By Roland Watson
August 12, 2010


Burma has a substantial population, believed to number above fifty million people. For context, Israel and Palestine have eleven million. Afghanistan, which is about the same size as Burma, has twenty-nine million. Iraq, with a third less territory, has thirty-one million.

Inside Burma, everyone - except the small cabal of generals and their cronies who rule the country - is suffering. The Burmese people are suffocated by fear. Anyone is subject to arrest and torture, and at any time. Moreover, there is general but severe deprivation in food, education and health care. Large regions are also war zones, with the Burma Army perpetrating scorched earth attacks against ethnic minority villagers, which attacks constitute nothing less than crimes against humanity.

A basic comparison, then, of Burma with Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq, suggests that the situation in the country should have far greater prominence. For years, though, international concern with the crisis in Burma has been small. This is now changing. Burma pro-democracy leaders, resistance forces and activists, by creating a great amount of publicity and pressure, have been able to force the problems in the country onto the international stage.

In fact, there is so much going on now about Burma that it is difficult to keep track, especially of what is significant. For example, many things that are not significant are being given undue attention by Burmese and international media and commentators. Foremost of these is the SPDC’s plan to have an “election,” and the actions of the different pro-junta parties that have announced they will participate.

This entire event is a charade. It is a psychological warfare operation conceived by the dictator of Burma, Than Shwe. Its primary goal is to distract everyone from the real situation in the country, and secondly, to forestall a popular revolution and other decisive bids for pro-democratic change.

For the most part, Than Shwe’s operation is succeeding. Many people are consumed by the election. Few are focused on what will actually be required to free the people of Burma, much less involved in organizing it.

The end of the Senior General?

The true situation is much more complex, and unstable. Than Shwe is under great pressure. He has experienced three major defeats this year. The first of these is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD rejected the election. This makes it extremely difficult, as they are the legitimate leaders of Burma, for the International Community to accept the result (if and when a vote is ever even held).

Secondly, Than Shwe hatched another plan, to regain control over areas of Burma that had been ceded to various ethnic armies in return for ceasefire deals. He demanded that they reorganize as Border Guard Forces, under Burma Army - read Burman officer - control. But these groups, content with the autonomy that they have experienced since they signed the ceasefires in the mid-1990s, refused to accept the transformation. Further, they actively prepared their troops and villages to defend against Burma Army attacks.

Thirdly, the one ceasefire group of any size that had actually been willing to fight for the Burma Army, the DKBA, is now in the process of splitting over the BGF issue. A major DKBA unit, Brigade 5, has created an alliance with the pro-democracy resistance group, the KNU/KNLA. The split between the Karen that occurred at Manerplaw appears to be healing. And, if pro-SPDC DKBA units, such as Chit Thu’s Brigade 999, attack Brigade 5, there is a likelihood that his rank and file soldiers will change allegiance as well, effectively ending the DKBA. (Some 999 troops are already changing sides.) This would create a unified, potent Karen fighting force in eastern Burma.

There are also two other important factors but which are less well recognized. The first is that the morale of Burma Army troops is extremely low. There have been dozens of instances of desertion and insubordination in the last two years, all over the country, and in the police as well. Many soldiers and police are now demanding early retirement, and repayment of the portions of their pay that have supposedly been invested as pensions. It is because of the morale problem that the Burma Army has not attacked the major ceasefire groups, the Wa and Kachin, not the argument that China objected to the refugee crisis that might develop.

Finally, there is a split at the top of the SPDC over the election. The reason why the election date has not been announced is that this split has not been resolved. Than Shwe’s Roadmap, of which the election is the most important step, is intended to transfer power to a civilian administration. He believes this type of regime will protect him following his retirement. If power remains directly within a military junta, the future leading generals could purge him - and his family - at any time, just as he did to the original dictator of Burma, Ne Win.

The problem of course is that there is no place in this plan for Maung Aye, the second top general of the junta. Maung Aye leads his own clique of officers, and with their own divisions and battalions. The Burma Army - the Tatmadaw - is not unified. It has two major factions, and perhaps a third as well under General Shwe Mann.

The Maung Aye group, fearing arrest, as occurred with former Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, has refused to retire, and, frankly, there is nothing Than Shwe can do about it. If he tries to move his units against Maung Aye’s, this will constitute civil war within the Tatmadaw, and it will inevitably collapse.

This is the real situation in Burma, and which everyone would do well to contemplate. Than Shwe’s position, underneath the apparent calm, is desperate. The election is a diversion and a farce. Its only true significance is what the lack of a date for the vote reveals.

[Post-publication note: Even though the SPDC has now announced an election date, the split between Than Shwe and Maung Aye remains.]

International pro-dictatorship supporters

Than Shwe has a lot of foreign friends, who do not want to see him fall. These include China, Russia, North Korea and Singapore, and also India and Thailand. Even though the last two are democratic, with governments that presumably would support the aspirations of the Burmese, they do not. India and Thailand fear the unrest that might develop in Burma during a democratic transition, as well as a resurgent free Burma. India also worries that autonomy and separatist claims by ethnic groups such as the Naga in its northeast would be magnified following Burma’s freedom. And, business groups in both countries are profiting heavily from natural resource deals with the SPDC, and for Thailand from exploitation of migrant workers.

The lobbying of multinational corporations, who are blind to if not direct partners in the SPDC’s crimes, has also undermined the foreign policy of the United States, European Union, Japan and Australia. It is not an overstatement to say that these countries and the EU are Than Shwe’s friends as well, and this also applies to ASEAN and the United Nations.

The nuclear solution

Even with all of this international support, Than Shwe’s hold on power is tenuous. The five factors listed earlier (the situation on the ground within Burma's borders right now) are much more important:

- Rejection by DASSK of the election.
- Refusal of the ceasefire groups to transform to BGF.
- Breakup of the DKBA and re-alliance with the KNLA.
- Burma Army morale problem including desertions and unwillingness to follow orders.
- Split at the top of the SPDC.

There is no real solution for Than Shwe to these problems. Freedom and democracy for Burma are coming. In a last-ditch attempt to prevent this historical inevitability, he is trying to produce a nuclear trump card. He is working hard with his allies to obtain a functioning atomic weapon, as quickly as possible. The purpose of this weapon, however, is not - as many have speculated - to deter a United States invasion. Indeed, the nuclear program may push the U.S. to the point where it has to intervene. Rather, if Than Shwe, personally, has his finger on a bomb inside Burma - his mansion connects directly to Naypyidaw’s command bunkers and tunnels - he believes this will protect him even after he retires.

Dictator Watch has published reams of intelligence about the nuclear program over the last four years, and which intel has been confirmed by other sources. The basic situation is that the SPDC is mining uranium, milling at least some of it into Yellow Cake, and then bartering this as well as raw ore to North Korea and we believe also Iran. The junta, with North Korean assistance, and European and Japanese machine tools, is further producing components necessary to enrich uranium to bomb grade, and to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel that could further be shaped into a bomb core. While construction of a reactor is as yet unconfirmed, the number of officers studying reactor science and operations in Russia is proof that this plan exists.

As expert commentators have pointed out, though, this is still a long-term project, potentially five years or more from yielding a functioning weapon. Than Shwe does not have this much time. He knows it. His regime could fall this year - indeed, at any time. He needs a bomb now.

We believe that this will force him to focus on the enriched uranium route to a bomb instead of the reactor/plutonium path. It would also be amazing if he did not attempt to buy a weapon directly from either China or North Korea. Probably the only thing preventing this type of sale is that both countries would be afraid of supplying one to such an unstable regime. Were it to be detonated, under any circumstances (Thailand beware!), this could easily lead to war in East Asia, and which would bring about their own downfall.

Dictator Watch has received more intelligence about the nuclear program:

- China has signed a long-term lease on the Mo Meik uranium deposit.

- High-grade raw uranium is being transported through China to North Korea.

- In return, North Korea, and with China's direct involvement, is helping the SPDC escalate its atomic weapons program. Factory construction is being accelerated.

Both North Korea and China sent ships to Burma in April. The North Korean shipment at a minimum included equipment for Burma's nuclear factories. The Chinese ship may have as well. Neither was interdicted by the United States.

More such shipments are a certainty, and may have already occurred. We think it is probable, because of the pressure on North Korea following its sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, that the plan for the shipments has been modified. Everything that can be transported overland will be sent through China. Some items will first be shipped from North Korea to Chinese ports. Other items will be sent in cargo flights, including from both North Korea and China. Everything that must be sent by sea will be transferred from North Korean ships to Chinese vessels in the China Sea, and then transported all the way to Burma waters, for offloading to Burma Navy vessels. Even though the U.S., under the United Nations sanctions against North Korea, could intervene to disrupt this system, it is unlikely to do so as this would require it to publicly confront China.

The Communist Party of China does not want Burma to become democratic. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will actively help Than Shwe obtain an atomic bomb if they believe this is the only viable option to prevent it.

It is also likely, with increased nuclear equipment and material deliveries, and with the thousands of trained scientists returning from Russia, that the junta will vastly expand the nuclear program's management structure. Just as the SPDC now has a missile directorate, we expect a similar directorate for the weapons program will be established, if it is not already operational.

With all of this expansion underway, and against the backdrop of the Tatmadaw’s internal instability, we further expect an increasing flow of defectors and other sources with new intel about the program. Than Shwe will not be able to keep it secret.

The real question, then, is how will the world respond.


It is important never to forget that Burma is a failed state. It is being pillaged by a gang of mass murderers and their international co-conspirators.

There is no real government, only a collection of warlords, both inside the SPDC and in the ceasefire areas. Matched against them is the nonviolent pro-democracy movement, led by Daw Suu and the NLD, and the pro-democracy ethnic resistance armies that are fighting to defend their people.

The most apt analogy of the SPDC is that of a dog pack, but not of a collection of pampered pets. Rather, the generals of the SPDC are like the diseased mongrels that roam city streets, hide on the fringes of poor villages, and scavenge at garbage dumps. These types of dogs are always on the edge of survival, and to increase their chances they form packs. The packs are led by the toughest, meanest dogs, and they defend their territory ruthlessly, killing any intruders. As the top dog in such a pack, your life is not that bad. You get the most food, and mating opportunities. But this lasts only as long as your strength. When it fails, younger dogs in your pack, envious of your position, turn on you, tear you apart, and replace you. It is the law of the jungle - natural law.

Than Shwe is a pack leader but he is getting old. The other top dogs of the junta have their hackles up - they sense opportunity. Than Shwe’s days are numbered, and there is nothing he can do about it. Even a nuclear bomb will not protect him from his fellow generals, and more importantly fifty million angry Burmese.

One of Burma's most respected pro-democracy leaders, U Win Tin, recently commented that no one wants to see more instability in Burma. While in principle we agree with this sentiment, we feel obliged to note that this is not the way the real world works. A true democratic transition - not a “power-sharing” arrangement that allows the dictators to retain some control - cannot occur gradually. There must be a break, as the dictators are defeated, and this break will be accompanied by some form of instability. One would hope that it would be limited to violence within the junta itself, as lower-level officers initiate a pro-democracy coup. Offensives against the Burma Army by the ethnic groups and the ABSDF should also be encouraged. In summary, and as we have been saying for over a decade, the crisis in Burma cannot be resolved by dialogue and activism alone. It requires revolution. The American colonists revolted over “taxation without representation.” A revolution in Burma to end mass oppression and crimes against humanity is more than justified. It is necessary.