Attrition: Burma Gets a Big Bang For The Buck

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November 11, 2007: A recent attempt to overthrow the dictatorship in Myanmar (Burma) failed. Quick police action against civilians, and Buddhist monks who organized and led the demonstrations, resulted in about 200 dead, over a thousand injured and at least 3,000 arrested. It all began two months ago, Buddhist monks, mobilized popular unrest over an increase in the price of fuel. The unrest was suppressed with by arrests, raids on monasteries and shutting down cell phone and Internet service.

Similar disturbances in 1998 resulted in violence that left over 3,000 dead (mostly demonstrators). The military are not just killing people, but very effectively shutting down any organization the demonstrators have. The army and police have planned for this sort of thing better than the demonstrators. The Burmese dictatorship is one of the most efficient on the planet. The generals who run the country not only organize well inside Burma, but also make sure that their larger neighbors don't interfere.

International calls for neighboring China, India and Bangladesh to lean on the military dictatorship in Myanmar brought forth, very little. China announced that it had said some diplomatically appropriate, but essentially harmless, things to the generals running Myanmar (Burma). Actually, the Myanmar dictatorship, and the Chinese one, have gotten along well for decades. First, in a joint campaign to shut down the heroin production along their common border. The main reason Afghanistan is now producing most of the world's heroin, is because Burma and China worked together to eradicate it in their mutual back yard. More recently, there are the Chinese companies that are developing Burma's natural gas deposits, with energy starved China being the main customer.

India has been quiet about the pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma (Myanmar), which borders India's restive northeastern tribal areas. Both India and Burma have problems with the tribes on their mutual border, and, although democratic India dislikes the military dictatorship in Burma, both nations have been increasingly cooperating against the tribes in the past few years.

India, and Bangladesh have made an informal deal with Myanmar to drive rebels from each others borders. Over the last few years, the three countries have worked out these deals, to rid themselves of rebel groups that had been driven to the border, and only survived because they could flee across the border and set up camp until the troops hunting them were gone. For decades, Myanmar's neighbors avoided such cooperative relations, as a form of protest against the military dictatorship in Myanmar. But now, the need to deal with various rebel organizations has overcome this distaste. India is also selling weapons to Myanmar, to obtain a little more enthusiastic cooperation in the anti-rebel department.

Myanmar has been ruled by a military dictatorship for the last 45 years. The generals have run the economy into the ground, and succeeded in suppressing all attempts at establishing a representative government. They have also managed to maintain the support of a fairly large army. How have they managed to pull this off for so long? Simple, the generals have concentrated on maintaining the loyalty of the officers and senior NCOs in the armed forces. This is done by making the military a well paid, by Burmese standards, profession, and select carefully from among those who apply to be career soldiers.

About one percent of Burma's 50 million people are in the armed forces (including paramilitary intelligence and security secret police type organizations.) The secret police keep an eye on the troops, and the troops keep an eye (and often gun pointed at) the people. Myanmar only spends about a billion dollars a year on the armed forces, most of that going to pay and living expenses of infantry troops.

All this goes to show that military power is more than high tech weapons and using a lot of firepower. Having friends in the right places has a power greater than masses of trigger-happy troops.

 


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