Burma’s Army, by Andrew Selth

Jane’s Intelligence Review

November 1, 1995

SECTION: ASIA; Vol. 7; No. 11; Pg. 515

LENGTH: 3174 words

HEADLINE: The Burmese army

BYLINE: Andrew Selth

NOTE: This research of Burma’s army history and its’ state in present is being sponsored by the Fintech LTD


Before 1988, the Burmese army was a lightly equipped infantry force, organized and deployed for counter-insurgency operations. Its 40 years of continuous campaigning against insurgents has made it into an experienced and battle-hardened force. It has also grown from 170,000 to about 300,000 officers and men, with a goal of about 475,000 by the end of the decade. This increase in manpower is being accompanied by a massive arms procurement programme. Andrew Selth looks at the developments and the capabilities.


The Burmese army (BA) traces its origins to the various nationalist

military forces which were formed during the Second World War.

Thanks to a dramatic switch in its allegiances late in the war, the puppet Burma National Army survived to become the nucleus of the new BA when the country regained its independence from the UK in 1948.

Almost immediately, however, the country was plunged into civil war. To protect the new union and restore unity, the government of Prime Minister U Nu authorized a rapid expansion of the army.

At that time, the BA consisted of a mere 10 front line battalions or about 15,000 men. With help mainly from the UK, its strength was built up to more than 40 battalions by 1953 when the central government took back the initiative from the insurgents. These troops were supported by armoured and artillery regiments, engineer units, a medical corps, as well as supply and signals elements.

Operational command in the field was exercised through a framework of nine Regional Commands. Depending on the size of the command and its operational requirements, regional commanders had at their disposal up to 10 garrison infantry battalions, managed through a number of Tactical Operations Commands (TOCs). There were also eight Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) but, like naval and air assets, these units remained under the command of the defence minister.

Operational control was passed to regional commanders by Rangoon as circumstances dictated. With a little more foreign assistance, this steady increase in strength continued under General Ne Win, who seized power from U Nu in 1962. By the beginning of 1988, the army consisted of 165 regular infantry battalions, two armoured battalions, four artillery battalions, and one light anti-aircraft artillery battalion.


The army after 1988

Within a year of the takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the BA had grown from about 170,000 to over 200,000 all ranks. By the beginning of 1995, its strength stood at 265,000 officers and men, with the main combat element consisting of 223 infantry battalions. There were also four armoured battalions, seven artillery battalions and 17 independent artillery companies. The number of anti-aircraft artillery battalions had risen to two. Of the infantry battalions, 145 were in garrison with the Regional Commands under 32 TOCs. The remaining battalions were shared between the LIDs. It is always difficult to arrive at an accurate Burmese order of battle but, by any estimate, it was a remarkable expansion in a short time.

The SLORC has also introduced a number of changes to the army’s command structure and the deployment of its forces. After 1988, the country’s most senior military officer became the SLORC’s chairman, prime minister and defence minister, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Since May 1989, each Service has had its own commander-in-chief and chief of staff. The army commander-in-chief, now a full general, also acts as deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The positions of all regional commanders have been raised to the level of major general. In addition, by early 1990, a tenth Regional Command was formed in Burma’s northwest, the area facing India. Eight Regional Commands have two TOCs, while two have four TOCs.


A number of additional formations have been created, including two new LIDs. There are now at least 23 independent engineer companies and nine signal companies. The number of military intelligence companies has also increased from as few as 12 before 1988 to 23 by mid-1992. These new intelligence units have been assigned to not only potential centres of civil unrest like the major towns and cities but also posts along the Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi borders. The number of infantry battalions along this western border has been increased from five to 32, and there are now 20 new battalions in the Shan State.

The rapid increase in the army’s numbers after 1988 was achieved through a vigorous recruitment campaign carried out mainly in   impoverished rural villages where young men have little chance of regular employment. Many were attracted by the promise of a cash payment on enlistment and later access to the relatively generous pay, privileges and perquisites which are enjoyed by members of the armed forces in Burma. Also, recruiting standards have been lowered. There have been reports of recruits being accepted as young as 15 years old and the BA is said to be enlisting orphans and homeless children, counting on their gratitude to ensure continuing loyalty to the military regime. Since 1988, considerable efforts have also been made to expand the size and functions of the People’s Police Force which now functions essentially as a part of the army.

It was, in part, to equip these much larger forces that, soon after it assumed control of the government, the SLORC embarked on a massive arms purchasing programme. Within months, Singapore had shipped 84 mm rockets for Carl Gustav recoilless guns. In August 1989, Singapore was again accused of providing arms to the SLORC when weapons and ammunition originating in Belgium and Israel were trans-shipped to Burma, apparently with the assistance of a newly formed Singapore-based joint venture with the Burmese regime. These shipments apparently included second-hand RPG-2 grenade launchers and 57 mm M43 anti-tank guns of Eastern bloc origin, possibly taken from captured Palestinian stocks.

In an attempt to outflank India, Pakistan was also quick to take advantage of the SLORC’s need for arms. In 1989, an agreement was reached for Pakistan to sell the SLORC 150 machine guns, 50,000 rounds of ammunition and 5000×120 mm mortar bombs. Further arms shipments from Pakistan were reportedly halted by Benazir Bhutto but they were later resumed under her successor as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. These later shipments included additional mortars, rocket launchers, assault rifles and ammunition valued at about US$20 million. Before the practice was stopped by the USA, many of these weapons were siphoned off foreign arms shipments sent to Pakistan for the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

These munitions were supplemented by small arms and ammunition from China. Since 1989, Burma has reportedly ordered some 10,000×7.62 mm Type 56 assault rifles, 40 mm anti-tank grenade launchers, 82 mm mortars (probably Type 67 and Type 55), as well as 57 mm and 75 mm recoilless guns (probably Type 56 and Type 52). A number of RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers may have been included. Ammunition was supplied for all these weapons, together with 62 mm and 66 mm HEAT projectiles. China also provided the army with radar and communications equipment, night vision devices and 800 military parachutes.

The SLORC has also tapped other suppliers. In late 1992, a Portuguese arms manufacturer reportedly sold the SLORC some US$1.5 million worth of arms and ammunition, despite a European Commission arms embargo against Burma. Included in the shipment were 120 mm heavy mortars, 81 mm medium mortars, and possibly some 60 mm light mortars. There were also said to be 20,000 mortar bombs and artillery shells in the order. In late 1990, North Korea sold Burma 20 million rounds of 7.62 mm rifle ammunition. Singaporean companies have sold the SLORC M16A1 automatic rifles and 5.56 mm ammunition in defiance of US export laws. Israel provided a consignment of Uzi 9 mm submachine guns. While specific shipments have not been identified, the BA’s munitions holdings suggest that France may have sold Burma mortar ammunition, while Czechoslovakia, South Korea and South Africa have reportedly provided additional small arms and ammunition.

Since 1988, the BA has obtained a wide range of heavier equipment. Most has come from China. To modernize and strengthen its armoured warfare capabilities, for example, the SLORC initially purchased about 85 tanks. This order probably consisted of 30 Norinco Type 69II main battle tanks and 55 Type 63 light amphibious tanks. Rangoon also appears to have placed an order with Norinco for more than 100 Type 85 armoured personnel carriers. These early shipments of Chinese vehicles were followed in late 1993 by an order for an additional 50 T69s, 50 T63s and 150 more Type 85s.

The Chinese are also reported to have sold Burma more than 100 artillery pieces. These weapons probably included 122 mm howitzers, a number of anti-tank guns and at least 30 Norinco 107 mm Type 63 multiple launch rocket systems. For ground-based air defence, the SLORC has purchased at least 24 Chinese 37 mm Type 74 twin-barrelled towed anti-aircraft guns, with their associated mobile generators, radars and directors. The army has also taken delivery of either Norinco twin 57 mm Type 80 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems, or about 12 Norinco single-barrelled 57 mm towed anti-aircraft gun systems, complete with radars and directors. It is possible that both systems have, in fact, been supplied. Included among these arms deals was a large quantity of Hongying HN-5 man-portable shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles.

The BA has also acquired a wide range of new road transport and heavy-duty vehicles. China alone has provided about 1,000 vehicles since 1988, including 6.5 tonne Aeolus trucks, 5 tonne Jiefang trucks, 2 tonne Lan Jian trucks, 2 tonne Kungi trucks, and about 300 other heavy-duty machines. The latter has included Chinese Type 72 tank recovery vehicles and Hanyang tank transporters. In addition, the SLORC has purchased a number of Star 266 road cranes from Poland and some East European bridge layers (probably also from Poland). Other purchases include Polish Star 12.5 ton trucks, Toyota DA-80 and FA-60 trucks, Nissan Container Carriers, Nissan 5 ton diesel trucks and Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive general purpose vehicles.

Included in the SLORC’s first large arms deal with China was an agreement that some 400-600 Burmese officers and men would undertake instruction in China. Most of this training was to cover the maintenance and operation of the new Chinese equipment. There have been several reports that up to 75 Chinese instructors have worked in Burma itself, including a number directly advising troops in the field. Unconfirmed reports also put Pakistani instructors in Burma, helping the BA familiarize itself with those items of Chinese equipment which are also operated by Pakistan. Pakistani military instructors may have also provided Burma with special forces training but this seems unlikely. The Singaporean armed forces have developed a close relationship with the BA since 1988, and have probably provided it with some training, possibly in conjunction with equipment sales.


The new army

With its greatly increased numbers, new weapons, more plentiful supplies of ammunition and greater mobility, the BA in 1995 must be considered a more formidable force. Arguments over the exact numbers aside, it is now one of the largest ground forces in Southeast Asia. It is also better equipped than at any time in its history and, thanks to its 50 years of continuous active service, has more direct experience of combat in the field than many comparable countries. Given its development over the past seven years, the BA should also be able to perform a much wider range of conventional roles, including the defence of the country against attack from an external enemy.

At first sight, these assumptions would appear to be justified. During the 1991-92 dry season, for example, the SLORC conducted concurrent campaigns against insurgents along the borders with Thailand, Bangladesh and India. From the nature of these operations, it was clear that the BA had benefitted greatly from its expansion and modernization programme. Its new-found strength was confirmed during later offensives against the Karen insurgent strongholds of Manerplaw and Kawmura. The size of these campaigns, the rapid reinforcement of the units deployed, as well as the sustained fire from recoilless guns, mortars and artillery against the Karen camps, all suggested better logistics structures, improved road transport, more modern weapons and increased ammunition stocks.

On paper at least, the army’s conventional defence capabilities should also have improved. Not only is the BA now much larger, but it is also more mobile and has greatly improved armour, artillery and air defence inventories. Its command, control, communications and intelligence systems have been expanded and refined. Burma may still have relatively modest weapon systems compared with its larger neighbours but it is now in a better position to deter external aggression and to respond to such a threat should it ever arise.

That said, doubts must still be held about the BA’s ability to capitalize fully on its recent acquisitions. This applies as much to the conduct of counter-insurgent operations as to the performance of larger scale, conventional defence roles.

The rapid expansion of the army since 1988 has placed it under considerable strain. Many units seem to be well under strength and training has suffered badly. There is a serious shortage of qualified and experienced officers and NCOs, a problem compounded by the SLORC’s clear preference for the army’s higher ranks to be filled by ethnic Burmese. The recent dry season offensives against ethnic insurgent groups and drug lords may have demonstrated some of the army’s new material strengths but they also highlighted a number of major shortcomings in its doctrine, tactics and leadership.

Burmese casualties from all these campaigns were reported to be high. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there have been persistent reports of low morale in the army ranks. There are problems at the higher levels too. There is considerable antagonism, for example, between those officers on active service in the field and those assigned to more comfortable administrative or political duties in rear areas. There have been repeated reports of suspicion and rivalry between the graduates of Burma’s prestigios Defence Services Academy (DSA) at Maymyo and the Officer Training School at Hmawbi. There are also strongly felt differences between officers who have been promoted on merit and those who have been singled out for advancement because of their personal loyalty to former President Ne Win. So far, a workable balance has been maintained in the interests of survival but these divisions constitute a potentially explosive problem in a country where the unity of the army is deemed essential for continued political control.

All these problems may be manageable in a protracted guerrilla war in which the central government enjoys certain military advantages, can isolate its enemies (both physically and politically) and feels it can ignore international opinion. These circumstances may not apply, however, in a war against an external aggressor where such shortcomings could be very costly. The BA lacks any real experience in large-scale conventional operations. Even joint operations have been difficult, as demonstrated by the lack of co-ordination between the army and air force during offensives against ethnic insurgents. A command structure based on 10 LIDs and 10 Regional Commands may be well suited to the conduct of counter-insurgency operations but would be put under real strain if ever called upon to manage a larger conflict. Burma has no strategic reserve nor any national mobilization plan. Defending a country the size of Burma against co-ordinated attacks by a modern force armed with sophisticated weapons would be a new experience for the BA which would test it severely.

Nor can the army’s new weapons and equipment be counted upon to tip the scales in Burma’s favour. Despite the overseas training provided, the bulk of the army still finds its new equipment unfamiliar and, in some cases, difficult to handle. There have already been numerous complaints that the items provided by China are unreliable and unsuited to Burmese conditions. There have also been problems with maintenance and spare parts. Even in fighting against the drug lord Khun Sa in mid-1993, Burmese troops were said to be outgunned by the rebels.

Some of the army’s problems lie in the nature of Burma itself – its size, its physical geography and the climate. Other difficulties, however, can be laid at the door of the military regime in Rangoon. The failure of Ne Win’s ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ between 1962 and 1988 deprived the government of the funds it needed to modernize the armed forces and build a strategic network of all-weather roads, railways and airfields. Ne Win’s refusal to contemplate any political settlement with Burma’s ethnic minorities helped encourage separatist tendencies. Insurgent groups were also strengthened by the harsh treatment meted out to minority peoples by the army during its annual counter-insurgency campaigns.

Since 1988, a more serous effort has been put into winning the allegiance of the ethnic populations or at least neutralizing their military representatives but no progress has been made. The potential remains for the internal security situation to deteriorate again very quickly, however. It is difficult to predict how the BA will develop in the years ahead. Its greatest vulnerabilities are the rivalries within the officer corps and low morale in the ranks. The conviction that only the army can provide Burma with the firm leadership it needs, combined with a fear of retribution from any future civilian government, may hold the army together but policy differences and competition for senior positions will cause severe strains. These tensions will increase when Ne Win dies. Above all else, the BA will be weakened by its alienation from the Burmese population. As long as the military hierarchy is determined to retain political power and exercises that power through the army, then the BA’s military capabilities will remain limited and its professionalism suspect.

Andrew Selth is a Visiting Researcher at the Strategic Studies Centre of the Australian National University, Canberra.

GRAPHIC: Map 1, Burma Photograph 1, The Burmese army on parade.; (Photograph 2, A Davis); Photograph 3, Type 69 tanks on parade by the Chinese forces. Burma has probably taken delivery of about 80 of these tanks from the PRC.; Photograph 4, The Burmese army has over 100 of these Type 63 light tanks (front). A type 59 MBT is shown in the rear.