Potential Hot Spots: Burma the Impregnable

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October 1, 2007: With the crackdown on the protests in Burma, is there any real chance of the situation changing? Most of the pressure on the military dictatorship in Burma has been in the form of economic sanctions. Much of the reliance on economic sanctions reflects a misunderstanding of just how resilient a dictatorship can be. In the case of Burma, this is a dictatorship that has gone on since 1962, and has had changes at the top. As such, this is not going to be an easy regime to topple, even with the latest crackdown on dissidents and the death of a Japanese photographer.

The dictatorship in Burma has to deal with the era of Google and YouTube ­ and videos from those sites are generating outrage in the West. But Burma's being protected in the UN Security Council by China (and to a lesser extent, Russia), primarily because it is a customer for their weapon systems (like the Russian MiG-29 and the Chinese J-7 and Q-5 combat aircraft).

Invading Burma would also be a very tough proposition. The Burmese Army generates respect from the Thai military (which is no slouch itself) for its ability to fight in the jungle, and it is large ­ with 428,000 personnel, formed into over 330 combat battalions. Burma also is getting weapons from Europe as well, particularly T-72 main battle tanks and BTR-3U infantry fighting vehicles from the Ukraine. It also has spent the last twenty years increasing its mobility and logistics. Most impressively, it is an all-volunteer force. Any fight with Burma will be against people who have chosen to fight for their country, not conscripts ­ a much tougher proposition.

So, what options are available? Not many. The present iteration of the Burmese dictatorship is not showing many signs of weakness. Economic sanctions from the west have hurt, but when Burma's GDP is only $13 billion, and doesn't get much tourism (only 750,000 visitors a year), and Burma's trade comes primarily from Thailand and China. The increasing ties with India also help, since the Burmese can now play India off China and vice versa.

In essence, the situation in Burma is one where the Western powers have played all of their cards to date, and have nothing to show for it. Burma has been able to remain afloat, largely by increasing its trade with neighbors, and the dictatorship is well-entrenched. At this point, the Burmese dictatorship just has to wait out the West, and will do so, barring a colossal mistake on its part. ­ Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


 

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