Reportage. Human rights groups are investigating weapons and software used by the Myanmar regime against protesters. Among their findings: Turkish guns and Italian trackers used to pinpoint smartphones.

In the Myanmar junta’s arsenal: Italian bullets and tracking devices

A newly formed working group (comprising Italia-Birmania, Disarmament Network, Amnesty Italy, Opal and Atlante delle Guerre) has assembled a series of new photographic and documentary evidence on the issue of bullets made by Cheddite Italy srl found in Myanmar after clashes between protesters and the military.

Among these, the name of a Turkish company sticks out, Zsr Patlayici Sanayi A.S., a name that had already appeared in an Amnesty dossier published a few days ago which explained that this company located in Karesi, in the Anatolian province of Balikesir between Istanbul and Izmir, uses “cartridges from the Italian-French company Cheddite,” while photos and videos collected by AI in Myanmar “show that police have access to traditional less-lethal arms, including ‘pepperball’ launchers, and shotguns loaded with rubber bullets manufactured by the Turkish company.”

These are cartridges that can also be loaded with buckshot. Thus, Turkey exports ammunition to Myanmar, and not only. As Giorgio Beretta, an analyst at the Permanent Observatory on Small Arms and Security and Defense Policies (OPAL), explains, “from a careful analysis of the United Nations international trade registry, Comtrade, several supplies of rifles and ammunition from Turkey to Myanmar are recorded in 2014.”

According to the numbers, the researcher explains, “there are 7,177 sporting or hunting type rifles worth $1,452,625, in addition to 2,250 ‘parts and accessories’ and 46,000 rounds of ammunition worth $223,528.” However, in the following years there were no exports of similar arms and ammunition; “but this could also depend on the failure of the competent Turkish bodies to send information to the UN international register,” Beretta adds.

What will the EU do? This is one of the many issues that are added to the more major one of sanctions, which the EU should decide on Monday. But there are fears that it will be much ado about nothing.

“We have written to the EU High Representative Josep Borrell,” says Cecilia Brighi of Italia-Birmania, “to remind him that words are welcome, but completely insufficient in the face of the crimes of the junta. We have asked the EU to adopt sanctions against all financial and economic interests of the members of the State Administrative Council [the Burmese junta], asking companies present in Myanmar to suspend any relationship with companies linked to the regime.”

These requests must also be presented to big Italian companies such as ENI (energy), SiaeMic (network solutions), Danieli (steel industry), but also to smaller companies, as in the case of SecurCube Srl (computer forensics). The Treviso-based company (with five employees) ended up in the crosshairs of the rights advocacy group Justice for Myanmar for allegedly selling digital tools to Myanmar, which could now be used by the junta in acts of repression.

SecurCube’s response remains unchanged: “We have never sold anything directly to the government or to agencies working in Myanmar,” clarified Nicola Chemello, chairman of the board. The problem is that from the documents seen by il manifesto, SecurCube and its BTS Tracker appear among the items in the Myanmar state budget for the 2019-2020 two-year period, in a batch with 11 other different hardware devices costing an estimated $250,000.

How could Italian devices have arrived in Myanmar if the company denies ever having anything to do with Burmese institutions? Through third-party companies, their official distributors, which can be found simply by searching online. “Yes, if it did, it went through third parties,” Chemello admits, “because we have about ten dealers around the world… In other words, there was no direct sale.”

These third parties are also present in Asia, but, according to Chemello, “not in Myanmar,” and they can market SecurCube products with the company’s approval.

The SecurCube case. It should be pointed out that the sale itself has nothing illegal about it: in the years in question, the government was still led by Aung San Suu Kyi. “At that time,” SecurCube points out, ”there was no constraint that would have prevented us from selling.” But there is also another issue: the technological tools the junta can now rely on.

The BTS Tracker is not a wiretapping device: “We don’t do security, we’re a small company that does computer forensics. Our products help perform analysis, but you have to already have the data. Without it, nothing gets done.”

And herein perhaps lies the concern of Burmese human rights activists. Because if in a democratic state, apart from the secret services, one has to ask the telephone operators for the data or obtain it with the authorization of the judiciary, in another type of regime everything changes. On SecurCube’s website, the BTS Tracker is presented as a device that acts “not by intercepting the communication, but by mapping the mobile environment” in which it takes place.

But in doing so, it “pinpoints a smartphone with greater accuracy,” providing data for “your suspicions.” All thanks to a device little bigger than a pack of cigarettes, which one can keep in one’s pocket and use in the field when needed. In conclusion, on the basis of the products it develops, SecurCube is certainly not the Milanese Hacking Team, which makes offensive intrusion and surveillance software, selling it to governments and intelligence agencies all over the world. Including those of secretive countries like Sudan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (as demonstrated in 2015 after a cyberattack on the company).

But it’s also true that even SecurCube products, which are merely analytical on paper, when in the hands of a regime, can serve to gather evidence, or, worse yet, capture activists and opponents. Finally, following that scandal, Hacking Team claimed to be able to disable the software they sold in case of unethical use. SecurCube has not yet publicly distanced itself from the bloody Burmese regime.

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