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Burma/Myanmar, 1948-1999
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 02:24

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Shortly after the Burman Union became independent, on 4 January 1948 - parallel to India and Pakistan - a civil war between the communists and the conservative government broke out in the country. This conflict could not even properly develop when in August of the same year also the powerful Karen tribe revolted against the federal government, initiating another civil war that was to last for the following 50 years. Finally, only a year later also the civil war in China reached its high point, with a large number of Chinese nationalists fleeing over the border into Burma. As if all of this would not be sufficient, the Americans started to mix in the situation and the CIA started to organize both, an anti-Communist opposition in Burma and the Chinese Nationalists. With the help of the American secret service from former members of the nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) the National Salvation Army (NSA) was created and became active in the north of the Burmese Union. The units of the NSA were regularly supplied a fleet of un-marked C-46 transports belonging to the CIA front companies, foremost the “Civil Air Transport” (CAT) operating from Formosa and Thailand.

The first NSA offensive began in April 1950, with some 4,000 soldiers attacking into the Chinese Province Juan. When the operation failed to provoke the expected rebellion against the Communists, the NSA units were swiftly dealt with by the People’s Army of China. A second, slightly smaller, invasion undertaken only few weeks later failed likewise. The CIA was not discouraged, however, and it organized some 700 former KMT members on the Myitkyina airfield, left behind from the WWII. In the following two years Myitkyina was developed into a large base, with a huge stockpile of supplies flown in by CAT aircraft, and additional troops were recruited. After intensive preparations, in July 1952 a new invasion armed force of 12.000 soldiers advanced over the border into the Juan Province. The Chinese mobilized their Army and Air Force (People’s Army Air Force, or PLAAF) and put the NSA troops soon under a heavy pressure. Again experiencing the lack of support from the local population, this invasion was doomed to failure as well.

The Solution of the “Chinese Question”

Frustrated by failures against Chinese Communists and without a serious chance of establishing permanent presence on the Chinese territory the KMT finally strove to organize Burma as its new homeland, its members settling foremost in the north of the country, in the so-called “Golden Triangle” – an area between the border of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, where already at the time enormous quantities of opium were produced. The Chinese recognized immediately the possibilities of the opium handling and started to displace local tribes out of poppy fields and the market.

Certainly a true rarity is this photograph of a Sea Fury T.Mk.20 in full Burmese markings, seen probably before delivery, in 1956. (Ole Nikolajsen)


The armed forces Burmas were at this time still in organization. The small “Union of Burma Air Force” – or “Tandaw Lay” in Burmese (“TL”, came into being with British assistance, and operated a small number of Spitfire F.Mk.18s and Mosquitoes FB.Mk.6. The TL could play only a very limited role in the following wars against the KMT/NSA, the Communists, and the Karen tribe, even if in 1957-1958 it was reinforced by the acquizition of 18 Sea Fury FB.11s and three Sea Fury T.Mk.20s (which formed one squadron), as well as few Bristol Freighters, purchased sometimes in the period 1954-1960. In order to put the whole country – much of which is covered by an enormous jungle - the government needed a much larger military, but it was lacking the means and the knowledge needed. Consequently, the TL was not to play any prominent role in the fighting in the first years of Burmese independence. Nevertheless, by 1954 the Army was finally able to force the KMT out of the country: in fact, with US help, most of the Chinese were evacuated to Formosa. As even this was not the final solution of the “Chinese Question” in Burma, in late 1960 the regime in Rangoon secretly organized a large “final offensive” – in cooperation with Chinese Communists – against the remnants of the NSA, some 10.000 fighters in all. Three divisions of the PLA marched over the border, joined the 5.000 strong Burmese combat group and then attacked – supported by Spitfire LF.Mk.9s (acquired from Israel) and several Sea Fury fighters. combat team, which was supported well from air.

During the 1950s Burma purchased also a handfull of Bristol Freighter 150 transports, one of which was seen on this photograph taken in 1956. Sadly, not much is known about their service with the TL. (Ole Nikolajsen)


Despite the substantial support from the CIA, the stubborn NSA defences, lashed to the area and organized in the classic manner were overrun: by 26 January 1961 the fighting was actually over, especially since CAT transport aircraft evacuated the last 4.200 NSA fighters to Taiwan, and further 6.000 to Laos. The remainder of the NSA withdrew into the jungle, where it continued to receive small shipments from the CIA for a number of years. While flying such a support mission, in the late February 1961 an unmarked B-24 was shot down over Burma – supposedly by an TL Sea Fury fighter.

Another rarity is this excellent photograph of a Burmese Vampire T.Mk.55: Vampries should have been the first jets flown by the TL ever. (Ole Nikolajsen)


US Support

With the solution of the “Chinese Question”, the Burmese government turned against the Karens. By 1959 the TL was strengthened through acquisition of 24 BAC Provost T.Mk.53s from Great Britain, among other armed with machine-guns calibre 12 mm. Eventually, no less but 40 Provosts were acquired by Burma, the last of which should have been delivered sometimes in 1960, forming two units. Although stationed in Meiktila, the Provosts mainly operated from several small runways in the jungle, flying numerous combat sorties in the early 1960s. Their precision, however, suffered considerably from pilots’ lack of experience and immense problems in target identification in the thick jungle, as well as a poor cooperation with ground troops. In fact, neither the Burmese Army nor the Karen rebels were especially interested in fighting an intense war: both profited from their interference on the side of the Thai government in the fight against Thai communists and indirect American assistance. Since an additional number of other groups with different interests appeared on the surface in the following years, the Burmese Army was finally restricted in controlling only very specific parts of the country, in order not to endanger the existence of the administration.

One of some 40 Provost T.Mk.53s purchased by Burma between 1954 and 1960 was this example, serialled UB217. (Ole Nikolajsen)


Despite the actual enmity to the CIA, during the 1960s the TL had pretty good relations to the USA, especially because the US government was actually highly interested in the fight against the drug production and trafficking in Burma. Consequently, the BUAF was soon to start getting aircraft and helicopters from the USA. In 1960 the first six Bell 47G-2s were supplied, reinforced by 12 HH-43Bs in 1970s. In 1967 the USAF also supplied eight AT-33As. However, neither the helicopters nor the T-33s were used very much: especially the fighters proved too fast for the kind of the wars the Tandaw Lay had to fight. Also, no less but five were lost in a single accident, in 1974, when they flew into a mountain near Rangoon during a storm. In 1975 the USA supplied also 18 Bell 205As and Bell 206Bs to the TL. These helicopters did saw intensive use – but, not in their indented role, that of the war against drug production, but only against specific groups of drug smugglers, foremost along the border to Laos. No less but five of these helicopters were lost to different causes during the 1980s. In 1976 the BUAF also purchased at least 20 Siai-Marchetti SF.260MBs from Italy, but the life of these aircraft in Burma was not easy. One was lost in 1978, another in 1982 during the fighting with Karens (when also two helicopters were shot down), and the remaining planes permanently suffered from poor maintenance. In 1983 Burma purchased 16 Pilatus PC-7s from Switzerland. Before any of these arrived, however, on 12 February 1984 another Bell 205A was lost in fighting with Karens.

Poor but interesting photo showing three Burmese AT-33As. Note the general appearance of the aircraft in "bare metall" overall, black panels on the front fuselage and wing-tip tanks, and large serials. Note also that the nearest aircraft, apparently BU531, had large parts of front and rear fuselage painted in another colour, possibly "Day-Glo orange". (Tom Cooper collection)


The Burmese AT-33A serialled UB511: the type should have been retired from service sometimes during the mid-1990s. (Ole Nikolajsen)


The SLORC Regime

The slow war between the Burmese military and different parties experienced new culminations time and again during the 1980s. After the bloody coup by the military, in 1988, ever since which the country was actually renamed Myanmar (even if the name Burma is still frequently used), the Army and Air Force were put under command of the “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) – essentially a military junta, defending specific political and economical interests of the establishment in Rangoon. The SLORC was relatively swift in starting a more serious war against drug smuggling, foremost by interdicting smuggling routes and cutting the Karen rebels off from the outside world. With the help of dreadful terror, with the time the regime managed to destroy a sizeable part of Karens, and also many of drug-manufacturing and smuggling bands, but this was achieved only through a series of ethnical cleansings and forced resettlements in whole Burma, during which over 300.000 were killed.

The junta saw the future of the country only in a reinforcement of the armed forces, which should have helped it exercise a total control over Myanmar. Under such circumstances the Air Force was strengthened as well, this time with what was expected to become much more useful combat aircraft than anything in BUAF before. As there was, however, hardly any country world-wide ready to supply modern military hardware to Myanmar, the BUAF could initially order only 20 SOKO G-4 Super Galebs in Yugoslavia. The first six Super Galebs were supplied in 1990, but the subsequent war in Yugoslavia prevented any additional supplies.

The first Burmese G-4 Super Galeb, seen before delivery at Mostar airfield in what is now Bosnia and Hercegovina. (SOKO via Ole Niklajsen)


Only six out of 20 G-4 Super Galebs ordered from Yugoslavia eventually reached Burma. After heavy use - mainly in COIN-role - one was lost under unknown circumstances and only two airframes remain sufficiently intact to be made airworthy. (SOKO via Tom Cooper)


The SLORC then attempted to increase the American assistance: the military at the time existed mainly thanks to US support, and the regime in Rangoon was interested in getting more of this. The administration in Washington, however, held its involvement in the country very carefully back, explaining to be interested in the fight against drug barons only. On the search for other cheap arms-suppliers the Burmese thus finally turned to their northern neighbours, ordering 30 Nanchang F-7 single-seaters and six Chengdu FT-7 two-seaters. The pilots for these machines were sent for training to China in the summer of 1990, and one year later the first of eventual four units became operational. Simultaneously, other large orders for weapons were placed in China: a single contract from the year 1994, for example, was alone worth $400 million, and included patrol boats, gunships, heavy artillery, tank, SAMs, 24 Shenyang A-5M fighter-bombers (eventually no less but 42 were purchased), 20 helicopters, 36 additional F-7 (not all of which were indeed delivered), four Y-8D transporters, as well as 350 PL-2 and a shipment of more advanced PL-5 air-to-air missiles.

TL A-5M seen taking off from an unknown base. Burmese purchased at least 42 these fighters, but the attrition was heavy and only slightly more than 20 airframes remain intact, less than 50% of these in flyable condition. (via Ole Niklajsen)


The Anti-Drugs War

The rapid re-armament of the Burmese military in the early 1990s, and a series of intensive campaigns against different rebel fractions – foremost the Karens, but also Kachin, Kayan, Shan, Srakan, Mons, Naga, Kerreni and other tribes - and drug-producing groups resulted in a more stabile situation by 1992. The fact was, however, that the armed opposition actually presented up to 25% of the Burmese population, so that durable results could be reached only through massive terror of the local population. Nevertheless, one of the decisive moments for the success of the regime’s campaigns was the fact that the Thai authorities forced over 60.000 Karens and 15.000 Mons back over the border into Burma and the hands of the SLORC, which used the opportunity to full – even if offering an amnesty to all the fighters that would lay down their weapons. After suffering dreadful losses in previous fighting the rebels were not opposed to the conditions of this ultimatum.

With the victory over the Karens being secured, the SLORC then turned against other Burmese minorities, foremost Shan, Mon, Akha, and Labu, living in border regions to Bangladesh, Thailand, China, and Laos. In a series of large-scale operations the armed opposition of these tribes was largely neutralized – foremost by ethnical cleansing or forced resettlement.

Finally the junta turned its attention of the pursuit of the drug lords, most important of which was Gen. Khun, who had 15.000 strong private army, actually better equipped than even the Burmese military. The reason for the first large operation against Khun was an attack by his troops against the city of Tachilek, in April 1995. The Burmese Army reacted with a successful counterattack against several of Khun’s bases. The fighting culminated in the battle of Bakyan, during which Khun’s forces practically disappeared in the jungle, leaving the SLORC without the ability to deliver the “final blow”.

The TL participated in some of these operations, but was actually still foremost busy with acquisition of new aircraft and training of the needed crews, as well as hampered by the lack of funding. Commander of the TL, Gen. Tin Oo, therefore attempted to expand and modernize the Air Force during the mid-1990s. From 1995 he invested heavily in the capability of the force to maintain available aircraft and helicopters at home: by 1997, for example, the technical institutions of the TL managed to acquire new engines for G-4 Super Galeb COIN-fighters in the UK, and also acquire (from Australia and Canada), maintain or repair engines for PC-7 and PC-9 aircraft, previously obtained from Switzerland. Simultaneously, Gen. Oo started a new project for expansion of the TL by ordering new aircraft and helicopters aboard. In October 1995, he visited Moscow to purchase seven Mi-17 helicopters from Russia, followed by five more in 1996. However, these were more frequently used for VIP-transport but to support ground troops. Nevertheless, while so far the TL could not properly support its remaining 12 Bell 205As and 206As helicopters – together with 17 outdated HH-43Bs and Bell 47G-2s – under Gen. Oo the TL obtained the capability to maintain these helicopters as well, and a number of them was returned to service.

The TL purchased also 16 or 17 PC-7 basic trainers, that entered service with the Flying School. Here all the aircraft can be seen in their full markings (note the black-yellow checkered rudders). Barely ten of these remain intact by now. (via Ole Niklajsen)


Despite such efforts, and in order to obtain some badly needed funds, seven SF.260s were sold to Belgium in 1990: by the time, only nine out of 16 delivered airframes remained intact, indicating a heavy attrition in combat and training operations. In order to further improve the situation in 1997 the Israeli company Elbit was contracted to upgrade the 36 surviving F-7s and FT-7s, but this did not result in any significant increase in the combat capabilities of these aircraft. Quite on the contrary: the story about the Myanmar F-7s became a sad illustration for the condition of this air force.

Like in the case of most other combat aircraft in service with the TL, the career of the SF.260 in Burma was characterised by heavy attrition. Seven out of nine survivors were sold to Belgium in 1990. (Tom Cooper collection)


The TL acquired a total of 54 F-7s and FT-7s since 1991, and by the mid-1990s equipped four units (including an OCU) with them. By 1995, however, only three units remained operational. The reason was that type caused immense problems to the TL ever since delivery. Their manufacturing quality was very poor: reportedly, several aircraft were delivered without the software for their fire-control computers. The technical reliability was also lacking, and by 1996 several aircraft and pilots were lost in different accidents, most of which were related to failures of the engines and related systems. TL officers frequently complained about the F-7s being extremely difficult to maintain: to a degree, the reason for this were major differences between the structure and underlying philosophy of the Myanmar and Chinese logistic systems. More often, however, Rangoon frequently lacked money to purchase spare parts, and these were permanently in a very short supply. The TL also experienced great problems in using the F-7 for air-to-ground tasks.

Consequently, Israel was contracted to refurbish and upgrade all the surviving 36 F-7s and FT-7s: these were to get the Elta EL/M-2032 air-to-air radar, Rafael Python Mk.III and even Litening laser-designator pods. The same equipment was then installed on the two-seater FT-7 fighter trainers as well. In a related deal, Israel delivered to Myanmar at least one consignment of laser-guided bombs, but no deliveries of any other (except mentioned) weapons are known. Since the Elbit contract was won in 1997, the air force has acquired at least one more squadron of F-7 and FT-7 aircraft from China, but these were not upgraded - apparently due to the lack of funds. Money remained the main problem of Myanmar even if the country was in the same year accepted - despite massive accusations for violations of the human rights – as a full member of the ASEAN, and thus the junta reached one of its most important goals: that of making the country attractive for foreign investors. Already short time after there were the first rumours according to which the government ordered MiG-29 fighters from Russia, but no order for these was to be signed for the next three years.

Otherwise, the fighting between the federal Army and different rebel fractions continued through 1997, with Rangoon concentrating the whole 3rd Army (under command of Lt. Gen. Wattanachai Haimeunwong) on trying to tie down the United Wa State Army and the Kayin National Union. The guerrilla of the later was also involved in an incident near the Thai border, during which an unknown RTAF helicopter was shot down in that year.

In early 1998 the Burmese troops launched a surprise attack against Mo Hong, the Headquarters of Gen. Khun, barely 30 kilometres from the Thai border. The BUAF was very active during this campaign and flew several hundred of combat sorties, considerably adding to the success of the federal ground forces. However, as Khun’s army was relatively swiftly neutralized rumours appeared that the drug baron reached an agreement with the junta in Rangoon, according to which he accepted to hand over his army and the whole region this was to control - in the exchange for a guarantee for his life. Many of Khun’s fighters, however, had different ideas about their destiny: instead of surrendering to the Army they fled into the jungle. Most of them joined another similar organization: namely, already in 1995 there was a split within Khun’s forces, when a smaller group of his dissatisfied mercenaries decided to start their own fight. This group was now reinforced by new defectors. Consequently, while Khun disappeared from the Burmese political and drugs-manufacturing tribune, Rangoon was now faced with new a new rebellion. Subsequently the civil war in Myanmar transformed into a fight between the SLORC and different drug lords, in which different rebel organizations frequently change their alliances. Some of the pro-government elements, for example, have organized the so-called “United Wa State Army” (UWSA), which is a form of irregular militia fighting on the side of the regime mainly against the “Shan State Army” (SSA), the official military organization of the Shons. The nature of operations changed considerably, in so far that the Burmese military is now undertaking only smaller, local operations. Without a democratization and honest co-operation of its neighbours, however, the Burmese government will never be able to win, which in turn is the reason for this war being continued until today.

The Battle at Border Post 9631

How much is the situation in Myanmar dependable on actions of country’s neighbours, but also how complex the situation in that country meanwhile is (in regards to relations between the regime, drugs, and different rebel organizations) was perfectly illustrated by a series of sharp clashes between Burma and Thailand, in February 2001.

In order to support the UWSA in its fight against the SSA, and help it establish the full control of the areas along the border to Thailand, the Myanmar Army launched an operation that was to result in the fighting with Thai military as well. While the Myanmar regime would not comment about these operations, meanwhile it is known that the fiercest series of battles was fought for the Thai Border Post 9631, mounted on a hilltop one kilometre inside Thailand, at Ban Pang Noon, in the Mae Fae Luang district, on approach to the Mae Sai, a city some 440 miles away from Bangkok, in the northernmost tip of Thailand. The exact reasons for the attack on this border post remain unclear: some Thai sources indicated that the Myanmaris attacked the Border Post 9631 – garrisoned by 20 Tahan Pran Militia troops – either “by accident”, while pursuing Shon guerrilla, or in order to get a good fire-base for their artillery attacks against the nearby Shon positions. It is interesting to note, however, that this attack came on the evening of Friday, 9 February 2001, when most of the Thai military was on a leave. In fact, the unofficial sources within the Thai Army indicated that the attack was undertaken by no less but 900 Myanmar troops and 600 UWSA militiamen, and that its objective was to remove the Thais from a position from which the Myanmaris could smuggle drugs into Thailand. In the past, namely, the local commander of the Tahan Pran was several times offered money to let their convoys with drugs pass, but he refused all such offers (in fact, he should have told the Myanmaris to, “go feed fish” with their opium).

Regardless the backgrounds, the Tahan Pran detected the approaching Myanmaris in time and put up stiff resistance, holding out for four hours, killing 14 out of some 200 Myanmari attackers, and injuring another 30, while losing two dead and eleven wounded. After almost running out of ammunition, however, they had to pull out and the Post 9631 fell into Myanmari hands. Having taken all their injured with them, the Tahan Pran were relatively easy to pursue by the enemy, and a short running engagement developed until the 3rd Cavalry Regiment of the Thai 1st Armoured Division started a rescue effort. Having the Post 9631 in their hands, the Myanmaris actually needed no more fighting, but their intention was to use the post and the surviving Tahan Prans as a bait for a trap they attempted to set up for any intervening Thai unit. As the Tahan Pran held out longer than anticipated, however, their plan was spoiled, as instead of deploying their troops on the flanks on the main threat route, the Myanmaris were forced to involve their reservers in the fighting.

On 10 February, the Thai 3rd Cavalry Regiment assembled a battalion-sized task force from a part of a mechanized infantry battalion armed with M-113A-3 APCs, an infantry company and a company of M-60A-3 MBTs. The unit was put under command of Capt. Songkarn Nilphan, and instantly sent on its way. Approaching Mae Sai on the same evening, the Nilphan’s force counterattacked the Myanmaris that were still busy fighting the Tahan Prans. The Cavalry charged forward, hitting the enemy hit very hard, forcing them to retreat back towards the border, leaving 17 dead and 60 injured behind. The Thais had only seven wounded.

On the morning of 11 February, the Myanmar Army responded in strength, deploying three regiments supported by Chinese-supplied T-69 tanks and artillery into an attack against Mae Sae, the local military Headquarters, and the adjacent satellite communications site. The Thais first concentrated on repulsing the main column, engaging T-69s with their M-60A3s, and subsequently by RTAF F-5s, which flew several strikes armed with LGBs, after starting from the Chiang Mai AB. Later on Sunday, Thai forces were reinforced by some self-propelled artillery (M-109s) and several batteries of even more powerful guns, including some GCN-55s, and the remaining two Myanmar columns were stopped as well, after suffering some heavy losses in dead, injured and captured soldiers. While the whole 3rd Thai Army was mobilizing and deploying reinforcements towards Mae Sai, the RTAF continued mounting intensive strikes, hitting Myanmar positions and supply columns. Late on Sunday afternoon, the final counter-attack by Thai troops drove Myanmaris out of Thailand, re-capturing the Border Post 9631. There an injured Tahan Pran officer - previously assumed dead - was found alive.

A Royal Thai Army V-150 Com*mando vehicle deployed on the streets of Mae Sae in January 2001, at the time of "border incidents" with Myanmar. (Albert Grandolini collection)


Meanwhile, the fighting between Thai and Myanmari forces was reported also from a hill some two miles west of the city of Thachilek, which is separated by a canal from Mae Sai. Also, a RTAF UH-1H helicopter underway on a supply mission over Mae Aye was damaged by gunfire from the ground and forced to land. The crew was not injured.

At 19:30h local time, a cease-fire was agreed. This was generally accepted, but sporadic fighting continued as the Myanmaris were bringing in 2.000 fresh troops from Kengtung to Tachilek, together with some heavy weapons. Especially the artillery was involved in the sense of duels over the border and some additional strikes by RTAF aircraft. The RTAF Chian Mai AB was the main base for all Thai air operations during this battle, and the Royal Thai Air Force units deployed there proved highly successful in operations against Myanmar. RTAF fighters have flown up to 70 combat sorties between 10 and 12 February, including a LGB-strike against a Myanmar artillery battery placed on the Golf course at Thachilek. This mission was flown by one F-5F and three F-5Es. The F-5F was equipped with the Israeli Litening nav/attack and designation pod: the WSO in the F-5F designated the target, while his pilot tried to fly steady – while remaining out of range of air defences. The three F-5Es closed from different sides at a high speed and tossed two six 2.000pds Paveway LGBs each into the acquisition basket before disappearing the other way. The Myanmar anti-aircraft fire was reported as "light", and none of Thai aircraft was hit or damaged. According to Thai sources, except for at least a dozen of Myanmar troops, at least five civilians were killed and ten injured during this attack as well.

Two RTAF F-5Es seen displayed with an asortiment of US-made bombs, including GBU-16s and LITENING-pods - during a graduation ceremony in 2001. The same aircraft and weapons were used against the Myanmari troops. (Albert Grandolini collection)


No Tandaw Lay in the Air

The RTAF F-5E/Fs were completely refurbished in the early 1990s, getting a Litton INS, and having their structure strengthened by a centreline pylon capable to carry 1.500kg, inner underwing pylons with payload of 1.000kg, and outer underwing pylons with payload of 500kg. During the operations against Myanmar, their usual warload consisted of two LGBs carried under inner pylons and two wingtips, but no drop tanks. Some pilots described their aircraft as "difficult to handle" and "ponderous" when loaded that way, and the response to control-inputs as "very slow" (probably due to the change of the centre of gravity), but otherwise no other restrictions were experienced.

On the other side, the TL failed to show during the crisis. At the time the regime in Rangoon officially claimed to that a squadron of Israeli-upgraded F-7s would be deployed to support the ground forces in the area along the Thai border: in fact, the junta ordered all the three F-7-units to deploy. Theoretically, in this way the TL was to concentrate at least 30 fighters against Thailand. However, in effect only six fighters were made operational and indeed deployed to Kengtung AB, some 150km north of Tachilek (opposite Mai Sai District in Thailand): this was actually on the verge of the F-7’s range when loaded with weapons and ammunition, and definitely a very poor performance. Worse was yet to come: when RTAF F-5s started hitting targets inside Myanmar with LGBs, the TL F-7s never appeared at all. Of the remaining aircraft, at the time of this clash the TL had some 17 PC-7s, four PC-9s, and four G-4 Super Galebs, some 50% of which were operational on average. The condition of the A-5Ms was even poorer than that of the F-7s, and the number of remaining operational helicopters too. Essentially, Myanmar had no air force to show at the time.

The Myanmari air defences also failed to prevent RTAF fighters from repeatedly hitting their targets: although the Army purchased at least 100 SA-16 Gimlet/Igla 1E MANPADs already in 1998 from Bulgaria, there were no reports about their use in combat. Obviously, the RTAF was in possession of air superiority during this clash. Without surprise, on 19 June 2001 Rangoon reported that Burma ordered ten MiG-29 fighters from Russia, including two one-seaters and two two-seaters, woth $130 million in total (30% of which were to be paid immediately, and the rest over the following ten years). The Burmese MiG-29s, which so far were never seen in the public, were drawn from a park of some 70 Fulcrums built in the late 1980s and early 1990s for Iraq and Syria, but never delivered, instead being stored at the Lukhovitsy Machine Building Plant. How much are the TL’s MiG-29 capable to offset RTAF’s superiority remains questionable, however, especially given the condition of the Myanmar Air Force at the time and ever since. Namely, by early 2002 reports from Meikhtila AB became known about TL’s pilots resigning in droves. Supposedly, the main reason was the low quality of the equipment they've got from China (foremost the F-7s and A-5s): most of the aircraft were inoperational and parked in their hangars for 99% of the time, and the arrogant behaviour of the Chinese technicians and instructors stationed in Myanmar (together with their families) to maintain these jets was the reason of severe complaints. Several AF pilots which resigned actually accused the Chinese of inserting their intelligence officers into the TL instead of sending them to help.

Another reason for many officers resigning was the purchase of the MiG-29s. Most of the higher officers of the TL were against the purchase of the MiG-29s from Russia, and instead wanted the TL to get Mirage 2000s or Su-27. This finally caused - just for example - a fierce quarrel between the CO of the Wing stationed at Meikhtila and his superiors. He was explaining that MiGs - which were initially built for Iraq - cost too much for no worth in exchange, and were sitting over ten years in storage. Besides, so he supposedly said, MiG-29s couldn't match Thai F-16s. As "thanks" for his advises, he was relieved of command, demoted and transferred to the Myitkyina AB. He then protested and resigned too. In order not to make things worse, the government officials then approached him and offered him a lucrative job in the UMEH (Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings).

In total, the TL remains not combat capable: hardly 10-20% of its aircraft are flyable – stress is on “flyable”, not fully combat operational – on average. This, despite the government supposedly spending as much as 50% of the BNP for "defence"! There are strong reasons to believe that the situation changed considerably solely due to the arrival of MiG-29s: namely, the type is heavily dependable on support from the ground, without which it cannot effectively operate. In April 2001, with Chinese support Myanmar has built a new radar station on Zadetkale Island (also known as St. Luke’s Island), near the maritime border with Thailand, but this site is simply too far away from the focal points along the long border where the new fighters could be needed to challenge RTAF’s air superiority.

Burma acquired a total of ten MiG-29s from Russia, in 2001, including two two-seaters. It appears the acquizition of the type caused a number of TL's officers to resign in protest for government failing to acquire other fighters, such like Mirage 2000 or Su-27s. The type is in service with a single squadron, based at Shante AB, near Meiktila, and was rarely seen in public. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


An End of the War?

The situation at Mae Sai was finally solved through negotiations, even if initially both sides deployed additional forces in the area: in mid-February 2001 the Thai Army, for example, reinforced the elements of the 1st Armoured Division by parts of the 2nd Cavalry Division – equipped with M-41 Stingray tanks and V-150 armoured cars. On 14 February the RTAF also deployed a number of F-16s to Chaing Mai AB, and these flew constant air combat patrols along the border for the following two weeks. The situation remained tense, and on 10 May 2001 RTAF F-16s attacked targets in Kyauket area, in the Shon State: according to Myanmar sources, several objects in the villages of Gawli and Lawsansaw – both almost directly on the Thai border - were hit by several “rockets” in two waves. Rangoon protested strongly against these attacks, threatening to “take appropriate action to protect its national sovereignty and territory integrity”. No additional strikes are known to have been flown by either air force: instead, a series of negotiations followed, in which the then new Thai government managed to decrease tensions.

The “body-count" after the battle for Border Post 9631 was never published by either side, but some Thai sources indicate that the Tahan Pran alone were responsible for the death of up to 80 Myanmar soldiers, while - in total – the Thai side suffered one dead and 37 injured soldiers, as well as three killed civilians and seven wounded. Official Thai sources claimed that also two women were killed in attacks of Myanmar artillery against Mae Sai. Capt. Songkarn Nilphan later claimed that nearly 100 Myanmar troops were killed during this battle: even if he confirmed that Thai troops reported finding only three bodies inside the Post 9631, the Thais believed that many other bodies were taken back to Myanmar. On the Myanmari side, Col. Kyaw Thein, a senior intelligence office, confirmed that the Myanmar Army lost 12 troops killed and 15 wounded during these “border skirmishes”, but that these casualties were suffered only during the fighting against the Shon rebels – not against the Thais.

Certain is, however, that the SLORC suffered a considerable blow on 20 February, when a Mi-17 helicopter carrying several key military officers was shot down by a MANPAD fired either by the rebels of the Karen National Union (KNU) or the Shon United Revolution Army (SURA). Among the killed was Lt.Gen. Tion Oo, chief of staff of the Myanmar Army and former Commander of the TL, Col. Thein Nyunt, the Minister of Progress of border Areas and National Races and Development Affairs, and Brig.Gen. Lun Maung. There are indications that the officers in question belonged to a fraction inside the SLORC junta, and that the helicopter was shot down for two reasons: a) because of fractional fighting, and b) because Lt.Gen. Tion Oo had to be “punished” after his plan and operations against Thailand failed.

TL Mi-17 serialled "6607" as seen during a visit in Thailand, in 1997. (Ole Nikolajsen)


Ever since the fighting in Burma/Myanmar and on its borders decreased in intensity, as the regime in Rangoon finally realized that it could not win a war that was exhausting the economy: currently, there are attempts for national reconciliation, and the junta offered all the involved parties to participate in the process of democratisation. The sincerity of this offer, however, is put under a large question mark by many.

Despite the decrease in intensity of operations the TL continued suffering losses – foremost to training mishaps. On 1 October 2002, for example, an F-7MI crashed in Twante, near Rangoon, killing the pilot, Lt. Phyo Kyaw Hlaing after some 30 minutes of flight. Only 14 days later an A-5M crashed near Meiktila, killing the pilot, Lt. Wai Hin Tun. Although official reports from Rangoon about the condition of the military are exceptionally rare, what little is otherwise known about the Tandaw Lay in the recent years includes only a very small number of positive details. For example, the remaining five G-4 Super Galebs are unserviceable because of lack of spares, and only two remain in condition to be made flyable again. Eight newly-delivered K-8 trainers have probably replaced the Super Galebs, but also the surviving AT-33s. Given that TL received a large number of Mi-2s and W-3s, it is likely that some were still left in inventory. Number of PC-9s delivered to TL was variously reported as between four and nine: some reports indicate, however, that up to ten PC-7s and PC-9s were lost in combat or in operational accidents so far. Reports also indicate that the TL lost no less but 14 A-5Ms in training accidents and six in combat since 1995. Further losses that occurred since the mid-1990s known to include two Y-8Ds, at least one F.27, one G-4, and a number of different helicopters.

The TL purchased five Fokker/Fairchild F.27 and FH.227B/E transports in the late 1980s and these are operated by a large Transport & Liaison unit based on the military side of Yangoon International. (MAP via Ole Niklajsen)


The TL could therefore not improve and really expand its capabilities: despite deliveries of additional F-7s from China sometimes in 2001 or 2002, it barely managed to replace losses. Its effectiveness in the fighting during the recent years was never very good: although the TL meanwhile operated from a number of auxiliary landing strips around the country and considerably improved cooperation with the army and intelligence services, in general it lacked suitable aircraft and therefore remained of very limited importance for the outcome of the fighting on the ground. Without an significant increase in funding and training no improvement will be possible in the future either.

F-7Is form the backbone of TL's combat capability. The example here is depicted carrying Chinese-made PL-7 missiles, which is a copy of French Matra R.550 Magic Mk.1. The confrontation with Thailand, in 2001, brought to the surface reports about poor availability and condition of TL's F-7s. Surely enough, they were no match for excellently trained and motivated pilots of RTAF F-5s and F-16s. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Order of Battle, Camouflage Colours, Serials and Markings of Tandaw Lay, 1948-2003

The historic organization of the Burmese/Myanmar Air Force remains largely unknown. The current composition of the Tandaw Lay should be as follows (Note: TL boasts the strength of some 9.000 personnel; due to the poor technical condition of the aircraft, however, the following order of battle is only nominal: most of the units do not have more than one or two operational aircraft on average).

501 Air Base, Hmawbi, details unknown
* 1st Wing
- No.1 Fighter Squadron F-7I/FT-7 (first unit becoming operational with ten F-7s and two FT-7s on 3 May 1991)
- No.? Fighter Squadron A-5M (reportedly only three survivors out of 22 delivered remain operational)

502 Air Base, Mingaladon AB/Yangon International (near Rangoon/Yangon), runway 03/21, 8.104x200ft/2.470x61m
- No.3 Liaison Sqn with four Cessna 180Ds, one Cessna Citation II, few Beech Queen Airs etc.
- No.6 Helicopter Squadron, with an unknown number of Vertol 44As, eight (or nine) SA.316 Alouette III and possibly 12 Mi-17s (one was lost in 2001)
- No.7 Transport Squadron with two Y-8, three F.27s and four FH.227s, five PC-6 Turbo Porters

50? Air Base, Nampong AB (former Myitkyina West, near Myitkyina), runway 04/22, 6.100x102ft/1.859x31m
* 4th Wing
- No.4 Fighter Squadron, F-7I/FT-7 (unit status unknown)
- No.? Attack Squadron, A-5M 1 Sqn T-37s (if still operational)
- No.? Helicopter Squadron Sqn Bell 47G-2s (unit deactivated: aircraft retired)

503 Air Base, Shante AB (near Meiktila), runway 01/19, 8.501x150ft/2.591x46m
- No.? Fighter Squadron, F-7I (second unit, becoming operational with ten F-7s and two FT-7s in May 1993; this unit re-qualified on MiG-29s in 2002)

50? Air Base, Mawalamyne AB (also known as “Moulmein”), runway 04/22, 5.260x150ft/1.603x46m
- 41st Sqn F-7I/FT-7 (third unit, becoming operational with ten F-7s and two FT-7s in late 1994)

Helicopter Base, Sittwe Airfield (civilian), runway 11/29, 6.001x151ft/1.829x46m
- No.? Helicopter Squadron, with HH-43B (unit deactivated, helicopters retired)

Helicopter Base, Keng Tung Airfield (civilian), runway 12/30, 7.090x75ft/2.161x23m
- No.? Helicopter Squadron, with 12 Bell 205, six Bell 206, ten UH-1Hs, 18 Mi-2US, and ten W-3 Sokols
- No.56 Helicopter Squadron, with 11 Mi-17s

50? Air Base, Namsang airfield, runway 03/21, 12.005x200ft/3.659x61m
- Flying Training School, with 12 PC-7s
- Fighter Training/COIN Squadron, with five G-4s and 12 K-8s

The TL also operated a small number of SA.316B Alouette III helicopters: not much is known about their current status. (Ole Nikolajsen)


The deliveries of between 10 and 15 Polish PZL Swidinik W-3 Sokol utility helicopters is an affair less-well knoown in public. (via Ole Niklajsen)


The Burmese national insignia (white triangle with yellow field in the center and borders in blue) is usually applied on six positions. The serialling system of TL’s aircraft is suggested to serve as both – unit and individual aircraft identity, this could not be confirmed so far, however. Most of the older airplanes carried the serials with the prefix “UB” and the numbers in Burmese. Sometimes the serials were outlined in white. Combat aircraft generally carry serials in black.

- Spitfire LF.9: Dark Sea Grey/Medium Sea Grey above, Sky under; white serial on the rear fuselage: UB439, UB442, UB450 (unit unknown).

- Jet Provost T.Mk.53: Light Grey overall, black serial on the rear fuselage: UB208 (unit unknown).

- SA.316B Alouette III: Dark Green overall, large black serial on the boom: UB6101 (unit unknown).

- AT-33A: "Bare metall" overall, black panel in front of the cockpit, inner sides of wing-tip tanks in black, black serial on central fuselage - over the wings and in front of national markings: BU522, BU531 (unit unknown). Olive Drab/Dark Green/Tan above, Light Grey under; black or white serials on the nose: 3520, 3526 (unit unknown).

- UH-1H: camouflage colours unknown, serials reported to be 6201 thru 6218 (unit unknown).

- F.27 Troopship: white overall, double black cheat line along the fuselage, black serial on the forward part of the fin: 5001 (unit unknown).

- PC-6B: Dark Earth on Light Earth over, Sky under, white serial on the rear fuselage: 50+04 (unit unknown).

- PC-7: Dark Grey or Dark Olive Green overall, black anti-glare panels in front of the cockpit, ruder checkered in black and yellow, serials in white, split by the national marking: 23+01 thru 23+16 (two of original Swiss civil codes are also known: HB-HQA and HB-HQB), (Flying School).

- PC-9: like above; serials unknown (unit unknown).

- G-4 Super Galeb: Dark Olive Drab over, Sky under; white serial on the nose: 371, 376 (Fighter Training School/COIN Squadron).

- F-7I: Dark Grey and Dark Green over, Light Blue underneath, national markings on the top of the fin and on rear fuselage (over the trailing edge); serial in White split by the national marking: 16+22.

- A-5M: Dark Green/Dark Earth/Sand over, Sky under; black serial on the fin: 1503 (unit unknown, but could be the 1st Wing).

- W-3: Black or Dark Green overall, national marking on the fin, no serials visible.

- MiG-29: "Russian" Light Blue overall, with "Azur" Blue and Light Blue fields on upper surfaces; national markings on the fin and behind the cockpit; serial in Arabic characters applied in black on the fin, and repeated in Burmese characters of each side of the cockard: 27+09/2709.

- K-8: White over, red under; wings in white with red wingtips, rudder checkered in yellow and black, black serials on the fin, repated large around the national marking on the rear fuselage: 39+07 (Flying School).

In the mid-1990s Burma purchased a total of four Y-8D transports (Chinese copy of the An-12) from China. Only two of these remain in service by now. (MAP via Ole Niklajsen)






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