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Toys for the boys in Myanmar

Asia Times - September 6, 2011

Bertil Lintner, Chiang Mai The isolated light-brown spots can be seen even on Google Earth. They are indicative of big, new buildings that have been carved out of densely forested jungle areas across the Myanmar heartland, with some dots seen in the hills east of the central city of Mandalay.

Most of them are for security reasons located in sparsely populated areas, but in the modern digital world not even Myanmar can keep the location of its new military installations secret.

Myanmar has embarked on a massive expansion of its military and military capabilities since the country was shaken by a nationwide pro-democracy uprising that almost toppled the regime in 1988. But this expansion appears to have been haphazard, with an emphasis on creating a loyal officer corps that the regime can depend on for its survival rather than building a professional fighting force.

Recent defectors from the Myanmar military say that the number of infantry battalions and other military units have been increased dramatically since 1988, but most of these are understaffed and the foot soldiers are often forcibly recruited, poorly paid and badly motivated.

Several sources with access to information from inside the Myanmar military say that the stated strength of the country's armed forces, often given by Western analysts as between 300,000-400,000 men, is grossly exaggerated. Some sources put the actual figure at less than half that number and because the central authorities have had ceasefire agreements with almost all of the country's ethnic rebel armies for two decades or more, the troops, and even most of the officers, lack combat experience.

Prior to the 1988 uprising and the ceasefire agreements with the rebels, the Myanmar military was known as a poorly equipped but ruthlessly efficient light-infantry force. Soldiers fought in yearly operations against insurgents in extremely difficult terrain, making it a tough, battle-hardened army with few equivalents in modern Asia.

"Now, the soldiers are doing nothing. They have new uniforms and better guns, the officers have more money to spend than anyone could dream of in the old days. They have new cars, new golf clubs, mistresses, everything except professionalism," says a disgruntled former Myanmar army officer who requested anonymity. Meanwhile, the morale among the rank-and-file is reported to be low while desertion rates are high.

Consequently, recent military campaigns against ethnic Kachin and Shan rebels in the country's north and northeast have been disasters. Even after months of fighting, the government's troops have failed to occupy a single major camp run by the Shan State Army (SSA) in the heart of Shan State, while in the north the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) recently gave the military a bloody nose when it tried to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds near the Chinese border.

To make up for the lack of combat experience and to keep the officers happy with new equipment the Myanmar government first embarked on a massive procurement campaign in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, an estimated US$1.4 billion of military and military-related equipment was bought from China, including anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft, naval vessels, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other military vehicles, artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Additional weaponry and military hardware were procured from other military partners such as Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, North Korea, and, at one stage, Pakistan, Portugal, Poland and the former Yugoslavia.

Homegrown defense

Recent years, however, have seen a rapid expansion of the number of homegrown defense industries, witnessed in the new clearings in the jungles throughout the country. Before the 1988 uprising, the country had no more than half a dozen such factories. Today, there are more than 20 military factories apart from the research facilities where new weaponry, including missiles, are being developed. The Myanmar military is also known to be carrying out nuclear research, although even former Myanmar army major Sai Thein Win, the whistleblower who fled the country last year, says that the project is unlikely to produce a usable atomic weapon.

"When the German-made machinery arrived from Singapore, I asked my commander who was going to operate it. 'You are,' he said. He had never before worked in a defense factory, and I and I was trained in Russia could see that this equipment was not suitable for the purpose for which it had been obtained. The nuclear program is nothing but a pipedream," Sai Thein Win told Asia Times Online in a recent interview.

Known by the acronym ka pa sa after the initials of the Myanmar name for "the Directorate of Defense Industries", the early factories were located exclusively around the old capital Yangon, on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River near the town of Pyay, or Prome, and near Magwe further to the north. According to analyst Andrew Selth, an Australian expert on the Myanmar military: "Before 1988 these factories could produce automatic rifles and light machine-guns, light mortars, grenades, anti-personnel mines and ammunition."

Myanmar's attempts to develop its own defense industries began in the early 1950s when a small factory was set up to produce bullets and copies of an Italian 9mm TZ45 submachine gun, known as the "Ne Win Sten" after the army commander at that time and later the country's first military ruler.

Selth states in a monograph about Myanmar's arms industries, published in 1997 by the Australian National University: "The Burmese [Myanmar] arms industry was given a major boost in 1957, when the state-owned West German company Fritz Werner GmbH agreed to build a factory in Rangoon [Yangon] with Heckler and Koch to produce Gewehr 3 [G3] automatic rifles. Finance was provided on favorable terms by the West German government."

All such West German assistance was supposed to be halted after the 1988 uprising was drenched in blood, resulting in international condemnation of Myanmar's military regime. But an internal audit report for the West German company, dated March 31, 1990, reveals that "raw materials imported from abroad are recorded in the stock ledger, but delivered directly to Myanma Heavy Industries for custody and use by them in production of goods on the JVC's [Joint Venture Company] behalf." The report, compiled by Fritz Werner's accountants from the U Hla Tun Group, goes on to mention Ministry of Heavy Industries production sites at Yangon, Sinde and Nyaungchitauk at Padaung near Pyay, and Malun near Minhla or exactly the locations of Myanmar's then most important defense industries.

Fritz Werner is still active in Myanmar, but, according to Sai Thein Win and other sources, it is doubtful whether it is still actively involved in producing military equipment, although in 1984 it became the first foreign company to enter into a joint-venture agreement with Myanmar's Heavy Industries Corporation, which produces weapons for the country's armed forces.

The old Gewehr series G2, G3 and G4 has been replaced by other, indigenously produced infantry weapons which are lighter and more suitable for Myanmar's tropical climate. Called MA 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 after "Myanmar Army" they are based on Chinese designs and resemble modern versions of the Soviet-era Kalashnikov and the old Makarov pistol. The new MA series is produced at ka pa sa 1 near Yangon's Inya Lake, while the more advanced ka pa sa 2 in Malun produces mortars and artillery pieces and also has a shooting range built by Singapore to test the effectiveness of the weapons.

Brothers in arms

Missile research and development is carried out at the newly built ka pa sa 10 at Konegyi village in Minhla, where experts from North Korea and possibly also China and Russia are reportedly active. Myanmar is said to be interested in producing a North Korean-designed, Scud-type Hwasong 6 missile. But it is still an open question how close Myanmar is to producing a functioning missile. North Korean ships, however, continue to arrive frequently in Myanmar's ports, carrying what is described as "general goods" that are often destined for Myanmar's defense industries.

The production capability of the old mortar and shell factory ka pa sa 3 at Sinde, Padaung, has been surpassed by the new ka pa sa 12, set up in 1996. It now produces 60mm, 81mm, 105mm and 120mm mortar shells in a complex that sprawls over more than 16,000 acres (6,500 hectares) south of Sakhangyi village in Thayetmyo township, Magway Region.

According to Myanmar military insiders, machinery for ka pa sa 12 was imported from the Czech Republic and installed with help of experts from that country. Ka pa sa 12 uses modern electronic control equipment and is now considered one of the most advanced in Myanmar.

The most reliable factory for the production of small arms is ka pa sa 11 in Taikkyi township, Bago Region. It manufactures parts for the new MA-series of light infantry weapons, and machinery for the facility was reportedly obtained from South Korea's Daewoo company.

A more mysterious industrial complex is at Sidoktaya near Magway Region's border with Rakhine State. Designated as ka pa sa 20, 100,000 acres have been cleared for the facility and Google Earth imagery shows a helicopter landing pad and unusually long buildings.

It is staffed by 400 soldiers, military engineers and officers, many of them Russian-trained in nuclear physics, leading to speculation that it could be one of several locations in Myanmar where nuclear-related research is being carried out. Close to ka pa sa 20 is a new hydroelectric power station to provide a steady source of electricity to the top-secret facility.

Ka pa sa 8 in Sinbaungweh township, Magway Region, produces parts for tanks, ka pa sa 9 in Padaung, Bago Region, makes bullets for the MA-series of weapons, and ka pa sa 7 in Pyay makes sea mines and produces and repairs armored vehicles. Ka pa sa 6, also near Padaung, produces various kinds of ammunition and was reportedly built by Chinese experts. Ka pa sa 13 near Letpan village in Magway Region makes mines and parts for artillery.

Defectors such as Sai Thein Win, the only one willing to be interviewed by name by Asia Times Online, question the efficacy of these new arms factories. According to him, the fact that they are scattered all over the country and are, as he puts it, situated "in the middle of nowhere" (they can be seen with a even cursory look at Google Earth), makes it extremely difficult to coordinate production.

"Raw materials and parts have to be sent across the country, from one facility to another, and one factory doesn't know what another is doing. The outcome is that many of these new weapons are basically useless," claims Sai Thein Win. Myanmar's newly recruited infantry may lack combat experience, and the quality of the weapons produced in its defense industries may be of poor quality due to bad coordination between the various ka pa sas. But it is clear that the Myanmar regime is in no hurry to change its priorities, as defense spending still accounts for as much as 50% of the central government's budget.

Regime survival has always been the main prerogative of Myanmar's generals and thus a loyal and well-supplied officer corps is still of utmost importance, regardless of their weakness on the battlefield.

[Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.]

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