The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Full Steam Ahead

Burma plans to expand its “Blue Water”  fleet

Burma’s naval officers are not trusted in the armed forces. They are considered to be liberal and more educated than army officers. During the 1988 uprising, several navy officers joined the student protesters.

Burma’s naval officers are also often outspoken in complaining about the comparatively low share of the military budget allotted to the maritime force and the modest size of the fleet.

However, this may change. Since early 1990, Burma has bought 10 Hainan-class sub-chasers and six Houxian-class missile escorts from China. The missile escorts are armed with four surface-to-surface missiles.

With Chinese help, Burma has also built fast patrol craft and two corvettes. In the past, Burma bought ships and patrol craft from the US, UK, Australia, Denmark, Japan and Singapore.

According to a leading Burmese researcher on defense matters, Maung Aung Myoe, Burma plans to build a frigate, and to this end has begun upgrading its ship-building facilities at the naval dockyard. In the 1990s, the regime planned to purchase Chinese frigates to help curtail incursions in Burmese waters by fishing vessels from neighboring countries, but at the time the regime could not afford to buy them even at “friendship prices.”

The junta is also acquiring technical know-how on the construction and repair of the Burmese fleet’s warships, and some unconfirmed reports suggest that North Korea has proposed to sell Burma a small submarine. It is not known, however, whether Burma plans to acquire submarines in the near future.

Nevertheless, it is likely that Burma will buy more naval ships to defend its territory.

In November 2008, Burma deployed naval vessels when it reportedly began to explore areas of the Bay of Bengal for oil and gas. Bangladesh formally protested against the Burmese presence, claiming the explored area lies well within its territorial waters.

Although Burma has been acquiring more naval ships and has a plan to upgrade its “brown water” capability to “blue water” strength in the coming decade, it seems that the Burmese navy remains handicapped.

When ships of the US Pacific fleet approached the Burmese coast after the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, Burmese vessels were at first nowhere to be seen.

As it ripped through the Irrawaddy delta region, the cyclone also hit Burma’s Panmawaddy Navy Base on Hainggyi Island at the mouth of the Bassein River, destroying military buildings and a reconnaissance station.

The Hainggyi Island naval base played a strategically important role in patrolling the rivers of the Irrawaddy delta and guarding the Coco Islands, the site of a signals intelligence unit that monitors ship movement in the eastern Indian Ocean, especially shipping routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca.

The cyclone also damaged the main navy dockyard of the Irrawaddy naval base where ship-repair facilities are located.

Burma’s navy chief, Admiral Soe Thein, was seen touring various sites on Hainggyi Island, the state-run The New Light of Myanmar reported.

Curiously, Soe Thein was removed from his post one month after the cyclone. Although no reason was given, exiled groups suggested that Burmese military leaders were unhappy that the navy chief could not mobilize naval ships in a show of force when the US vessels arrived off Burma’s coast.

Previously, the Burmese navy was active in counter-insurgency and surveillance activities, such as monitoring fish poaching, smuggling and pirate attacks.

Maung Aung Myoe predicts that the Burmese navy will realize its dream of blue water capability in the near future. This means the acquisition of more frigates, corvettes, minesweepers, offshore patrol vessels, gunboats and fast attack craft equipped with missiles.

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