The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Asia’s ‘Axis of Evil’ Flexes Its Muscles
By AUNG ZAW Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Burma’s burning ambition to acquire modern missile technology and to upgrade its conventional weapons is no longer a secret, and if left unchecked, could pose a destabilizing threat to regional stability.

Thailand, its most prominent historical enemy, should be concerned—its military leaders would not like to see a Burma in possession of missiles that could easily lead to a tit-for-tat arms race. Also, of course, there’s the generals’ chronic fear of the West, heightened last year when foreign navy vessels showed up off the Burmese shore in an effort to deliver relief items and water to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta region.

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Since then, Burmese leaders have increasingly been looking for a source of medium range missiles, sophisticated anti-aircraft and radar systems to deter imagined external threats.

Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the regime’s No 3 man, made a secret visit to North Korea in November 2008, no doubt with a shopping list for the above items.

Shwe Mann, chief of staff of the army, navy and air force, and the coordinator of Special Operations, made a secret, seven day visit to Pyongyang on November 22, travelling there via Kunming, China.

The 17-member, high-level delegation was given an important sightseeing visit to Pyongyang and Myohyang, where secret tunnels have been built into the mountains to store and shield jet aircraft, missiles, tanks and nuclear and chemical weapons.

Accompanied by air defense chief Lt-Gen Myint Hlaing, Maj-Gen Hla Htay Win, Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint, Maj-Gen Thein Htay, Maj-Gen Mya Win and senior officials from heavy industries, the delegation was clearly on a mission to cement stronger military ties with the reclusive, hermit state.

On November 27, Shwe Mann and Gen Kim Kyok-sik, chief of general staff, signed a MoU, officially formalizing the military cooperation between Burma and North Korea.

North Korea will reportedly build or supervise the construction of some Burmese military facilities, including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden. Burma will also receive expert training for its special forces, air defense training, plus a language exchange program between personnel in the two armed forces.

Burmese army sources in Naypyidaw confirmed to The Irrawaddy that the secret arms-procurement mission covered most of the generals’ wish list.

During his seven-day visit, Shwe Mann, who is presumed to be the heir apparent to take over Burma’s armed forces, visited radar and jamming units in Myohyang, a highly sophisticated anti-aircraft unit, air force units and a computerized command control system in Pyongyang. 

The delegation also visited a surface-to-surface (SCUD) missile factory, partially housed in tunnels, on the outskirts of Pyongyang to observe missile production. Since the late 1980s, North Korea has sold hundreds of SCUD-type missiles and SCUD production technology to Iran, Syria and Egypt.

The SCUD-D missile, with a range of 700 kilometers, and SCUD-E missile, with a range of 1,500 kilometers, could easily intimidate Burma’s neighbors, including Thailand. It is believed that Burma already has deployed six radar air defense systems along the Thai-Burmese border.

During the visit, the Burmese were also particularly interested in short-range 107 mm and 240 mm multi-rocket launchers—a multipurpose missile defense system in case of a foreign invasion, analysts said.

Also of great interest was the latest in anti-tank, laser-guided missile technology that can be deployed within an infantry division. Defense analysts say Burma has already purchased short and medium- range missiles from North Korea under a barter deal.

It is not known if regime leaders have already put in an order for SCUD-D or the more powerful SCUD-F missiles, with a range of 3,000 kilometers. To suppress ethic insurgents, the regime doesn’t need such sophisticated weapons, but Burma’s strong interest in missile, radar, AWAC air defense systems, GPS communication jammers and search radar indicates that Naypyidaw’s leaders envision both defensive and offensive capabilities.

Historically, Burma has procured small arms, jet fighters and naval ships from the West, namely the US, Britain and some European countries, including Holland and Switzerland. But after brutally crushing the 1988 democracy uprising, it faced Western sanctions and Burmese leaders desperately looked for new sources of weapons and ammunition to modernize and upgrade its armed forces. Burma has bought jet fighters and naval ships from China but increasingly it’s looked for alternatives because of low quality and poor after-sale service

In the past, Burma purchased a “Pechora” air defense system—a Russian-made, surface-to-air, anti-aircraft system. Analysts say that Russians have provided technical training and language courses to Burmese technicians.

The junta continues to strengthen its military capacity and spends the country’s precious foreign reserves on more and more sophisticated weapons.

When Gen Maung Aye visited Moscow in April 2006, he told Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov that Burma wished to order more Russian-made MiG-29 jet fighters (in addition to the 12 it had already secured), as well as 12 secondhand MI-17 helicopters.

During the Moscow visit, the deputy chief of armed forces also expressed a desire to build a short-range guided missile system in central Burma with assistance from Russia.

Curiously, say analysts, Shwe Mann and his delegation also studied the subway system in the North Korean capital—in theory an underground subway is an effective way to deploy and mobilize troops during a conflict in an urban area.

As early as 2002-3, Burma begun to build underground tunnels and caves to hide and protect aircraft and weapons, as well as to house a central command and control facility. 

Foreign analysts note that Burma was humiliated when it lost serious military skirmishes with Thailand in 2001-2002. Thailand employed F-16 jet fighters along its border and successfully disrupted Burma’s communication system between its troops in the front line and its central command. 

The generals seem determined to go into the next field of battle with equal if not superior forces.

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