Myanmar’s military Commander in Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, returned to Yangon on Sunday after a week-long visit to Austria and Germany. The general’s trip ended just as his political rival, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, departed for a tour of Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels.
The two tours coincide with rising international criticism of Myanmar over the continued persecution of Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State, where a brutal military operation since October 2016 against suspected militants has pushed at least 80,000 civilians fleeing for their safety into neighboring Bangladesh.
The military “area clearance” operation has resulted in arson attacks on an estimated 1,500 houses, hundreds of killings and instances of rape and torture, according to numerous independent and United Nations reports. Armed conflict in Myanmar’s north, meanwhile, is at its most intense in decades, with the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, battling several ethnic insurgencies.
Over 100,000 civilians have been displaced in the fighting amid regular reports of military abuses.
These reports were the impetus for a European Union-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March that called for the establishment of an international Fact Finding Mission to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State.”
For European Union (EU) members to simultaneously facilitate a visit by the Myanmar military commander likely to be a key target of any international investigation is both cognitive dissonance and effective exculpation. Min Aung Hlaing has already publicly defended his forces’ performance in the Rakhine State operation, and Suu Kyi has rejected calls for an investigation as “not suitable.”
The commander in chief toured arms companies and met with senior military and defense officials in Austria, even reportedly taking a spin in a DA-62 light aircraft.
In Germany, he was hosted by his counterpart General Volker Weiker and feted at a dinner put on by Gieseck and Derrient (G&D) Security Printing company, which has since the 1970’s provided technical assistance for Myanmar’s currency production.
The senior general also toured Germany’s GROB aircraft factory, looking particularly at light aircraft for reconnaissance and training.
A weapons window shopping trip after the recent violence in Myanmar was indecently ill-timed at best, and at worst indicates an indifference to continued military impunity in Myanmar that is an impediment to enhanced military engagement with foreign suitors such as Germany.
While the EU scrapped most of its sanctions on Myanmar a few years ago, it still maintains an arms embargo which expired on April 30 (it is not clear at the time of writing if the embargo has been extended). In November, during the most intense period of the violence in Rakhine State, Min Aung Hlaing was visiting Brussels to attend a European Union Military Committee.
To be sure, German-Myanmar military ties are not new. The Fritz Werner Company supplied Myanmar’s military with weapons throughout then military dictator Ne Win’s Socialist period in the 1970s and 1980’s, manufacturing small arms including the Heckler & Koch G-3 assault rifle.
Germany has recently sought closer defense ties with Myanmar, moves that have largely escaped the scrutiny of international activists and media outlets that have strongly criticized the preliminary and limited efforts by the United States and United Kingdom to re-engage the Tatmadaw.
To host Myanmar arms factory visits, as Israel also did in recent years, puts Germany and Austria in the same company as Russia, Pakistan, China, North Korea and other major suppliers of weapons that are being used daily against ethnic insurgents in the country’s north and are having disastrous impacts on civilian populations in the area.
Min Aung Hlaing’s relatively criticism-free visit will probably not be matched by Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour, where she will likely continue to receive the brunt of international outrage over the persecution of the Rohingya, while largely ignoring the military leadership’s complete autonomy in directing and executing recent operations.
To excoriate a democratically elected leader with no constitutional control over the military, while tacitly exonerating the principal perpetrator of recent abuses, demonstrates how skewed international comprehension of Myanmar’s transitional complexities.
Rather than being feted with factory tours and luscious dinners, Min Aung Hlaing should have been pressured to account not just for the alleged abuses perpetrated in recent months, but his continued blocking of proposed constitutional reforms that would bring his military under civilian control.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst