An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 09 May 2004

Our colleague just returned from Myanmar, after partaking in their three-day New Year  “Thingyan Festival”. Thingyan means New Era, and is celebrated with a dousing of water like our Holi, but without colours. Charities are held for monks, offerings are made to them and scented water is used to clean all statues of Buddha. Food is freely distributed, elders are shown respect with recitations, and animals are freed. The monks recite Parittas to purify the mind and body and free people from dangers.

This year the military leaders requested the people to strive with vigor, and pray for the success of the National Convention, which is to be held from 17th May with promises to adopt a new Constitution.

The first thing that strikes the foreign visitor to Myanmar (The Golden Land) is that the name Burma given to it by the British, (so called because the Yangoon area was inhabited by a majority of Burmans), is anathema and not to be used. It is the name Myanmar that unites the various ethnic clans, who by the 70s, had turned the land into multiple insurgencies, with their opium cultivating warlords and their powerful armies. The next thing that one notices is that the Myanmarese steeped in pacifist Theravada Buddhism, are a classless society, with over 100 dialects spoken by 20 varied ethnic groupings.

Myanmar is a nation of poor people, though there is no abject poverty to be seen, as is seen in the villages of India. Of the 50 million population, (no census since 1983), Burmans constitute 68%, Shans 9%, Karens 7%, Arakanese 4%, Chinese 3%, with the Mons, Indians and others accounting for the balance 9 per cent. There are only three large cities Yangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein, whilst the rest of the people who live in the hills and countryside are yet to keep apace with the modern world. The Army (Tadmadaw) is in total control and has negotiated peace with the war and area lords, promising them federal autonomy in the future –– the same circumstances as those of the Kashmiris, Nagas and Assamese in the North East of India.

The political history of Myanmar subsequent to its Independence from the British is an unfortunate story of a repression of its people and their aspirations, and under-utilization of vast natural resources of gems, gas, hydroelectric power and talents. Myanmar was, in a sense, friendless, till it joined ASEAN in July 1995.

Myanmar, geographically situated in the shadow of two of the most populated nations –– India and China –– was ostracized even by India, and had to perforce, lean on China. China has strategically taken full advantage of the opportunity to make inroads into Myanmar with economic, military and infrastructure assistance, which has been appreciated. At present it is building a large dam over the Irrawady River at Werya in Central Myanmar to provide 400 MW of power.

To emphasize the importance of Myanmar one needs to recall the time when Britain had completed the annexation of Burma in 1885, and the London Times correspondent had reported –– “We can now drive the iron horse from India down the valley of the Irrawady and via Moulmein, to the very gates of China without any impediments. Properly used, our new possession may prove a key to unlock provinces commercially still more important than India.”

Only a visit to Myanmar makes one realize how close and long a border of 1600 km India has with that country along all its North Eastern states of Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland. Unfortunately that area of India, is India’s most underdeveloped, so this has been Myanmar’s loss too. The Border Roads Organisation completed a 160 km road from Tamu in Manipur to Kalemyo in Myanmar to promote trade from the national highway point at Moreh. There is potential for India to receive gas from Myanmar.

Post Independence the world has not appreciated what havoc was caused by the money generated by its Poppy cultivating warlords, personal corruption of its leaders and a difficult geography and ethnic heterogeneity. It led to insurgencies, which were waged to gain political control of the state. From 1962 Gen Ne Win and the Tatmadaw (Army) captured power and demolished parliamentary democracy and suspended the Constitution. Hence, it is the Army in one form or another, which has ruled the country with a form of Military socialism.

With no friends save the Chinese, the country has always been crying to be rescued from its inherent instability. India can contribute and is doing so now it appears, but for many years especially during the Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi period their personal friendship with Madam Daw Kin Kyi (Burmese Ambasador to India in 1960) the wife of Gen Aung San, a hero who fought for Independence and was assassinated in 1947 coloured our relations –– as Aung San Suu Kyi their daughter was under political repression.

In 1988 the Tadmadaw overcame a severe and bloody uprising and a Government by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) came into force in 1997, but human rights are not easily availed, as the power of the nation lies in the hands of the top Generals. Though Gen Ne Win died on 5th December 2002 at the age of 91 democracy has evaded Myanmar. Elections were held in 1990 and the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, captured 392 of the 485 seats against the military backed National Unity Party (NUP), which got with only 12 seats. The Tatmadaw promptly countermanded the election and put Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The Army is now genuinely looking for a Constitution, which will ensure that the Armed forces do have a say in the running of the country so that there is no disintegration. The Tatmadaw has the leading role of national politics of the future. The military is hesitant to relinquish power because they fear retribution. Aung San Suu Kyi can safeguard this if she agrees to a power sharing formula on the Indonesian model and not just a transitional arrangement between civilians and the military, which she favours. The example of power sharing between civilian and military establishments in Pakistan comes to the fore. Speculation is rife that the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed from restrictions as the NLD was allowed to reopen its Yangon headquarters in April to prepare for the National Convention on 17 May.

The Armed Forces

The Tatmadaw (Army) has scored a number of significant military successes against insurgents since 1988, and if called upon to do so, would fight hard and well to defend the country. Before 1988, the Myanmar Army was structured and deployed primarily for internal security operations –– both to quell civil dissent in major population centers and to conduct counter-insurgency operations in rural districts against communist guerrillas, ethnic separatists and the armies of narcotics “warlords”. However, greater emphasis is being given to conventional defence roles, and to healthier integration with the civil population. It has also given higher priority to participation in civil infrastructure development projects.

Few realise that as our next-door neighbour, India should contribute substantially to Myanmar’s efforts. The Western world has overly imposed sanctions on that poor nation because it is not a democracy, and because their darling Sun Kyi is wrongfully confined to house arrest in Yangon. Information on the Armed Forces is scant but they are devoid of latest equipment and the industrial base to maintain equipment is lacking, but recent Indian contacts have been good and MOD received a Myanmarese delegation at DEFEXPO 04.

The Myanmarese Army

The Tatmadaw has a total strength of about 325,000, which is broken up into 10 Infantry divisions. The armoured brigades consist of around 100 Chinese Type-69 and 63 tanks. The artillery comprises of 16 Soltam supplied 155mm guns, 16 M-46 130mm and 96 M101 105mm guns besides 40 Type 63 107mm MBRLs, APCs, anti aircraft guns, armoured vehicles and anti aircraft guns. The Chinese have supplied SAM HN-5A and SA-16 missiles, and Bulgaria has reportedly supplied Igla-1E SAMs. The large ground forces are assigned among the 12 regional commands and the regional commanders ensure that the Army personnel are provided steady pay, food and a degree of perks of power and prestige. The entire senior hierarchy of the army governs the country. Gen Than Shwe, Head of State, is also Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Lt Gen Maung Aye is Vice Chairman of the SPDC and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.and Gen Khin Nyunt former Intelligence Chief has been appointed Prime Minister. He is thought to be a moderate though he was the adopted son of Gen Ne Win as per reports. Lt Gen Soe Win is the first Secretary while Lt Gen Ye Myint controls the Ministry of Defence.

The Air Force

The Air Force strength is about 9000 and is reported to include some 100 aircraft of which only 60 percent are operational as the fleet consists of 40 F7s and 20 A-5M Chinese supplied MiG and Bomber equivalents. The transport fleet consist of 3 F-27, 4 FH-227, 4 Cessna 180s, 1 Cessna Citation II, and 12 Chinese K-8 Karakorams, which are also used for training. The helicopter fleet comprises 4 squadrons, which include 16 Bell 205 and 206 supported by 11 Mi-17 and 10 PZL W-3 Sokol. The Canadian Helicopter Company operates Sirkosky helicopters in a civilian role and twin Otters from Yangon to support the offshore oil fields, which supply gas by pipelines to Thailand (also used by VIPs). The Air Force is now equipped with 12 MiG-29 but the aircraft have not been seen carrying out night flying –– they are reported to be equipped with the R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) missiles. The Chief of Air Staff is Lt Gen Myat Hein and he visited India in 2003 as a guest of Air Chief Marshal S Krishnawamy and is reportedly looking for assistance from India.

The Navy

The Navy of 10,000 includes around 800 Naval Special Forces and besides Yangon at Monkey Point on the Yangon river which is the main Naval base, the other  bases are at Bassein, Mergui, Moulmein, Seikyi and Sittwe. The fleet consists of 6 Chinese supplied missile boats of the Houxin class which have 4 C-801 SSM, 18 patrol boats including Chinese Hainan class and locally built riverine craft totaling around 30. The miscellaneous craft consists of 10 small landing craft utility and a diving tender. The Navy still attempts to run 2 old US supplied corvettes PCE-827, and the Chief of Naval Staff is Rear Admiral Soe Thein, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Madhvendra Singh visited Myanmar in September 2003. INS Ranvijay visited Rangoon in February 2003 and Coast Guard ships Varad and Bhikhaiji Cama visited Yangon from 12-15th May 2003. This augurs well for contacts.

Defence Industries

The support of Chinese industry in the civil and defence sector is very evident and most domestic products are either Chinese or low end Japanese. In the case of Defence R&D under the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Corps (EMEC) the thrust has been to produce LMGs, automatic rifles and motors and ammunition at a factory near Meiktila, reportedly assisted by the Singapore Technologies. It is learnt Myanmar Armed Forces have looked to assistance from India for its Air Force and Navy. The Chairman Garden Reach Engineers and Shipbuilder, Kolkata had also visited Myanmar and received a Myanmarese team at Kolkata suggesting there was scope for cooperation.


Despite discontent among the intelligentsia of Myanmar the common people accept  that the Tadmadaw has kept law and order under control by imposing rigid rules and permitting small businesses to flourish. In 1980 ian amnesty to bring in Myanmarese money abroad with foreign partners has seen many hotels, joint ventures and businesses flourish. Tourism is on the rise for the economical and interesting canvas that Myanmar offers. Dollars are accepted in the market place at 850–1000 Kyat each, depending on supply and demand factors.

There are good signs of Myanmar opening up to the world. UN Secretary General’s envoy for Myanmar Tan Sri Razali and ASEAN have done much to goad the Tadmadaw to organize a National Convention on 17 May to adopt a new constitution and prepare for elections de novo.

India has a stake in this in its ‘Look East policy’ to assist Myanmar and both have a stake in transforming the Bay of Bengal littoral into a community of States cooperating across a broad front, under the BIMSTEC banner.

The Myanmarese Island of Cocos is just a stone’s throw from the Andaman coastline and so New Delhi and Yangon also have a responsibility to ensure that the waters of the Bay of Bengal remain tranquil and do not come under destabilizing external influences. India is now beginning to understand that it cannot shape the future balance of power in Asia, without showing the political will to take difficult decisions and pursue its interests. Myanmar’s future should certainly appear on that radar.

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