Myanmar is interested in modernizing its military. Over three days in early February, the military staged its largest ever air-land-sea war games, in a very public effort to burnish its tarnished image and raise its credentials as a professional war-fighting machine. The live-fire exercises were clearly intended to showcase their armed forces’ growing capabilities and sophistication to international as well as domestic audiences.
In an era of quasi-democratic governments, it seems unlikely that Myanmar’s strategic planners still entertain their fears of direct Western military intervention that haunted them in the aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, it would be equally remarkable if current contingency planning for border clashes with Bangladesh or even China is not regularly reviewed.
At another level, the scale of the drills underscored accelerating efforts to build what Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly referred to as a “standard military.” Arguably an implicit admission that the Tatmadaw is sub-standard. The term implies a force that is both technologically modern and operationally far better trained and integrated than it is now.
Major steps towards modernization have been made in the last decade, not least in efforts to locally manufacture a wide range of defense equipment. An indigenous ship-building program has been a central element, with a new class of stealth frigates unveiled as flagships of a fast-growing navy with ‘blue water’ ambitions in the Bay of Bengal region. Though they have received support from a variety of other countries in obtaining equipment, the western world remains skeptical as to the military’s true intentions.
The drills also served to reflect the Tatmadaw’s longstanding operational shortcomings and, perhaps more importantly, the doctrinal dilemmas of an aspiring national defense force trapped in a 70-year-long civil war that, professionally and morally, has proved deeply corrosive.
The military campaigns waged by an overwhelmingly ethnic Burman army against the nation’s disaffected ethnic minorities which has resulted in negative effects of alienating the country’s minorities from its government. The generals remain determined to impose a centralized system of Burman-dominated governance on Myanmar’s multi-ethnic society.
The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has long been beset by allegations of the systematic massacre, rape and pillage against ethnic Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state (atimes.com). Myanmar government’s actions towards the Rohingya, including military-led “clearance operations” that the United Nations has said are tantamount to ethnic cleansing. The United States called Myanmar’s blanket denials of ethnic cleansing preposterous and called on the UN Security Council to hold the military accountable (atimes.com/). Now, supposedly, it is looking to promote itself as a more professional war-fighting machine (atimes.com/).
Regardless of the intent, Myanmar has a clear agenda to modernize its military force. North Korea has proved a beneficial and continually reliable partner to this effect.
For the last several years, North Korea has exported artillery, truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems and other military equipment to Myanmar in exchange for rice and other foodstuffs, according to news reports. Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner reported for Asia Times Online in 2006 that North Korean tunneling experts were spotted in Naypyidaw assisting the Myanmar military in building underground bunker complexes and other secretive facilities. The extent of North Korea’s involvement in Myanmar’s military modernization programs, arms supplies, and weapons development remains largely unknown.
Lintner has also documented North Korean assistance to Myanmar’s missile program, including photographic evidence of then junta No. 3 General Thura Shwe Mann leading a Myanmar delegation to Pyongyang to visit defense facilities, military production lines, and a surface-to-surface missile factory in late November and early December 2008. On the occasion, Shwe Mann and North Korean military chief General Kim Kyok-sik signed a memorandum of understanding that formalized joint efforts in “building tunnels” and “modernizing weapons and military equipment.” In June 2011, the U.S. Navy intercepted and turned back a North Korean ship it suspected of delivering missile technology to Myanmar.
Some analysts suspect the previous government’s punitive response to journalists with the local Unity Journal, who were sentenced to ten years in prison for reporting on a secretive military facility at Magwe Division, aimed to cover up active North Korean involvement at the underground complex. The reporters, who probably wrongfully claimed the facility was used to manufacture chemical weapons, also spotted what they identified as Chinese technicians in residence.
Analysts believe the technicians were more likely North Korean (thediplomat.com /). Intelligence sources in the region had for several years recorded frequent arrivals of North Korean ships at Myanmar ports. The ships carried what was usually described as “construction material” to Myanmar and rice back to North Korea, indicating a barter arrangement. Myanmar bought – or bartered – artillery pieces and truck-mounted 240mm Multiple Launch Rockets Systems, or MLRSs, from North Korea in early 2008. The deal with Myanmar was meant for the production of a basic Scud-type missile akin to North Korea’s Hwasong 5 or Hwasong 6 with a range of 320-500 kilometers.
For years Myanmar has strained to assure the United States, amid a diplomatic warming trend, that such agreements are now null and void. Breaking the strategic ties between Myanmar and North Korea became a key point for the Obama administration. It was a major reason why the United States in 2011 decided to shift its policy towards Myanmar from sanctions-imposed isolation to diplomatic engagement with the then ruling military-backed regime. For a time, it was thought by the Obama administration to have been successful in this endeavor.
However, recent reports of a leaked UN confidential report say that the association continues between the two countries. North Korea had earned US$200 million in 2017 from exports that violated various UN-imposed sanctions. The sanctions-busting exports included coal, iron, lead, textiles, seafood and ballistic missiles or missile technology to Myanmar and Syria (atimes.com). The government of Myanmar has maintained that it is not engaged in trade with the North Korean state despite evidence to the contrary.
The situation in Myanmar is fragile, as the government operates on a basic dual system of government. Up until 2011, the country was ruled entirely by a military junta. In 2011, the Junta handed over power to a civilian government.
The election of 2016 was the first fully free election the country had seen in nearly five decades. However, the civilian government does not retain full control of the country. Instead, it shares a fragile cohabitation with the military that retains a considerable amount of instilled power. The military remains the key political force in the country and has key involvement in any constitutional amendments. The constitution of the country, written under military rule in 2008, guarantees the military 25% of seats in the parliament as well as the direct appointment of key cabinet positions of Defense, Home Affairs and the Border. As a result, the military defines its own path and agendas outside of any control or influence from the civilian government (bing.com). It is a viable assumption that while the formal government can legitimately deny any involvement with North Korea, the military could easily pursue its own independent relations.
North Korea has defied UN bans through an elaborate network of offshore company registries, complicit foreign nationals and a helpful international banking system. It has also been aided by numerous private companies throughout the world that both supply necessary resources, such as oil. Several foreign ports on the Asia coast, primarily Taiwan, have assisted in masking North Korean cargo being moved illegally. (bing.com). It continues to operate a vast and elaborate criminal enterprise that allows it to flaunt UN sanctions to obtain resources and serve pariah states as a large-scale arms broker.
This intelligence site has reported previously on the extensive criminal networks controlled by North Korea. It has also reported on the violent conflict in Myanmar and its repressive actions against the minority communities of their country. The dangers of this alliance are that it creates a destabilizing threat in the world. Pariah states operating repressive regimes and engaging in terrorist activities have an ally in North Korea who has the means and expertise to equip such states with weapons systems and other technology that only make them more of a threat.
At the same time, North Korea has such states as Myanmar as clients that offer needed capital to continue financing their nuclear developments and military buildups. They further reciprocate by giving North Korea access to resources and markets that are otherwise not open to them due to sanctions. Countries such as Myanmar, offer the means of payment which infuses the North Korean state with needed cash to finance their own military and weapons development.
Collectively this alliance further erodes the effectiveness of UN authority in being able to contain and control such states and their activities. This is even more corroded by North Korea’s well established criminal networks and intermediaries that serve to bypass the traditional means of UN sanction enforcement. At the same time, the complicated dual system of government makes it impossible to hold the country accountable for any violations. When the military can operate its own foreign policy separate from its own elected government, how is the world to act?