Rebel armies engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Burma’s military regime along the country’s border with Thailand say they are running out of ammunition for their AK-47 assault rifles, according to sources close to the armed groups.
“We stopped buying AK-47 rifles because there is nowhere to get ammunition for them,” said a Karen rebel source in Three Pagoda’s Pass, where Brigade 6 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), is based.
|Soldiers of the United Wa State Army in Shan State|
The shortage of ammunition for AK-47s is also affecting ceasefire groups that have stopped fighting the regime but retained their armies.
“It is difficult to buy AK-47 ammunition in Thailand because the Thai Army only uses
[American-made] M-16 [automatic rifles],” a source from the New Mon State Party (NMSP) in Three Pagodas Pass told The Irrawaddy
Just as the rebel groups that have waged war against the junta for decades have shrunk in size and number in recent years, their access to military hardware has also diminished.
Twenty years ago, surplus weapons and ammunitions from the war in Cambodia were abundant. During their heyday, Thai arms smugglers drove ten-wheeled trucks across the country to satisfy the Burmese rebels’ appetite for cheap munitions.
A recent article in the Bangkok Post
gives some sense of how well-stocked these vehicles were: “There were Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47s, US-made M16s, light machine-guns, hand grenades, RPG launchers, pistols and even SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles.”
The late drug lord Khun Sa liked to show off his SAM-7 missiles and the rest of his impressive arsenal in annual parades, until he finally surrendered to the Burmese junta in 1996.
“In those days, it wasn’t difficult to transport illegal weapons from the Cambodian border to the Burmese border. But it is difficult to find weapons now,” said a Mon rebel.
Today, fighting in Burma is largely confined to Karen and Shan states, where a handful of rebel groups continue to resist the Burmese regime.
Many of the foot soldiers in the struggle against military rule remain loyal not only to their cause, but also to their weapons of choice.
“I like the AK-47,” said a Karen fighter. “It is better than the M16,” he added, explaining that AK-47s were favored for their durability and low maintenance.
Like others, however, he said that ammunition for his preferred weapon was hard to come by and expensive at 10-15 baht (US $0.30-0.45).
For some armed groups in northern Burma, however, the ammunition shortage has created a business opportunity.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), a ceasefire group that has long been active in the drug trade, has recently begun manufacturing its own AK-47s and ammunition for their own use and to sell to allied ethnic groups.
A former member of an ethnic Palaung armed group said that the UWSA’s AK-47 bullets were readily available, but were not much cheaper than the real thing, at 10 baht a bullet. He added that they were also poor quality.
Meanwhile, a KNU source said that his group would not buy weapons or ammunition from the UWSA.
On the Thai-Burmese border, AK-47s and M-16s now cost 10,000-15,000 baht (US $295-440), according to arms buyers in Three Pagodas Pass. A decade ago, AK-47 and M-16 automatic rifles cost about 4,000 baht and bullets were 3 baht apiece.
This has placed a growing strain on groups like the KNU, which lost its headquarters to the regime in 1995. Since then, it has relied mainly on guerrilla-warfare tactics to continue its struggle.
In a 2007 top-secret report seen by The Irrawaddy
, the Burmese regime noted that its enemies have changed their military strategy. According to the 68-page report, Burmese forces killed 157 rebels and captured 37 alive last year. The report paid particular attention to the fact that the groups used mines and hit-and-run attacks carried out by just three or four armed rebels at a time.