Myanmar's junta fears US invasion
By an Asia Times Online Special Correspondent
BANGKOK - Myanmar's armed forces, commonly known as the Tatmadaw, are
increasingly reorienting themselves to defend against a possible US-led
foreign invasion, as revealed in a top-secret internal document leaked
exclusively to Asia Times Online.
This official Ministry of Defense document represents the first
concrete evidence that Myanmar is reacting militarily to recent US
official statements referring to the hardline regime as an "outpost of
The minutes of an October 2005 meeting in which battalion commanders
were briefed about a high-level meeting at the War
Office in Yangon delineates three ways in which the United States might
invade Myanmar - through agitating its citizens, in an alliance with
insurgents and ceasefire groups or through a multinational
coalition-led invasion. The Burmese-language document, which is more
than 40 pages in length, is stamped "Top Secret".
The document further identifies Thailand, a staunch strategic ally of
the United States, as Myanmar's "nearest enemy" and takes particular
umbrage at the US-Thai joint Cobra Gold military exercises held
annually in Thailand. In the past, the highly public joint military
exercises have focused on counter-narcotics operations to help stem the
flow of drugs from Myanmar into Thailand.
The document also indicates that the Tatmadaw has been closely studying
US military strategy and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is
preparing an "Operation Other No War" plan (as the document's
English-language translation calls it) to defend against a possible US
invasion through a war of attrition. Exact details of the defensive
contingency plan are not included in the document, however.
Quelling the masses
Since the bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrations in 1988,
Myanmar's army has expanded dramatically, Billions of dollars have been
spent to modernize its armaments and adopt more outward
power-projection capabilities. Over the subsequent decade and a half,
the armed forces' defense orientation was primarily focused inward to
suppress urban-based dissidents and quash the many ethnic insurgencies
operating along Myanmar's borders.
The army's core fighting units, which back in 1987 consisted of 104
infantry and 150 light-infantry battalions, has expanded over the
subsequent 15 years to 200 infantry battalions and more than 300
light-infantry battalions. Light-infantry divisions, the army's shock
troops, also increased from eight to 10.
Beginning in 1994, the War Office also established Operation Control
Commands (OCCs), which have gradually expanded in scope over the years.
There are currently as many as 22 OCCs based throughout the country,
each comprising 10 infantry battalions that are deployed wherever
The doubling of combat units has allowed the army to establish a
permanent presence throughout much of the country, to secure more than
a dozen still-tenuous ceasefire deals and to hem in the remaining
insurgencies along the border with Thailand. Myanmar now boasts one of
the largest standing armies in all of Asia.
Nonetheless, the regime remains ever vigilant about urban unrest, and
ceasefire agreements with groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army,
often appear shaky. Ultimately, though, the military junta, known as
the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), will be able to quell
domestic opposition to its heavy-handed rule only by instituting
political reforms and sharing, if not relinquishing, political power.
Shifting threat perceptions
Although the domestic security imperative remains, there has been a
clear shift in Myanmar's defense orientation since 2000, after a
tit-for-tat border dispute in which the two historic foes shelled
border towns and Thai fighters allegedly violated Myanmar's airspace.
With the junta now fretting about possible US armed intervention, those
strategic recalibrations take on new significance.
Myanmar's War Office reacted to its armed exchange with Thailand by
implementing a series of administrative reforms, and shifting its
procurement priorities to acquire modern fighter jets, including 12
MiG-29s from Russia, as well as other artillery and air defense
systems. The junta is currently in talks with Moscow to obtain more
undisclosed military hardware, which some strategic analysts believe
includes missile technology. The Tatmadaw has also initiated a
significant modernization of its navy. Notably, neither the air force
nor the navy serves significant counter-insurgency functions.
The War Office also subordinated its regional commands under four
bureaus of special operation. These BSOs are responsible for joint
forces integration among the Tatmadaw's three service branches, and
have conducted several high-profile combined operations along the
Thailand-Myanmar border - some speculate in reaction to the annual
US-Thai joint military operations.
BSOs, which exercise operational oversight over all military operations
in their designated areas, report directly to the War Office and are
under the command of General Thura Shwe Mann, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff. The Yangon division remains under the direct command
of the Ministry of Defense through the Yangon regional commander.
The Directorate of Artillery and Armor was also divided into separate
directorates in 2001, and the Office of Chief of Air Defense created. A
dramatic expansion of forces under these directorates followed. Most of
the equipment for these units was procured from China.
Armored divisions were expanded in number from one to 10, five equipped
with tanks and five with armored vehicles. In mid-2003 the army is
believed to have acquired 50 Type 72 tanks from Ukraine. According to
Jane's Defense Weekly, the respected global defense and military
technology publication, Ukraine also signed a deal to build and equip a
factory in Myanmar to produce 1,000 armored personnel carriers (APCs)
Units are also armed with T-69 II tanks and Type 63 light tanks.
Although APCs and tanks might serve some function in suppressing urban
dissent or a renewed outbreak of insurgency, they are not useful in
counter-insurgency jungle warfare, and represent further evidence of
the regime's broader strategic reorientation.
Since 2000, the Directorate of Artillery has overseen the expansion of
Artillery Command Controls (ACCs) from one or two to 10 or more. The
army's stated intention is to establish an ACC in each of the 12
regional commands. An ACC is reportedly composed of 10 batteries, each
armed with three guns. Armaments include heavy mortars, recoilless
rifles, mountain guns and multiple rocket launchers.
The army continues to deploy and equip air-defense battalions
throughout the country. Regarded as the first line of defense against a
foreign invasion, these units reportedly rely on a variety of radar to
suppress jamming, shoulder-launched artillery, and short-, medium- and
long-range artillery and missiles. Procurement has included at least
100 Igla-1E low-altitude surface-to-air missiles from Bulgaria and
air-defense equipment from Sweden and Ukraine.
Bunkered down, looking outward
These recent acquisitions, significantly, are also externally oriented.
A high-ranking officer of the Karen National Liberation Army, an armed
insurgent group, based in the Thai border town of Mae Sot claims that
the SPDC has recently deployed artillery outposts along the entire
border with Thailand. Between Mae Sot and Mae Samlep alone there are 10
or more such outposts, he contends. Such artillery is relatively
useless against mobile, hit-and-run guerrilla forces operating in the
jungle-covered area, and are clearly intended to provide a defensive
perimeter against foreign attack from Thailand or the US, or both in
Many also view the regime's recent establishment of the new
bunker-fortified, inland capital in Pyinmana as partly motivated by the
junta's fears of a possible US invasion. The leaked Defense Department
document confirms that analysis in stark detail.
That said, the Tatmadaw's defense policies, which some strategic
analysts contend are costing the impoverished country more than US$1
billion per year, seem self-defeating. While spending billions of
dollars to procure more advanced weaponry, the military lacks the
wherewithal to operate and maintain this equipment.
Soldiers rarely are able to practice with the foreign technology,
raising hard questions about their capabilities in the event of a
conflict. Purchases have also drained resources away from developing
and motivating personnel, and the army continues to rely on forced
recruitment; soldiers are poorly paid, and desertion is rife.
Although it still seems unlikely that the US, bogged down in Iraq,
hard-focused on Iran and fretting about North Korea's nuclear program,
will ever invade Myanmar, the junta's recent procurements would serve
little if any deterrent value against America's military might if it
did invade. One Western military official familiar with Myanmar's
defensive capacities, requesting anonymity, stated that if the US were
so inclined, it could take control over Myanmar's urban areas,
transportation and communications infrastructure in a matter of days.
Western advocates of engaging rather than isolating the junta have
argued that the present US economic sanctions make the ruling generals
more xenophobic and paranoid. Ironically, perhaps, pre-1988 economic
engagement with the junta flowed predominantly to the military and its
senior officers' personal interests, and it continues to do so with the
countries that have retained commercial relations with the regime.
Analysts have estimated that about 50% of the central government's
budget has been spent on defense since 1988.
Since seizing power in a military putsch in 1962, the Tatmadaw has
frequently attempted to drum up nationalist sentiment and domestic fear
by invoking the threat of foreign invasion. So it is still unclear
whether SPDC leader General Than Shwe and other senior officers are
really gripped with paranoia over a US invasion, or whether they are
resorting to well-worn fear tactics to rouse nationalism among a
dispirited army and beleaguered population.
In reality, the biggest security threat to Myanmar is still the
Tatmadaw itself and its spendthrift ways. If the US were ever to strike
preemptively and invade the increasingly isolated country, it might
find a different reception from the one it received in Iraq. This time
US forces just might be welcomed with rose petals and hugs in Myanmar.
(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)
- Prev by Date: News
- Next by Date: Respect Burma's Prime Minister
- Previous by thread: News
- Next by thread: Respect Burma's Prime Minister