Myanmar, North Korea stay brothers in arms
By Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - If a press statement from the US Department of Defense is to be believed, President Barack Obama is quite pleased with the reform process underway in Myanmar, especially recent progress ''that's been made on human rights''. The message was conveyed by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in late August when he met with his counterparts from the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei, including Lieutenant-General Wai Lwin, the current defense minister of Myanmar, a former pariah state turned darling of the West.
But there was an important caveat in Hagel's statement that indicated Washington's main concern in Myanmar is not
democracy and human rights. Rather, he stressed ''it's important that Myanmar sever ties with North Korea''.
Evidently Myanmar has not rolled back relations with Pyongyang despite persistent pressure from Washington, including during then secretary of state Hillary Clinton's historic visit to Myanmar in December 2011, and believed behind-the-scenes prodding from Japan and South Korea.
While the US has publicly emphasized the importance of democracy and human rights in restoring bilateral relations with Myanmar, Washington's main concern is strategic: to keep China at bay and North Korea out. Myanmar has emerged as the frontline of the Obama administration's ''pivot'' towards Asia, or, in plain language, the US's China containment policy.
Revelations of North Korea's involvement in Myanmar's military affairs contributed to the US's decision to engage rather than isolate Myanmar after decades of imposing debilitating economic sanctions. The shift in Washington, however, means that Myanmar is now caught in the middle of a regional power game - as China is not expected to sit idly by while a strategically important neighbor and partner slips from its previous strong embrace.
US demands on Myanmar to cut ties with North Korea raises questions about the nature of their military relations. Why are North Koreans still on the ground at secretive military complexes despite Washington's new engagement policy, where military cooperation and even training of Myanmar military officers in the US are now under discussion? American clout has also helped to reintegrate Myanmar in the global community, including through desperately needed technical and financial support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
For almost a decade - from October 1983, when North Korean agents detonated a powerful bomb in the then capital Yangon that killed 21 people, including 17 visiting South Korean government officials, until the mid-1990s - there were no official exchanges between Myanmar and North Korea. But the two then pariah states later came together and North Korea became an important military ally of Myanmar.
North Korea has since exported artillery, truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems and other military equipment to Myanmar in exchange for rice and other foodstuff. North Korean tunneling experts were also spotted in Naypyidaw, assisting the Myanmar military in building underground bunker complexes. This was first exposed by Asia Times Online in 2006, which led to more reporting on the matter in the international media.
Most controversial, however, is North Korea's assistance to Myanmar's missile program. In late November and early December 2008, General Thura Shwe Mann - number three in command during junta rule and now the speaker of the Lower House of the Myanmar parliament - led a high-level delegation to Pyongyang, where they met General Kim Kyok-sik, chief of the North Korean military. The Myanmar delegation was taken on a tour of various defense facilities, production lines, radar stations and one of North Korea's missile factories.
On November 26, generals Shwe Mann and Kim signed a memorandum of understanding, which, according to the official internal analysis written by an officer in the Myanmar delegation, allowed for: ''The military of the two countries [to] provide aid and have joint efforts in building tunnels to keep air planes and ships and other military buildings and underground buildings. The military of the two countries will have joint efforts in modernizing weapons and military equipment and exchange experiences.''
The Myanmar report on the visit also stated that, ''From 09:05 until 10:10 local time (on November 28), the group went to Surface to Surface Missile (SCUD Missile) Factory and was welcomed by the Director Kim Su-gil. The group observed in detail how missiles were produced in the factory.'' Myanmar's own missile program, with North Korean assistance, began at about the same time, although Myanmar - according to Australian defense analyst Andrew Selth - had expressed interest in developing a missile system as early as in 2003.
Myanmar's bunker and tunneling programs, which began about 10 years ago, are believed by now to be largely finished. A number of North Korean technicians involved in those schemes have reportedly left the country. But North Korea is still supplying the country's defense industries with various kinds of equipment and expertise, according to a Myanmar military source familiar with the projects.
The military-to-military cooperation entails ''the production of portable anti-aircraft missiles in DI-10 (Defense Industry-10). Myanmar has to import integrated circuit chips from North Korea to assemble those. Batteries of ground-to-ground [North Korean supplied] 122mm multiple launch rocket systems vehicles have to be maintained. The Myanmar military also needs spare parts for radars,'' the Myanmar military source said. ''The Chinese would never sell sophisticated machinery or equipment and Russian smugglers are too cunning. In these circumstances, North Korea is still Myanmar's most reliable supplier.''
North Korea is not known to export ready-made missiles, but it does ship related technology and spare parts. The buyers, which also include countries such as Pakistan and Iran, then adapt the technology to suit their own needs and give the missiles indigenous names, such as the ''Ghauri'' in Pakistan and the ''Shahab'' in Iran.
DI-10, or ka pa sa 10 in the local language, is situated around Konegyi village near Minhla in Magway Region, where more than 600 soldiers and technicians work on a 600-acre (240 hectares) area. The actual facility was established in 1993 to produce missiles, surface-to-air missiles and rockets, but the construction of a more modern factory and the installment of production machinery did not take place until 2003-2004.
According to Myanmar military insiders, part of the facility is underground and North Korean tunneling experts assisted the Myanmar military in building the secret facilities. North Korean technicians are also reportedly taking part in the production of missiles and missile components, and this is believed to be the main site for missile research and development in Myanmar.
Another top-secret facility is at DI-20 (or ka pa sa 20) near Sidoktaya, also in Magway Region. Officers who have graduated from the Defense Services Technology Academy in Pyin-Oo-Lwin are stationed there along with at least 400 soldiers.
It is still unclear precisely why the Myanmar military believes it needs such sophisticated missile technology. A basic SCUD-type missile such as North Korea's Hwasong 5 or 6 has a range of 320-500 kilometers, while a Nodong, the kind of technology that Iran and Pakistan have acquired from Pyongyang, has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers. But does Myanmar have any regional enemies that need to be deterred from mounting attacks, which is the usual purpose for obtaining such weapons?
The concise answer is no, but there are other strategic reasons for developing a ''strong, capable and modern'' military, as then junta chairman Senior General Than Shwe emphasized in a speech as early as in 1996. In the past, the Myanmar Army was predominantly a light infantry force whose main duty was to fight the country's numerous ethnic and political insurgents. Now, many observers argue that the main purpose of the military is to provide a show of force to deter political opponents from challenging, as the 2008 constitution enshrines, its ''leading role'' in ''national politics''.
Moreover, the Myanmar military has visions - some would argue delusions - of grandeur. One intelligence source who spoke to Asia Times Online described the missile program as a ''phallic fantasy'', a Myanmar-produced large projectile that top generals would like to show off at the annual March 27 Armed Forces Day parade.
''Just imagine how proud they would be to see a truck towing a big and impressive missile past the grandstand,'' the source said.
But as Hagel's statement in Brunei made clear, the US is worried about such a development and has adopted a carrot-and-stick policy to deal with the issue. On July 2 this year, the US blacklisted Lieutenant-General Thein Htay, the head of Myanmar's Directorate of Defense Industries, who, a statement from the US Department of the Treasury said using the country's old name, ''is involved in the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma''. The statement curiously went on to state that the sanction ''does not target the Government of Burma, which has continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea''.
Thein Htay is reportedly furious over the sanctions imposed on him, saying - and rightly so - that he had only obeyed orders and acted on instructions from his superiors. Any sensible observer would agree with his assessment, as it would be nearly impossible for him to have acted independently over such a highly sensitive matter like missile cooperation with North Korea. Policymakers in Washington no doubt understand this, but wanted to send a strong signal to the Myanmar government that they are aware of the continued cooperation without directly confronting President Thein Sein.
At the same time, Washington continues to dangle strategic rewards for moving away from Pyongyang. While ramping up army-to-army relations with Myanmar would be problematic in Washington given the Myanmar army's abysmal human rights record, naval cooperation would seem a safer bet. Myanmar Vice President Nyan Htun was previously commander-in-chief of the navy with the rank of admiral.
He is one of eight Myanmar military officers listed by US military researcher Ravi Balaram as graduating from the US International Military Education and Training (IMET) program currently serving in ''positions of prominence''. Myanmar sent officers to the US for training before the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and military massacre of thousands of anti-government protesters. Those ties were severed as a result of the bloodbath. Now, Washington is considering whether Myanmar officers should once again be allowed to take part in IMET activities in the US.
The Myanmar Times newspaper reported that US naval attache to Myanmar Captain Sean Cannon met Myanmar Navy chief Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe in Naypyidaw on April 23 this year. It was no chance meeting: the day before Obama visited Myanmar on November 19 last year ''the US and Myanmar navies met quietly aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in the Andaman Sea'', the Myanmar Times report said. Other sources say that the Pentagon is keen to gain access to Myanmar's signals intelligence stations along the coast of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, which would enable the US to more closely monitor vital sea lanes between West and East Asia.
However, naval cooperation would undoubtedly put the US on a collision course with China. In the 1990s, China helped Myanmar upgrade its naval facilities and install radars on a number of locations along the said coastal areas. China also wanted to keep a close eye on maritime traffic between oil supplying nations in the Middle East and its own waters further to the east.
The Middle East is China's largest source of crude oil: according to an August 28 report by Reuters, ''In the first seven months of this year, China imported about 83 million tons of crude from the region, half its total, with top suppliers including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.''
How Myanmar will balance its old ties with China with its new friendship with the US remains to be seen. There are already indications that China is re-evaluating its hitherto nearly friction-free relationship with Myanmar, raising the specter of a possible new Cold War in Asia with Myanmar at its epicenter.
Myanmar's generals will thus need to weigh the risks of naval and military engagement with the US and China's likely response. This strategic calculation has no doubt influenced Myanmar's reluctance to cut military ties with North Korea, despite the US's constant prodding and targeted sanction.
The geopolitical struggle for influence in Myanmar has commenced in earnest. China is no doubt fully aware of the US's designs to contain its influence and not duped by the US's supposed emphasis on democracy and human rights in its advances towards Myanmar.
While it is difficult to predict Myanmar's next steps - including its response to growing US pressure to sever ties with North Korea - analysts would be wise to look away from Thein Sein's administration and towards the military, where power over national security interests is still fully vested.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
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