Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Burma-Russia Connection

By ALEX ELLGEE Wednesday, October 6, 2010

RANGOON—We're sitting around a modern coffee table at a party hosted by an NGO worker in his smart condo in Rangoon. We're talking about the Mandalay International Airport.

“I don't understand why they built it so far from the city,” said one lady, slightly frustrated by the fact that the airport is 35 kilometers from Mandalay.

“Why have they built such a big airport when so few people are flying there,” asked another man, commenting on its annual capacity of 3 million people with 36 check-in desks, eight gates and a 14,000-feet runaway, the longest in Southeast Asia.

A visit to the airport itself, one hot afternoon, helped partially answer their questions. Parked outside the departures gates were more than 40 army trucks, each loaded with 30 young soldiers in crisp white shirts. One by one, the soldiers lined up for check-in.

The flight status monitor revealed their destination. It read: “MOSCOW, RUSSIA—on time—Gate No.2.”

“We’re DSA cadets, and we're going to Russia,” one of them said proudly.

“Are you happy?

“Yes, we are very happy; we've been waiting for this for a long time. It is a proud moment for us.”

Before he can say more, a superior looks his way, and the cadet’s fleeting moment of bragging to a foreigner is over. He disappears past the check-in counter.

DSA stands for Defense Service Academy, the massive military academy just outside of Pyin U Lwin, a former colonial outpost for the British. Established in 1955 in Yaksauk in southern Shan State, the academy moved to its current location two years later, and since then it has churned out alumni which includes Thura Shwe Mann, the former joint chief of staff; Vice Sen-Gen Maung Aye, the No. 2 in the SPDC; and Prime Minister Thein Sein. Year after year, the academy turns out soldiers, who, upon graduation “are expected to be worthy sons of the country who carry out their duties without hesitation and who never shirk their responsibilities,” according to its website.

The question remains, what are all these cadets doing flying to Moscow and why is it their proudest moment?

Speaking to The Irrawaddy at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, Thet Oo, a DSA cadet-turn-deserter, explained that Burma’s “Russian connection” includes intense Russian language and culture training.

“We had beautiful Russian women teach us,” Thet Oo said, sitting on the bamboo floor of his new home. “I guess that was so we would find Russia appealing.”

Before going to Russia, he said all the students in his group were brought together to hear a talk by senior commanders. Throughout their schooling, they had been told very little, “but we knew we were going to Russia,” said Thet Oo. The commanders told them they had been handpicked to study in Russia and then handed out envelopes with passports, flight tickets and local currency.

Near the end of the meeting, one of the commanders told the group to learn as much information from Russia as they could.

“They even told us we would be rewarded if we married a Russian girl and would receive more rewards if she was a scientist,” said Thet Oo, recalling what he thought was the beginning of a new life in Russia.

The next day, however, when he returned with his bags packed and was ready to leave, they read out a list of names. His name was on it, but then one of the commanders took back all his documents and ordered him to return to his base.
“I could not believe it. I had worked so hard for this moment,” he said, visibly distressed by the memory. He was told he could not go because his mother was Karen, and he could not be trusted. When he spoke to the people who had returned, he learned that they had studied nuclear energy.

“They just didn't want someone with Karen blood to get such advanced knowledge,” he said.

Burmese students have and are currently being trained in Russia. According to a report by Prof. Desmond Ball, who interviewed two defectors, “Burma is preparing to go nuclear by 2020.” In May 2007, Burma signed an agreement which said the Russian Atomic Energy Agency would provide a 10 MW light-water reactor, and it would train 300 to 350 specialists to work on the completed project.

In an article, Dr. Andrew Selth, a Burma expert in Australia, has said that all of Russia’s known dealings with Burma have been in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines. He said there is “very little hard evidence” to suggest that Burma is pushing hard to develop a nuclear program, and many of the Burmese students who have gone to Russia are “ inexperienced and struggled to complete their courses.”

And not all the students in Moscow are from the DSA. According to one Burmese student currently studying in Russia, “There are lots of Burmese civilians who are just interested in physics.”

One of the signs of the growing Burma-Russian involvement is the role of private businessmen in dealings with Russia.

Observers say Tay Za, one of the businessmen closest to the generals, controls various business relationships with Russia including the purchase of military parts for Russian equipment used in the Burmese military.

His company, Myanmar Avia Export, deals with two Russian military hardware suppliers, the Export Military Industrial Group and Rostvertol, which makes helicopters. He is believed to act as the key broker for all military deals between the two nations.

But Tay Za is not the only businessmen to have an interest in Russia. A journalist told The Irrawaddy, “There are so many Russians here. Their numbers have grown massively in the last couple years.”

As a result, there is growing interest by local businessmen to take part in Russian investments. Sitting in a smart coffee shop which boasts wireless Internet and a menu that ranges from Ceasar salad to chili con carni, a young Burmese artist told me her father sent her to a Russian language school.

“He is a businessman, and he only thinks about money,” she said. “He thought that if I learned Russian, I would be able to take advantage of all these new business opportunities.” But, she dropped out. “You can’t control an artist,” she said.

Commenting on the growing Burma-Russian ties, economist Sean Turnell said, “There is nothing in the relationship that will deliver positive change to Burma economically. Much of the activity takes place 'off the balance sheet'.”

Turnell said he was worried about the Burma's recent privatization of key industries, which shows Burma to be “following Russia and its parasitic oligarch class.”

With connections between the two nations growing, Russia will likely be even more reliable in supporting Burma in the United Nations. Meanwhile, Burma will continue to look at the Russian way of business.

Although a Burmese nuclear program may not be as pressing as many believed, it is clear that the generals admire the nuclear leverage that North Korea enjoys. Outside the DSA a sign reads: "We are the victorious warriors of the future."

It makes one wonder what dreams the regime might have.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

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