Procurement: 3D Printers Go To War


June 11, 2024: Myanmar (Burma) has been at war with itself since 2021 when northern tribal rebels and most Myanmar civilians rebelled against the military government. By the end of 2023 there was another unexpected uprising against the Myanmar military government. This began in the north, where tribal militias have been fighting the army for decades. That wore down the resolve and morale of the army. Many of the 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 in the north 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 over 15,000 soldiers deserted, many of them joining the rebels.

Many of these soldiers surrendered their weapons and walked off to find their way back to their families. The rebels knew that they would face a lot more soldiers as they marched south in more heavily populated areas. The rebels needed weapons for all the northern men volunteering. The solution turned out to be on the internet where inexpensive 3D printers could be purchased and used to manufacture the components needed for crude 9mm pistols. These enabled more rebels to rob or ambush police or individual soldiers and steal their weapons.

Using 3D printers to manufacture these crude pistols is a time consuming process but the persistent rebels turned out more and more of these weapons and slowly created so many armed rebels that the military government now expects to make a last stand in the towns and cities in southern Myanmar. This time there will be no negotiations with the military, which has proved to be untrustworthy and senior officers are determined to somehow survive this final campaign in the south. The soldiers these officers command continue to desert despite offers of higher pay and benefits. The officers have a well earned reputation of promising much and delivering little. This means they will have a difficult time gathering enough troops to defend the towns and cities in the south, where most of the population lives.

This mess was the aftereffect of yet another military coup in early 2021, a decade after the military government, which had been in power since 1962 finally gave in to demands for freedom and democracy. This happened by 2010 as a result of the generals failing to run the economy or deal with the rebellious northern tribes. The military negotiated a deal with the democrats that left the military with some of their political power as well as immunity from prosecution or retribution for a long list of past crimes.

Once elections were held, the generals realized they had underestimated the degree of popular anger at the decades of military misrule. After 2011, with Burma governed by a government answerable to the people, not a military caste, there were calls for canceling the political privileges the military had retained as part of their agreement to allow peaceful transfer of power. The late 2020 nationwide elections put into power a government that finally had the votes, and determination, to cut the military down to size and make them much less capable of another coup. The generals moved faster than the new government and once more took control of the country in early 2021.

The generals found that it was not as easy as the early 1960s. This time there was much less compliance and a lot more defiance. In fact, most Burmese acted the way they voted, despite the greater firepower and, so far, resolve of the generals. The army has 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 make war once more 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 the coup plan. 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.

In mid-2021 the military declared themselves the provisional government. There were vague assurances of new elections, but few voters believed the voting would be free and fair. China promptly recognized the provisional military government. Meanwhile the supporters of the ousted government organized themselves as the NUG, or National Unity Government and sought to gain foreign support, while also avoiding capture or death by the military. Many Burmese diplomats outside the country at the time of the coup 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.

Unlike 2010, this time the military sees their situation as do or die. Too many Burmese now want the military leaders dead or in prison. The Burmese avoided civil war for decades after the 1962 coup and everyone seems to believe this was not the correct way to go about it. Now the Burmese have to see what, if any, military assistance they can obtain from foreign supporters. 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 rather than attacks by the rebels.

Burma was until 1948 part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia and one of the last additions. In 1885 Britain took control of what is now Burma after nearly a century of commercial and territorial conflicts between the expanding Burmese monarchy and the British East India Company, the economic engine that powered the effort to form what would, for about a century, become the largest component of the British colonial empire. Burma was a unique addition to the empire as it was the first large possession whose population was East Asian (Han) while the rest of India was Indo-European. The majority of Burmese were descendants of Han tribes that had migrated, at least three thousand years ago, from what is now southern China. About the same time the Central Asian nomads who became dominant in western Eurasia, poured into India, and kept going for centuries until they dominated their less aggressive but culturally and economically advanced predecessors. Same thing happened in south-east Asia but for several reasons the expansions halted in Burma, northeast India, Tibet and Central Asia.

The Indo-European Indians were far more culturally and technologically advanced than their European cousins. Indians were very active traders, mainly by sea across the Indian Ocean. When the Europeans began their Age of Exploration in the 1400s, once they reached East Africa and the Persian Gulf, they encountered Indian traders who had already been there for over a thousand years. The British did not come to South Asia to build an empire but to trade. Empire-building was a side effect of trade disputes. The South Asian British colonial rule only lasted for about two centuries and it ended when the British realized they were losing a lot of money maintaining it.

Burma, like India, had been a collection of feuding kingdoms when the British arrived. Modern Burma long consisted of southern Burma, where the ethnic Burmese (Burans) dominated. In the north, as in northeast India, there was an even larger and more diverse collection of tribes that had long maintained their independence. The British persuaded the tribes to become part of the new democratic Burma. A similar collection of tribes in northeast India made a similar deal. Many of the tribal peoples were not happy with the new central government and that produced over seventy years of rebellion and unrest.

Democratic India eventually negotiated new peace deals with the separatists among the tribes. The 1948 democratic Burma tried to do the same but continued resistance of the tribes contributed to the longest-lasting military government in South Asia. There was another element to this. Most Burmese noted that India never had a coup and Moslem Pakistan, at least West Pakistan, suffered a lot of coups and had their first one before Burma did. Also noted was that the coups in Pakistan led to Pakistan falling apart. In 1970 an uprising in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, demanded a separate state and West Pakistan, which became just Pakistan, was unable to prevent it. Since then, Bangladesh, emulating India, adopted a coup resistant government that worked. Pakistan continues to be threatened by its own military, which now exercises its political power without taking over the government. The generals in Pakistan and Burma have one thing in common, they established government and personal economic ties with China. It is these business relationships with China that give the generals independence from their own government’s financial power and the ability to coerce an elected government into obeying the military, and not the other way around.

Applying this in Burma is proving more difficult than in Pakistan, where the Chinese investments came after the Pakistan military had already carried out several successful coups but were always forced to eventually back off and allow elections to return. But now, thanks in part to Chinese assistance, the Pakistani military can control the government without being the government.

The success of the Chinese economic conquest approach is not assured in Pakistan and is even less of a sure thing in Burma. As long as the generals can find enough money to pay most of their troops, they can maintain their power. But, as the Pakistani generals have discovered, there are limitations to this approach. You must successfully intimidate the population rather than going to war with them because that risks foreign intervention. That’s what happened in Pakistan during the 1971 civil war. When troops from West Pakistan started killing rebellious civilians in a big way, neighboring India was outraged and soon intervened. This forced the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan to surrender and allowed the formation of Bangladesh.

The Burmese Army 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 are 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 them are being shot at by the military.

The Chinese realize that if the Burmese can avoid open warfare with an increasingly angry population, the generals could prevail. More Burmese are obtaining weapons and using them, and the generals have a hard time portraying dead or wounded soldiers as Myanmar 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 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 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 in April 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 and is willing to export that tech. 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 current military government loses. China is a major foreign investor in Burma and those 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. Some estimates indicate that at least $20 billion has been illegally moved out of Burma during the fifty years of military rule. 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 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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