By MIN LWIN
The 64th anniversary of Armed Forces Day was observed on Friday in Naypyidaw with the troops on parade before high-ranking members of the junta.
The 400,000-man army, navy and air force, called the tatmadaw, is one of the most battle-tested forces in Southeast Asia, having engaged ongoing armed Communist insurgents and armed ethnic separatist armies for more than six decades.
Since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the Burmese generals have doubled the size of the armed forces, now the most dominant and strongest institution in the country.
“In 1988, the army had not more than 180,000 armed personnel, but nowadays it reaches more than 400,000 personnel,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Chinese-based Burmese researcher.
He said that although Burma has upgraded its military arsenal, it has not produced high quality military commanders since the military sized power in 1988 and it suffers from low morale among the troops.
“They have formed many battalions, but a battalion has decreased in the number of personnel,” he said.
About 200 troops make up a battalion in the Burmese army.
The military has a tradition of religious and racial discrimination in the promotion of officers, according to analysts.
Defense scholar Maung Aung Myoe said there was no discrimination on racial or religious grounds in the military until the mid-1990s; Christian officers, for example, were appointed to senior staff and command positions.
Since then, however, religion and race appear to be important criteria. Although there is no official regulation, non-Buddhist officers or officers with non-Buddhist spouses are unlikely to climb beyond the rank of major or hold important command position, noted the defense scholar.
“If your spouse is a non-Buddhist, you will be sacked,” one retired captain who now works as a security officer in a hotel in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy.
The Burmese military faces problems of low morale among its forces, and the desertion rate is a concern.
Defense scholar Maung Aung Myoe quoted a confidential report that said between May and August 2006, a total of 9,467 desertions were reported; 7,761 desertions were reported between January and April 2000. Some estimates claim that the tatmadaw has a monthly average desertion rate 1,600 troops.
A retired army officer said, “The tatmadaw has low morale, especially in army.”
“Officers are involved in taking money from illegal trading in their areas,” he said. “While high-ranking Burmese military officers become wealthier, pay for ordinary soldiers at the bottom is below-standard.”
The officer-level morale is high, he said, partly because they earn more than civil servants, and they are given other benefits such as trips abroad to study on scholarships.
Even through the Burmese army is Southeast Asia’s second largest military force, it has many financial and logistic difficulties.
Maung Aung Myo said the air force is still very limited in its ability to project power. Problems include a shortage of trained pilots to fly existing aircraft, especially advanced aircraft such as the MiG-29.