The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Burma’s Missile Dream

Naypyidaw appears to be intent on setting up a missile defense sytem to deter po tential enemies

Is Snr-Gen Than Shwe delusional? Subordinates of Burma’s paramount leader are said to have repeatedly heard him say how much he admires North Korea’s use of missile technology to bully and defy its neighbors and the West. The bad news is that Than Shwe’s hard-line military leaders and ministers may agree with him.

However, Burmese opposition groups in exile suspect that army officers who disagree with Than Shwe’s policy deliberately leaked secret documents to exiled media groups, including The Irrawaddy. These documents throw light on Burma’s military ties with Pyongyang.

One leaked document detailed Gen Shwe Mann’s secret visit to Pyongyang in November 2008. Accompanying Burma’s No 3 general was Air Defense Chief Gen Myint Hlaing.

The 37-page secret report included photos of visits to a missile factory and anti-aircraft units, suggesting what was on the military’s shopping list. The documents gave details of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two armed forces. The MoU indicated that North Korea would build some Burmese military facilities, including tunnels for missiles, aircraft and even naval ships. Burma would receive training for its special forces and air defense units, and a language exchange program between the two armed forces would begin.

The secret report mentioned a visit to a missile factory outside Pyongyang, where Shwe Mann studied the production of Scud-D, E and F missiles, but it is difficult to confirm whether Burma would buy long-range missiles. Analysts believe that Burma has purchased medium-range missiles with a range of 500 to 1,000 kilometers. The secret report recommends that Burma begin producing its own ballistic missiles.

Technology Transfer

In February 2006, Eric John, the then US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, expressed Washington’s concern at what appeared to be the imminent re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Burma and North Korea. Calling the two countries “outposts of tyranny,” the Bush administration accused them of isolating themselves to the point of being driven into each other’s arms.

John said there were grave concerns about the potential transfer of military technology to Burma from North Korea; these concerns appear to have been well-founded.

In June this year, police in Japan arrested the presidents of three Japanese companies on suspicion of violating the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law. They were accused of attempting to export a 7 million yen (US $73,000) magnetic measuring device that could be used to develop long-range ballistic missile systems, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

According to the report, the Toko Boeki trading firm had tried in September 2008 and in January 2009 to export the device to Burma’s Ministry of Industry 2, which plays a key supporting role in Burma’s nuclear program because it is headed by the chairman of the Myanmar Atomic Energy Committee. Both attempts were halted when the Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry notified the company that they had failed to request an export license.

Police initially believed that the device was bound for North Korea via Malaysia and Burma, until they studied the contents of the order and materials seized when they raided the Toko Boeki company in February. They suspected that the firm had exported other missile development-related equipment to Burma, leading them to believe that North Korea was trying to transfer missile technologies, such as its Taepodong system, to Burma.

The export attempts were based on an order by the Beijing office of the Hong Kong-based New East International Trading Ltd in early 2008. The firm is believed to be under the direct control of the Second Economic Committee of the Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party of Korea. The committee is responsible for the party’s military procurements.

Arms Build-up

Though Burma is poor and its population suffers from almost daily power blackouts, the revenue from selling the country’s gas reserves to its neighbors is allowing the military regime to expand its arms purchases.

Over the past decade, Burma has been buying missiles from North Korea, China and Russia, and both Burmese and foreign defense analysts suggest that Burma has bought short and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).  

Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that since 2001 Burma has obtained low altitude surface-to-air missile systems from Bulgaria, SRBM air defense systems from Russia and countries in eastern Europe, and is thought to have purchased surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) from Ukraine, as well as multiple rocket launchers from China.

Defense analyst Maung Aung Myoe wrote in his 2009 book, “Building the Tatmadaw,” that Burma had appeared to acquire some 36D6 radar from Ukraine in late 2002. It is designed to detect air targets at low, medium and high altitudes, and to perform friend-or-foe identification.

Maung Aung Myoe also wrote that as early as 2003, Burma was in secret talks with North Korea to buy Hwasong (Scud-type) missiles.

The Burmese leaders became more serious about buying missiles and missile technology after a series of border skirmishes with Thai forces in 2001-2002. At the height of the tension, Thailand reportedly employed Suppression of Enemy Defense Systems (SEADS), before sending its sophisticated F-16 jet fighters into border air-space. Sources in the Tatmadaw admitted that communication lines between front-line troops and command centers were severely disrupted.

The Burmese leaders reportedly do not trust their eastern neighbor, and well-informed sources inside the Tatmadaw said that Burma worries about a proxy war, possibly backed by a marine invasion by a foreign power. Burma has since installed fiber-optic communication systems to counter future use of SEADS.

When US, British and French warships hurried to Burmese waters to deliver relief supplies to victims of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy delta in 2007, the regime refused them entry. However, it discovered it could barely mobilize naval ships and jet fighters, let alone its air defense system.

During their visit to Pyongyang six months after Cyclone Nargis, Shwe Mann and top leaders were given a briefing on air defense and radar systems to be installed in southern Burma.

According to Maung Aung Myoe, the Tatmadaw has acquired Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) for defense, while jet fighters and missiles would be used for both the middle and outer defense zones. The new air defense systems have been deployed in Naypyidaw and along the Thai-Burmese border.

The author said the Burmese armed forces appeared to focus on two different types of air defense missions in Burma: the air defense of key political and military installations, and battlefield air defense.

Tunnel Vision

Burmese leaders are thought to be seriously considering hiding the new radar systems and missiles. Since the early 2000s, The Irrawaddy has reported rumors and news of tunnel building in central Burma.

Military sources said new tunnels around Naypyidaw and in central Burma would be used as bunkers for the central command, and to hide missiles, jet fighters and radar equipment. The secret report revealed that Burma is interested in building yet more underground facilities.

Late Prime Minister Gen Soe Win, a protégé of Than Shwe, was interested in tunnel warfare, and officers who attended the National Defense College studied tunnel warfare and defense. However, it is thought that the Chinese, who remain a major arms supplier to the junta, have counseled that tunnel warfare is less relevant in modern warfare.

Though photos of tunnels published in exiled and international media drew international attention recently, their purpose has to be verified. Currently there are 12 hydropower projects scheduled for construction. These include the Paunglaung hydropower project near the new capital, and the largest in the country, the Ye Ywa hydropower project 50 km (31 miles) southeast of Mandalay.

It is difficult to distinguish whether the tunnels were for military purposes, or for hydropower, until unsolicited photographs and video of a tunnel construction site were posted on news web sites including the Democratic Voice of Burma, Yale Global online and The Irrawaddy.

It is safe to assume that some of the tunnels are for military purposes and are now operational. The secret report mentioned the building of command posts in the tunnels, and it verifies that the regime plans to build underground military facilities in Shan State and central Burma.

Some Burmese defense analysts think the junta has already prepared emergency escape routes in Naypyidaw in case of war. Burma’s army leaders are not planning to flee, however, but to fight back by using guerilla warfare and launching a “people’s war” in central Burma or from Shan State. Should such a war break out, the regime also plans to mobilize its mass organizations—the fire brigades and civil services—to defend the nation. (See: The Irrawaddy “Than Shwe’s The Art of War” Mar—Apr, 2009 - Volume 17 No.2

During the 1988 student uprising in Rangoon that ended with a bloody military crackdown, a US fleet was spotted near Burmese waters. Than Shwe and hard-line leaders must feel that having missiles and air defense systems will make foreign powers more wary, giving them cause to hesitate before they send warships close to Burma’s shores again.

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