Two years since Myanmar’s military coup, widespread violence continues to escalate across the country, with growing indications and accusations of Iranian support to the junta.

Myanmar has been plagued by conflict and instability for decades. The country is home to multiple ethnic groups, many of which have been in conflict with the government. The situation has been further complicated when on Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, deposed the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy.

The coup triggered countrywide protests that were followed by a crackdown leaving hundreds of civilians dead and several thousand detained.

As resistance to the junta continues, international research organizations, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have been suggesting that the Myanmar military has deployed a fleet of Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles to identify and locate potential targets.

Chinese drones have been used by the Myanmar military since 2015 to support counterinsurgency operations in the country’s restive north. But the unrest following the 2021 coup has increased demand for their use and for their spare parts, especially engines, which are widely believed to have been purchased from Iran.

“The engines were requested shortly after the coup, because some of the drones were showing the signs of wear and tear ... All the talks were with the Iranians,” Capt. Nyin Nyin Wai, a Myanmar army defector, told Iran International.

He said “there was a lot of back and forth” in the talks and it took a long time until the engines were delivered, but before leaving the military in December 2022, he saw documents confirming that Iranian parts had been ordered.

“I was in the meetings, and I saw the papers,” he said. “It was MD550.”

The MD550 is a drone engine that is reverse-engineered from a prototype designed in the 1980s by the German company Limbach.

The engine of an Iranian drone shot down over Ukraine on October 6, 2022

The Washington DC-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control and the US watchdog United Against Nuclear Iran believe it is produced by Iranian manufacturer Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar Company or MADO.

“It’s a strong claim. There are several credible sources,” UANI research director Daniel Roth told Iran International.

“It’s a little confusing because the original engine is made by Limbach (the L550E), and the MD550 is described as a ‘Chinese copy.’ The collected evidence suggests that it’s now probably made by both China and Iran — but mainly Iran.”

A January report by UANI, an analysis of the Iranian National Aerospace Exhibition showed photographs of the MD550 engine being displayed at the show in Tehran in 2012 — a year after MADO was established.

The company has been subject to US sanctions since October 2021.

According to the former army captain Nyin, the MD550 engines were supplied as replacement parts to the Myanmar Air Force, and repairs were conducted in the Meiktila Air Base Park in the Mandalay area of the country’s north.

It is unclear when exactly the first engines reached Myanmar from Iran, but early last year, data from flight tracker Flightradar24 showed Fars Air Qeshm — an Iranian cargo airline sanctioned by the US for carrying weapons and fighters to Syria — flying to Yangon from Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.

Since then, increased drone activity has been reported in the areas of Myanmar where the anti-junta opposition has been concentrated.

“Surveillance drones are used to learn where to target next,” Nyin said. “The focus was on Karen State, Sagaing Division, Mandalay area, Bago region.”

Rights activist Nicky Diamond from the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights has experienced first-hand the surveillance drones flying in the mountainous areas of the eastern Karen State in March and June 2021.

Iranian Mado MD550 engine, based on the German Limbach L550 engine

“China’s weapons and Iranian supplies are instrumental in oppressing revolutionary forces on the ground,” he said.

“Iran is under international sanctions, and it’s concerning that they are able to supply drones ... It’s a reminder that we need to do more to prevent the flow of weapons to conflict zones ... The issue of drone supply from Iran to Myanmar is a cause for concern and must be addressed to ensure the safety and security of the people.”

The situation in Myanmar is complex, and the Iranian regime’s support for the Myanmar junta is just one of the many issues that complicate it further, with the potential to make the already volatile circumstances even more dangerous.

Myanmar’s government in exile, the National Unity Government, has been raising concerns about the junta’s ties with Iran, as likely to further destabilize the country and lead to more violence.

“We are aware of the military relations between Iran and Myanmar military junta since the coup,” Naing Htoo Aung, spokesperson of the NUG Ministry of Defense, told Iran International.

“Myanmar military’s campaign of terror against its citizens is being aided by a country like Iran, which not only makes the Iranian army or government accomplice but also poses a threat to regional and international security.”

A part of an Iranian drone found in Ukraine

As the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, the international community faces a difficult decision on how to respond to the junta’s actions. Until now, however, the UN has not imposed a binding arms embargo on Myanmar, despite calls from rights groups and the government in exile.

Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer briefed the UN General Assembly on the situation on March 16, saying that the “violence continues at an alarming scale” and that “heavy fighting has spread to areas previously unaffected by conflict, putting more civilian lives at risk and further complicating humanitarian operations delivering lifesaving assistance.”

Heyzer said that 17.6 million people — about a third of the country’s population — are in need of humanitarian assistance, more than 1.6 million are internally displaced.

“Arms embargo to Myanmar military junta would be ideal to deter the junta’s killing of innocent citizens,” Naing Htoo Aung said.

“If arms embargo is not possible, then the UN and international community should seek to provide effective support to the resistance side to help them defend their lives.”

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