How the Myanmar Ex-Dictator’s ‘Air Force One’ Dream Was Shattered

By The Irrawaddy 28 February 2023

It was 10:40 a.m. Moscow time on March 5, 2011. A Russian-made passenger jet broke up in mid-air and crashed on the outskirts of a village in the Belgorod Oblast, a steep and hilly plain on the southeast edge of the Central Russian Upland.

All six crew members were killed. Two were from the Myanmar Air Force.

The jet was on a demonstration flight and “intended for delivery to Myanmar” under a contract signed in 2010, Russia’s United Aircraft said. The price tag for the plane was US$20 million at a minimum, according to aircraft monitor websites.

With the crash of the An-148 on the day, Myanmar’s then dictator Senior General Than Shwe’s dream to have “something like Air Force One” for his subordinate U Thein Sein, who was to be sworn in as the country president in 25 days, was shattered.

An An-148 similar to the aircraft involved in the accident / Wikipedia

The old dictator’s plan to have the presidential plane for a quasi-civilian government staffed with his subordinates is believed to have first come into his mind in 2010, when a rigged election was held to elect the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party he fostered.

Following the election, he told then Air Force chief General Myat Hein: “Get something like Air Force One, to make sure everything is right, including security.”

The plan came to light for the first time with the recent publication of the former chief’s memoir about his time under the Than Shwe regime as minister of communications and information technology during the U Thein Sein administration from 2013 to 2015. Now he is Myannar’s vice president (1) for the military proxy USDP.

Ex-Gen. Myat Hein writes that Than Shwe assigned one of his regime hardliners, Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, who would become a vice president in the U Thein Sein government, to purchase to the plane.

But the plan didn’t go smoothly.

Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo first contacted Brazil’s Embraer to buy an E-190, but international sanctions against the regime at the time made it impossible to proceed with the transaction, believed to be worth nearly $50 million. Other attempts with Air Bus and Boeing also failed.

Then, the regime’s longtime ally Russia came in with an offer of an An-148 built by VASO, one of Moscow’s largest aircraft manufactures. The deal was made in 2010 to deliver the plane in March 2011, when U Thein Sein would take the oath as the country’s president.

Shortly before the 2010 election, a pilot team led by then Colonel Aung Kyaw Tun, now the deputy minister of the current junta’s Transport and Communications Ministry, went to Russia for training on the An-148. However, Myat Hein writes, the team had to go back again in February next year as the Russians were not ready.

Myanmar’s then Air Force chief Myat Hein (left) inspects a guard of honor of Indian Air Force (IAF) troops at IAF Headquarters in New Delhi in September 2003. / AFP

At the same time, technical malfunctions surrounding the An-148 made Than Shwe nervous, so he ordered his men to reach out to Russia to make sure the plane was safe. In his book, Mya Hein doesn’t mention what the problems were, however.

Than Shwe learned about the plane crash on March 5, as Myat Hein personally reported it to him.

Learning the news, the former air chief recalled, the dictator stood up from the chair and said “We have to think if we should buy it or not, as even the newly built plane crashed.”

The investigation by the Russian Ministry of Industry said the aircraft was pushed beyond maximum aerodynamic limits after a technical problem confused the crew.

“To achieve the desired speed the pilots [increased the load on the aircraft such that it] exceeded the maximum permissible,” said the investigation commission. “Destruction of the aircraft in the air resulted.”

Following the accident, Myat Hein writes, he had to deal with Russia via the military attaché Brig-Gen Aung Thaw, now the chairman of the Russia-Myanmar Friendship Association and the minister of the current junta’s Hotel and Tourism Ministry, over the cancelation of the purchase of the plane, as Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo became the vice president.

Russia refused to provide a refund, however, insisting it would only substitute another item worth the same amount. The regime reluctantly accepted it.

Myat Hein doesn’t mention what Russia offered and says “the case wasn’t solved during my time in the Myanmar Air Force.” He became the minister of communications and information technology in 2013 during the U Thein Sein administration.

Than Shwe also retired after handing power to the U Thein Sein government in 2011. Since then he has rarely been seen in public. Recently, the old dictator visited the construction site of a giant Buddha statue commissioned by his successor, current regime boss Min Aung Hlaing, in Naypyitaw. The 90-year-old is still alive and kicking.

Though the people involved are no longer active, controversies surrounding the plane deal remain.

In 2010, when the purchase contract between Russia and Myanmar was signed, one of Russia’s oldest and largest air carriers, Rossiya, publicly criticized the reliability, economic viability and level of maintenance support required for the An-148, after one of its An-148s experienced a serious in-flight incident in June of that year.

It prompted questions over whether Russia deliberately tried to sell an aircraft known to have problems to the then Myanmar military regime.

How the Russian offer to substitute another item for the crashed plane was resolved also remains a mystery.