Desmond Ball is a professor at the Strategic Defence Studies Centre of The Australian National University, Canberra. He is author or editor of several books and papers on Burma, Asia-Pacific security issues, and nuclear strategy. His books include The Ties That Bind, Burma’s Military Secrets and most recently, The Boys in Black, about Thailand’s para-military border guards. He spoke to The Irrawaddy about ethnic insurgency and intelligence gathering in Burma and neighboring countries.
Question: How has the political and strategic climate changed since you first starting working on Burma?
Answer: A number of changes. The first is the growth and the strengthening of the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces] itself since 1989, when the first very large contracts with China now amounting to about 3.5 billion dollars worth of weaponry and other military equipment that the Tatmadaw has acquired from China….[and] equipment from other countries….
Secondly during that period, in one sense a weakening of the resistance groups, as they’ve suffered defeats such as Manerplaw in January 1995 and Kawmura in February ’95. But I’ve also seen a change in the strategies and tactics of the resistance groups forced on them by the loss of those fixed bases to an adoption of more mobile guerilla-type strategies, and hence, since about 1999 an increasing number of victories, if you want to call them that, on the part of the insurgent groups: hit-and-run operations, ambushes, assaults on particular units—some of them being particularly effective now.
So in fact I’d say that over the last few years, although the overall strength of the various resistance armies has decreased, the military successes have in fact increased. And that applies to the SSA-South [Shan State Army-South] to the Karenni army and to the KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army], where you have some quite substantial military successes, sometimes wiping out whole Tatmadaw battalions; in other cases directed more at hitting particular Tatmadaw and DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] officers and really wreaking quite substantial punishments on the Tatmadaw.
Q: Since the ethnic armies are outmanned and outgunned, how have they scored successes on the battlefield?
A: I suppose the main factors have been the change in strategy and tactics... that rather than try to defend large fixed bases which involved hundreds of troops, and in some cases even thousands of troops, to protect Manerplaw for example, the adoption of mobile strategies with ambushes and hit-and-run tactics focussed on particular Tatmadaw units and ignoring those where it’s clear that they’re not going to achieve victory, or even if they achieve victory it’s going to be at a substantial cost, and only conducting operations when it’s quite clear they will achieve the particular military aims.
That’s probably the main factor, but secondly, better intelligence on the part of these groups. I think they now understand the extent, for example, to which the Tatmadaw have been monitoring their communications and have been able to turn the tables a bit there by more systematically monitoring Tatmadaw and DKBA communications, so they’re in a far better position in terms of knowing the details of particular Tatmadaw and DKBA movements, so that they can therefore set up ambushes, or mine certain areas with landmines. They’re probably the two main reasons.
Q: We have reported about a suspected Chinese-built listening post at Coco Islands. But the counter-argument is that the post was built and is operated by Burmese.