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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 supply vast amounts of military material to Myanmar in 1990. This was at a time when the the 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 supplier 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 international 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 chief Brigadier General (now Lieutenant-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 Beijing, 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 industry. 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 basis 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 million to US$500 million to Asian intelligence sources claim that it amounted to US$ 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 actual total.

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 amphibious tanks (T83); armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles; at least 30 Norinco Type 63 107mm multiple rocket launchers, a sizeable quantity of 37 mm single barrel anti 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 frontier near the town of Ruili in Yunan.

Intelligence sources say these surface deliveries were coordinated form Chengdu regional military headquarters, which is also 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 Yunan. 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 ultimate aim is 500,000 personnel 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 order.


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 newly 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 satellites detected a new , 150 ft antenna for signals intelligence at the naval base on Coco island. a Burmese possession in the Indian ocean. The suspicion that this new equipment was likely to be operated at least in part by Chinese technicians 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 Myanmar's southernmost point, Kawthaung or Victoria Point, close to the northern entrance of the Strait of Malacca.

India especially was viewing the developments with increased concern. Coco 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-territorial intentions, also made their opinions known, at least in private conversations. The 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 author of the article, General Tanapot Boonyopattakam, had confused it with St. Matthew's Island. Whatever the case, the article reflected Thai concerns 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 neutrality between these two powers has been maintained by successive governments in Yangon. Only the present SLORC regime has deviated from that policy.

Even 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 dissatisfaction with the unprecedented dependence on China.

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 frequently. 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. Complaints 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 Singapore to 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 recoilless guns of East Bloc origin which may have originated in Israel.

Pictures of the equipment indicate that they came from Palestinian stocks captured by Israel when it invaded southern Lebanon in 1983. Given the vast amounts of weaponry that entered the international arms market via Israel after the war in Lebanon, intelligence sources say it is perfectly possible that the Israeli government may have been unaware of the final destination of the cargo.

Western intelligence sources in Southeast Asia also assert that private companies in Singapore 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 Myanmar 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 almost untraceable transshipment via Singaporean middle-men.

More recently, private companies in Singapore have arranged for the sale of Singaporean weapons to Myanmar. This may include locally made 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.


Even more importantly, Singaporean technicians 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 Yangon, 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 this 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 run 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 Singaporean 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 terms 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 from China.

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 state-controlled press.

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.

This article first appeared in the International Defence Review, November 1994

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