CHIANG MAI - The isolated light-brown spots can be seen even on Google Earth.
They are indicative of big, new buildings that have been carved out of densely
forested jungle areas across the Myanmar heartland, with some dots seen in the
hills east of the central city of Mandalay.
Most of them are for security reasons located in sparsely populated areas, but
in the modern digital world not even Myanmar can keep the location of its new
military installations secret.
Myanmar has embarked on a massive expansion of its military and military
capabilities since the country was shaken by a nationwide pro-democracy
uprising that almost toppled the regime in 1988. But this expansion appears to
have been haphazard, with an emphasis on creating a loyal officer corps that
the regime can
depend on for its survival rather than building a professional fighting force.
Recent defectors from the Myanmar military say that the number of infantry
battalions and other military units have been increased dramatically since
1988, but most of these are understaffed and the foot soldiers are often
forcibly recruited, poorly paid and badly motivated.
Several sources with access to information from inside the Myanmar military say
that the stated strength of the country's armed forces, often given by Western
analysts as between 300,000-400,000 men, is grossly exaggerated. Some sources
put the actual figure at less than half that number and because the central
authorities have had ceasefire agreements with almost all of the country's
ethnic rebel armies for two decades or more, the troops, and even most of the
officers, lack combat experience.
Prior to the 1988 uprising and the ceasefire agreements with the rebels, the
Myanmar military was known as a poorly equipped but ruthlessly efficient
light-infantry force. Soldiers fought in yearly operations against insurgents
in extremely difficult terrain, making it a tough, battle-hardened army with
few equivalents in modern Asia.
"Now, the soldiers are doing nothing. They have new uniforms and better guns,
the officers have more money to spend than anyone could dream of in the old
days. They have new cars, new golf clubs, mistresses, everything - except
professionalism," says a disgruntled former Myanmar army officer who requested
anonymity. Meanwhile, the morale among the rank-and-file is reported to be low
while desertion rates are high.
Consequently, recent military campaigns against ethnic Kachin and Shan rebels
in the country's north and northeast have been disasters. Even after months of
fighting, the government's troops have failed to occupy a single major camp run
by the Shan State Army (SSA) in the heart of Shan State, while in the north the
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) recently gave the military a bloody nose when it
tried to dislodge the rebels from their strongholds near the Chinese border.
To make up for the lack of combat experience - and to keep the officers happy
with new equipment - the Myanmar government first embarked on a massive
procurement campaign in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, an estimated US$1.4 billion
of military and military-related equipment was bought from China, including
anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft, naval vessels, armored
personnel carriers, trucks and other military vehicles, artillery pieces and
rocket launchers. Additional weaponry and military hardware were procured from
other military partners such as Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, North Korea, and,
at one stage, Pakistan, Portugal, Poland and the former Yugoslavia.
Recent years, however, have seen a rapid expansion of the number of homegrown
defense industries, witnessed in the new clearings in the jungles throughout
the country. Before the 1988 uprising, the country had no more than half a
dozen such factories.
Today, there are more than 20 military factories apart from the research
facilities where new weaponry, including missiles, are being developed. The
Myanmar military is also known to be carrying out nuclear research, although
even former Myanmar army major Sai Thein Win, the whistleblower who fled the
country last year, says that the project is unlikely to produce a usable atomic
"When the German-made machinery arrived from Singapore, I asked my commander
who was going to operate it. 'You are,' he said. He had never before worked in
a defense factory, and I - and I was trained in Russia - could see that this
equipment was not suitable for the purpose for which it had been obtained. The
nuclear program is nothing but a pipedream," Sai Thein Win told Asia Times
Online in a recent interview.
Known by the acronym ka pa sa after the initials of the Myanmar name for
"the Directorate of Defense Industries", the early factories were located
exclusively around the old capital Yangon, on the western bank of the Irrawaddy
River near the town of Pyay, or Prome, and near Magwe further to the north.
According to analyst Andrew Selth, an Australian expert on the Myanmar
military: "Before 1988 these factories could produce automatic rifles and light
machine-guns, light mortars, grenades, anti-personnel mines and ammunition."
Myanmar's attempts to develop its own defense industries began in the early
1950s when a small factory was set up to produce bullets and copies of an
Italian 9mm TZ45 submachine gun, known as the "Ne Win Sten" after the army
commander at that time and later the country's first military ruler.
Selth states in a monograph about Myanmar's arms industries, published in 1997
by the Australian National University: "The Burmese [Myanmar] arms industry was
given a major boost in 1957, when the state-owned West German company Fritz
Werner GmbH agreed to build a factory in Rangoon [Yangon] with Heckler and Koch
to produce Gewehr 3 [G3] automatic rifles. Finance was provided on favorable
terms by the West German government."
All such West German assistance was supposed to be halted after the 1988
uprising was drenched in blood, resulting in international condemnation of
Myanmar's military regime. But an internal audit report for the West German
company, dated March 31, 1990, reveals that "raw materials imported from abroad
are recorded in the stock ledger, but delivered directly to Myanma Heavy
Industries for custody and use by them in production of goods on the JVC's
[Joint Venture Company] behalf." The report, compiled by Fritz Werner's
accountants from the U Hla Tun Group, goes on to mention Ministry of Heavy
Industries production sites at Yangon, Sinde and Nyaungchitauk at Padaung near
Pyay, and Malun near Minhla - or exactly the locations of Myanmar's then most
important defense industries.
Fritz Werner is still active in Myanmar, but, according to Sai Thein Win and
other sources, it is doubtful whether it is still actively involved in
producing military equipment, although in 1984 it became the first foreign
company to enter into a joint-venture agreement with Myanmar's Heavy Industries
Corporation, which produces weapons for the country's armed forces.
The old Gewehr series - G2, G3 and G4 - has been replaced by other,
indigenously produced infantry weapons which are lighter and more suitable for
Myanmar's tropical climate. Called MA 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 - after "Myanmar Army" -
they are based on Chinese designs and resemble modern versions of the
Soviet-era Kalashnikov and the old Makarov pistol. The new MA series is
produced at ka pa sa 1 near Yangon's Inya Lake, while the more advanced ka
pa sa 2 in Malun produces mortars and artillery pieces and also has a
shooting range built by Singapore to test the effectiveness of the weapons.
Brothers in arms
Missile research and development is carried out at the newly built ka pa sa
10 at Konegyi village in Minhla, where experts from North Korea and possibly
also China and Russia are reportedly active. Myanmar is said to be interested
in producing a North Korean-designed, Scud-type Hwasong 6 missile. But it is
still an open question how close Myanmar is to producing a functioning missile.
North Korean ships, however, continue to arrive frequently in Myanmar's ports,
carrying what is described as "general goods" that are often destined for
Myanmar's defense industries.
The production capability of the old mortar and shell factory ka pa sa 3
at Sinde, Padaung, has been surpassed by the new ka pa sa 12, set up in
1996. It now produces 60mm, 81mm, 105mm and 120mm mortar shells in a complex
that sprawls over more than 16,000 acres (6,500 hectares) south of Sakhangyi
village in Thayetmyo township, Magway Region.
According to Myanmar military insiders, machinery for ka pa sa 12 was
imported from the Czech Republic and installed with help of experts from that
country. Ka pa sa 12 uses modern electronic control equipment and is now
considered one of the most advanced in Myanmar.
The most reliable factory for the production of small arms is ka pa sa 11
in Taikkyi township, Bago Region. It manufactures parts for the new MA-series
of light infantry weapons, and machinery for the facility was reportedly
obtained from South Korea's Daewoo company.
A more mysterious industrial complex is at Sidoktaya near Magway Region's
border with Rakhine State. Designated as ka pa sa 20, 100,000 acres have
been cleared for the facility and Google Earth imagery shows a helicopter
landing pad and unusually long buildings.
It is staffed by 400 soldiers, military engineers and officers, many of them
Russian-trained in nuclear physics, leading to speculation that it could be one
of several locations in Myanmar where nuclear-related research is being carried
out. Close to ka pa sa 20 is a new hydroelectric power station to
provide a steady source of electricity to the top-secret facility.
Ka pa sa 8 in Sinbaungweh township, Magway Region, produces parts for
tanks, ka pa sa 9 in Padaung, Bago Region, makes bullets for the
MA-series of weapons, and ka pa sa 7 in Pyay makes sea mines and
produces and repairs armored vehicles. Ka pa sa 6, also near Padaung,
produces various kinds of ammunition and was reportedly built by Chinese
experts. Ka pa sa 13 near Letpan village in Magway Region makes mines
and parts for artillery.
Defectors such as Sai Thein Win, the only one willing to be interviewed by name
by Asia Times Online, question the efficacy of these new arms factories.
According to him, the fact that they are scattered all over the country and
are, as he puts it, situated "in the middle of nowhere" (they can be seen with
a even cursory look at Google Earth), makes it extremely difficult to
"Raw materials and parts have to be sent across the country, from one facility
to another, and one factory doesn't know what another is doing. The outcome is
that many of these new weapons are basically useless," claims Sai Thein Win.
Myanmar's newly recruited infantry may lack combat experience, and the quality
of the weapons produced in its defense industries may be of poor quality due to
bad coordination between the various ka pa sas. But it is clear that the
Myanmar regime is in no hurry to change its priorities, as defense spending
still accounts for as much as 50% of the central government's budget.
Regime survival has always been the main prerogative of Myanmar's generals and
thus a loyal and well-supplied officer corps is still of utmost importance,
regardless of their weakness on the battlefield.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer
with Asia-Pacific Media Services.
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