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Oiling the iron fist (FEER 6.12.90)

/* Posted 8 Jan 10:00pm 1997 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* ----------------" Oiling the iron fist (6/12/90) "------------------ */

Oiling the iron fist
Armed forces receive large quantities of new weapons
By Bertil Lintner in Bangkok

For decades, the battle-hardened Burmese army was a poorly equipped but
comparatively effective light infantry force which concentrated almost all
its efforts on combating various insurgent forces under harsh conditions in
the country's remote frontier areas. But the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in
the urban areas of central Burma, and its extension in the May election
victory for the main opposition National League for Democracy party, has
given the armed forces the new role of consolidating and, if possible,
perpatuating the military's grip on power in Rangoon.

To strengthen the armed forces for its new mission, the ruling State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has initiated a major build-up and
modernisation of its power structure key element. An initial delivery of
munitions from China in August (REVIEW, 13 Sept.) is to be followed by a
large quantity of military equipment and supplies from Burma's northeastern
neighbour. Apart from the already reported deal, which included 12 F6 or F7
jet fighters and six Hainan-class naval patrol boats, the REVIEW has
obtained details of planned Chinese shipments to burma. WEll-placed sources
in Rangoon say Peking will send about 100 light and medium tanks to Burma,
including T69IIs and the Chinese version of teh Soviet PT76 light
amphibious tank, in addition to a substantial number of armoured personnel
carriers (APC). Also included in the deal are some 20 to 30 Chinese 37 mm
twin-barrel and single-barrel 57 mm anti-aircraft guns.

China is not alone in selling weapons and munitions to Burma. In October,
Yugoslavia was reported to have delivered six G4 Super GAleb light strike
and training aircraft, along with three light naval patrol boats --
believed to be of the Koncar class, which are powered by Rolls-Royce
engines and armed with Swedish-made 57 mm or 40 mm Bofors cannons. Even
newly democratised POland is going to deliver about 20 helicopters, half of
them armed "Hoplite" Mi2s and the rest PZL Swindnik transport helicopters.
Military sources in Rangoon say pilots and naval personnel will be sent to
Yugoslavia and Poland for training. In addition, a further 180 field grade
officers, mostly lieutenants and captains, have completed instruction
courses in China.

The overall strength of Burma's armed forces is also increasing rapidly.
The army, estimated at 170,000 men before the 1988 upheavals, has now
passed the 220,000 mark. Burma's previously tiny navy, which numbered
5-6,000 men before 1988, is in the process of increasing from 8,000 to at
least 12,000 men. Together, the three services will soon number 230-240,000
personnel and will be the best equipped Burma has ever mustered.

Some of the equipment -- the Yugoslav Super GAleb is particularly suited
for counter-insurgency operations -- appear destined for use in the rebel
areas of the country's periphery. Sources in northern Burma also assert
that Chinese army trucks have delivered small arms and ammunition to the
garrison town of Lashio, across the border from China's Yunnan province, on
at least two occasions over the past few months.

With the advent of teh dry season in November, fighting is expected to
resume between government forces and Kachin rebels in the far north of
Burma, as well as with Thai-border based Mon and Karen insurgents. But the
present build-up of Burma's armed forces does not seem aimed primarily at
enhancing their traditional counter-insurgency role.

"It's clear that the SLORC reasises the military has become estranged from
the population at large since 1988. So in order to raise the morale of the
officers as well as the rank and file, the SLORC wants to give them a
mordern army," one military analyst said. "Another reason is to intimidate
the public -- and the tanks and the APCs will certainly serve that purpose

The build-up raises tow important questions. With China the only exception,
the other countries are re-exporting arms produced under licence from
nations whose export rules often prohibit the sale of their products to
third countries without prior approval. Yugoslavia's Super Galebs, for
example, have Rolls-Royce Viper turbojet engines and under the terms of an
agreement singed with Britain in 1972,  aircraft equipped with these
engines cannot be resold to a country such as Burma.

If the Yugoslav boats are indeed of the Koncar class, the same rules would
apply to them. The patrol crafts are of Swedish design, have Swedish Bofor
cannon and are powered by Rolls-Royce Preteus gas turbine engines. On 19
November, Sweden tabled a UN resolution calling on the world body to
pressure the SLORC into honouring the outcome of the May election. Sweden
has already been embarrassed by reports of Singapore having re-exported 84
mm Carl Gustaf rocket launchers to Burma without prior approval from
Stockholm. Singapore denies the charge, but the fact remains that the
Burmese army suddenly acquired a large number of such weapons in late 1988.
The helicopter deal with Poland is likely to be criticised in the US, one
of Warsaw's closest allies since the introduction of democracy in that
country last year. Washington may also react negatively to intelligence
reports claiming that a US company has sold mordern communications
equipment to the Burmese army.

THE second question-mark surrounding burma's most recent arms deals
concerns the vast amounts of hard currency involved. The Yugoslavs are
believed to have struck a barter deal, and Yugoslav mining experts are
looking into the possibilities of revitalising dormant gold mines around
Mandalay. But the deal with China is said to be in the order o US$900
million, with US$300 million in down payment. "Burmese simply doesn't have
that kind of money now," a political analyst asserted.

One possibility is that the SLORC is banking on oil, potentially the most
lucrative commodity Burma possess. Since Yukong of South Korea first struck
a deal with Rangoon to explore for oil onshore a year ago, similar
agreements have been reached with Anglo-Dutch Shell, Japan's Idemitsu,
Petro-Canada, Amoco and Unocal of teh US, Australia's Broken Hill and
Britain's Croft Exploration, Kirkland Resources and Premier Oil. The
state-run Working People's Daily of 13 September announced these 10
companies had paid US$5 million each in signature bonuses, to be followed
by at least US$320 million in investment over the next few years.

The SLORC had hardly concluded the initiatial negotiations with these oil
companies before it sent high-powered delegations to visit various defence
industries in China. But whatever the sources of income for the arms deals,
the SLORC -- more determined than ever not to relinquish power -- seems
ready to devote what resources Burma possess in order to better equip the
armed forces to control and intimidate the country's own people.