A Scud missile in a underground missile factory which a report by the Myanmar delegation suggests is located in a remote region outside Pyongyang. The missile is presumed to be a Scud-D (500 km range), or Scud-E (700-1000km range), both improvements over the original Soviet design. (photo : Yoo Yong Won’s Military World)
BANGKOK - Military-run Myanmar's growing weapons ambitions, including new revelations that the reclusive regime is producing long-range Scud-type missiles with North Korean assistance, threaten to destabilize the region and make the Southeast Asian country a new global weapons proliferation hotspot.According to exclusive information received by Asia Times Online, one of two munitions factories located near the small town of Minhla on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River, south of Minbu in Magway Division, is involved in the production of sophisticated Scud-type missiles. North Korean experts are reportedly assisting Myanmar's own military technicians in the top-secret project.
Known as ka pa sa, shorthand for the Burmese-language initials of the the Directorate of Defense Industries, the country's weapons factories have for decades produced basic armaments for the military. But ka pa sa 2 and 10 near Minhla are now churning out more advanced weapons, including Scud-type missiles, than the country has to date. These are more difficult to detect from the air because they are located partly underground.
A Scud-armed Myanmar would place its capabilities a significant notch above its Southeast Asian neighbors, which do not possess such long-range missiles. The revelations could spark a regional arms race, prompting neighboring countries such as Thailand to develop or procure their own missile arsenal.
The existence of the two factories was outlined in an August 27, 2004 United States embassy cable from Yangon, which was made public by WikiLeaks late last year. One of the US Embassy's sources claimed that North Korean workers were assembling surface-to-air missiles at "a military site in Magway Division" where a "concrete-reinforced underground facility" was also under construction.
The source told the embassy that "he had seen a large barge carrying a reinforced steel bar of a diameter that suggested a project larger than a factory".
Asia Times Online has discovered that the site referred to in the embassy cable is ka pa sa 10, situated near Konegyi village in Minhla township. Construction of the site began in 1993, but has only recently been completed. The site reportedly covers 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) and, according to a source who used to work at the facility, the aim is to produce surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and air-to-air missiles.
The same source, who requested anonymity for personal security reasons, claimed that the North Koreans working at the site first entered Myanmar discreetly by road from China. They were met at the border and then brought to Minhla by officers from Myanmar's Defense Production Directorate, known as ka ka htone, according to the source.
On the Myanmar side, between 600 and 900 army technicians and other military personnel are currently based at ka pa sa 10. Initially Russian and Chinese technicians also took part in the facility's construction, but they appear to have since left and been replaced with North Korean experts.
Ka pa sa 2 controls no less than 100,000 acres of land near Malun village, which is also based in Minhla township. According to the source, the somewhat older factory employs 900 engineers and other military personnel and produces 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortars and 105mm artillery pieces.
The complex also includes a huge firing range where heavy weapons, including artillery and rockets, are tested. According to the source, Singapore, as a small island country which doesn't have enough space for such testing, paid for the construction of the firing range. Weapons are also brought from Singapore and tested at the site.
On October 4 last year, the English-language weekly Myanmar Times reported that Myanmar authorities had inaugurated on September 19 a "25.4-mile section, or approximately 40 kilometers, of railroad between Minhla in Bago Region and Minbu in Magwe Region". Construction of the new section, "which is part of the ongoing Kyangin-Pakokku Railroad Project along the western bank of the Ayeyarwady River", started in April 2007, according to the same news report.
The infrastructure project's opening was presided over by then prime minister, now President Thein Sein, underscoring the apparent importance of the short rail link. According to the Myanmar Times, Thein Sein also stated that the railroad would enable "the people to have easy access to various regions of the nation".
The problem with the report is that Minhla in Bago Region is located several miles to the east of the Ayeyarwady, and nearly 200 miles or, more than 300 kilometers, south of Minbu. Deliberate or otherwise, the reports confused the location of the two towns that share the same name. A 40-kilometer railroad between "upper" Minhla on the western bank - the only stretch of railroad on that side of the river - and Minbu could only serve one major purpose: to transport heavy goods relevant to producing Scud-type missiles or supplying a nuclear program to and from Minbu, a major port on the Irrawaddy River.
So far, however, there are no reports to suggest that Minhla's two ka pa sa facilities are involved in Myanmar's nascent and clandestine nuclear program. That research is reportedly carried out at Myaing to the north of Pakokku, which is also in Magway Division but far from the Minhla facilities. The progress of Myanmar's nuclear research is not known, but it is believed to be in its infancy and widely regarded as a pipedream that is unlikely to succeed in developing nuclear weapons.
Still, North Korean involvement in ka pa sa 2 may be cause for international concern - even for Myanmar's traditional military partner, China.
In the 1990s, China supplied Myanmar with between US$1 billion and $2 billion worth of military hardware. The list of imported armaments included 80 Type-69II medium-battle tanks, more than 100 Type-63 light tanks, 250 Type-85 armored personnel carriers, multiple launch rocket systems, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, HN-5 surface-to-air missiles, mortars, assault rifles, recoilless guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, JLP-50 and JLG-43 air defense radars, heavy trucks, Chengdu F-7M Airguard jet fighters, FT-7 and FT-6 jet trainers, A-5C ground attack aircraft, SACY-8D transport aircraft, Hainan class patrol boats, Houxin-class guided missile fast attack craft, minesweepers and small gunboats. In 2000, China delivered 12 Karakoram-8 trainers/ground attack aircraft, which are produced in a joint venture with Pakistan.
Since then, however, it appears that Chinese deliveries of military equipment have waned significantly. However, in November 2007, immediately after the crackdown on a widespread protest movement led by Buddhist monks, China supplied Myanmar with howitzers and bomb-detection equipment.
According to a February 18, 2011, report by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS), China followed that up with a delivery of 450 military trucks in December 2007. In January 2008, China sent another 500 military trucks to Myanmar and in August that same year supplied an additional 3,500 military trucks with spare parts. In 2009, China delivered another five large military trucks and in March last year sent an additional 400 military use vehicles.
That bilateral cooperation was reaffirmed last September when Myanmar junta leader General Than Shwe traveled to China, ostensibly to update the authorities in Beijing on his country's upcoming elections, which were held in November.
During the visit, Than Shwe also inspected Huawei Technologies, which CRS says has supplied Myanmar's military with communications equipment. At the end of last year, Myanmar's air force agreed to buy 50 K-8 jet trainers from China; CRS speculates that some of the assembly work for the order will be done in Myanmar.
While China remains a major player in the still ongoing expansion of Myanmar's military forces, it is no longer Myanmar's main military partner. The regime in Naypyidaw is increasingly turning to North Korea for assistance in clandestine military research and the production of more sophisticated weapons, which seems to be at the top of the junta's list of strategic priorities. As the newly exposed North Korean-staffed facilities indicate, Myanmar's generals are angling to diversify their sources of hardware and know-how.