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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 76

Bad News for Fierce Dragon from Burma

By James Duglous Crickton
London, 14 June, ( :

Kuala Lumpur datelined report in Jane’s Defence Weekly on April 21, 2016 stated Pakistan remains optimistic about regional sales of JF-17 fighter planes.

The report, however, noted that the optimism was tempered by the reality that the Sino-Pak joint venture from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has had no takers outside Pakistani Air Force (PAF) despite its projection as the best for air defense and ground attack missions.

Myanmar appears to be the latest to be on the horns of a dilemma vis-à-vis the single-engine multi-role fighter jet that had its maiden flight in 2003 and accounts for at least three squadrons in PAF.

Malaysia gave a thumbs down in Dec 2015 amidst a spate of negative reports about the JF-17 in Western media. One of these reports was alarming indeed saying that a plane had broken up in flight due to faulty wing design. Pakistan officials rejected these claims as absurd but have found few takers for their version. In any business, perception is what matters. Aviation business is no exception to the time tested thumb rule.

Bangladesh has reportedly been offered the JF-17 but Dhaka evinced no interest. The story was no different with Kuwait, Qatar and other friendly countries though Pakistan put these planes in its sales basket in 2013 with a resolve to sell at least five to seven Thunders per year.

Both China and Pakistan have hoped to push Sri Lanka to buy the JF-17. The effort ended as a mid-air disaster. Islamabad accuses New Delhi of scuttling the sale by lobbying with Colombo.

While this accusation is difficult to verify, Sri Lankan media has attributed the decision to hold back the order for the 'Fierce Dragon' fighter aircraft to mundane reasons. Price and allegations of kickbacks.

On price front the JF-17 has lost out clearly. Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) has no deep pockets more so when the Maithripala Sirisena government has tapped the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout from post-war budgetary resource crunch. The Sino-Pak plane is offered for US $29 million, as compared to US $20-US $25 million for a similar deal from other combat aircraft manufacturers like Russia, having a more time-tested and trade record.

Wheelers and dealers generally have a field day in all dealings involving the Chinese, as the African countries have learnt the hard way. This has been the experience of Sri Lanka too during the Rajapaksa regime, which had embraced the Dragon as no white man was willing to do business with it.

The talk of the town in Colombo was at least four million American dollars per jet was the offer that was too tempting to refuse. Pushing the deal was a former SLAF biggie, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody who also did a stint as Lankan envoy in Islamabad after the war with the separatist Tamil Tigers had ended. Undoubtedly, he has had fans and admirers at the SLAF headquarters. The regime change in January 2015 ended his enterprise and the proposal moved to the cold storage to the dismay of his patrons in Pakistan and China.

Now cut to Myanmar. Its plans for JF-17 fighter jet are two-year-old. The Diplomat published from Tokyo reported for the first time on June 25, 2014 that Myanmar would become the first foreign purchaser of the Sino-Pakistan jointly produced fighter. “Myanmar is looking to purchase a license to domestically produce the J-17 aircraft, which is called the FC-1 Xiaolong in China”, the Japanese publication reported quoting the Burma Times.

Myanmar was ( is) not new to Chinese aircraft since Beijing was the only shoulder available to Yangon at the height of US-led sanctions on the military regime. Burmese air force previously operated or currently operates 48 NAMC A-5C fighters, 52 Chengdu F-7M Airguard fighters, 4 Y-8 medium lift transports, and several other Chinese-made aircraft.

By 2014, Myanmar also purchased China’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and since then built their domestic versions with or without Chinese trade mark.

Myanmar is not new to Sino-Pak joint ventures either. Information in public domain shows that Myanmar Air Force operates 4-10 Karakorum-8 (JiaoLian-8) jet assault and trainer planes, which were jointly produced by China and Pakistan. This exposure plus the serviceability issues that had dogged Mi-29 bought from Russia tilted the scales in favour of JF-17 which was on offer with a local assembly component.

The JF-17s will be useful for aerial bombing missions in the insurgency infested Kachin region on the borders with India and China; the area is connected to Bangladesh through an insurgent corridor. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been leading the insurgency for the past three and a half decades; the generals in control of Yangon could not subdue its craving for independence despite their best efforts with an occasional helping hand from Beijing.

A firm order for 16 JF-17 Thunder jets was reportedly placed last year, after the manufacturers assured that these fighter jets can be equipped with a variety of bombs and missiles and laser guided munitions, according to Yangon based English weekly, Frontier Myanmar. On Jan 12, 2016, the weekly reported that Myanmar ordered a fleet of 16 Chinese-designed fighter jets from Pakistan, each worth US $35 million.

At this price, Myanmar is made to bleed since Sri Lanka has been offered the same product at a much lower price It could be because the seller finds Yangon hard pressed in its need for planes to target rugged and wooded terrain in highlands. According to one report, Pakistan has priced its Block-I model at $ 20 million and Block-II version at $25 million. It is not clear which version Myanmar will get though it is going to buy eight more JF-17s in addition to the 16s for which it has already paid.

Now comes the twist in the Thunder tale. Not one but two twists.

The Kachin rebels, who have had long dealings with Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are opposed to their dear friend equipping their enemy with new toys. “You cannot blind the eyes of your friend for a few dollars”, was the message the Kachin National Organisation (KNO) sent to their friends at the GHQ in Rawalpindi.

ISI-KNO friendship dates back to the period when present day Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan, and Rawalpindi needed sanctuaries to hide North-east India’s insurgents on its payrolls. This friendship had translated into grants, gifts and weapons.

No surprise, therefore, KNO President, U Duwa Bawmwang Laraw has urged Pakistan to support the people of Kachin. “For old times’ sake support the people of Kachin for peace and ethnic rights. Extend help in providing assistance to those in need of humanitarian support”, he reportedly conveyed in his appeal.

The second twist in the Pak sale deal has come from the likes of Lashkar-e-Toiba and its clone Jamaat-ud-Dawa which are under the firm control of Lahore - based Jihadi messiah, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. He is on call duty for ISI at all times, as he demonstrated these days once again after the United States moved closer to a firm embrace with India while reserving homilies for Pakistan for the first time in six-decades.

Saeed has revived the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council, DPC, literally) as an umbrella coalition of more than 40 political and religious parties in aid of GHQ campaign to send a strong message to Washington that the US cannot afford to ignore Pakistan.

He had hit upon the idea of creating the alliance of right-wing groups, some of which are banned, for the first time in Nov 2011, on a signal from his ISI patrons. It was a sequel to the American bombing of a Pak outpost on the border with Afghanistan, and the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers. The first DPC show lasted till the then US Secretary of State apologised for the American air strike in July 2012.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed today hates Myanmar as much as he hates India and the United States. His anger against Myanmar is a result of raw deal Rohingya Muslims are getting at the hands of Myanmar government. Saeed agrees with the observation of veteran journalist, Richard Cockett that “for the Rohingya, Burma’s new democratic government is little better than the old dictatorship”.

“Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has little domestic incentive to do anything at all for the Rohingya”, the author of ‘Blood, Dream and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma (Yale University Press, 2015)’, wrote in the Foreign Policy (June 9, 2016).

And he went on to say: “There is a lot of sympathy among members of Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, for the suffering of the Karen, Kachin, and others over the past decades. There is very little sympathy, however, for the Rohingya among party ranks — the NLD is only marginally less riddled with Islamophobia and prejudice against the Rohingya than the last military government. Neither do the Rohingya have any voice nor representation in the NLD”.

Hafeez Saeed is not alone in his war cry against the Burmese government. The entire Islmist edifice in Pakistan is one with him in the resolve to rally the Muslims of the world against the Buddhist Burmese. Their echo is reverberating in the corridors of power –military and civilian alike. Hence question mark over the long in the works JF-17 deal with Myanmar. Will it become a causality of Islamists?

By tradition and temperament, Pakistani military bureaucracy has perfected the art of keeping the temporal and military requirements in separate containers and that is how they have been able to deal with the United States even as the Hafeezs continue to denounce Uncle Sam as Ugly American and keep burning the Star-Spangled Banner. For Pakistan, Burma is no America; $20 or $25 million is not a big deal.

Complicating the issue is what Priscilla Clapp, former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar, terms as Aung San Suu Kyi’s resolve to send a clear message that civilians are now in charge after more than half a century of military-dictated government. She has not antagonised the military but has mastered the subtle art of working around. It is bad news for the 14 m long Sino-Pakistani joint venture that had benefitted from inputs of the Russian Mikoyan design bureau.

- Asian Tribune -

A Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder at the 2015 Paris Air Show.
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