[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Myanmar and Israel develop military

Jane's Intelligence Review
March 1, 2000

Myanmar and Israel develop military pact

By William Ashton

Although allegations of a secret military partnership between Myanmar and 
Israel continue to be denied
by both sides, reports suggest that Israel is aiding Myanmar's military 
modernisation.William Ashton
examines the commercial and strategic links between the two countries.


EVER SINCE the Myanmar armed forces (or Tatmadaw) formed the State
Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1988, and took back
direct control of the country, there have been persistent rumours
throughout the Asia-Pacific region attesting to a secret military
partnership developing between Israel and Myanmar (Burma). Despite
repeated denials by Israeli officials in Yangon, Bangkok and
Singapore, reports continue to surface that Israel is closely
involved in the military regime's ambitious programme to expand and
modernise Myanmar's armed forces.

According to some of these reports, certain aspects of Israel's
current relationship with the Tatmadaw come close to assisting the
military regime (known since November 1997 as the State Peace and
Development Council -- SPDC) to retain its hold on power.

Military ties 1948-88

Myanmar's military ties with Israel are long-standing.

Israel was one of the few countries to which Myanmar turned for
assistance and advice after it regained its independence from the UK
in 1948. As a former British mandate, Israel shared a certain
identity with Myanmar. It had similar administrative procedures,
educational methods and public service organisation. The fledgling
government of Prime Minister U Nu related closely to Israel's
attempts to build up a modern state from diverse peoples, with
limited resources, surrounded by enemies, but united by a common
religion. Both governments had strong socialist and democratic
ideals. (At the Asian Socialist Conference held in Yangon in 1953,
Myanmar and Israel were the only two countries in Asia in which a
Socialist Party was in power.) Also attractive to Yangon was Tel
Aviv's 'non-aligned' status in world affairs. For its part, Israel,
threatened on all sides by Arab countries, was anxious to find
allies who could provide diplomatic support in international forums
like the UN.

Close bilateral ties had developed by the mid-1950s. While Myanmar
was keen to obtain Israeli advice and technical assistance in areas
like agriculture and construction, its initial interest centred on
Israel's armed forces.

In 1954 a military mission from Myanmar visited Israel to study the
most suitable structure for a national defence force that utilised
reserve forces. In particular, the delegation looked at Israel's
national service scheme, with a view to its introduction into
Myanmar. That did not occur but, during a visit to Israel the
following year, Prime Minister U Nu took a great interest in the
kibbutz system of self-defended frontier settlements. Four villages
modelled on this system were later built in the Shan State, west of
the Salween River, about 200km from the sensitive Chinese border.
The Pyu Saw Hti town and village defence scheme (introduced in 1955)
also borrowed several features from the defence of collective
settlements in Israel. This scheme later evolved into the People's
Militia. Myanmar copied the structure of the Israeli women's
auxiliary force, and the Defence Services Institute, an independent
commercial organisation run by the Tatmadaw to supplement the
official defence budget, established a number of joint projects in
Myanmar with Israeli construction and housing companies.

Other military links between the two countries were more direct.
During the mid-1950s, for example, Israel sold Myanmar 30 second-
hand Supermarine Spitfire fighters with related equipment, machine
gun ammunition, bombs, rockets and spare engine parts. Israel's Air
Force also trained (in Israel) six Myanmar Air Force pilots in the
operation of these aircraft and sent a technical team to Myanmar to
show Myanmar Air Force mechanics how to maintain them. Israel also
sent officers and materiel to Myanmar to help modernise the Myanmar
Army. It is believed that some of the training courses provided by
Israel covered aspects of military intelligence. So close was the
relationship that, in 1958, Israeli Chief of Staff of the Defence
Forces Major General Moshe Dayan and Director General of the Defence
Ministry Shimon Peres visited Myanmar. The following year General Ne
Win paid an official visit to Israel, both as prime minister of
Myanmar's 'caretaker' government and as chief of the country's
defence forces.

Despite these contacts, bilateral ties declined significantly under
the Revolutionary Government which seized power in Yangon in 1962.
They further diminished after 1974, as Ne Win's ostensibly civilian
Burma Socialist Programme Party government continued to shun most
contacts with the outside world. Because of its earlier defence
assistance, however, Israel enjoyed a special place in the minds of
Myanmar's top military leaders and modest links were maintained
during this period.

Assistance to SLORC 1988-97

After the Tatmadaw took back the government of Myanmar in 1988, it
was fiercely condemned by many countries and faced strong sanctions
from its traditional arms suppliers, including the UK and USA. This
posed severe problems for the SLORC, which not only feared further
urban unrest and an upsurge of insurgent activity in the
countryside, but possibly even an invasion by the Western
democracies in support of Myanmar's burgeoning democracy movement.
Also, over the longer term, the new regime wished to introduce a
massive military expansion/modernisation programme.

In order to replenish Myanmar's dwindling military supplies, the
SLORC turned first to Singapore and Pakistan. It later developed
very close ties with China. The SLORC also actively sought to
develop military links with other countries, such as Yugoslavia,
Poland and Russia. These countries were prepared (often secretly) to
assist with supplies of arms and military equipment. It would appear
that Israel should be counted among this latter group.

The first arms shipment Myanmar received after the 1988 takeover was
from Singapore. The second, which arrived by sea in August 1989, was
a diverse collection of weapons and ammunition from Belgium and
Israel. Arranged through a newly-formed joint venture between
Myanmar and Singapore, this weapons shipment reportedly included
second-hand 40mm RPG-2 grenade launchers and 57mm anti-tank guns of
Eastern bloc origin. It has been suggested that this equipment may
have been taken from Palestinian stocks captured in southern Lebanon
by Israel in 1982, and re-sold to Myanmar.

Since then, there have been several other reports that Israel has
transferred arms and weapons technology to the Tatmadaw. In 1991,
for example, an Israeli team visited Myanmar, apparently to sell the
military regime 9mm Uzi sub-machine guns. Weapons of this kind were
subsequently observed on issue to the bodyguards who provided close
protection to the members of the SLORC, and who now surround senior
members of the SPDC when they venture out in public. There have also
been unconfirmed reports that the army may have tried to develop an
indigenous version of this weapon, to be known as the BA-94. If
these reports are true, the effort does not seem to have amounted to
much, but Myanmar has clearly had greater success in drawing on
Israeli expertise in its efforts to develop a whole new family of
5.56mm infantry weapons. The MA (Myanmar Army) series of assault
rifles and light machine guns, for example, which is now in serial
production at a closely guarded factory in central Myanmar, appears
to include several elements of the Israeli 5.56mm Galil assault

Other military developments in Myanmar have sparked additional
rumours in Yangon, and consequent reports in the media. Although
difficult to prove, many observers believe that at different times,
the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has provided training,
technical advice and other forms of assistance to Myanmar's powerful
Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence which is responsible
for both internal security and support for military operations. As
the SLORC progressively upgraded Myanmar's military communications
network, including its signals intelligence capabilities, more
stories surfaced about possible Israeli involvement. It has been
suggested, for example, that Israel and Singapore have provided the
Myanmar Army with specialised intercept and encryption equipment,
with training packages. Also, the Israeli Army -- or perhaps ex-
Israeli Army specialists -- has reportedly provided training to
Myanmar's elite counter-terrorist squad.

These reports of arms sales, technology transfers and other ties to
the military regime in Yangon have been repeatedly and strenuously
denied by official Israeli representatives in the region. They have
pointed out that most of the accusations levelled at Israel since
1988 have been based on unsubstantiated rumours, speculation in the
international news media, and purely circumstantial evidence. Since
the Yangon regime re-invented itself as the SPDC in late 1997,
however, military contacts between the two countries have become
harder to deny. Whether or not these earlier contacts took place, it
is now clear that all three arms of the Tatmadaw are receiving
direct help from Israeli companies. Given its sensitive nature, it
is difficult to see how this assistance could be given to Myanmar
without the active involvement, or at least the full knowledge and
support, of the Israeli government.

Links to the SPDC 1997-2000

In August 1997 it was revealed that the Israeli defence
manufacturing company Elbit had won a contract to upgrade Myanmar's
(then) three squadrons of Chinese-built F-7 fighters and FT-7
trainers. The F-7 is a derivative of the Mikoyan MiG-21 'Fishbed'
jet fighter. The FT-7 is the export version of the GAIC JJ-7, itself
a copy of the MiG-21 'Mongol-B' trainer. Since they began to be
delivered by China in 1991, the Myanmar Air Force has progressively
acquired about 54 (or four squadrons) of these aircraft, the latest
arriving at Hmawbi air base only last year. In related sales, the
air force has also acquired about 350 PL-2A air-to-air missiles
(AAM) from China and at least one shipment of the more sophisticated
PL-5 AAMs.

Since their delivery to Myanmar, these new aircraft have caused the
air force considerable problems. Several aircraft (and pilots) have
already been lost through accidents, raising questions about the
reliability of the Chinese technology. There have also been reliable
reports that the F-7s were delivered without the computer software
to permit the AAMs to be fired in flight. Also, the air force has
complained that the F-7s are difficult to maintain, in part
reflecting major differences between the structure and underlying
philosophy of the Myanmar and Chinese logistics systems. Spare parts
have been in very short supply. In addition, the air force seems to
have experienced difficulties in using the F-7 (designed primarily
for air defence) in a ground attack role. These, and other problems,
seem to have prompted the air force to turn to Israel for

According to sources in the international arms market, 36 of
Myanmar's F-7 fighters are to be retro-fitted with the Elta EL/M-
2032 air-to-air radar, Rafael Python 3 infrared, short range AAMs,
and Litening laser designator pods. The same equipment will also be
installed on the two-seater FT-7 fighter trainers. In a related
deal, Israel will also sell Myanmar at least one consignment of
laser-guided bombs. Since the Elbit contract was won in 1997, the
air force has acquired at least one more squadron of F-7 and FT-7
aircraft from China, but it is not known whether the Israeli-backed
upgrade programme will now be extended to include the additional
aircraft. Myanmar's critical shortage of foreign exchange will be a
major factor in the SPDC's decision.

The army has also benefited from Myanmar's new closeness to Israel.

As part of the regime's massive military modernisation and expansion
programme, considerable effort has been put into upgrading the
army's artillery capabilities. In keeping with its practice of never
abandoning any equipment of value, the army clearly still aims, as
far as possible, to keep older weapons operational. (Pakistan, for
example, has recently provided Myanmar with ammunition for its
vintage 25 pounder field guns). The older UK, US and Yugoslav guns
in the Tatmadaw's inventory have been supplemented over the past 10
years with a range of new towed and self-propelled artillery pieces.
Purchased mainly from China, they include 122mm howitzers, anti-tank
guns, 57mm Type 80 anti-aircraft guns, 37mm Type 74 anti-aircraft
guns and 107mm Type 63 multiple rocket launchers. In a barter deal
brokered by China last year, the SPDC has also managed to acquire
about 16 130mm artillery pieces from North Korea. Despite all this
new firepower, however, the army has still looked to Israel to help
equip its new artillery battalions.

Around 1998 Myanmar negotiated the purchase of 16 155mm Soltam towed
howitzers, possibly through a third party like Singapore. These guns
are believed to be second-hand pieces no longer required by the
Israel Defence Force. Last year, ammunition for these guns
(including high explosive and white phosphorous rounds) was ordered
from Pakistan's government ordnance factories. Before the purchase
of these new Chinese and North Korean weapons, Myanmar's largest
artillery pieces were 105mm medium guns, provided by the USA almost
40 years ago. Acquiring the Israeli weapons thus marks a major
capability leap for Myanmar's army gunners. It is possible that
either Israel or Pakistan has provided instructors to help the army
learn to use and maintain these new weapons.

Nor has the Myanmar Navy missed out on Israeli assistance. There
have been several reports that Israel is playing a crucial role in
the construction and fitting out of three new warships, currently
being built in Yangon.

Myanmar's military leaders have long wanted to acquire two or three
frigates to replace the country's obsolete PCE-827 and Admirable-
class corvettes, decommissioned in 1994, and its two 1960s-vintage
Nawarat-class corvettes, which have been gradually phased out since
1989. As military ties with China rapidly grew during the 1990s, the
SLORC hoped to buy two or three Jiangnan- or even Jianghu-class
frigates, but it could not afford even the special 'friendship'
prices being asked by Beijing. As a compromise, the SPDC has now
purchased three Chinese hulls, and is currently fitting them out as
corvettes in Yangon's Sinmalaik shipyard.

According to reliable reports, the three vessels will each be about
75m long and displace about 1,200 tons. Despite a European Community
embargo against arms sales to Myanmar, the ships' main guns are
being imported (apparently through a third party) from Italy. Based
on the information currently available, they are likely to be 76mm
OTO Melara Compact guns, weapons which (perhaps coincidentally) have
been extensively combat-tested by the Israeli Navy on its Reshef-
class fast attack missile patrol boats. The corvettes will probably
also be fitted with anti-submarine weapons, but it is not known
what, if any, surface-to-surface and SAMs the ships will carry.

Israel's main role in fitting out the three corvettes is apparently
to provide their electronics suites. Details of the full contract
are not known, but it is expected that each package will include at
least a surface-search radar, a fire-control radar, a navigation
radar and a hull-mounted sonar.

The first of these warships will probably be commissioned and
commence sea trials later this year.

Only sales or a strategic imperative?

While Myanmar remains a pariah state, subject to comprehensive
sanctions by the USA and European Community, it is unlikely that
Israel will ever admit publicly to having military links with the
Tatmadaw. Until it does, the reasons for Israel's secret partnership
with the Yangon regime will remain unclear. A number of factors,
however, have probably played a part in influencing policy decisions
in Tel Aviv.

There is clearly a strong commercial imperative behind some of these
ventures. From a regional base in Singapore, with which it shares a
very close relationship, Israel has already managed to penetrate the
lucrative Chinese arms market. It is now aggressively seeking new
targets for sales of weapons and military equipment in the Asia-
Pacific. These sales are sometimes supported by offers of technology
transfers and specialised advice. This approach has led to fears
among some countries that Israel will introduce new military
capabilities into the region which could encourage a mini arms race,
as others attempt to catch up. The weapon systems being provided to
the Myanmar armed forces are not that new, and the Asian economic
crisis has dramatically reduced the purchasing power of many
regional countries, but Israel's current activities in Myanmar will
add to those concerns.

Given the nature of some of these sales, and other probable forms of
military assistance to Myanmar, these initiatives would appear to
enjoy the strong support of the Israeli government. In addition to
the ever-present trade imperative, one reason for this support could
be a calculation by senior Israeli officials that closer ties to
Myanmar could reap diplomatic and intelligence dividends. For
example, Myanmar is now a full member of the Association of South
East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which, despite the economic crisis, is
still a major force in a part of the world which has received much
closer attention from strategic analysts since the end of the Cold
War. Israel's regional base will remain Singapore, but it is
possible that Tel Aviv believes Myanmar can provide another avenue
for influence in ASEAN, and a useful vantage point from which to
monitor critical strategic developments in places like China and

In particular, Israel is interested in the spread of nuclear,
chemical and biological weapons, and the transfer of technologies
related to the development of ballistic and other missiles. Myanmar
has close military relations with China and Pakistan, both of which
have been accused of transferring sensitive weapons technologies to
rogue Islamic states, such as Iran. Myanmar is also a neighbour of
India, another nuclear power that has resisted international
pressure to curb its proliferation activities. Yangon could thus be
seen by Israel as a useful listening post from which to monitor and
report on these countries.

Also, despite accusations over the years that Myanmar has developed
chemical and biological weapons, and more convincing arguments that
Israel has a sizeable nuclear arsenal of its own, both countries
share an interest in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction. Myanmar's support for anti-proliferation initiatives,
in multilateral forums like the UN General Assembly and the
Committee on Disarmament, would seem to be worth a modest investment
by the Israeli government in bilateral relations with the SPDC. In
addition to training Myanmar agriculturalists in Israel, assisting
the Tatmadaw to upgrade its military capabilities seems a sure way
of getting close to the Yangon regime.

Israel's repeated denial of any military links with Myanmar are not
unexpected. Israel has never liked advertising such ties,
particularly with countries like Myanmar, South Africa and China,
which have been condemned by the international community for gross
abuses of human rights. Even Israel's very close military ties with
Singapore are routinely denied by both sides. Yet there seems little
room for doubt that, after the 1988 takeover, Israel did start to
develop close links with the SLORC, which are continuing to grow
under the SPDC. In these circumstances, it would be surprising if
Israel was not still looking for opportunities to restore the kind
of mutually beneficial bilateral relationship that was first
established when both countries became independent modern states in

PA News/0070265

GRAPHIC: Photograph 1, Exiled Myanmar students call for the international 
community to take
action against the military regime in Myanmar. However, the commercial and 
strategic benefits of
developing a secret alliance with the military junta are likely to weigh 
heavily against their calls. PA
News/0070266; Photograph 2, uIn order to reduce the costs of military 
imports, Myanmar has
modified vehicles for military purposes. These include the Special Combat 
Vehicle (above) and the
Armoured Fighting Car (below). Bruce Hawke/0039362 Bruce Hawke/0039363; 
Photograph 3,
Myanmar is now a full member of ASEAN. Myanmar Prime Minister Than Shwe 
(far left) joined
other heads of state at the 3rd ASEAN Informal Summit last November.