Burma's Arms-Selling Friends

Although most Western nations have issued public demands for stepped up international boycott on weapons sales to Burma in response to the military regime's continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, there is little chance of any success. Chinese, Russian, East European and North Korean arms dealers over the past decade have provided the Burmese junta with a seemingly limitless array of arms and will probably continue to do so as long as the money holds out.

"Nothing less than a worldwide ban on the sale of arms to the regime will do, as a first step," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after Burmese authorities sentenced Suu Kyi on August 11 to an additional 18 months house arrest.

But Brown might as well command the waves to stop. Calls to punish Burma's military regime by widening the American and European Union ban on weapon sales would mean targeting the Southeast Asian nation's wealthy neighbor, China, which provides most of Burma's deadliest equipment and which has strategic considerations for continuing to prop up the junta.

Norway's Finance Ministry meanwhile has lashed out against China's military aid to Burma.

"The Ministry of Finance has excluded the Chinese company Dongfeng Motor Group Co. Ltd from the Government Pension Fund -- Global -- based on advice from the Council on Ethics," Norway's Finance Ministry said earlier this year.

"A large number of military trucks manufactured by Dongfeng have been observed at the border crossing between China and Burma. Norges Bank has written to the company about this. The response from Dongfeng revealed that a subsidiary company sold 900 trucks to Burma during the first half of 2008," a ministry statement said. "The trucks have been adapted for military purposes and moreover have significant military applications."

China has no interest in allowing Burma, for instance, to turn to its regional rival India for support. India, despite its lip service to freedom, also provides aid to the Burmese regime in an effort to supplant China in the junta's affections.

"Burmese soldiers have used not only Chinese-made military equipment such as helmets, uniforms, boots and bayonets, but also munitions, tanks, small arms, artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, jet fighters, naval vessels" and other items, according to a report published by the Norway-based Burmese dissident group, Democratic Voice of Burma.

Burma's weapons purchases remain mostly shrouded, and many agreements are difficult to confirm. Nonetheless, ‘China has been the principal source of arms supplies to the Myanmar forces, followed by India, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and other countries," according to a report by Amnesty International.

During the past 20 years, China has supplied Burma with "tanks, armored personnel carriers, military aircraft and artillery pieces such as howitzers, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns," Amnesty said. In addition, Serbia and Montenegro sold dozens of howitzers to the country during 2004-2006, while Ukraine signed a contract in 2004 to supply 1,000 armored personnel carriers after a 2002 deal to export 14 tanks, Amnesty said.

Some details appear in a 2009 book by Burmese defense analyst Maung Aung Myoe, titled, "Building the Tatmadaw," which is the Burmese name for its military. Other descriptions filter through pro-democracy Burmese media, including Irrawaddy magazine, which is based in Thailand.

"Burma has bought more than 100 jet fighters and aircraft from China since 1990," Irrawaddy reported in its August issue. "Burma has also bought smaller numbers of jet fighters, helicopters and military transport planes from Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia. Russian, Ukrainian and Polish MI-12, MI-17, G-4 and Sokol helicopters now dominate Burma's air force."

Burma, however, reportedly lacks enough skilled pilots. During the past several years, Burma bought a dozen MiG-29 jet fighters, perhaps to square off against its eastern neighbor, Thailand, which boasts U.S.-built F-16s and other aircraft.

The two Buddhist nations were historic enemies and have continued to squabble along their border, though Thailand purchases much of its natural gas from Burma and is widely seen as wanting smooth relations. Thailand's government-run PTT, America's Chevron and France's Total own much of the Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand, providing the regime with its largest source of income.

On Burma's side of the frontier, however, rival groups of minority ethnic guerrillas have fought for the past six decades for independence or autonomy. Much to the dismay of Burma's military, the guerrillas have repeatedly sought sanctuary in Thailand where they have resupplied, tended to their wounded, and campaigned for foreign support.

Thailand's close ties to Washington have sparked fears in Burma that the smoldering guerrilla skirmishes could evolve into a proxy war to destabilize the hermit nation.

Extensive U.S. and European economic embargoes against Burma, along with the regime's widespread corruption and disastrous financial policies, have impoverished the nation and forced it to rely on sanction-busting allies.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in a 1990 nationwide election but the military cancelled the results, refused to allow her to rule, and has kept her under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.