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Foreign Weapons Kill the Blockade on Burma

Foreign Weapons Kill the Blockade on Burma

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Demands for an international blockade against weapons sales to Burma, in response to the military regime's detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, will face difficult challenges from defiant Chinese, Russian, East European and North Korean arms dealers.

"Nothing less than a worldwide ban on the sale of arms to the regime will do, as a first step," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after Burmese authorities sentenced Mrs. Suu Kyi on August 11 to an additional 18 months house arrest.

A court also sentenced an American, John Yettaw, to seven years hard labor for illegal activity when he secretly swam to Mrs. Suu Kyi's villa and stayed for two nights.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, admitted to sheltering Mr. Yettaw so he could dodge arrest for his crimes.

"I acted without malice, simply with intent to ensure that the one concerned should not suffer any adverse consequences," Mrs. Suu Kyi, 64, told the court in her closing statement.

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Calls to punish Burma's military regime by widening an American and European Union ban on weapon sales, however, would mean targeting the Southeast Asian nation's wealthy, giant northern neighbor, China, which provides most of Burma's deadliest equipment.

"Burmese soldiers have used not only Chinese-made military equipment such as helmets, uniforms, boots and bayonets, but also munitions, tanks, small arms, artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, jet fighters, naval vessels," and other items, said a report published by the respected Norway-based Burmese dissident group, Democratic Voice of Burma.

Burma, a country also known as Myanmar, is considered to be suffering one of the world's most brutal regimes.

"China has been the principal source of arms supplies to the Myanmar forces, followed by India, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and other countries," said London-based Amnesty International.

During the past 20 years, China supplied Burma with "tanks, armored personnel carriers, military aircraft and artillery pieces such as howitzers, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns," Amnesty said.

Serbia and Montenegro sold dozens of howitzers during 2004-2006, while Ukraine signed a contract in 2004 to supply 1,000 armored personnel carriers, after a 2002 deal to the export 14 T-72C tanks, Amnesty said.

Burma's weapons purchases remain mostly shrouded, and many agreements are difficult to confirm.

Some details appear in a 2009 book by Burmese defence analyst Maung Aung Myoe, titled, "Building the Tatmadaw," which is the Burmese junta's name for its military.

Other descriptions filter through pro-democracy Burmese media, including Irrawaddy magazine which is based in Thailand.

"Burma has bought more than 100 jet fighters and aircraft from China since 1990," Irrawaddy reported in its August issue.

"Burma has also bought smaller numbers of jet fighters, helicopters and military transport planes from Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia.

"Russian, Ukrainian and Polish MI-12, MI-17, G-4 and Sokol helicopters now dominate Burma's air force," Irrawaddy said.

Burma, however, reportedly lacks enough skilled pilots.

During the past several years, Burma bought a dozen MiG-29 jet fighters, apparently to square off against its eastern neighbor, Thailand which boasts U.S.-built F-16s and other aircraft.

The two Buddhist nations were historic enemies, and have continued to squabble along their border, though Thailand purchases much of its natural gas from Burma and is widely seen as economically dependent on smooth relations.

America's California-based Chevron, France's Total, and Thailand's PTT own much of the Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma to Thailand, providing the regime with its largest source of income.

On Burma's side of the frontier, however, rival groups of minority ethnic guerrillas have fought for the past six decades for independence or autonomy.

Much to the dismay of Burma's military, the guerrillas have repeatedly tried to enjoy sanctuary in Thailand where they have resupplied, tended to their wounded, and campaigned for foreign support.

Thailand is bolstered by strong U.S. and other Western backing, and is a non-NATO military ally of Washington, which has sparked fears in Burma that the smoldering guerrilla skirmishes could evolve into a proxy war to destabilize the resource-rich hermit nation.

Norway's Finance Ministry meanwhile has lashed out against China's military aid to Burma.

"The Ministry of Finance has excluded the Chinese company Dongfeng Motor Group Co. Ltd from the Government Pension Fund -- Global -- based on advice from the Council on Ethics," Norway's Finance Ministry said earlier this year.

"A large number of military trucks manufactured by Dongfeng have been observed at the border crossing between China and Burma. Norges Bank has written to the company about this. The response from Dongfeng revealed that a subsidiary company sold 900 trucks to Burma during the first half of 2008," a ministry statement said.

"The trucks have been adapted for military purposes and moreover have significant military applications," Norway's Finance Ministry said.

Burma's military seized power in a 1962 coup.

Extensive U.S. and European economic embargoes against Burma, along with the regime's widespread corruption and disastrous financial polices, have impoverished the nation and forced it to rely on sanction-busting allies.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in a 1990 nationwide election, but the military cancelled the results, refused to allow her to rule, and has kept her under house arrest for about 14 of the past 20 years.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is

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