Observers have reacted with uncertainty to the United States Treasury’s decision to sanction a senior military officer for weapons deals with North Korea.
On July 2, the Department of Treasury announced it had blacklisted Lieutenant General Thein Htay, head of the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), for “acting for or on behalf of DDI” to purchase “military equipment and material” from North Korea in contravention of United Nations sanctions.
“Thein Htay has disregarded international requirements to stop purchasing military goods from North Korea, the revenues from which directly support North Korea’s illicit activities,” Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in the statement.
The decision “specifically targets Thein Htay, who is involved in the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma; it does not target the government of Burma, which has continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea,” it said.
Lt Gen Thein Htay was Minister for Border Affairs in U Thein Sein’s government from March 2011 to February 2013 and is thought to have held the DDI position concurrently. DDI was sanctioned by Treasury for its deals with North Korea in July 2012.
The listing appeared to take the government by surprise. The US has lifted sanctions against a number of key figures in the Myanmar government as a result of its reforms over the past two years and has also initiated a process of engagement with the Tatmadaw.
“I can’t comment as we don’t know what the decision was based on,” presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut told The Myanmar Times on July 3.
The Ministry of Defence in Nay Pyi Taw declined to comment, saying that DDI was not concerned with the ministry.
John Sullivan, a spokesman at the Department of Treasury, said there was “no particular hook to the timing” of the announcement. The department had “concerns about him as of early November 2012, [when] Thein Htay was identified as the chief of DDI and led a Burmese delegation to Beijing, China to meet with North Korea officials. The two delegations agreed to expand military cooperation between North Korea and Burma,” Mr Sullivan said.
The US has made ceasing military deals with North Korea a precondition for improving ties with Myanmar. In May 2012, President U Thein Sein admitted that Myanmar has purchased weapons from North Korea over the preceding two decades during a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the New York Times reported. The president also vowed that this would end.
However, in August 2012 there were reports that Japanese officials had seized weapons-grade material in Tokyo that was bound for Myanmar and was believed to have originated in North Korea. When The Myanmar Times asked U Ye Htut about the incident at the time, he replied that it was “not true” and Myanmar has been strictly following the rules and regulation of the United Nations Security Council.
In November 2012, the government publicly reiterated its intention to abide by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits the procurement of military goods and assistance from North Korea, the statement mentioned.
Murray Hieber, deputy director of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, said it was unclear why Lt Gen Thein Htay was the only person cited. “We don’t have any independent information about his involvement with North Korea. We also don’t know the level of importance of his role,” said Mr Hieber.
Last year, a CSIS delegation visited Myanmar and issued a trip report in which it advocated that the US engage Myanmar’s military to encourage reform. Mr Hieber said he still believed this was the right course of action.
“It doesn’t mean that [the] Myanmar military doesn’t have a commitment to reform. It could simply mean that one department, DDI, which has been cited and sanctioned last year, is continuing its relation with North Korea.”
Additional reporting by Tim McLaughlin