An Australian technology company that allegedly supplies military-grade hardware to both the Australian and Burmese Governments stands to lose millions thanks to a new motion introduced into the NSW Parliament.
The movement, spearheaded in the Upper House by Greens MP, Dr John Kaye, has requested the Government reconsider its position with Barrett Communications. Currently involved in a $4 million provisioning contract, Barrett Communications also currently enjoys a preferred provider position, allowing Government agencies to acquire the vendor’s technology without first going to tender.
The vendor’s niche is its high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) product range. Its products meet military standards and military communications information enjoys a prominent part of its website real estate.
Dr Kaye claims that Barrett Communications supplies its long-distance communications technology to the Myanmar (Burmese) military in breach of sanctions, and this is grounds for terminating the relationship with Barrett.
The source of this claim is a report by academics, Desmond Ball and Samuel Blythe in the Jane’s Intelligence Review journal.
According to the report, the Myanmar military has access to the Barrett 2050 model radio. Barrett itself claims the radios exported to Myanmar are for civilian purposes, but according to Dr Kaye and the Jane’s Intelligence Review report, it is relatively easy to convert the units for military use.
“The company claims it did not include what is called frequency hopping technology, but the report states the frequency hopping option could be installed later on,” Dr Kaye said.
“It’s high-tech ready if you like.”
Although action has yet to be taken (the motion was only introduced mid-November), Dr Kaye said he would continue to pressure the Government into looking at this issue more closely.
“They need to clearly explain why Barrett is in there, and why they haven’t recognised that this is not an appropriate thing to do,” Dr Kaye said.
According to a report on Dr Kaye’s website, the motion has the support of all political parties in the NSW Upper House.
Should Barrett lose standing with the NSW Government, it also stands to lose more than just the $4 million contract. According to Kaye, the vendor also has contracts with police at state and federal level, the military and the Government’s Antarctic division.
Additionally, under Australian sanctions where there is a ban on defence exports to Myanmar, the penalties for breach of those sanctions are 10 years’ imprisonment and/ or $275,000 for individuals, and $1,375,000 for organisations.
The military: impossible to avoid in Myanmar
The Ball/ Blythe report also cites documents from the Myanmar Ministry of Defence from 2002 and 2004 regarding tenders for radio equipment that Barrett Communications won.
Another Australian company (and rival to Barrett) ASX-listed Codan Limited (ASX: CDA), also submitted a tender for the 2004 contract. However, Codan Group commercial manager, Philip Marley, claimed the company no longer holds any interest in Myanmar.
“We don’t currently deal with Burma because the Australian Government has a number of autonomous sanctions in place that specifically target the military regime that is running Burma,” he said.
“The only business we consider in Burma is UN- or humanitarian-related. However, Burma hasn’t always been sanctioned as a market.”
Although civilian trade is still possible with Burma, it’s a risky proposition that Codan was not willing on trying its hand with, Marley said.
“We sell what we call dual-use equipment. Our customers are people like the UN, World Food Program, Unicef and a number of non-government organisations [NGOs]. So our application is largely what I call humanitarian and peace keeping, but the reality is once it goes into a market place like Burma, it’s hard to know who’s going to get their hands on it.
“There have been some publicised situations last year and early this year that other suppliers in Australia have entered into the Burmese market, and thought they were dealing with someone other than the military, but the equipment has ended up there.”
However, Marley concedes that in certain cases, those sanctions might make Myanmar a high-risk, but lucrative business opportunity. Although Burma has been sanctioned for a long time, and those sanctions including crippling financial ones, this has also left a lack of competition in the market.
“If you’re willing to breach the sanctions in place then yes, it would be a lucrative market,” he said.
Barrett Communications was contacted for comment, but ARN was told by reception that the managing director, Phil Bradshaw, had mandated a ‘no comment’ response on the topic.