Myanmar: Report by UN expert spotlights role of foreign banks in facilitating probable war crimes and crimes against humanity

June 26th, 2024  •  Author:   UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar  •  5 minute read
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Foreign banks are facilitating the Myanmar military junta’s access to weapons and related materials that are sustaining its campaign of violence and brutality against the people of Myanmar, according to a new report released today by Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Banking on the Death Trade: How Banks and Governments Enable the military Junta in Myanmar identifies 16 banks in seven countries that have processed transactions linked to the junta’s military procurement in the past two years, and an additional 25 that have provided correspondent banking services to Myanmar’s state-owned banks that are controlled by the junta.

“By relying on financial institutions that are willing to do business with Myanmar state-owned banks under its control, the junta has ready access to the financial services it needs to carry out systematic human rights violations, including aerial attacks on civilians,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“International banks that facilitate transactions that include Myanmar state-owned banks are at high risk of enabling military attacks on Myanmar civilians. I urge them to stop doing so. Banks have a fundamental obligation to not facilitate crimes – and this includes war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Andrews said.

“The good news is that the junta is increasingly isolated. The Myanmar military’s annual procurement of weapons and military supplies through the formal banking system declined by a third from the year ending March 2023 to the year that followed – from US$377 million to $253 million.

“The bad news is that the junta is circumventing sanctions and other measures by exploiting gaps in sanctions regimes, shifting financial institutions, and taking advantage of the failure of Member States to fully coordinate and enforce actions.”

The report examines a dramatic shift in the role of two ASEAN countries as sources of weapons and military supplies for the junta. After a report last year by the Special Rapporteur identified Singapore as Myanmar’s third largest source of weapons and related materials, the government of Singapore launched an investigation of the Singapore-based entities involved in the trade. In the year ending March 2024, the flow of weapons materials to Myanmar from Singapore-registered companies dropped by nearly 90 percent compared to the previous year.

Military procurement through Thailand has moved in the opposite direction. In the year ending March 2024, the junta imported nearly US$130 million in weapons and military supplies from Thailand-registered suppliers, more than double the total from the previous year. Thai banks have played a crucial role in this shift. Siam Commercial Bank, for example, facilitated just over US$5 million in transactions related to Myanmar military in the year ending March 2023, but that number skyrocketed to over $100 million in the following year.

“Singapore’s example demonstrates that a government with sufficient political will can make a significant difference toward shutting down the Myanmar death trade. Thailand has an opportunity to follow this powerful example by taking action that will deal a huge blow to the junta’s capacity to sustain its escalating attacks on civilian targets. I urge it to do so,” the expert said.

Over 5,000 civilians have been killed by the junta since the coup, at least 3 million people are displaced, and more than 20,000 political prisonersremain behind bars in Myanmar. Over the last six months, military airstrikes against civilian targets have increased five-fold while the junta continues to lose military outposts, territory, and troops to resistance forces.

“With the junta on its heels, it is critical that financial institutions take their human rights obligations seriously and not facilitate the junta’s deadly transactions. It is also critical that States step up by fully coordinating their actions, including by closing loopholes in sanctions regimes,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“Sanctioning governments should be targeting the networks supplying jet fuel to the junta. It is also critical that they target Myanma Economic Bank, which is not subject to international sanctions and has become the go-to bank for the junta. These actions could play a decisive role in helping to turn the tide in Myanmar and saving untold numbers of lives,” he said.

Mr. Thomas Andrews (United States of America) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. A former member of the US Congress from Maine, Andrews is a Robina Senior Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and an Associate of Harvard University’s Asia Center. He has worked with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and parliamentarians, NGOs and political parties in Cambodia, Indonesia, Algeria, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Yemen. He has been a consultant for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Euro-Burma Network and has run advocacy NGOs including Win Without War and United to End Genocide.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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