Tuesday, July 21, 2009

U.S.-Indian arms deal posits questions for Burma's generals

by Joseph Ball

Mizzima News - The signing of an extensive arms deal between India and the United States raises issues concerning Burma – not the least of which is a question for the junta itself, "Would the Tatmadaw's stated interests be best achieved by gaining access to the largesse of America's defense industry?"

On Monday, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the United States to the sale of some 30 billion dollars worth of military hardware to the Indian state through the course of 2012 – in addition to the construction of two nuclear reactors. The arms deal comprises a significant portion of what analysts expect to be over 50 billion dollars to be spent by the south Asian giant over the course of the next five years on upgrading a rapidly ageing defense sector.

In short, India is prioritizing the modernization of its armed forces, precisely the centerpiece to the Burmese military's restructured military doctrine.

In 1998 the Tatmadaw formally modified its previous doctrine of "people's war" to "people's war under modern condition." In alignment with this emphasis, the past fifteen to twenty years have witnessed an accelerated drive on the part of the Burmese military for force modernization.

And lest the generals fear the country's endemic poverty would hamper the realization of massive military contracts, clearly the United States is not averse to grossly distorting the military budget of countries struggling to meet the basic needs of its citizens – indeed, domestically, it makes financial sense for Washington in countering a towering budget deficit.

According to a 2008 United Nations Development Program study, the human development index for India and Burma stands at 132nd and 135th, respectively, in the global rankings – making the two countries the only top 30 military budgets to reside outside the top 100 in the human development index.

For fiscal year 2009, the Pentagon estimates India and Burma as the 11th and 23rd largest spenders on military equipment – with India's sum total being over three times that of Burma's, a gap that is poised to drastically widen.

But what would Burma's generals have to do if they reasoned the established goals of the Tatmadaw could best be served by being able to benefit from a more diversified arms market?

While the United States let it be known some six months ago that the inherited Bush policy toward Burma was under review, the unforeseen trial of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is apparently holding any such plan hostage.

With a verdict in the trial still in doubt – at least officially – Secretary of State Clinton is left with very little room to maneuver regarding Burma policy during her brief appearance this week in Thailand to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum. While words too soft would seem inappropriate, a dialogue too harsh could jeopardize any benefits to a future policy review. The outcome, in all likelihood, will be statements mimicking what has already been heard from ASEAN foreign ministers on the question of Burma and the proposed 2010 general election.

Yet, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Aung San Suu Kyi is found anything other than guilty and such a ruling leading to anything other than a reversion to American policy directed at Burma as under the previous administration.

However, the emphasis being placed on continuing to nurture a close relationship with New Delhi, originally launched under the administration of the Secretary of State's husband some ten years previously, along with efforts at deepening ties and commitments to the ASEAN community, hints at a United States policy that will look to India, ASEAN and – not least significantly – China to take the lead in wrenching the best possible deal for 2010 from Burma's recalcitrant generals. Though, publicly, the United States would surely persist with its now well rehearsed rhetoric on the subject of Burma.

And while this might at first glance appear a victory for Naypyitaw, it is not at all clear that such a scenario would best meet the adopted and articulated interests and responsibilities of the Tatmadaw.

It is up to Burma's military leaders to decide whether the defined institutional goals and obligations of the country's armed forces – including the realization of the full benefits accruable from embracing the Revolution in Military Affairs – would best be addressed through actions maintaining the military's existing and limited access to material and technology, or through an alternative strategy as of yet unexplored.

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