allowed to transport dangerous goods in Serbia until March 2021.

Ukrainian from South Africa

Now the company is owned on a parity basis by Belarusian Ivan Nareika and Russian Dzmitry Ishchanka. One is the head of the company, the other is its financial director. Nareika previously worked in another Belarusian cargo airline, Transaviaexport, where he served as deputy director. This company has also been mentioned as an arms carrier from Serbia.

Previously, from 2016 to 2019, the owners included two Ukrainians with South African citizenship, father and son Viktor and Anthony Zelenyuk. Victor is a consultant in South Africa for the Ukrainian Air Transport Company, which deals with air transport and arms exports. It is part of the Ukrainian military-industrial complex.

Weapons for the junta

If you look at the open data on Belarusian exports to Myanmar for 2020 and the first four months of 2021, you can see that the total amount and the number of exports for the "open" groups diverge greatly. In other words, much of the supplies to Myanmar were hidden.

In numbers, it looks like this. In 2020, exports from Belarus to Myanmar totaled $21 million. But for open items, it was only $6.7 million. In the first four months of 2021, $4 million worth of goods were exported, but there were only $0.76 million in "open items."

Lukashenka meets with Myanmar Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing

Long-standing friendship

Belarus has longstanding ties with Myanmar's military establishment. In 2008, during the previous military dictatorship, a joint commission on military-technical cooperation was formed. Annual meetings discussed the production and sale of weapons, technology transfer, and specialist training.

In 2011, Mikhail Myasnikovich (then Prime Minister of Belarus) visited Myanmar during the military-controlled "democratic transition." And in 2014, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing came to Belarus: he met with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, visited arms production, and discussed "military training. The same year, Myanmar became the first buyer of the Belarusian Kvadrat-M surface-to-air missile system.

Kvadrat-M surface-to-air missile system at the military parade dedicated to the 71st anniversary of the Armed Forces of Myanmar

A year later Belarus was visited by a parliamentary delegation from Myanmar headed by the speaker of the upper house, Major General Khin Aung Myint. They discussed arms sales and military cooperation. The delegation visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, which produces chassis for military vehicles.

In 2017, the military in Myanmar began punitive operations and cleansing of settlements of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority. At the same time, a regular meeting of the joint commission was held, where Belarus proposed cooperation "in a wide range of areas, including the repair and modernization of weapons and military equipment."

And the last bilateral meeting was held in February 2020, when a delegation of the Myanmar Air Defense Command visited Belarus to discuss joint projects.

But it is not just with military assistance that the Belarusian authorities show their favor to the military that has seized power. During the bloody coup, the Belarusian state media published propaganda materials in support of the junta, portraying peaceful protesters as extremists who were almost waging a guerrilla war and pushing the country into civil war. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Serbian supplier

In addition to its close cooperation with Belarus, Myanmar has a long-standing friendship with Serbia. Citing its sources in business circles, Myanmar's 'The Irrawaddy' reports that a special delegation to Serbia is being prepared for 2021. It will include high-ranking officials from the Defense Ministry, as well as some businessmen who have established relations with Serbia. 

The goal is to enlist the support of major military equipment manufacturers. Myanmar has been a regular buyer of Serbian arms since the 1950s.

And who carries weapons from Serbia to Myanmar? Not Belarusian cargo airlines?



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