Myanmar has improved its communications security capability despite being subject to a range of embargoes. Samuel Blythe and Desmond Ball explain how the evident ability of the secretive state to evade such restrictions raises concerns about its other procurement plans.For Myanmar’s secretive government, communications appear to be increasingly important.

Secret documents leaked to Jane’s and a series of procurement tenders posted on the internet reveal that the country’s military government is making a sustained effort to upgrade its communications security capabilities.

The ability of the Myanmar armed forces (officially known as Tatmadaw) to conceal its operations is of concern in light of the government’s apparent efforts to develop a nuclear capacity.

Since early 2009, United States officials have been expressing anxiety about Myanmar’s possible pursuit of a nuclear programme and its potential links to North Korea. These reports were given further credence following a report by the Norway-based multimedia organisation Democratic Voice of Burma in June, which included the testimony of an army defector and documentary evidence suggesting the development of a nuclear programme. Naypidaw has denied these allegations.

Quite apart from its potential use in any nuclear programme, improved communications security will enhance the military’s ability to move against insurgent groups operating in the country. In addition, as documented by Amnesty International, the Tatmadaw regularly targets civilians in its military operations in areas of active insurgency in eastern Karen and Kayah states, as well as southern Shan state. Encrypted communications could complicate efforts to provide early warning of a potential attack to civilian populations and aid workers in border regions adjacent to Thailand.

Another worrying aspect of Myanmar’s improved communications security capability is the fact that the country is subject to a range of bilateral arms embargoes. While designed to hinder Myanmar’s access to such equipment, the country’s evident ability to evade such restrictions raises concerns about its other procurement plans.

Talking in tongues Myanmar’s communications security initiative may have been prompted by border skirmishes with Thailand in 2001 and concerns that the Thai army could share communications intercepts with Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups. Initial efforts were focused on the production of the TS-2002 transceiver and LA-97 scrambler, which was first introduced into service in the late 1990s.

An army handbook for general staff seen by Jane’s, which was published in 2003 and issued as late as 2005, elaborates the standard frontline communications inventory of light infantry divisions, the army’s main fighting force. A table in the manual entitled Communications equipment for normal operations against domestic insurgents and foreign enemies indicates that light infantry division headquarters used 10 different communications systems, including four communications security devices, a TW-100RX receiver, a TW-1100 transceiver, a SR MP-25, and the LA-97 scrambler, an indigenously produced voice scrambler handset modelled on the LA-54, which was acquired from South Africa in 1992 and 1993.

According to the list, the light infantry divisions’ subordinate units, which include three tactical operations commands and 10 infantry battalions, lacked this equipment, suggesting that light infantry divisions probably used these devices to communicate with the Ministry of Defence and regional commands.

The inventory list further indicates that light infantry divisions and tactical operations commands were equipped with Israeli-manufactured SC-120 scramblers and Chinese-manufactured XD-D9V transceivers, which also offer full encryption security. Tactical operations commands, columns and battalions were each equipped with six TS-2002s. Although specifications on the indigenously produced TS-2002 communications security devices are unavailable, they are apparently interfaced with the standard issue radio systems for battalions, which include the six XD-D6M, TRA-906Cs, and the indigenously produced Thura.

The Tatmadaw has subsequently upgraded and diversified its systems through the intensified production of communications security devices.

Documents from 2000 provided to Jane’s state that the Tatmadaw’s Directorate of Signals intended to produce 2,075 LA-97s but was doing so at the rate of only 50 units per year. However, by 2008 the LA-97 had been used down to the battalion level, improving its counter-insurgent and conventional military capability.

Beginning in 2006, ST-24 hi-tech communication sets have also been used by the army, including its strategic commands and armour battalions. Technical specifications on the radio are not available.

The army is also increasingly reliant on the TS-2003 frequency hopping transceiver, employing it in some regions of conflict, such as Kayah state. Procurement orders for the production of 500 sets in early 2010 suggest their use may become increasingly prevalent. A military source reported to Jane’s that the TS-2004 is also in use, but declined to provide details about the system.

Specifics on the army units current outfitting are unavailable. However, it appears that indigenously produced communications security devices are being distributed far more widely than in the past, and have enabled the Tatmadaw to mask its communications, leaving insurgent groups and neighbouring militaries at a greater disadvantage than before.

Foreign dependence

Despite greater indigenous production, the Tatmadaw remains dependent on foreign-produced hi-tech components to build its communications security devices. Although many governments have imposed bilateral export restrictions on the sale of technology and arms to Myanmar, they do not appear to have seriously complicated military procurement. For instance, a top-secret memo from 2000 elaborating LA-97 production plans, a copy of which was provided to Jane’s, indicated that the Directorate of Signals relied on local companies to purchase 37 parts, 18 of which were purchased abroad.

The Tatmadaw has also outsourced the procurement of several hundred components necessary for TS-2003s to private companies. Buyers include the Yangon-based Guardian Enterprise Company, which also has active tenders to purchase parts for Myanmar’s F-7 fighter aircraft.

Despite Canada’s far-reaching sanctions regime, in late 2009, the Canadian-based Asian Network Service also openly posted tenders on its website to buy TS-2003 parts. Canada’s Special Economic Measures (Burma) Regulations, implemented in 2007, do not clearly prohibit the posting of tenders.

However, the law provides that “no person in Canada shall export, sell, supply or ship any goods, wherever situated, to [Myanmar], to any person in [Myanmar] or to any person for the purposes of any business carried on in or operated from [Myanmar].” They also impose a blanket ban on the import of goods “supplied or shipped from [Myanmar]”. The Asian Network Service’s website indicates it is an employment agency for immigrant labourers, and trades in a range of commodities from Myanmar, including teak.

According to Jane’s sources, the Tatmadaw also continues to use foreign communication devices and favours Australian-manufactured Barrett radios.

The Barrett 2050 is a sophisticated HF single side-band communications system that – in one version – provides a simple-to-operate frequency hopping option. It then requires insertion of the ‘hop band’ and the nine-digit cipher number and is ready for use. The heart of the 2050 is a flexible soft-core processor and powerful digital signal processing system that delivers superior reception and noise reduction. These normally transmit on a frequency of 5.407 MHz or 6.628 MHz.

Contained in a lightweight, extremely strong, sealed aluminium chassis, the 2050 meets military standard 810F for ‘drop, dust, temperature, shock and vibration’. It is usually operated as a desktop transceiver, but can easily be truck-mounted for mobile operations.

Tatmadaw division level units increasingly use the Barrett 2050 in the Eastern, North East, and Central Regional Commands, according to a source that monitors Tatmadaw communications, and Myanmar’s army evidently plans to make more extensive use of the Barrett 2050 system. The price of a new Barrett 2050 radio with standard accessories is about USD3,000.

Civilian use

Details about Barrett’s sales of communication equipment to Myanmar were revealed by Hamish McDonald in the Australian newspapers Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 5 January 2010, generating considerable controversy. Even when legal, sales of equipment with potential military applications to Myanmar can arouse international criticism because of the brutal nature of Tatmadaw operations in ethnic areas. In statements to the press, Phil Bradshaw, managing director of Barrett Communications, acknowledged the sale of radios to Myanmar in 2009, with earlier sales of “around 50 radio sets”

in 2005 and 2006, but insisted they were for civilian use”. Bradshaw stated: “They are used for just internal communications within [Myanmar]” owing to the country’s “very bad infrastructure generally outside the main towns”, which he compared to Papua New Guinea. Bradshaw added:“

I cannot say the army have not used them but I do not think they have.” He insisted the radios were not “for military use anyway. The ones that are going to [Myanmar], they are straight Barrett 2050s with data systems that are used to send data from point A to point B. They are not tactical radios by any means”.

At the time, Barrett acknowledged that one of Myanmar’s government ministries was tending bids for additional sets. In light of these statements, news agencies widely reported that the Tatmadaw had acquired the Barrett radios through a civilian front company, or that the radios had been diverted from another government ministry.

Paper trails

Barrett’s sales to the Tatmadaw date back to at least 2002, with the sale of 34 Barrett data sets, as revealed in a procurement document from Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence provided to Jane’s.

The documents indicate that army regional commands used the radios to communicate with subordinate combat units. A second document indicates that in July 2004, the Ministry of Defence called for tenders for the supply of an additional 50 Barrett HF datasets. Barrett and another Australian company, Codan LTD, the UK-based D & J Exports LTD and the Singapore-based Enpress Trade were among the 16 companies that tendered bids. Sales bids of this type presumably remain legal despite the embargoes.

Barrett Communication’s winning 2004 bid secured the sale of 50 950-transceivers and included optional components, including a 923-Clover 2000 odem and the 923-HF fax and data system operating software. Barrett’s website indicates that the 950 is built to European military standards and has a scrambler option that provides a “medium level of voice encryption for message privacy under the most arduous propagation conditions”. The USD659,000 contract covered air freight charges from Perth delivered to Yangon Airport, and included on-site commissioning.

In an email to Jane’s, Bradshaw declined to comment on sales to Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence, noting that “due to the inaccurate reporting in the press regarding our company’s activities we have decided not to provide information that is commercial in confidence between ourselves and
our clients.”

Banning exports

Since 1991, Australia has banned exports to Myanmar of goods identified by the Department of Defence on its defence and strategic goods list as “defence goods”. Proscribed items include radios with encryption and frequency hopping capabilities. The arms embargo is implemented under Regulation 13E of the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958. In his email to Jane’s, Bradshaw wrote: “On no occasion have we sold frequency hopping transceivers to the [Myanmar] Armed Forces.

Frequency hopping, by company policy and agreement with the Department of Defence, can only be installed at the Barrett facility in Perth and only by staff authorised to do so. It is not possible to retrofit frequency hopping outside the factory to Barrett 2050 transceivers or any other Barrett transceivers including those that use scramblers.”

A spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Defence told Jane’s Barrett Communications had “confirmed that the radios they supplied to Burma did not contain an optional frequency hopping capability”. She said: “As such, the radios are not controlled for export under Regulation 13E of the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958. The company was therefore not required to seek a Department of Defence permission to export, and the department has not been involved in the transactions.”

She added: “The Department of Defence’s technical assessment concluded the frequency hopping function built into the Barrett 2050 radios can only be enabled at the factory by a Barrett technician. To enable this function, a customer would have to have access to Barrett’s facilities and co-operation. This could not be done in-country.”

Limits of export control

However, a way to obtain restricted communications security equipment may be to purchase it from third countries. An Australian Department of Defence spokesperson told Jane’s that the defence and strategic good list restriction “includes cases where the end-user is known to be in [Myanmar], but the export is being transshipped through a third country. In assessing an export application, the Department of Defence conducts a risk assessment process that includes checks on the bona fides of the end-user and end-use of the goods to ensure that the export is consistent with Australia’s export control policy criteria.”

The spokesperson added: “However, Australian legislation does not apply to foreign countries. Once they have been delivered to the foreign enduser, any re-export of the goods would be subject to control by the foreign government concerned.”

Once defence and strategic good list restricted goods have left Australia, it may be difficult to monitor compliance. For instance, in 2008 an officer in one of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups showed Jane’s a Barrett transceiver with an activated frequency hopping system that he had purchased on the retail market in Singapore.

As demonstrated by its recent acquisitions and the increased production of communications security devices, the Tatmadaw seems intent on further shrouding its operations in secrecy. These efforts will receive a significant boost when the government’s countrywide fibre optic networks become fully operational, as these link the Ministry of Defence to all of its command areas and operational units.

The Tatamaw’s growing communications security capabilities could provide it with a decisive
edge against active insurgencies along the border with Thailand, and recalcitrant ceasefire groups along its borders with China, including the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army. Moreover, despite international criticism of Myanmar’s government on the grounds of its potential nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses, no concerted effort has yet been made to crack down on transfers or co-ordinate embargo efforts, meaning that the country is likely to be able to continue its programme of communications security upgrades.