Korean police investigating illegal sale of warship to Myanmar

Korean police are in the advanced stages of an investigation into the transfer of a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) warship to the Myanmar Navy in 2019, Myanmar Now has learned.

The police are investigating persons from Posco International, Daesun Shipbuilding & Engineering, and Korea’s Ministry of Defence over alleged violations of Korea’s Foreign Trade Act in connection with the sale of the vessel, the UMS Mottama.

The Mottama was built by Daesun Shipbuilding & Engineering, a company then majority owned by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of Korea, under a deal brokered by Posco International, a publicly listed subsidiary of the Korean steel giant, Posco.

An initial rejected export application was filed by Daeson Shipbuilding in February 2017 for the sale of an LPD, which is an amphibious assault ship.

A June 2017 letter from Myanmar Navy Commodore Zaw Win to Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration, leaked to Myanmar Now, requested “prompt favourable” export permission for the LPD. The letter claimed the ship would be used for natural disaster response and to transport agricultural products to remote areas that do not have port facilities.

A letter written by Myanmar Navy Commodore Zaw Win in June 2017 claims that the UMS Mottama will be used for non-military purposes (Myanmar Now)

Posco International then submitted new plans for a Multi-Purpose Support Vessel in July 2017, in cooperation with Deasun Shipbuilding, claiming it would be built according to civilian specifications.

A Myanmar Navy letter leaked to activist group Justice For Myanmar (JFM) shows that a meeting was then organised with Posco International and the Myanmar Army’s Directorate of Procurement in October 2017 for the acquisition of a Multi-Purpose Support Vessel. The letter states that the purchase of the ship was proposed by Posco International, which was formerly known as Posco Daewoo .

A December 2017 Daesun Shipbuilding document on the ship’s specifications shows the company’s hurried amendments to make the ship fit a civilian design. For instance, details of the gun systems and artillery store were crossed out and the tank deck was renamed as “K-Deck”.

However, ship designs leaked to Myanmar Now, JFM, and Korean Civil Society in Support of Democracy in Myanmar (KCSSDM) by Myat Min Thu, a Myanmar Navy chief petty officer taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement, reveal that the ship was built to military specifications and illegally exported.

A Daesun Shipbuilding wiring diagram of the Mottama’s power system shows that the wiring of five guns were installed in Korea, before they were mounted after the ship’s transfer to Myanmar.

Another Daesun document on the ship’s communications and navigation system shows telephone systems installed for the five guns.

Both documents were created in October 2018, according to the document metadata.

The ship was also built to transport and launch military vehicles, including T-72S tanks and BTR-3U armoured personnel carriers.

Myat Min Thu formally submitted the ship’s documents to Korean police and is cooperating with their investigation.

“In order to bypass sanctions, the warship was renamed as a Multi-Purpose Support vessel, instead of an LPD, and the Myanmar Navy pretended it would be used for search and rescue and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Myat Min Thu told Myanmar Now.

“The vessel is made to carry the same armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles that the junta uses to launch brutal operations against ethnic armed groups and the People’s Defence Force.”

In a joint statement, JFM and KCSSDM welcomed the police investigation and called on Korea’s public prosecutor to swiftly indict those responsible for the transfer of the LPD to Myanmar.

Kinam Kim, who is Myat Min Thu’s lawyer and a member of KCSSDM, told Myanmar Now, “We had a suspicion that Posco International was involved in the sale of the LPD because of their long history of cooperation with the Myanmar military. With the support of my client, Myat Min Thu, we could provide concrete evidence that Posco International did not abide by Korean domestic law in its assistance to the military junta.”

“My client wants to make these business relationships public so that the company ends their support for the Myanmar military and so those who have violated the law are held accountable.”

The UMS Mottama was commissioned by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in 2019, in a ceremony that showcased its use for the military. Video broadcast on the military’s MWD TV featured troops in attack boats ready to launch. Min Aung Hlaing has since used the UMS Mottama in naval exercises.

Earlier this year, the ship was used to support the military’s troop build-up in Rakhine State, according to reporting in Janes.

“It is inexcusable that South Korea allowed Posco International to transfer this Daesun Shipbuilding warship to the Myanmar military, knowing that it will be used to support the military’s atrocity crimes,” said JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung.

“As well as holding those responsible for exporting the LPD to account, the Korean government must take concrete steps to stop the flow of funds, arms and equipment through targeted sanctions against the Myanmar junta and its businesses,” she added.

Posco International has longstanding business interests in Myanmar. It is the operator of the Shwe gas project and the main investor in Lotte Hotel, which is built on land leased from Myanmar’s military.

For Myat Min Thu, cooperating with Korean police is a revolutionary act to stop businesses from supporting the junta.

“As a leading democracy in Asia, I believe if South Korea stops cooperating with the Myanmar military, it will help the people of Myanmar and promote democracy and justice,” he said.

Posco International and Daesun Shipbuilding and Engineering did not respond to a request for comment from Myanmar Now.

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