The Burma Army has apparently been using Swedish-made weapons against ethnic rebels in the country’s northernmost state, despite a European embargo on arms sales in the Southeast Asian nation, claim local sources on Wednesday.
As war escalates in Kachin State, ethnic rebels fighting for independence have accused government troops of attacking them with Swedish rocket launchers, although media reports suggested the weapons were delivered from a third country outside Europe.
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers found rocket shells from Swedish-made launchers on Monday after two army helicopters opened fire on their bases, a Burmese war photographer accompanying the rebels in the conflict zone told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
The photographer added that camps for Kachin refugees in Pangwa region had also been attacked by rocket fire and that KIA soldiers believed the shells came from an 84 mm rifle commonly known as Carl Gustaf, which is produced by arms manufacturer Saab Bofors Dynamics in Sweden.
Their suspicions were confirmed when an actual rocket launcher and shells were seized by advancing rebel troops.
The revelations have made headlines in Sweden in light of longstanding EU sanctions against arms sales to Burma, enacted in response to human rights violations by the former military regime.
Although the United States and European Union have suspended some economic sanctions since reformist Burmese President Thein Sein took office last year, arms embargos are still in place as ethnic conflicts continue in some border states.
Burma is believed to have received the Swedish-made guns from neighboring India. Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based Swedish journalist and author of several books on Burma, said the Burma Army received the guns from the Indian military.
The Swedish government has pledged to investigate the issue. According to a report by the UK-based The Independent newspaper, an investigation was underway in Stockholm after Sweden’s Agency for Non-Proliferation and Export Controls learned of the KIA’s allegations.
But Lintner said punitive measures were unlikely.
“It will be investigated, but because India is such an important market and a major buyer of Swedish weapons, there will probably just be a slap on the wrist,” he said. “India will apologize and promise not to do it again.”
Meanwhile, the KIA also says Burmese troops are using Russian helicopters in the 18-month conflict, which flared up again after a 17-year ceasefire agreement broke down in June last year.
The Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters, an export model of the Russian Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, have reportedly given the government forces an advantage.
“They [KIA troops] could probably shoot down some transport helicopters, but the Mi-35 is armored plated, and they’d need a very powerful gun to shoot one of those down,” Lintner said.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, says the Burma Army shows no sign of letting up.
“U Aung Min told us that there will be no further military offensive against the KIA,” La Nan, spokesperson for the KIO, told The Irrawaddy, referring to the government’s chief negotiator with ethnic rebels. “The International community and the media believe what he says, but on the ground, on the frontlines of the war zone, it’s totally different.”
He said fighting continued daily as more military supplies and forces entered the region. More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, aid agencies estimate.
In Pangwa region, where refugee camps were reportedly shelled, an estimated 20 government soldiers were killed and injured on Monday, along with two KIA soldiers.
Although Kachin leaders and the government’s peace team have met several times, they have not reached any tangible agreements or secured a ceasefire.
“A political settlement is the only way to guarantee the rights of civilians,” La Nan said. “Without it, development is impossible. That’s why we have repeatedly called for a political solution.”
He added that as long as the Burmese government ignores the KIO’s call for a political settlement, stability would remain elusive in Kachin State.