Myanmar's Armed ForcesThey come bearing arms

Posted in Asia | 15-Oct-07 | Author: Robert Karniol| Source: Straits Times

HARD pragmatism has trumped humanitarian concerns among various countries supplying military equipment to Myanmar.

Consider the case of Poland, where democracy triumphed in 1990 following two years of political agitation against decades of pro-Soviet communist control. That same year, Warsaw began delivering at least 18 Mi-2 light helicopters to the military regime in Yangon, followed in 1991 by 13 W-3 Sokol utility helicopters.

An embarrassed Polish diplomat, dining in Bangkok with two foreign journalists soon after the deal became known, sought to explain the sale. You must understand our situation, he told them plaintively; the Polish economy is in tatters and factory workers must have jobs.

Poland's predicament is not unique, but circumstances vary.

The United States and the European Union imposed arms embargoes on Myanmar after the junta's brutal 1988 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, but several indirect transfers have occurred regardless.

When China delivered K-8 Karakoram trainer/light-attack aircraft to Myanmar in 1999, they were powered by US-made Honeywell engines. Similarly, G-4 Super Galeb trainer/light-attack aircraft obtained by Yangon from then-Yugoslavia around 1990 are fitted with Rolls Royce Viper engines of United Kingdom origin.

In 2004, Myanmar ordered upwards of 1,000 BTR-3U Guardian armoured personnel carriers from Ukraine for local assembly under a contract reportedly worth more than US$500 million (S$732 million). The vehicles are fitted with the Deutz diesel engine from Germany and an Allison transmission system from the US.

These and other arms transfers from abroad are linked to a massive build-up of the Myanmar armed forces under way since 1988 when it put down a protracted popular uprising.

Myanmar has suffered continually from armed conflict since its independence in 1948, but the prodemocracy movement provided Yangon with a new impetus for strengthening the military.

Estimates suggest the armed forces had a strength of 185,000 personnel in 1988, and this has since grown to 400,000. These forces had to be newly equipped.

The military build-up gained initial support from China. Reports indicate that Beijing has, since 1988, provided Myanmar with defence equipment worth more than US$1 billion, and the trade remains significant despite more recent dilution by other suppliers.

Among the consequences is an expansion of capabilities in Myanmar's traditionally weak navy and air force, a new focus on ground- based air defence and a strengthened army. Among ground forces, the emphasis includes improved mobility and firepower together with increased mechanisation. Command, control, communications and intelligence have also been prioritised.

This has seen the traditional emphasis in military doctrine on internal security expanded to place greater focus on conventional external defence roles. However, sources suggest the quality of training may have deteriorated with the expansion of forces while experience in conventional operations remains limited.

There was little historical friendliness between Myanmar and China, largely due to Beijing's armed incursions during the 1950s to counter Chinese nationalist forces operating in Shan state and its active support of an indigenous communist insurgency. But the two countries found a common interest in the late 1980s.

China's main incentive for warming relations with Myanmar was strategic. A few years earlier, with its coastal areas beginning to boom, Beijing started considering development of its inland regions.

The solution involved forming symbiotic relationships between outlying Chinese provinces and their immediate neighbours. And the initial effort focused on linking Yunnan with Myanmar.

Together with infrastructure development and expanded trade, this involved cementing ties through Chinese military support.

Beijing's widening influence prompted other countries to action. India was driven to a policy shift by strategic considerations, for example, while Russian motives have been more commercial.

India was traditionally adversarial with Yangon's military rulers, supporting both Myanmar's prodemocracy movement and several ethnic insurgent groups. Its change in posture is partly aimed at balancing Chinese influence along its border and partly to gain Yangon's support in countering anti-Indian rebel groups operating from the country.

Within the past year, this shift has included providing Myanmar with two BN-2 aircraft and a number of naval guns, along with the planned transfer of artillery pieces and battle tanks.

Russia's push into Myanmar is part of a wider effort to expand its arms sales and its influence in Southeast Asia. This was of particular importance to keeping its factories alive in the post-Soviet period when the domestic market in defence products plunged.

Moscow sold four advanced combat aircraft to Myanmar in 2001 and 10 more in 2002. That same year it is known to have transferred a number of Igla man- portable surface-to-air missile systems, and it exported 100 artillery guns to Myanmar in 2006.

Other major arms suppliers to Myanmar include Serbia and Ukraine, both of which maintain representative offices in Yangon to oversee defence sales.

Serbia has reported to the United Nations defence transfers to Myanmar worth some US$16 million between 2004 and 2006, although details are not known. Beyond that, it provided 36 105mm howitzers in 2004.

Besides its huge 2004 contract for armoured personnel carriers, noted earlier, Ukraine provided 14 T-72 main battle tanks in 2002 and 10 R-27 air-to-air missiles in 2003. The sophisticated missiles are of particular significance as they were obtained to arm Russian MiG-29 fighters delivered without airsuperiority weapons.

Published reports suggest that defence equipment has also been obtained from Israel, Singapore, both Koreas and Vietnam. Ammunition suppliers include Pakistan, and trucks and utility vehicles used by the military include various models from Japan.

But one analyst does not rate the result too highly. 'The Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) isn't what it used to be. They are much better equipped now than before 1988, but they are no longer the battlehardened fighting machine they once were,' he said.

This source says the doubling of its size over a relatively brief period has diluted the army's traditional strength.

But a second analyst has a more nuanced view. 'It is not a homogenous force,' he argued. 'Troops in the capital region, intent on keeping the junta in power, are much better trained and prepared than those in outlying areas. They are also better led.'

Myanmar was an international pariah after the 1988 crackdown, and China was pretty well alone in offering support to the junta. Beijing's monopoly on defence sales has since been thinned by other players, while Yangon's political estrangement was tempered through its acceptance by Asean in 1997.

Yangon will need to carefully manage the aftermath of its recent violent suppression of anti-government demonstrators if it hopes to avoid a reversal of these trends.