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/* Written Wed 4 Oct 6:00am 1995 by DRUNOO@xxxxxxxxxxxx(DR U NE OO) in
/* ------- Bertil Lintner: Myanmar's Chinese connection ------ */
Following article from International Defense Review, November 94
given some information about arms sales from China and Singapore.
-- U Ne Oo.
INTERNATIONAL DEFENSE REVIEW 11/94 PP-23
MYANMAR'S CHINESE CONNECTION By Bertil Lintner
For more than five years, Myanmar( formerly Burma) has been a major
recipient of Chinese weapons. Eager to win allies in the region
following the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, China began to supplu
vast amounts of military material to Myanmar in 1990. This was at a
time when the teh government in Yangon ( formerly Rangoon ) was
also being condemned by the rest of the world for its abysmal human
rights record, and most Western powers had imposed a de facto arms
embargo on Yangon. Now , however, Myanmar is trying to diversify
its sources of military hardware.
The Burmese are complaining about the poor quality of the Chinese
equipment, as well as problems with maintenance and spare parts.
However, Yangon's decision to look elsewhere for weapons also seems
to be politically motivated. The heavy dependence on China as
almost the sole supplieer has led to discontent in the armed forces
which fear that the country's traditional neutrality has been
compromised. Yangon has also noted that its close relationship with
China has caused concern among other neighbours in the region,
whose good will Myanmar needs to break its internaitonal isolation.
Yangon's special relationship with Beijing began in October 1989
when Lieutenant General Than Shwe ( then vice-chairman of the
ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC,but now
its chairman and general) led a 24-men team on a 12-day visit to
China. The delegation also included Myanmar's powerful intelligence
hief Brigadire General ( now Liewtenatnt-General) Khin Nyunt,
together with army, navy and airforce commanders and personnel from
Myanmar's defense industries.
The high profile nature of the visit was evident in Biejing, where
the Burmese guests met Prime Minister Li Pang, army chief General
Chi Haotian and defense minister Qin Jiwei. They were also taken to
Shijiazhuang, where they inspected F-6 and F-7 jet fighters and a
rocket factory operated by Norinco, the state run defense insustry.
Later, the team went to the naval dockyards in Shanghai before
returning to Yangon.
At the time, Nyunt stated publicly:" We sympathize with the People
Republic of China as disturbances similar to those in Myanmar last
year [recently also] broke out in the People's Republic."
Intelligence sources believe that the basos for Myanmar's massive
arms deal was made during this visit. During this period, estimates
of the value of the deal varied from more cautious Western figures
of US$400 milliton to US$500 million to Asian intellignece sources
claim that it amoounted to US$ 1.2 Billion to US$1.4 billion.
Subsequent deliveries -- and intelligence about expected arms
deliveries indicate that the latter estimate is closer to the
The first delivery of Chinese arms took place almost a year after
Shwe's and Nyunt's important visit to China. On 10 August 1990, a
Chinese freighter docked at Yangon and unloaded anti-aircraft guns,
small arms and ammunition.
Since then, a seemingly never-ending stream of Chinese arms has
been pouring into MYanmar: more than 200 light and medium tanks,
including T-63, T-69IIs; the Chinese version of the soviet PT-76
light amphiboous tanks (T83); armoured personnel carriers and
infantry fignting vehicles; at least 30 Norinco Type 63 107mm
multiple rocket launchers, a sizeable quantity of 37 mm single
barrel anit aircraft guns; HN 5A shouldered-fired surface to air
missiles, US$290 million worth of light arms and ammunition;
artillery pieces; radio sets for military use; night vision
devices; nearly 1000 5t jiefang trucks; and radar equipment.
Some of this material was delivered through the port at Yangon, but
most of the small arms and lighter equipment arrived in convoys
overland from China, along the Burma Road of Second World War fame,
and which crosses the frontire near the town of Ruili in Yunan.
Intellignece sources say these surface deliveries were coordinated
form Chengdu regional military headquarters, which is alos the
centre for suppling the People's Liberation Army forces in Tibet.
This helps explain the strategic context in which the Chinese
viewed their expansion into Myanmar; as a client state for
southward expansion. The importance of this aspect was underscored
in late June this year, when the Chengdu Military Region commander,
General Li Jiulong paid a highly publicized visit to Myanmar.
Apart from becoming a recipient of Chinese military hardware,
Myanmar was also flooded with cheap Chinese consumer goods, and
timber. Precious stones and other raw materials were trucked back
into the border province of Yunana. Thousands of Chinese, mainly
Yunan, have also bought false Burmese identity cards through
corrupt officials, and moved into northern cities such as Lashio
and Mandalay as "Burmese citizens". Real estate and other property
in northern Myanmar has been taken over by these new "immigrants".
Myanmar's military leaders, on their part were hard pressed for
supplies to equip their rapidly expanding army: in the wake of a
massive pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and a humiliating defeat in
a general election which was held in May 1990 -- after which the
army did not relinquish power, but launched a crackdown on the
pro-democracy forces that swept that election - the SLORC decided
to more than double the forces under its command. The three
services of Myanmar's armed forces numbered 185,000-190-000 before
the 1988 uprising. Today's estimates vary between 300-000 and
400,000 troops, depending on the source. Defence intelligence
sources in Southeast Asia say the uletimate aim is 500,000
perspnnel in the army, navy and air force combined.
The air force has also been boosted by the delivery of Chinese-made
F-7 jet fighters, with the first squadron arriving in early May
1991. Today, Myanmar has acquired or is ordering from China a total
of three squadrons of F-7 fighters and two squadrons of NAMC A-5M
close support aircraft. A Burmese squadron consists of 12 aircraft,
and the F-7 Batch includes 30 single-seat versions and six twin
seat trainers. In addition, in September 1992 China delivered two
SAC Y-8D medium range transport planes, with a further two on
the navy has so far received 10 Hainan-class naval patrol boats,
plus radar equipment. The naval craft have been accompanied by 70
Chinese naval personnel - over half of whom are middle rank
officers - to assist the Burmese in operating the boats, training
local crew and maintaining neewly installed radar equipment. At the
same time, Myanmar's naval strength doubled to 15,000 men including
a battalion of naval infantry. The navy has also ordered three
1,865 ton Jianghu 053 frigates but the delivery has been delayed
because of technical problems.
While Myanmar's neighbours had been watching with unease the
massive shipments to its army and airforce, it was China's
involvement in the upgrading of the navy that caused alarm in the
region. In late 1992, US sattilites detected a new , 150 ft antenna
for signals intelligence at the naval base on Coco island. a
Buremse possession in the indian ocean. The susppicion thatthis new
equipment was likely to be operated at least in part by chinese
techiicians led to fears that Beijing's intelligence agencies would
monitor this sensitive maritime region.
Recent intelligence reports indicate that the Chinese are pressing
the Burmese to allow them access to three major, strategically
located listening islands along Myanmar's coast on ramree south of
Sittwe, the western Arakan State, on Coco Island in the Indian
Ocean, and at Zadetkyi Kyun ( or St. Matthew's Island) off the
southeastern Tenasserim coast. The last is especially sensitive:
this long, rugged island is located off the coast of Myanmars
southermost point, Kawthaung or Victoria Point, close to the
northern entrance of the Strait of Malacca.
India especially was viewing the developments with increased
concern. LCoco Island is located barely 30nmi from India's naval
base on the Andaman Islands. Any sophisticated signals intelligence
equipment on Coco island would also be able to observe India's
missile tests at Chandipur-on-sea on the northern coast of the Bay
of Bengal. India is known to have made several diplomatic
representations to Yangon on the issue.
Indonesian officials, always wary of China's extra-terroitorial
intentions, also made their opinions known, at least in private
conversations. LThe magazine Khaota in Thailand, which is close to
the military published a lengthy article about China's direct and
indirect naval presence in the region, highlighting Kadan Island
off the coast of Mergui in southeastern Myanmar, where some Chinese
instructors were said to be based. Since Kadan Island is not
mentioned in any intelligence reports, it is possible that the Thai
artuor of the article, General Tanapot Boonyopattakam, had confused
it with St. Matthew's Island. Whatever the case, the article
reflected Thai concertns about Chinese moves into the area.
Some of these fears may have been exaggerated, but local analysis
believe that there was a significant Chinese threat, and that
mattered perhaps more than actual reality. Traditionally, Myanmar
has been a buffer state between Asia's largest and most populous
countries - India and China - and strict neutrility between these
two powers has been maintained by successive governments in Yangon.
Only the present SLORC regime has deviated from that policy.
Evan Burmese themselves, perhaps feeling the heat from their
neighbours, were becoming worried about the extent that China's
influence had reached in their country, economically, politically
and militarily. Credible intelligence reports indicate that many
middle-ranking officers, especially at the prestigious Defence
Service Academy in Maymyo at internal meetings and seminars
expressed their dissasfaction with the unprecendented dependence on
A few years after the first delivery, many soldiers also began to
complain about the poor performance of the Chinese equipments. The
artillery pieces were clumsy and heavy and misfired frequestly. The
armoured vehicles broke down often and were in any case useless
against the rebels who operate in Myanmar's mountainous frontier
areas. Chinese army trucks were not nearly as good as the
Japanese-supplied Hino and Nissan vehicles which the Burmese army
also uses. C omplaints have been voiced also over the poor
performance of the Hainai class patrol boats.
The next country after China to enter the Burmese arms bazaar was
Singapore. The first arms shipment from Singaport ot Myanmar
actually took place as early as 6 October 1988, within weeks of the
SLORC's takeover. That shipment - which is thought to have been a
barter deal, considering the fact that the Burmese government at
the time was on the verge of bankruptcy - consisted of ammunition,
and second-hand RPG2s and 57mm recoiless guns of East Bloc origin
which may have originated in Isreal.
Pictires of the equipment indicate that they came from Palestinian
stocks captured by Isreal when it invaded southern Lebanon in 1983.
Given the vast amounts of weaponry that entered the international
arms market via Isreal after the war in Lebanon, intelligence
sources say is perfectly possible thatIsreeli government may have
been unaware of the final destination of the cargo.
Western intelligence sources in Southeast Asia also assert that
private companies in Singaporre have arranged for several more
shady arms deals since this first shipment, often acting as a
middle-men with countries which would not normally sell weapons to
Myanmar. These practices caused embarrassment in Lisbon in late
1922 when it was discovered that Singaporean middle men had
arranged for the shipment to Myanma4 of US$1.5 million worth of
120mm and 81mm mortars manufactured in Portugal. The shipment
violated the European Community arms embargo on Myanmar's military
regime, but there was not much Lisbon could do as it had little
influence over the private company - Companhia de Polvoras
Mounicoes Barcarena SA - which had arranged for the alomst
untraceable transhipment via Singaporean middle-men.
More recently, private companies in Singapore have arranged for the
sale of Singaporean weapons to Myanmar. This may include locally
amde M-16s in violation of US export laws Myanmar has also bought
more 20 "Hoplite" Mi-2 armed helicopters and at least 13 PZL
Swindnik transport helicopters from Poland - despite protests from
the United States and the European Union.
Evan more importantly, Singaporean techincians are now upgrading
Myanmar's defense industry. A significant but unknown number of
Singapore experts have been based at Padaung opposite Prome on the
Irrawaddy river north of UYangon, replacing German technicians from
the Fritz Werner company who were there in the past.
Intelligence sources also report that arms dealers from Chile
visited Yangon early thie year. This may involve procurement of
naval equipment from Gartha, a Kuala Lumpur based subsidiary of
ASMAR (Astilleros Militares de la Armada), a company owned and
runned by Chile's armed forces. This company has shown interests in
selling a wide range of military hardware not only to Myanmar but
also to Cambodia, another country in the region which is facing
difficulties in obtaining weapons from the West.
It is seen as significant that Myanmar is going through the trouble
of finding other sources of weapons - especially given the severe
difficulties it has to obtain military hardware from countries
other than China. Intelligence sources say it is evident that even
Myanmar itself is becoming more nervous about China's intentions,
and that it feels uncomfortable with criticism from its neighbours.
Myanmar's neighbours have reacted to the military build-up there in
a way which differs considerably from the West's policy of an arms
embargo. The arms deals with Singoaporean firms may be private
affairs, but it is nevertheless evident that the island republic
considers Myanmar one of its potentially most important regional
allies. Myanmar has the same resources to offer as Malaysia in
terns of raw materials, but with out the friction that has existed
between Singapore and Malaysia since the former was thrown out of
the latter in 1965.
It is also widely believe that Singapore feels uncomfortable with
the Malay-Muslim dominance of the Association of South-East Asian
Nations (ASEAN) and wants to strengthen the "Sinitic" bloc, which
now includes only Singapore and Thailand. Trade between Singapore
and Myanmar now totals US$370 million-US$400 million annually, up
from less than US$100 million before 1988. This makes Singapore
Myanmar's biggest foreign trading partner after China.
In may 1993, Nyunt led a 22-man delegation to Singapore, and this
visit was seen by observers in Southeast Asia as important in
persuading the SLORC to adopt what at least outwardly appears to be
more pragmatic policies - and, sources say, to woo Myanmar away
In March of this year, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
paid a highly publicized visit to Myanmar. Significantly, the SLORC
chairman said in his welcoming speech:"my expression will not be
complete if I do not put on recored the most constructive vision
and pragmatic advice of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in providing
an atmosphere of mutual confidence between our two countries."
Even India, which has been more suspicious of Myanmar's close
relationship with China than any other country in the region, has
changed from outright condemnation of the regime to an approach
which is more akin to ASEAN's policy of "constructive engagement"
with the SLORC. This was demonstrated when in May this year the
Indian army chief. Bipin Chandra Joshi, arrived in Yangon. This was
the first such visit by an Indian army chief to Myanmar, and it was
prominently displayed on the front pages of Myanmar's strictly
To what extent Myanmar's neighbours will manage to help it lessen
its dependence on China remains to be seen. But the process has
begun - and Thailand's decision to invite Myanmar as a "guest of
the host country" during an important ASEAN meeting which was held
in Bangkok in JUly should also be seen in this perspective.
/* ENDREPORT */