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Myanmar's military links with Pakis

Myanmar's military links with Pakistan

Jane's Intelligence Review,  June 1, 2000

By William Ashton

Evidence of close ties between the armed forces and defence industries
of Myanmar and Pakistan has led to concerns over the region's future 

OVER THE past 12 years Myanmar has been branded a pariah state by
the West and made to endure a range of political, economic and
military sanctions. The Myanmar armed forces (or Tatmadaw) have lost
their access to the arms, training and military technology of most
of their traditional suppliers.

However, some countries have ignored international opinion and
developed close defence ties with the Yangon regime. While a few of
them, notably China, have barely troubled to conceal such ties, some
smaller and diplomatically more vulnerable countries still attempt
to hide the links that exist between their armed forces and arms
industries, and those of Myanmar. One of these countries is

Breaking the arms embargo

After Myanmar's armed forces created the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC) in September 1988 and took back direct
control of the country, they soon assessed that the Tatmadaw faced
four main threats:

- renewed outbreak of civil unrest in the main cities caused by pro-
democracy demonstrators;

- an upsurge of fighting in the countryside by ethnic, ideological
and narcotics-based insurgent groups trying to take advantage of the
military regime's serious political and economic problems;

- the possible creation of a partnership between the urban
dissidents and ethnic insurgents in an effort to bring down the
Yangon regime;

- an invasion by a US-led coalition of countries determined to
replace Myanmar's military dictatorship with a civilian democratic

Given the country's history and the Tatmadaw's customary way of
tackling such issues, the SLORC's answer was perhaps predictable. It
was to crush the urban dissidents as quickly and as ruthlessly as
possible. The regime increased the tempo of military operations
against those insurgent groups that seemed most likely to
collaborate with the pro-democracy movement, such as the Karens. It
also began taking military precautions against a possible invasion
by the USA and its allies.

These measures placed a premium on a plentiful supply of arms and
ammunition, but the Tatmadaw's armouries were almost empty. A series
of bitter campaigns against insurgent groups around the country's
borders had seriously depleted stocks. Also, Myanmar's chronic
foreign exchange problems in the years leading up to the pro-
democracy demonstrations in 1988 had made it hard for the regime to
purchase fresh military supplies. Nor could the country's arms
factories meet demand. They lacked the capacity to produce the
required materiel in time and faced shortages of critical raw
materials, much of which had to be imported. Major new items, like
anti-aircraft guns, could not be manufactured locally and had to be
purchased from abroad. Consequently, the SLORC was forced to seek
foreign suppliers who were prepared to turn a blind eye to the
regime's record of human rights abuses, and who did not support the
arms embargo placed on Myanmar by the West.

Three countries were quick to come to the SLORC's assistance. The
first was Singapore. Two shiploads of arms and ammunition were sent
to Yangon in October 1988 to fill an urgent order for mortars, small
arms ammunition, recoilless rifle rounds and raw materials for
Myanmar's arms factories. Israel too seemed prepared (through a
Singaporean intermediary) to provide weapons to its old friend and
ally (See JIR March 2000, pp35-38). A shipment of captured
Palestinian weapons and ammunition (mainly grenade launchers and
recoilless guns) arrived in Myanmar in August 1989. Before the
Israeli arms arrived, however, the SLORC received at least one
shipment of arms and ammunition from Pakistan.

Arms sales

In January 1989 a senior official from Pakistan's government arms
industry reportedly visited Yangon to offer the SLORC war supplies.
Two months later a group of senior Tatmadaw officers, led by Myanmar
Air Force (MAF) Commander-in-Chief Major General Tin Tun, made an
unpublicised visit to Islamabad. The delegation also included
Myanmar's Director of Ordnance and Director of Defence Industries.
According to Bertil Lintner, an agreement was quickly reached for
Pakistan to sell 150 machine guns, 50,000 rounds of ammunition and
5,000 120mm mortar bombs to the SLORC. Soon after the first
deliveries were made, unexploded mortar bombs bearing the marks of
the government-owned Pakistan Ordnance Factory (POF) were recovered
by Karen insurgents along Myanmar's eastern border. The Tatmadaw
delegation also inspected Pakistan's aviation industry complex. This
led to accusations by Karen insurgents the following May that
Pakistan was training MAF pilots, possibly as part of a
comprehensive deal to sell Pakistan-built combat aircraft to the

Other sales followed. It was probably Pakistan that provided Myanmar
with its new 106mm M40A1 recoilless rifles, some of which the
Tatmadaw mounted on its 4x4 vehicles. Pakistan also sent the SLORC a
diverse collection of mortars, rocket launchers, assault rifles and
ammunition valued at about US$20 million. Some of these weapons were
made in China and Eastern Europe.

Until the practice was stopped by the USA, many of these weapons
were reportedly siphoned off shipments sent to Pakistan for use by
the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan. Arms sales to the Yangon
regime were halted for a period by Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir
Bhutto, but were resumed after the 1990 elections by her successor,
Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, the arms shipments that took place in those
critical months of 1989 marked the beginning of a secret military
partnership with Myanmar that continues to this day.

Over the past decade additional reports have surfaced that the armed
forces and defence industries of Pakistan and Myanmar have developed
a close working relationship. Only last year the SLORC's successor,
the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), purchased two
shiploads of ammunition from the POF. These shipments, reportedly
valued at $3.2 million, included a wide range of military materiel.

There was: .38 revolver ammunition; 7.62mm machine gun ammunition
(and spare barrels for the Tatmadaw's MG3 machine guns); 77mm rifle-
launched grenades; 76mm, 82mm and 106mm recoilless rifle rounds;
120mm mortar bombs; 37mm anti-aircraft gun ammunition; 105mm
artillery shells; and ammunition for Myanmar's new 155mm long-range
guns. The latter included both high explosive and white phosphorous
rounds. One shipment even included ammunition for the Myanmar Army's
vintage 25-pounder field guns. In addition, Pakistan has provided
Myanmar's arms factories with components for ammunition, such as
primers, fuzes and metallic links for machine-gun belts.

Pakistan has also been associated with Myanmar's purchase of jet
trainers from China. In June 1998 it was revealed that China would
finance a $20 million sale of seven NAMC/PAC Karakorum-8 trainers to
the MAF. An order for additional aircraft soon followed. About 14 of
the two-seater jet trainers have already been delivered to Myanmar's
Shante air training base. Myanmar is the first customer of this
aircraft. Its acquisition considerably increases the MAF's ability
to train pilots for its expanding fleet of Chinese F-7 interceptors
and A-5 ground attack aircraft. Like Myanmar's G-4 Super Galeb jet
trainers (grounded due to a lack of spare parts), the K-8 can also
be configured for ground attack. The K-8 is manufactured in China,
but Pakistan's Aeronautical Complex has a 25% interest in the
project. Albeit indirectly, the sale of these aircraft significantly
boosts the level of Pakistan's support for the Tatmadaw's expansion
and modernisation programme.

Training and intelligence

Pakistan seems also to have provided Myanmar with a wide range of
military training. In the early 1990s there were reports that
Pakistan had helped members of the Tatmadaw learn to operate and
maintain those Chinese weapon systems and items of equipment also
held in Pakistan's inventory. For example, it was rumoured that the
Pakistan Air Force (which also operates F-7s and A-5s) was helping
its Myanmar counterpart get to grips with its new Chinese fighter
aircraft. The Pakistan Army reportedly passed on advice to the
Myanmar Army about its Type-69, Type-63 and Type-59 tanks, and its
Chinese-sourced artillery. There were also reports that Pakistan
Army instructors were based in Myanmar for a period to help train
Myanmar special forces and airborne personnel.

While these reports remain unconfirmed, they are given greater
credence as a number of Myanmar Army officers are currently in
Pakistan undergoing artillery and armour training, and attending
Pakistan's Staff Colleges. The MAF and Myanmar Navy also have
officers undergoing training in Pakistan. It is possible that
Pakistani military personnel have also been sent to Myanmar to help
the Tatmadaw learn to operate and maintain its new K-8 jet trainers,
and possibly even the 155mm artillery pieces that the SPDC acquired
from Israel last year.

Observers have recently suggested that the intelligence agencies of
Myanmar and Pakistan have developed a good working relationship.
There is some evidence that Pakistan's initial arms shipments to the
SLORC in 1989 were facilitated by Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services
Intelligence Directorate, representing senior members of the
Pakistan armed forces. It is also possible that these arms were sent
to Myanmar without the knowledge of Prime Minister Bhutto, who had
some sympathy for Myanmar's democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Pakistan's price for such assistance would be greater access to
information about developments along India's eastern border. Even if
bilateral intelligence ties now amount to little more than periodic
exchanges of broad assessments and discussions about the activities
of major regional powers, such contacts are still important symbols
of shared strategic interests.

Strategic imperatives

Pakistan's efforts to increase its military ties with Myanmar and
Yangon's interest in encouraging such ties is not unexpected.

For a long time after Myanmar (then Burma) regained its independence
in 1948 its relations with Pakistan were quite strained. Frictions
along Myanmar's border with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh),
territorial disputes, smuggling, illegal immigration and suspected
Pakistani aid to Muslim insurgents (known as Mujahids) in Myanmar
aggravated tensions.

In the 1960s the Ne Win regime's efforts to expel people of sub-
continental extraction from Myanmar, and to nationalise most of the
country's commerce and industry, added to pressures on bilateral
relations. In 1972 Yangon's recognition of the new state of
Bangladesh was in the face of strong criticism from Islamabad, which
at one stage threatened to break off diplomatic relations. Also,
while Myanmar tried to remain neutral in the India-Pakistan dispute,
the Ne Win regime's fear of its massive neighbour in the west meant
that it usually gave good relations with India a high priority. This
was sometimes seen by Pakistan to be at its expense.

Under such circumstances the likelihood of close military ties
developing between Myanmar and Pakistan was remote. Before 1962
Tatmadaw officers would occasionally attend the Pakistan Staff
College at Quetta, but even those contacts were broken after Ne Win
seized power and imposed his isolationist and xenophobic policies on
the country.

Pakistan's offer of assistance to the SLORC in early 1989 was
clearly an opportunistic move by the Islamabad government to take
advantage of Myanmar's straitened circumstances and to outflank
India, which under Rajiv Gandhi strongly supported Aung San Suu Kyi
and the Myanmar pro-democracy movement. Although New Delhi later
reversed its policy and sought to improve relations with Yangon,
Myanmar and Pakistan have come to recognise a number of common
interests. In particular, they both have close political and
military ties with China, and share strategic concerns about India.

Myanmar can also provide intelligence about developments in
Bangladesh. In return, Pakistan can help deflect criticism of
Myanmar in multilateral forums like the UN. For example, during the
late 1980s Pakistan joined China in opposing resolutions against
Myanmar in the UN Human Rights Commission. To a lesser extent,
Pakistan can also help protect Myanmar's interests with the Islamic
countries, who have expressed concern about the treatment of Muslims
in Myanmar, including the plight of the Rohingyas in Arakan State.

However, to the SLORC, and now the SPDC, perhaps the greatest
practical benefit arising from Myanmar's ties with Pakistan is that
of having a willing (albeit secret) supplier of ammunition and spare
parts for the Tatmadaw's varied inventory of Chinese and Western
arms. Both countries are heavily reliant on Chinese military
technology, arms and equipment. Many of the weapon systems used by
Myanmar and Pakistan are the same. The arms inventories of Myanmar
and Pakistan are also similar in that they both contain German
automatic rifles, light machine guns and ammunition - all
manufactured locally.

Both countries still use (and in some cases manufacture) older US
and UK arms and ammunition, a legacy of their shared colonial
heritage and former links to the West. Because of these
similarities, and because of its more advanced technical
development, Pakistan is also in a position to provide Myanmar's
armed forces with the kind of specialist technical training no
longer on offer from the Western democracies.

Myanmar's military ties with Pakistan, while reasonably modest, are
not without cost. Politicians and strategic analysts in India, have
been quick to point out that the common thread that links Yangon and
Islamabad is a close relationship with China, still seen as India's
greatest long-term threat. It has been suggested that China is using
its ties with Pakistan and Myanmar to surround India with compliant
states. Some observers have gone as far as to suggest that, in the
event of a major confrontation between China and India, Pakistan and
Myanmar could be called upon to provide China with support,
including troops.

Such claims have been dismissed by the SLORC and the SPDC as
fanciful, flying as they do in the face of Myanmar's deep commitment
to independence and neutrality in world affairs. The Yangon regime
has invited Indian observers to visit certain military bases to
verify that China has not established strategic facilities there
(India has not accepted).

Even so, evidence of continuing military links between Myanmar and
Pakistan, as represented by the most recent arms sales, will add to
the fears of Indian strategic analysts and others with an interest
in the region's future stability.

GRAPHIC: Photograph 1, A Pakistani Type-69 MBT. The Pakistan
Army reportedly passed on advice to the Myanmar Army about this,
the Type-63 and the Type-59 tanks. (Source: Jane's);
Photograph 2, The Pakistan Air Force is rumoured to be assisting its
counterparts in Myanmar get to grips with its expanding fleet of Chinese
F-7 aircraft (pictured). (Source: Jane's); Photograph 3, POF
manufactures a range of 120mm mortar bombs, including high explosive,
smoke, incendiary and rocket assisted. Some of these have been supplied
to Myanmar. (Source: POF); Photograph 4, A 7.62mm
MG3 machine gun. Two shiploads of Pakistan ammunition
and materiel was purchased last year by
Myanmar. The shipment included spare barrels for MG3s.
(Source: POF); Photograph 5, A 106mm
M40A1 recoiless rifle, probably provided to Myanmar by Pakistan.
(Source: Jane's)