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Indian Arms Maker with US, EU Investors Supplies Myanmar Junta, Rights Group Says

FILE - Soldiers stand next to military vehicles as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 15, 2021.
FILE - Soldiers stand next to military vehicles as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 15, 2021.

An Indian government-controlled arms maker with high-profile U.S. and European shareholders has been supplying Myanmar, even after the country’s military toppled a democratically elected government on February 1 and killed hundreds of civilians in a bid to crush any resistance, a local rights group has said.

The group, Justice for Myanmar, said in a report earlier this month that data obtained from global trade tracking service Panjiva shows that India’s Bharat Electronics Ltd. shipped several parts for a “remote-controlled weapons station” to Mega Hill General Trading Co. Ltd., a known broker for Myanmar’s military, in July.

Panjiva is a U.S.-based firm that gathers and shares commercial shipping data using government-issued records from 19 countries, including India. VOA was able to confirm the information from Justice for Myanmar independently.

Multiple online company records and stock tracking sites show a number of big-name foreign firms holding shares in Bharat Electronics, which is 51.1% owned by the government of India. They include Goldman Sachs Asset Management and The Vanguard Group in the United States, French banking giant BNP Paribas, and an Indian subsidiary of Japanese insurer Nippon Life.

“BEL’s continued business with the junta shows the urgency for targeted sanctions against the junta's arms suppliers and brokers and a global arms embargo,” Justice for Myanmar’s Yadanar Maung told VOA.

The spokesperson also urged the United States to add Bharat Electronics to the entities list of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which would place additional conditions on certain U.S. exports to the Indian arms maker.

The United States, Britain and others have already announced a series of sanctions since the coup, targeting Myanmar’s senior military leaders and companies under their direct control.

Some Western companies have taken action on their own. Finland’s Nordea Bank, which also held shares in Bharat Electronics, placed the company on its blacklist (( in July for exporting to Myanmar. Yadanar Maung called on the arms maker’s other investors “to follow and immediately divest.”

BNP Paribas and Dimensional Fund Advisors, another U.S. firm with shares in Bharat Electronics, told VOA they would not discuss individual stocks. The other shareholders highlighted by Justice for Myanmar did not reply to VOA’s requests for comment. Bharat Electronics did not reply either. Contact information provided by Mega Hill General Trading on its website was not working.

In June, the U.N. General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution calling on member states “to prevent the flow of arms” to Myanmar. India was among the 36 countries that abstained. China and Russia, Myanmar’s largest arms suppliers by far, abstained as well.

‘Helping the military’

Kyaw Win, who heads the U.K.-based Burma Human Rights Network, which uses another name of Myanmar, denounced any and all sales to the country’s military.

“It is a crime to sell even one needle to the military that commits genocide. That’s not what any ethical government will do,” he told VOA.

A U.N.-appointed panel accused the military of “genocidal intent” in 2019 after investigating security operations in western Myanmar two years earlier that drove some 700,000 ethnic minority Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain. The military claims it was conducting legitimate counterinsurgency against violent separatists.

Since the coup, rights groups say security forces have killed well over 1,000 civilians to put down protests and pockets of armed resistance against the junta.

On Friday, the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the military had been ramping up attacks in western Myanmar over the past month, “including killings, raiding of villages and burning of houses.” It also relayed recent reports of mass arrests, torture and summary executions.

By owning shares in Bharat Electronics, Kyaw Win said foreign firms were in effect supporting the military’s operations.

“They might not directly wish to help the military, but their actions with the investment and this engagement, it’s helping the military,” he said.

“The question is, is this company happy to get profit from a genocidal government, genocidal military? The question is upon the investors,” he added.

Rather than pulling out of Bharat Electronics right away, though, Kyaw Win suggested Western and Asian investment firms — and their shareholders — use their leverage to convince the Indian arms maker itself to break with the junta.

“That would be better,” he said, “rather than selling away and let this continue. So, they need to pressure the Indian company … to stop investing or dealing with the Burmese military, otherwise they will withdraw their shares.”

‘Maximum leverage’

According to a 2017 press release from Bharat Electronics, the weapon system it recently shipped to Myanmar is an improved model of its 12.7 mm air defense gun for mounting on tanks or boats. It adds that the system can track both “air and ground targets.”

The Panjiva records list the price of the delivery at $612,000. Justice for Myanmar said it was likely a single unit for the military to put through a trial and that a larger order could follow.

Bharat Electronics’ business with the Myanmar military goes back years.

In June, Justice for Myanmar reported on Indian export data showing seven shipments from Bharat Electronics to Myanmar in February and March, mainly radar parts, and more in December and January.

In 2019, the same U.N.-appointed panel that accused the military of genocidal intent reported on a 2017 deal the military struck with Bharat Electronics for 10 torpedoes. The panel also reported various weapons transfers to Myanmar from Israel, North Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Ukraine, in addition to China and Russia.

Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, would not comment to VOA on Bharat specifically. However, he said he “urged any company doing business in Myanmar to exert maximum leverage on the Myanmar military to stop its widespread human rights violations and that they follow the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

He said these U.N. guidelines oblige those companies to try to prevent human rights abuses linked to their operations even if they have not added to the abuse themselves.