FROM THE ARCHIVE: Burma’s Generals on a Buying Spree

Fueled by the sale of energy and timber, a pariah nation seeks weapons to keep its enslaved people in line

Locked into a bunker mentality, believing Burma is under siege from insurgents, determined to hold onto power and fueled by profits from looting its forests and fossil fuel energy production, Burma’s junta is buying arms faster than ever.

There are plenty of eager sellers even to pariah states if they have the money. In the latest turn of events, General Thura Shwe Mann, Burmese Army chief of staff, is suspected of sealing a deal for Indian military equipment when he visited India’s Eastern Command earlier in December. Indian spokesman, Wing Commander R K Das, would only confirm they discussed joint exercises and training.

That trip followed a meeting between Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi, commander of the Indian Air Force and Senior General Than Shwe, head of the military junta, in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Burma, on 22 November. Human Rights Watch claims Mr Tyagi was there to offer light attack helicopters, better avionics for combat jets, and naval surveillance aircraft.

On what terms is unclear, but reports say New Delhi is hoping to persuade Rangoon to finally get tough with Indian rebels using Burma as a base to battle for the independence of states in troubled northeastern India.

Burma is one of the world’s poorest countries yet it has an army four times larger than that fielded by Britain, the world’s fifth richest country. Shouldering all those rifles and manning armored vehicles are at least 400,000 Burmese troops, double the size of neighboring Thailand’s army. Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, is actively recruiting for a force of 500,000 troops. Indeed given how many soldiers Burma has, the military arguably does not have enough heavy weapons.

The Tatmadaw’s modernization follows the footsteps of China, evolving from a peasant army to a heavy conventional force. “After decades of being essentially a small, lightly-armed infantry force geared to regime protection and counter-insurgency, the Tatmadaw is gradually becoming an integrated force capable of more conventional, large-scale territorial defense operations,” wrote Andrew Selth, one of a few analysts closely watching the Burmese military, in a research paper.

Selth estimates that about 35 percent of the government budget, mostly raised from trade taxes and printing money, goes to the Tatmadaw, or about $240 million in 2005 based on a Central Intelligence Agency government expenditure estimate of $716.6 million. However that is only half the picture because the military trades on its own account through firms such as the Union of Myanmar Economic Corporation and the Myanmar Economic Corporation.

“These function in some ways like the Indonesian military corporates in adding to ‘defense’ resources. So however it’s measured, Burma’s defense spending will likely always be grossly understated,” says Sean Turnell, a Macquarie University economist studying Burma.

Those sums are peanuts compared to what America, Japan or Singapore spend, but go a long way with the low prices offered by the likes of China, Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, some weapons and supplies are bought through barter arrangements or come as gifts, usually nuts and bolts items like trucks, from China. In addition, as much as one million cubic meters of logs worth an estimated US$250 million are being sold illegally to China, destroying vast and sensitive areas of virgin forest, according to the international watchdog organization Global Witness.

The arms purchases suggest a grave external threat. Yet what that might be is hard to fathom. The state-controlled press has in recent years warned of an American invasion, ordering troops, militia and the public to take heart from Iraq and prepare for guerrilla resistance. An American-led attack to topple the junta is nothing but a fevered dream in the imagination of a few dissidents. Given the debacle in Iraq it is even more unthinkable today.

Nonetheless, “Burma has been at war ever since independence was granted in 1948, in large part due to the desire of the combatants to control access to (its) natural resources,” according to Global Witness. “Since independence there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths among both combatants and non-combatants. War-related displacement has led to 300,000 refugees, in official camps, in neighboring countries and one million internally displaced people in Burma.”

Closer to home relations with neighbors – Bangladesh, India, China – are cordial. Relations with Bangkok improved markedly when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister of Thailand in 2001. After a rocky start and some border skirmishes, Thaksin focused relations on business. Despite an official withdrawal of support for insurgents and a clampdown on refugees, suspicions remain in Rangoon.

“General Than Shwe said in meetings that Thailand is our enemy, I don’t know why he thinks like this, he always thinks Thailand supports the insurgency because in the past we support them as a buffer state. But now we change policy, but the Burmese army still thinks about the past,” says a Thai military intelligence source in Bangkok.

That is not entirely surprising given heavy smuggling and trade across the porous border, including supplies ordered by remaining insurgents in Mon, Karen and Shan states from Thai merchants. Thailand’s traditionally close cooperation with America also keeps doubts smoldering in Rangoon. Moreover General Surayud Chulanont, installed as Thailand’s prime minister after a coup in September, is no fan of the junta.

In addition to the Indians, South Korean firms have been in hot water lately, accused by public prosecutors in Seoul of illegally supplying equipment and helping to build an artillery munitions factory worth $133.8 million in Burma. Cases are now being prepared against 14 executives from seven firms, including Lee Tae-yong, president of Daewoo International.

These dealings, though significant, pale compared to previous contracts. Highlights include 1,000 BTR-3U infantry fighting vehicles based on an old Soviet design, which Burma ordered from Ukraine in 2003. Their capabilities are roughly equal to the American Bradleys or British Warriors now on duty in Iraq.

Supporting those troop transports are 139 Soviet-designed T-72 main battle tanks, packing a hefty 125mm cannon. Less capable are around 600 Chinese copies of earlier Soviet tanks. These tanks and fighting vehicles are backed up by a few hundred 155mm long-range heavy artillery guns, plus thousands of light guns, mortars, rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.

Burma’s navy is also expanding, buying small combat vessels from China to complement ships being built in yards near Rangoon. Electronics and weapons come from the usual scrum of suppliers based in China, Russia, North Korea, India, Israel, and say some reports, Italy.

Above those ships and tanks Burma’s air force flies at least a dozen Russian MiG 29s, among the world’s best combat aircraft, along with dozens of older make-do Chinese fighters, plus dozens of simple but tough Polish and Russian multi-purpose helicopters adept at moving troops or attacking with machine guns and rockets.

Though Burma’s best kit comes from Russia and Ukraine, its primary supplier remains China. Jared Genser, a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, testified to the US-China Economic and Security Review Committee in Washington in August 2006 that China has provided 90 percent of the Burmese military’s equipment in two deals since 1989.

“Without China’s $1.6 billion in military assistance and naval modernization, Burma would not have been able to create the second largest military, behind Vietnam, in Southeast Asia,” said Genser.

Burma is also expanding its arms industry. In addition to small warships, arsenals are designing and producing assault rifles and mortars. They are also assembling some of the BTR-3 fighting vehicles from Ukraine.

Despite all this weaponry, insurgents are the only active threat facing the regime, a mixture of ethnic nationalists, rebel Burmese, and opium and methamphetamine warlords. But these ragtag armies are far weaker than they were during the 1980s, cut down by attrition, bickering and sweet deals from Rangoon. Burma’s military has forced many to ceasefires or into mountain redoubts using infantry and artillery, rarely risking its expensive attack jets or gunships.

With the rebels on the run, friendly neighbors and America bogged down elsewhere has no grave threat. Tomorrow might be rather different.

What the generals do fear, of course, is a sudden uprising of the kind that nearly toppled the regime in 1988. Given the isolation and suppression of its people, the generals live in a hostile land with every reason to behave like an occupying army.

If they are going to hang on indefinitely to the milking cow they have made of the country, the generals must constantly peer into the future to seek clues for potential missions. One of those will doubtless be securing the infrastructure which will earn large revenues from oil, gas and transportation, some of which will doubtless pay for more combat aircraft, warships and armored vehicles.

China’s official media reported in April that preparations were underway for a $2 billion gas pipeline from Sittwe, where offshore oil and gas is brought ashore, to Kunming in Yunnan, which followed an understanding reached between PetroChina and Rangoon in December 2005.

That pipeline will run through parts of the Shan State that have in the past been controlled by rebel armies and are still within striking distance of groups pressed up against the Thai border. A parallel oil pipeline is a distinct possibility. China is also negotiating transit rights for trade across Burma via road, rail and river that will run along the same corridor as the pipelines to Andaman Sea ports.

Protecting and patrolling this lucrative infrastructure is one mission where fighting vehicles and even tanks could be useful in deterring fading guerrillas and reassuring China. They may also provide security for onshore oil fields, which seem set to expand on the back of exploration wells drilled by Chinese firms.

It is a similar story offshore where Burmese, Chinese, Korean and Indian firms are investing heavily in substantial oil and gas fields. Their security, principally against pirates, requires warships and surveillance aircraft, but that alone cannot justify the ongoing naval expansion.

All the same these emerging missions to counter low-grade threats fail to justify the junta’s enthusiasm for spending huge sums on military equipment, especially when public health and education are in a woeful state, neglected for decades.

“In practice, the military’s perceived domestic political-security imperative has resulted in a multi-pronged approach to force ethnic insurgents to subscribe to the unitary state in which the military retains a major role. Equally, the imperative has obligated the military to fight off internal and external challenges to its rule and authority,” wrote the London School of Economics’ Jürgen Haacke, in a study of Burma’s foreign policy earlier this year.

America’s push to pressure the regime through the UN does nothing to dispel this paranoia. Moreover, the junta worldview is an antique from another era, in which military strength was a symbol of state prowess, a way to inch Burma up the regional pecking order.

A huge military impresses upon the Burmese themselves that protest is futile. They have lowered the guns on their people before, in 1988, and they could do so again with even more devastating effect. “In Burma they think they need a strong army to control the people. We still believe that who controls the army controls the weapons, controls the people. The poor people still respect the man who has a uniform, who is a soldier,” says the Thai military intelligence source, a veteran of the Thai-Burma border.

The chance of a repeat of the 1988 uprising, when thousands were killed by soldiers shipped in to Rangoon for the task, seem remote. Recruiting impressionable young men into the army also helps soak up the unemployed, who might otherwise fall in with the idea of fighting for change.

Impressive as this military machine sounds, its effectiveness may not match the image. Morale is low in many units. They often have to farm their own food, or requisition from local villages. Training and discipline are wanting in many units, reports of troops stealing, raping and murdering are commonplace. Maintenance, especially of hi-tech Russian jets or low-quality Chinese equipment, almost certainly presents problems.

“I think they lack the logistics and maintenance, they think only about the capability of the weapon, they don’t think about how long they will have it, how to maintain it. If you have a good maintenance and logistics systems then you can fight for a long time, but if you don’t, you can’t,” says the Thai military intelligence source.