Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Than Shwe’s ‘The Art of War’

Burmese junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe reviews soldiers during Armed Forces Day celebrations in Rangoon in March, 2007. (Photo: AP)

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2
The Irrawaddy News

Burmese generals have long sought to defend themselves from imagined external threats, masking their intense paranoia with a military shield

ARMED ethnic insurgents pose little threat nowadays to the Burmese regime, but that doesn’t deter the generals in Naypyidaw from continually strengthening their military capacity and spending the country’s precious foreign reserves on more sophisticated weapons, such as jet fighters, an air defense system, naval ships and short and medium-range missiles.

Analysts generally agree that the junta’s modern military arsenal is ill-suited for combating guerilla warfare in a mountainous jungle, but is more realistically intended as a defensive shield against an external threat.

Burmese troops march in Resistance Park in Rangoon in 2005 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Armed Forces Day. (Photo: Reuters)

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. According to sources, Maung Aye asked the Russians to sell Burma the aircraft at “friendship prices.”

At the same time, the deputy chief of Burma’s armed forces also expressed a desire to build a short-range guided missile system in central Burma with assistance from Russia. And the wish list did not stop there.

The Russian military was asked to provide training in the manufacture of guided missiles and to supply a “Pechora” air defense system—a Russian-made, surface-to-air anti-aircraft system.

Unless the regime believes the Karen National Union and other armed ethnic groups are planning to take their insurgency to the skies, it is clear that Naypyidaw envisaged a potential threat from a foreign power.

Most analysts concurred that the Burmese regime—unlike the North Korean government under Kim Jong-il—did not have the capacity, or desire, to obtain nuclear weapons.

That was until 2007, when word leaked that Burma had contracted Russia’s federal atomic energy agency, Rosatom, to help build a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor in central Burma.

Naturally, Burma claimed that its quest for nuclear energy was not weapons-related. In fairness, the junta had come clean in January 2002 when then-deputy Foreign Minister Khin Maung Win declared that Burma’s “interest in nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is longstanding,” dating back as far as the 1950s.

However, the regime has offered little or no transparency in its development of the nuclear reactor and dissidents in exile charge that the regime seeks to build a nuclear weapon.

In recent years, the junta has been actively enlisting North Korean advice on missile technology, and during his acquisitive trip to Russia, Maung Aye pressed his hosts for expertise in developing a nuclear reactor. He also suggested that Naypyidaw send students to Russia to study nuclear science.

Let’s be frank and clear—Burma does not face an external threat today, nor does any foreign country intend to invade Burma in the foreseeable future.

So, why are the generals in Naypyidaw so paranoid?

Maung Aung Myoe, a Burmese scholar who has specialized on the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, says in the recent book, “Building the Tatmadaw,” that since it came into power in 1988, the military leadership has frequently reviewed its existing defensive strategy and moved to modernize the country’s military capacity.

“This probably reflected the fear of direct invasion or invasion by proxy,” wrote Maung Aung Myoe. “The state-owned media had cited from time to time the presence of a US naval fleet in Myanmar’s [Burma’s] territorial waters during the 1988 political upheaval as evidence of an infringement of Myanmar’s sovereignty.”

The regime was also concerned that foreign powers might help insurgents on the border to develop formidable armies that would challenge the regime in Rangoon. From that fear a new doctrine and military strategy was formed, and the molding of a “people’s war” was pursued.

The concept of “people’s war” was first touched upon by Gen Aung San in 1947 and was taken up as a doctrine by Gen Ne Win after he led a military coup in 1962.

It essentially assumes that the Tatmadaw enjoys the support of the nation and, according to Maung Aung Myoe, is “built on a system of ‘total people’s defense,’ [whereby] the armed forces provide the first line of defense, and the training and leadership of the nation in the matter of national defense.

“It is designed,” he added, “to deter potential aggressors [with] the knowledge that the defeat of the Tatmadaw in conventional warfare would be followed by persistent guerilla warfare in the occupied areas by militias and dispersed regular troops, [which] would eventually wear down the invader.”

Ne Win adopted the people’s war concept to combat insurgency and the threat of communists in the 1970s and 1980s. Ne Win’s government was able to mobilize civilians, villagers, war veterans’ organizations, militias and even students and youths, and provided them with basic military training. When the insurgents’ threat was neutralized, Ne Win and his commanders declared that the people’s war had defeated Burma’s enemies.

Nowadays, in almost every speech to commanders and soldiers, the army leaders—including Than Shwe—remind them of the need for a people’s war and to nurture the support of the masses. Than Shwe’s call is for a “people’s war under modern conditions,” wrote Maung Aung Myoe. Interestingly, under Than Shwe’s people’s war, the concept of cyber warfare has also been launched.

In 1998, the Tatmadaw held its first joint military exercises of the navy, the air force and the army to introduce counteroffensive strategies to the existing people’s war doctrine.

During these exercises, the fire brigade, the Myanmar Red Cross and the Union Solidarity Development Association were mobilized. “The exercises,” Maung Aung Myoe wrote, “revealed that the purpose of such a counteroffensive was to counter low-level foreign invasion.”

According to the author, the new doctrine developed under the regime dictates that, should the standing conventional force fail to defeat an invading force on the beachheads or landing zones, resistance would be organized at the village, regional and national levels to sap the will of the invading force. When the enemy’s will is sapped and its capabilities are dispersed and exhausted, the Burmese army would be able to muster sufficient force to wage a counteroffensive that would drive the invader from Burma.

Intelligence sources revealed that Than Shwe and senior military officers sat in a war room and discussed war games plans. One inevitable inland route was identified as Burma’s historical adversary, Thailand.

Burmese leaders have never hidden their suspicion that Thailand’s annual Cobra Gold joint military exercise with the US and regional forces are a potential threat to Burma.

Aside from Thailand, Burmese military officers also pored over the invasion plans of “Operation Desert Storm” in Iraq, the US-Afghanistan War and the recent Kosovo War, paying particular attention to US strategies.

They have also studied tunnel warfare with specific regard to North Korean defense. Burma has sent several delegations to Pyongyang since normalizing relations with North Korea last year, but military sources have confirmed that Burma’s late Prime Minister Gen Soe Win implemented tunnel warfare strategies as early as 2000.

Although a series of underground routes was supposedly built in central Burma, it is believed the program was halted after Chinese officials convinced Soe Win that tunnel warfare was no longer a viable option due to the introduction of the US-made BLU-82B/ C-130 weapon, nicknamed “daisy cutters,” that has been employed successfully in Afghanistan to destroy Taliban underground complexes and caves.

Many social and philosophical reasons for moving the Burmese capital to Naypyidaw have been aired, but in the end, it was a strategic military maneuver.

“Until and unless one [side] commits its ground force to capture its [enemy’s] military headquarters, a war cannot be declared over,” Maung Aung Myoe wrote. “The moving of the capital and military high command from Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyitaw (Naypyidaw) clearly reflects the underlying military thinking and war fighting strategy of the Tatmadaw.”

The author argued that an amphibious landing on the west coast of Burma, and a simultaneous land-based invasion from the eastern Karen or Karenni State would not only cut off Rangoon from Upper Burma, but also make it a target for attacks from the south. He concluded: “The new location will give the military high command easy access to heavily forested mountainous areas in the north bordering China or India; this is vital for protracted guerilla warfare.”

Maung Aung Myoe noted that Burma’s military leaders seem to have adopted Mao Tse-tung’s maxim that guerillas must be “like fish in water.”

“The guerilla or regular army (fish) has to operate (swim) in the people (water): therefore, the control of the water temperature is important in the success of the people’s war,” he wrote.

Indeed, the move to Naypyidaw and the doctrine behind the junta’s people’s war could have been taken straight from Mao’s interpretations of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; and the enemy retreats; we pursue.”

If Burma did come under attack, Maung Aung Myoe asserts, Burma’s armed forces would be put to the test, not least because of a lack of training, wartime experience and operational capability.

Evidently, these weaknesses were exposed last year when the Tatmadaw appeared unable to synchronize its army, navy and air force to confront naval aid vessels from the US, Britain and France that had closed in on Burmese waters to deliver humanitarian aid to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta.

In the end, political wrangling resulted in the ships leaving Burma without delivering the aid. But army sources claimed that the regime leaders had mobilized the country’s paltry air force and missile systems around Naypyidaw in preparation for an outbreak of hostilities.

Aware of its limitations, the Tatmadaw has since upgraded and expanded several airfields in central and southern Burma, and the nation’s air defenses have been greatly enhanced by newly procured signals intelligence equipment, according to Maung Aung Myoe.

Whether or not the Burmese junta could rally its forces and effectively coordinate a people’s war, the question remains: why would another country invade Burma?

One answer could be that Burma sits between the world’s two most populous nations—India and China—who are increasingly competing and hungry for energy and natural resources.

China, the regime’s foremost ally, is increasingly looking for access to the Indian Ocean via Burma. China is also building oil and gas pipelines through Burma and developing a deepwater port at Sittwe in Arakan State.

Robert Kaplan’s recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine concluded that Burma and Pakistan are two of the least stable countries in the world.

“The collapse of the junta in Myanmar—where competition over energy and natural resources between China and India looms—would threaten economies nearby and require a massive seaborne humanitarian intervention,” wrote Kaplan.

If Burma slides even deeper into political, economic and humanitarian crises, one could conclude there was a rationality in Than Shwe’s people’s war and a reason for him to be paranoid.

However, if Than Shwe had the vision to steer Burma toward being a stable, strong and prosperous nation, he wouldn’t need to prepare for a people’s war. But then again, it appears that he made his choice long ago.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too