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FEER (Lintner): Khun Sa remains def

Subject: FEER (Lintner): Khun Sa remains defiant of Rangoos's squeeze[D[D Rangoon's squeeze

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Far Eastern Economic Review
April 14, 1994

Khun Sa remains defiant of Rangoon's squeeze

Bertil Lintner

In a spectacular display of rebel pageantry, thousands of armed
soldiers goose-stepped in perfect formation past Golden Triangle
warlord Khun Sa.  For the first time, Khun Sa's troops also
displayed in public their Soviet-made missiles; four soldiers
carried surface-to-air SAM7s as they saluted their commander.

The recent show of force at Khun Sa's Homong headquarters, across
the border from Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand, was most
likely meant as a deterrent to the more than 10,000 Burmese
Government troops who are positioned across the Salween River, 20
kilometers north of Homong.  Since mid-December, the Burmese army
has encircled Khun Sa's safe enclave adjacent to the  Thai
frontier.  Although the stand-off has yet to give Rangoon any
significant territorial gains, the Burmese have effectively
strangled the economy of Khun Sa's organisation by blocking the
crossing points on the Salween river.  For more than three months,
the trade in gems, jade, timer and other commodities has slowed to
a trickle at Mae Aw, Homong and Maisung opposite Pieng Luang, Khun
Sa's three main bases along the Thai-Burmese border.

Since the initial attacks late last year, the important heroin
refineries at Mong Hta, north of Pieng Luang have also been shut
down.  At present, only one refinery inside Khun Sa's area--Khai
Long, east of Homong--is believed to be still in operation.  "This
is the time when the raw opium has been harvested in the north, and
the caravans are moving down to the heroin refineries along the
Thai border.  With the Burmese army blocking the Salween river
crossings, the merchants would have to go to refineries outside
Khun Sa's control," a source said.

Khun Sa's display of military might also held a message for Thais
across the frontier, who are becoming increasingly impatient with
the loss of revenue from the previously booming cross-border trade. 
"Khun Sa's message was loud and clear," an observer said.  "Look,
I'm in charge here and we can defend our territory--even if the
Burmese call in air strikes to try to break the stalemate."

The Burmese for their part, have come up with an unorthodox offer
to the Thais; a dam project on the Salween diverting badly needed
water to Thailand, which is facing a severe water shortage for both
irrigation and hydroelectric power generation.  It is widely
believed that the project may be financed by Japanese investors
through Thai businessmen.

"Knowing full well that economic benefits ultimately decide which
side the Thais prefer to liaise with, the Burmese want to show that
there's something in  this offensive from them as well," an analyst
in northern Thailand told the Review.  "If supplies from the Thai
side to Khun Sa's area were cut off, Khun Sa would have to leave
the area to the Burmese--and the Thais would get their water."

Whether this offer will break the stalemate between the Burmese
Government forces and Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army (MTA) along the
Salween front remains to be seen.  Since the initial attacks
occurred in mid-December--when the government captures the MTA base
of Mong Kyawt--there has been little fighting.  The few reports
that have emerged from the battle zone indicate that government
forces have done little more than bring in reinforcements--having
made only a few feeble attempts to cross the river in to Khun Sa's

The extremely turbulent Salween forms a natural barrier between the
two opposing sides, and there are only a few places where it is at
least theoretically possible to mount a major crossing into Khun
Sa's territory.  Ta Kwe Kha opposite Mae Aw, Ta Hwe-pong on the
route to Homong, and Ta Hsop-pat and Ta Hpa-leng, both north of
Pieng Luang.

On January 16, at least 100 government troops tried to cross at Ta
hsop-pat, the location of the proposed damn.  But Khun Sa's
machine-gunners on the opposite bank opened fire, killing a large
number of government soldiers and sinking their rubber dinghies.

Observers agree that Rangoon can do one of three things if it
intends to advance towards Homong.  The first, most risky
possibility is to try to cross the river at Ta Hwe-pong and then
make a rapid push for Homong.  In the past month, thousands of
government forces have been massing opposite Ta Hwe-pong,
indicating that this scenario may be likely.

"But even if they succeeded in crossing the river safely, there
would be a bloodbath before they'd even get in the vicinity of
Homong," says an analyst.  "There are thousands of rebels around
the base and they are the best equipped in Burma."

An alternative course of action could be the massive use of air
power.  Last year, Rangoon acquired from China two squadrons of
close-support aircraft suitable for counter-insurgency operations. 
In addition, it has a substantial number of Polish "Hoplite" attack
helicopters as well as PZL Swidnik transport helicopters.

"But using all these aircraft would be even more costly than an
infantry assault.  Khun Sa's got not only SAM7s but also Red Eye
and Stinger missiles, apart from machine-gun positions on virtually
every major hilltop in the area,' says a source who is following
the developments.

"The third, most likely scenario, is a war of attrition to wear
Khun Sa down," the same source adds.  "The longer the present
blockade continues, the more friction there will be between him and
the Thais.  This suits the Burmese.  Weaken Khun Sa economically
first, then move against him."

It is also possible that the Burmese may lose interest in pursuing
Khun Sa.  The first attacks in December were launched when a group
of United States congressmen were visiting Rangoon--and it was
widely believed at the time that the camping against Khun Sa was
aimed at appeasing the Americans, who cut off all assistance to
Rangoon in 1988 following a massacre of pro-democracy

But a recent review of U.S. policy recommended tougher action
against Rangoon, making resumption of aid unlikely.