Procurement: Myanmar Rebels Improvise to Win


May 22, 2024: In Myanmar (Burma) rural rebels, especially those belonging to tribal militias, continue their 34 year-old fight against an army dictatorship. The army was established in 1948 when Britain ended its colonial rule in South Asia. This meant Pakistan, India and Burma were now independent of colonial rule. While India managed to establish and sustain a democracy, Burma had persistent problems with its newly formed army and generals who believed they should rule rather than an unpredictable elected government. This dictatorship first appeared in 1962 when the generals took over and ran the government until they ran out of money and were unable to cope with the decades of sanctions imposed by most other nations.

The 1962 military government collapsed in 1988 and an elected government took over. That was made possible by concessions made to the generals that allowed them to keep most of their wealth and be granted immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while they were in power. This deal did not hold and since 2010 there have been continued efforts by the generals to regain power. The generals had stolen billions while they were running the country and managed to hang on to enough of that money to continue breaking agreements and attempting to regain power. The key problem was that too many Burmese believed these compromises were too lenient and that the generals must be punished for decades of misrule and atrocities against eh Burmese people. The generals also had the support of many wealthy business families in the major cities. These families owned businesses, including agricultural operations and provided the army with most of its officers, some of whom became generals. The families and the military were still a minority and unwilling to give up their political power.

As popular anger at the generals and wealthy families grew, it led to a series of rebellions and attempts at compromise. As these compromises continued to fail, the military became weaker and less able to stage more attacks on democracy. The latest military takeover took place in 2021 and the generals were unable to put down all the insurrections that resulted. Over the last two years the army has lost control over more and more territory. By 2024 all they had were some of the major cities and their suburbs. Cut off from most of the countryside means the cities cannot feed themselves. The military is retreating into the capital city and fortifying it to keep rebels out. The military has adopted scorched earth tactics to inflict major casualties on the rebels, including unarmed civilians. About five percent of the population has been driven from their homes and a third of the population lacks adequate food and other necessities. Hunger is increasing and the rebels do not have the resources to deal with all the hunger and homelessness.

What the rebels are doing is improvising to build needed military equipment, especially quadcopter UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to keep an eye on the enemy. Some UAVs are equipped with a weapons release mechanism. A hand grenade is light enough to be carried by the larger quadcopters and dropped on troops. This improvisation keeps the rebels going because most of the rebel military supplies are captured from the military or, like the armed quad copters, improvised. The rebels have managed to obtain some 3D printers and build even more themselves. The rebels, many of the university students, are able to put to use technical skills they recently learned in the classroom.

Currently the rebels are using their recently formed government to increase the pressure on the shrinking military forces. Few of the generals are fleeing the country, mainly because their names and misdeeds are known and they will have a hard time finding sanctuary anywhere.

The military rapidly collapsed as the rebels wore down their resolve and morale. Many army generals were surprised at how suddenly and quickly the troops in the north lost their will to fight and either deserted or joined the rebels. These attitudes spread quickly. In the capital, Naypyidaw, radio, and telephone calls from army units grew increasingly desperate. Many of the calls were for air support, by armed helicopters or fixed wing aircraft. The Myanmar Air Force had few attack aircraft, and most were Chinese or Russian jet fighters, many with pilots who were now unwilling to carry out attacks on civilians, even if they were armed rebels. There was much anger over the many airstrikes the government had ordered against armed rebels and unarmed civilians. The military government was weakened by sanctions and was unable to pay the troops on time or at all. This was one reason nearly 20,000 soldiers deserted, many of them joining the rebels.

The generals had trashed the economy and put more and more Burmese out of work and without access to food, the Internet, or the banking system. The resistance not only continued, but it also kept increasing in numbers of armed rebels and the unwillingness of soldiers to again make war on their own people.

The generals had another potential problem; they had become more dependent on their Chinese business partners. The Chinese were not only partners-in-crime with the generals, but they were also the source of cash for the generals and more weapons for the army. The generals considered the Chinese connection the vital key to victory, or fatal flaw in continued efforts to take over the government. It all depended on how much Burmese were willing to resist China. This is important in many ways and the result of regional changes that have taken place over the last few centuries.

Many Burmese diplomats outside the country at the time of the latest army takeover continued to support the elected government. Some Western countries reported that the Burmese military was seeking to kidnap or kill these rogue diplomats. Not to be outdone, in the north one of the tribal militias offered $3,000 to any Burmese soldiers who defected with his weapon, and safe passage out of the country. The military has refused to negotiate and refused UN offers to mediate negotiations.

The rebels up north obtained weapons from the army. Thousands of soldiers deserted with their weapons and some of these men knew where the army had stockpiled weapons and ammunition. Army officers usually remained loyal to the generals, but they were outnumbered and often killed by the rebels or their own men. Within a few weeks, most military units in the north had disappeared because of desertions and mutinies rather than attacks by the rebels.

The Burmese Army initially tried to keep the death toll down. Six months after the 2021 coup only about a thousand civilians had died and very few soldiers were killed. The generals were under pressure to pay close attention to troop morale and realized that another boost in soldier pay would not be enough to maintain loyalty in a force where most troops belong to extended families with many members who are not in the military and more of whom are being shot at by the military.

The Chinese realize that if the Burmese could avoid open warfare with an increasingly angry population, the generals might prevail. More Burmese were obtaining weapons and using them, and the generals had a hard time portraying dead or wounded soldiers as martyrs. None of Burma’s neighbors are eager and ready to invade, as India did in 1971 Bangladesh. Bangladesh consists of a Moslem Bengali population. Most Bengalese were Moslem, which is why you had East Pakistan from 1948 to 1970. But a third of Bengalis were Hindu, including a few Christians. In 1970, not all Moslem Bengalis lived in East, or West Pakistan. The massacre of Bengalis in East Pakistan generated a lot of Indian support for intervention. There are often times when ethnicity trumps religion.

Such is not the case in Burma, where the Buran group, while possessing ancient ethnic connections with the Han in China, now consider themselves, like the Han-related majorities in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as very distinct ethnicities and want as little to do with China as possible. This is a common pattern on all the current borders of China, where Han who wanted no part of a Chinese empire are still struggling to escape Chinese Han domination.

In Burma the 2021 coup was another expression of Han hostility. The continued resistance developed an armed component within 90 days. The CDM or Civil Disobedience Movement was mainly about organizing peaceful protests but, as more civilians were shot, some CDM factions began shooting back. Worse, there were organized attacks as well. This began when someone fired five rockets at the Shante Air Force base outside the city of Mandalay. The rockets caused no damage or injuries and were believed aimed at the Chinese CH-3A UAVs that were delivered in 2015 and used mainly to keep an eye on tribal rebels in the north. After the coup the army asked China for assistance in using all the manned and unmanned aircraft and helicopters China and Russia has sold to Burma in the last decade. The military had imported $2.5 billion worth of military gear since 2010. China provided 58 percent of it and Russia 33 percent.

Now these weapons are being used against the nationwide uprising. China is something of an expert on this as it is installing a Big Brother level surveillance in China. An elected Burmese government would never divert the huge sums required to purchase and install Chinese Big Brother levels of surveillance. The Burmese military is another matter, especially when it has taken over the government again. At the moment the military is in charge and China sees another major export sale looming. Better surveillance capabilities will provide immediate help to suppress the rebels.

China faces huge economic losses if the Burmese military government loses, and knows this is a real threat because the military government has already lost control over most of the country. China is a major foreign investor in Burma and its projects often displace Burmese illegally and without compensation. Most of this misbehavior occurred in the northern border areas where hostile tribes live. These tribes tend to have armed militias that have been fighting the military for over sixty years. Chinese investments gave the tribal rebels more targets for unarmed protests and armed attacks. China will do whatever it can to protect those investments, which include oil and natural gas pipelines from southern China to the northeast Burma coast. The pipelines have come under increasing attacks.

The first thing the new military government did after the 2021 coup was assure China that Chinese assets would be protected. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Soon Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China.

The Burmese Army has long been at the center of most illegal economic activity in Burma. Some estimates indicate that at least $20 billion has been illegally moved out of Burma during the fifty years of military rule (which shows how poor Burma is). Almost all of that involved military personnel or their gangster and commercial allies. Military families still control a lot of the economy and most of the wealthy families in Burma have a military connection. The illegal cash leaving amounted on average to about six percent of GDP. The military may have surrendered much of their political power in 2010, but they held onto their considerable personal wealth.

The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia, but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked since the coup and a few have been set on fire. The military was forced to assign more troops and hire some armed guards to protect the Chinese businesses.

The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agreement with the elected government in 2016, refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests during the last six months. Despite most of the economy being crippled, the military still has income because during their decades of rule they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with over a billion dollars a year, assuming the Chinese operations can keep functioning. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically but is one of the few nations supporting the military government.

China is in uncharted territory here but is mainly risking money, not a lot of Chinese lives. The Chinese see this as an opportunity to see how far this new version of conquest by economic aggression can go. This is an important experiment because it is a new version of the tactics the Europeans, especially the British, used centuries ago to replace Chinese dominance of East Asia.

One thing the current Burmese conflict is unlikely to change is the dominance of the government by ethnic Burmese (Burman) people at the expense of the third of the population consisting of minorities. The army always played on this during the decades after the 1962 coup. Even after elections were resumed the army still had allies in the form of militant Buddhist nationalists. Another thing that unites and divides the country is religion. Some 80 percent of Burmese are Buddhists, including many of the rebellious tribes in the north. A third of the non-Buddhists are Christians, mainly in the tribal north and about 30 percent are Hindu. The ethnic Burmese are most hostile towards Moslems, who make up only about four percent of the population and less than ten percent of the minorities. Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 nearly a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists. China assures the Burmese generals that they have proven solutions for all these problems.




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