Myanmar is reconnecting with the outside world after decades of military rule. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win
Myanmar soldiers march in formation in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win

CHIANG MAI – Submarines would seemingly be the last type of weapon the armed forces of a nation engulfed in an entirely land-based civil war would want or need.

But Myanmar’s generals have recently acquired not just one but two diesel-electric submarines, procurements that have as much to do with diplomatic balancing as keeping the military’s rank-and-file loyal, proud and satisfied.

In March 2020, India reportedly gave Myanmar a 3,000-ton Soviet-era Kilo-class submarine, which was showcased in a naval exercise in October that year and is expected to be deployed at one of the navy’s bases on Bay of Bengal.

Then in December 2021, Myanmar took delivery of a 2,100-ton Type-035 Ming Class submarine from China. The attack vessel has already been seen in videos posted on social media moving up the Yangon River escorted by a Myanmar Navy Type 5 fast attack craft.

The optics of flexing the equipment are arguably as important as their strategic value. The deals obviously make strategic sense for China and India as suppliers. By transferring Myanmar a submarine, the Indians had hoped to gain an edge on the Chinese, whose rising influence in their eastern neighbor is a major concern for New Delhi’s security planners.

Since at least 2013, India has also delivered artillery guns, radars and night vision devices to the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw. In more recent years, however, the focus has shifted to naval cooperation in order to counter China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean region.

At the same time, China strives to remain Myanmar’s main military ally and key arms supplier including for naval equipment. Myanmar’s navy is equipped with a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile, while its air force operates several Chinese-built aircraft, including the Chengdu JF-17 Thunder fighter jet and Shaanxi Y-8 transport.

The submarine transfer thus signals Beijing’s intent to maintain and build on these already close links with the Myanmar military. Russia is also in the game: media reports indicate Russian-made tanks and other equipment were delivered to the junta on January 23.

For their part, Myanmar’s generals aim to ensure the officer corps and rank-and-file remain loyal to the top brass, led by coup-maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. It is of imperative importance to the troops, regardless of which military service they belong, that they are on the surface part of a modern, well-equipped and world-class military – even if they’re not.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has vast economic resources at his disposal. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

The Myanmar military has also acquired tanks and heavy armored vehicles which are of little use against mainly jungle-based guerrillas. The acquisitions form part of Myanmar’s “toys-for-the-boys” defense doctrine, in which soldiers profit personally from big-ticket procurements. This aspect of military planning likely became even more important since last year’s February 1 coup.

The big-ticket purchases come at a time of deep economic and financial crises, witnessed in last year’s -18% economic contraction, caused in large part by the military’s destabilizing coup. But the junta’s priority is first and foremost on preserving power and maintaining loyalty among the military rank-and-file, which it believes equipment purchases will achieve.

For the first time in decades, Myanmar’s military is battling not only ethnic insurgents in frontier areas but also armed uprisings in urban areas in usually calm central regions of the country. There have also been security force defections, particularly among the police to anti-junta armed groups, commonly known as People’s Defense Forces (PDF).

According to casualty figures released by the PDFs, up to 8,000 Tatmadaw soldiers have been killed since the coup. Those claims may be inflated, but even independent observers believe that the Tatmadaw has suffered heavy, almost unprecedented, losses in the expanded civil war.

At the same time, human suffering has been immense. According to a January 4 joint report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 135,000 civilians have been displaced because of the fighting and, given more recent military operations in Karen and Kayah states, the current figure may be twice as high.

The UN agencies also list destruction and looting of property including religious buildings, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, forced labor, torture and killings. It is hard to imagine that all those acts would not affect the morale of the Tatmadaw’s rank and file, especially when it’s also taking place in areas inhabited by ethnic majority Bamars, which make up the bulk of the armed forces.

In the past, the Tatmadaw was an extremely brutal force committing numerous and often unspeakable atrocities on the civilian population, though mostly in ethnic minority frontier areas. But despite being quite poorly armed at the time, it was also a battle-hardened and largely effective light infantry force.

Soldiers were constantly on the move amid frequent firefights against communist rebels in the northeast, Karen guerrillas on the Thai border, Kachin in the far north and other pockets of armed resistance in ethnic minority areas.

All that changed after a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. The main fear then within the Tatmadaw leadership, perhaps as now, was that disgruntled soldiers might join the previous generation of pro-democracy activists, a scenario which could have marked the beginning of the end of military-dominated rule in Myanmar.

Myanmar soldiers on the march amid an anti-coup protest. Image: Getty via AFP / Hkun Lat

Then as now, in order to prevent any significant intra-Tatmadaw cracks, everything was done to keep at least the officer corps satisfied. Beginning in 1989, the Tatmadaw spent more than a billion dollars on procuring new, more sophisticated military equipment.

Those procurements came primarily from China but also from Singapore, Pakistan and Israel. Most of the purchases, however, were even at that time materiel that Myanmar did not actually need, such as missile systems that would be of little use in counterinsurgency operations, heavytanks, armored vehicles, naval patrol boats and various kinds of radar equipment.

At the same time, Myanmar’s own defense industries began producing new infantry rifles to replace the old, heavy G-3 which was based on German designs. The troops also got new, smarter uniforms.

Even after a series of ceasefires with ethnic armed groups, the Tatmadaw was dramatically increased in size. The three services — the army, air force and navy — amounted to no more than 195,000 men before 1988. Nearly all of them belonged to the army; the air force and navy were very small and, many would argue, almost insignificant.

According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and other international think tanks, the army now has 507,000 men, the air force 23,000 and the navy 19,000 for a total of 549,000.

Those think tanks may have grossly overestimated the strength of the Tatmadaw as most units are known to be undermanned and many troops may exist only in official reports from the field. The Tatmadaw’s actual strength may be only half of that, though that’s still greater than before 1988.

Because of the old ceasefire agreements, some of which lasted for nearly two decades, a generation of troops have had very limited fighting experience. They are, as one in-the-know source said, better at parades showing off their new uniforms and guns than in actual combat.

Moreover, the transition to a market economy following the 1988 uprising and crackdown provided officers with ample opportunities for self-enrichment. As one Myanmar source wrote on social media: “the army officers are only interested in taking bribes and making business deals with the cronies, they don’t want to fight battles anymore, they joined the army to get rich quickly.”

Or, as a retired Tatmadaw officer told this correspondent long before the coup: “Luxury when I was in the army consisted of a badminton set and a bottle of army rum, and I was a colonel. Now even captains and lieutenants have more than one car, several sets of golf clubs, and at least two mistresses. And they don’t have to fight.”

That “new” Tatmadaw is now being tested on battlefronts across Myanmar and indications are it is performing poorly. Troops are extended fighting Kachin rebels in the north, Karens in the southeast, Chins in the west and Burman resistance forces nationwide, including for the first time in urban areas including the old capital Yangon.

Armored vehicles are seen at a parade marking the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, 2017. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency/Lamin Tun

Foot soldiers have been withdrawn from some areas after suffering heavy casualties as the Tatmadaw instead uses air power and heavy artillery fired from a safe distance, a sign of military weakness rather than strength in Myanmar’s context.

Given the dire situation that the Tatmadaw now finds itself, it is doubtful that even the acquisition of a Chinese submarine will do much to uplift the morale of rank and file troops. At the same time, Myanmar has restored its former pariah status in the West and has instability spreads risks becoming a pawn in wider geopolitical power games.

The submarine transfers show that China and to a lesser extent India, which delivered its vessel before the coup but has continued supplying the Tatmadaw with equipment for an air-defense station, are among the few friends the junta has left. That status will also take a toll on foot soldiers who are under increasing fire both at home and abroad.