From the Archive

Desmond Ball Unbound

By The Irrawaddy 12 October 2016


For the past 20 years Professor Ball, an Australian, spent much of his time among Burma’s ethnic people and armed groups. His books include The Ties That Bind, Burma’s Military Secrets and The Boys in Black, about Thailand’s paramilitary border guards. Here we reprise an interview he conducted with The Irrawaddy in 2004.

Question: How has the political and strategic climate changed since you first starting working on Burma?

Answer: A number of changes. The first is the growth and the strengthening of the Tatmadaw itself since 1989, when the first very large contracts with China now amounting to about 3.5 billion dollars’ worth of weaponry and other military equipment that the Tatmadaw has acquired from China [and] equipment from other countries…

Secondly, during that period, in one sense a weakening of the resistance groups, as they’ve suffered defeats such as Manerplaw in January 1995 and Kawmura in February ’95. But I’ve also seen a change in the strategies and tactics of the resistance groups forced on them by the loss of those fixed bases to an adoption of more mobile guerilla-type strategies, and hence, since about 1999 an increasing number of victories, if you want to call them that, on the part of the insurgent groups: hit-and-run operations, ambushes, assaults on particular units—some of them being particularly effective now.

So in fact I’d say that over the last few years, although the overall strength of the various resistance armies has decreased, the military successes have in fact increased. And that applies to the SSA-South [Shan State Army-South] to the Karenni army and to the KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army], where you have some quite substantial military successes, sometimes wiping out whole Tatmadaw battalions; in other cases directed more at hitting particular Tatmadaw and DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] officers and really wreaking quite substantial punishments on the Tatmadaw.

Q: Since the ethnic armies are outmanned and outgunned, how have they scored successes on the battlefield?

A: I suppose the main factors have been the change in strategy and tactics… that rather than try to defend large fixed bases which involved hundreds of troops, and in some cases even thousands of troops, to protect Manerplaw for example, the adoption of mobile strategies with ambushes and hit-and-run tactics focussed on particular Tatmadaw units and ignoring those where it’s clear that they’re not going to achieve victory, or even if they achieve victory it’s going to be at a substantial cost, and only conducting operations when it’s quite clear they will achieve the particular military aims.

That’s probably the main factor, but secondly, better intelligence on the part of these groups. I think they now understand the extent, for example, to which the Tatmadaw have been monitoring their communications and have been able to turn the tables a bit there by more systematically monitoring Tatmadaw and DKBA communications, so they’re in a far better position in terms of knowing the details of particular Tatmadaw and DKBA movements, so that they can therefore set up ambushes, or mine certain areas with landmines. They’re probably the two main reasons.

Q: We have reported about a suspected Chinese-built listening post at Coco Islands. But the counter-argument is that the post was built and is operated by Burmese. What can you say about this?

A: I think you have to distinguish between the station at Great Coco and what is now six or seven smaller listening stations which the Chinese have provided down the Burmese coastline, on the Andaman Sea side. In the case of the smaller listening stations, they are entirely operated by Burmese military and in particular by the Burmese Navy. There are only Chinese at those stations whenever they are providing new equipment or repairing equipment or providing some technical assistance. But basically they are Burmese stations.

Great Coco is quite different from that. You have a continuous Chinese presence at that station which has not gone away in the last decade or so since that station has been operating. It would be operated primarily by Burmese. I can’t see the Burmese government actually allowing China, in a sense, to have its own listening station there. So it’s probably more accurately characterized as a joint listening station with both Burmese and Chinese technicians working together at Great Coco.

Q: Why is that area so important? What are the Chinese listening to?

A: For the Chinese it’s quite critical. It provides them with the ability to listen in to all signals traffic across the eastern Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. It enables them to listen in to the telemetry signals which are generated during Indian ballistic missile tests which are fired off from the eastern coast of India and which land in the Andaman Sea there. But it also complements a series of listening stations which the Chinese operate in the South China Sea, where they’ve now got about six stations between Great Coco on the western side of the Malacca Straits and those stations in the South China Sea on the eastern side. It enables them to monitor all maritime movements, both naval movements as well as other maritime shipping traffic through those straits. In intelligence terms, it is a major bonus for them.

I was going to say, and I think I can say, it is the most important listening station which China operates outside of China itself. China operates listening stations in Laos, small ones. There are a couple in Cuba which are quite important. In recent times they’ve also established a couple over in the Ukraine to monitor some of the western side. But the Great Coco one would be up there as, if not the most important, as one of the most important stations outside of China itself.

Q: What about Russia? We have quite a big Russian Embassy operating in Rangoon.

A: Yeah, the Russian Embassy has been a …site for Russian intelligence operations for decades now. There is an extensive listening capability in the Russian Embassy. But in the old days, in the days of the Soviet Union, both the KGB and the Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, also operated extensively through human intelligence operations, spies out of the embassy there. And although some of those operations have been reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union they haven’t been closed down entirely.

And the Russian connection now extends beyond just the espionage operations out of the embassy. There are arms sales, which include the MiG-29 sales, the provision of the nuclear reactor to Rangoon and since early last year, Russian teams exploring the area down in Tenasserim, where they’ve been looking for uranium, not for purposes of a reactor, but simply for the purposes of mining and processing of uranium hexaflouride, the yellow cake, which they would use themselves in their reactors. In the last 15 months, [there have been] quite extensive visits and exploration teams of Russians down in that area.

Q: The junta knows what the opposition and its leaders are thinking inside and outside Burma because they tap phones and intercept communications quite well. If the opposition knew what the junta leaders were thinking, could they make a judgment that would speed up reform?

A: I’m not sure about that. At the military level, then it is possible to know almost everything because no Tatmadaw operation takes place without very extensive communications from Rangoon to the regional commands and to the Light Infantry Divisions, the LIDs, and from those commands and divisions to the subordinate battalions and companies. So whenever there is new equipment introduced into a particular area, a new artillery system, for example, or a new battalion comes into a particular village, then that is very easy to monitor.

With regard to what [junta leaders] are actually thinking, then I don’t think that technical intelligence is going to help you very much there. More could probably be done in terms of monitoring their phone calls. But they’re smart enough when it comes to policy discussions between members of the junta not to use telephones and other communications systems which can be monitored.

So you really have to [make] a very clear distinction between…intelligence about military matters and intelligence about political developments. And it may well be where most of the intelligence is known, like at the military level, is in fact the least important area. Less is known about political developments but they’re the really important developments.

Q: What kind of signals and human intelligence capabilities does the junta have in Thailand?

A: Their capabilities for radio and telephone interception within Thailand are very substantial but not comprehensive. In Bangkok, there is a major intercept station in the office of the Defense Attache near the embassy there, which would be able to monitor a wide range of telephone and radio communications; in other words, the particular frequencies that they’re interested in and the particular telephone numbers and subscribers that they’re interested in. I believe also that in Chiang Mai that they have had at different times the capabilities for monitoring telephone conversations as well…

In other places along the border, such as in Myawaddy, they have limited capabilities, limited geographical capabilities; in other words they can monitor telephone communications within the Mae Sot area but they would not be able to do this systematically right throughout Thailand and not right down the Thai-Burma border. It would depend on where they’ve been able to install receivers for monitoring, not just the analog but more particularly the digital mobile telephone communications, and that’s not an easy job to do. So there’d be particular places such as Myawaddy where they can do it but not comprehensively.

Q: Is Thailand the most important country in Southeast Asia that Burma would listen to?

A: Yes. Burma does have listening posts over on the western border for monitoring Indian communications and for monitoring communications in Assam and the Naga area and places like that. And the station at Great Coco that they have with the Chinese provides them with extensive capabilities for monitoring other forms of communications, including satellite communications coming down into that particular geographical area. But it’s along the Thai border that their capabilities are much more comprehensive where they would try to monitor a much larger proportion of the communications, and that includes communications of groups operating within Burma itself. In other words the communications of particular ethnic groups which do operate on the Thai side of the border as well as the communications of Thai military and civil authorities.

Q: What about Thailand towards Burma?

A: Thailand has very advanced and very extensive capabilities for monitoring communications of all sorts. Thailand monitors communications from China, with listening stations in the northern part of Thailand. It monitors communications from Laos and Cambodia but the great majority of the Thai stations that are listening into neighboring countries are focused on Burma. Many of those are tactical stations, in other words they’re small stations operated by army units or by dorchordor, Border Patrol police, or tahaan phraan, and are listening just simply to the short-range tactical communications of Tatmadaw units on the other side of the border. And there are many of those stations. So that overall, Thailand would be collecting much more tactical military communications from Burma than any other country.