There have been a number of analyses of potential nuclear and ballistic missile programs in Burma in the last year. Many of those reports depend on interviews with me. I am Sai Thein Win, a deserter, a liar and a criminal, according to the Burmese government. Now is the time to dispel these myths and throw light on the real threats posed by Burma’s lofty military ambitions.
My country is already renowned for its arbitrary laws and absence of justice. I decided to speak out its weapons’ programmes not because I think they are a threat to world peace, but because they have dragged millions into poverty. Not only do they waste the country’s money, but they exploit us as pawns.
Burma has suffered under a dictatorship for nearly half a century and every societal rung has been systematically ruined. The country’s power structure has shifted from one council to another, but the way they treat us remains the same. Modern Burmese governments are little different from the barbarian kings that ruled centuries ago – they do not know why people should respect each other, and they have not learned that bullets cannot destroy the idea of revolution. That is why the guns they aim at their own people “to maintain the peace” and the “super weapons” they use to keep the neighbours at bay have become their new tools.
Since crushing the uprising in 1988, the Burmese government has been steadily expanding its army. The organisation responsible for producing arms and ammunition is the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), which in recent years has been ordered by the junta to build more factories. Being goaded beyond its capacity, the defense industries began suffering from a shortage of employees – they could buy a new plant because getting money from the government was easy, but recruiting and training new and qualified workers takes time. No graduates from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) were willing to join the army because of low salaries and discrimination, so the government decided to found the Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA) to breed engineers on their own farms. I became one of the victims, a victim of circumstance.
In 1999, I received a degree in defence industrial engineering from DSTA and right after my training I was assigned as an assistant workshop manager in Defence Industry (DI) Plant No. 3, an explosives and medium calibre ammunition plant. I stayed until 2001. The Burmese newspapers might say that I merely had one year experience in the defence industries, and it is insufficient for me to comment on their capabilities, but one year there was enough time for me to understand the wider picture, and realise how incapable the country’s military is.
Take an order that came through in 2001, before I was sent for training with the Chinese weapons’ company, NORINCO, for example: we were told to make 800 anti-tank rockets immediately, because the intelligence said that the Thai army had just bought 800 tanks from China. That was our response. We felt lucky that the Thais did not send their tanks to us then, given that the rockets we made were crooked at every screw joint and we could not even put them into the guns. The ammunition that we produced is still lying in the ordnance depots. Because of the high temperatures in Burma, the impurities of the explosive can melt and leak out through the loose screw joints. A spark could destroy the whole depot. Our fellows are naively sitting on very sensitive fireworks. The Burmese generals are misers in such cases and neglect to destroy the expired munitions. Compared to those materials, lives of their comrades are absolutely worthless.
Some foreign countries also sent us their old munitions for demolition, for which we got paid. As far as I remember our factory got a contract to destroy 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle rounds from Singapore. After carrying out firing tests, our chief engineer decided to keep those rounds instead of demolishing them because they were still better than the rockets we had in our stores. Our generals always say that building up military power is the only way to gain respect from other nations and so they keep spending a large portion of the country’s income wantonly. But we still have to collect the rubbish from the others’ backyard like because it is better than domestic production.
The worst plan was proposed by the head of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), U Thaung. He and Vice Senior General Maung Aye gave a speech to us at the National Defence College in Rangoon in 2001 saying that we need advanced technology to upgrade our arms to protect the nation. They gave the example of North Korea– with the potential threat of nuclear weapons, no outsiders dare to meddle in North Korea’s domestic affairs. For this same reason Burma would send several thousand young officers and engineers to Moscow to study nuclear science and missile technology. I did not take their ambitions seriously until I saw the workshops that MOST built. Fortunately they are just another failure in the junta’s erratic military adventures, and any manager who had been in real industry could see this at a glance. I have gone into more detail on this here.
I have exposed the military projects of our government, not because they threaten the world but because this is the main reason why our people are facing starvation. Half of our GDP is being used for military projects. Looking at the defence industries, it is certain that they are more competently run than the technological workshops of MOST, but they are not successful either. An assault rifle which can be bought easily from any neighbouring country like Singapore is at least five times cheaper than our own product.
Even though the defence industries are over-using manpower and are running three shifts per day, their productivity is going down each year, and the quality of products is unreliable. In 2000, South Africa approached Burma to buy 60mm and 81mm calibre mortars and so we sent some sample guns to them before signing the contract. Our guns were sent back because the barrels were a few centimetres longer than we described in the specification sheet. The worst thing was the South Africans discovered our guns had no firing pins because the plant responsible forgot to install them. Incomplete explosion or internal exploding of shells in the testing ground was also normal to us. Producing arms and ammunitions could make some countries rich but not for Burma, and not with this system.
Propagandists in the government say I should be loyal to the state even for a mouthful of rice that I had been fed. I feel no guilt for revealing the secrets of the military programmes because I am a soldier who swore an oath of allegiance to the national flag, but not a slave who swears to the longyi of Senior General Than Shwe, whom we feel is still pulling the strings. Our salary was not paid by the military, but by the people, and my decision to go public is the only way I can fulfil the duty that I owe to them. They deserve to know how, where and for what their money has been used. I received an expensive technical education, first in Burma and then five years in Moscow at a prestigious engineering university, the Baumann Institute. When I returned to Burma and to a project to make intermediate-range ballistic missiles, this education was squandered. Fortunately this project was a failure, but it symbolises the waste of human resources in Burma. For me to use my skills, I had to leave, and many others are doing the same.
Our country is rich in natural resources but they are sold off and the profits go to a few. The generals themselves live as parasites in the army and make it weak. They refuse to respect us. Governments like China who feed off the looting of our country are our real enemies, because they do this in the knowledge that these resources have been stolen from an already malnourished population. All we need is transparency, accountability and responsibility, and we can stop our government and those who help it. And without spending our resources on wasteful and unnecessary projects, we could rebuild our country as a respected nation. The army will be strong only when all of the population is strong.