THE Myanmar navy celebrated its 73rd anniversary on December 24, 2020 with the commissioning of its first-ever submarine, two 63-metre ASW corvettes, one 49-metre stealth FAC, one 56-metre LCU and two sea going tugs.
In the army-ruled country, the navy has held the back seat in development priorities for decades dating back to 2000s. Its principal roles were riverine duties in support of the army’s counter-insurgency operations. In the 1990s, a couple of Chinese Hainan Class Fast Attack Craft (Gun) were principal combatants in the inventory. The modernisation of the navy started at a slow pace with the commissioning of a locally built 77-metre corvette Anwaratha in 2001, followed by Bayingtnaung in 2003.
But a surge in naval expansion is observed between 2010 and 2020. In this period, Myanmar’s navy acquired a range of surface, subsurface and aerial platforms and equipment. The fleet is still expanding. There are couple of ongoing ship-building programmes, including one 135-metre (4,000) tonnes frigate with the vertical missile launch system.
According to a post on a Facebook page on by Myanmar Defence Review on December 25, 2020, ‘The intense showdown with the rival Bangladesh Navy in 2008 resulted in the rapid expansion of Myanmar Navy…. In 2010 Myanmar Navy had only two 77-metre corvettes which were not armed with AShM missiles [anti-ship missile], 6 Houxin class FACs (missile) and some smaller FACs (Gun) and patrol crafts. Simply it was no match for BN which had 4 frigates including a missile frigate BNS Osman. However soon after that incident, Myanmar Navy started naval enlargement initiative…. Although the Navy modernization programme are far from over, the naval balance of power is gradually shifting towards Myanmar.”
It is true that there was a problem at sea in 2008 between the two neighbours — Bangladesh and Myanmar. The trouble began when Myanmar brought in a drilling rig in the area reportedly claimed by both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Both the navies showed up their presence. The problem resolved peacefully not because of the presence of navies but subtle diplomacy by Bangladesh.
After a quiet disengagement from the standoff, the Bangladesh government took the peaceful path for an amicable settlement of maritime disputes with Myanmar and, also, India. Myanmar’s military government seems to have immediately accelerated the pace of naval enlargement which began in early 2000, presumably, to employ power at sea.
Bangladesh’s initiative led to a peaceful settlement of maritime dispute with Myanmar in 2012 and with India in 2014 in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Bangladesh’s initiative once again proved its preference for a peaceful settlement of disputes. In fact, both Myanmar and India should have thanked Bangladesh for helping them to ride the peaceful path to resolve maritime boundary delimitation.
Myanmar has its own reasons to modernise and expand the navy. A rapid acquisition of platforms likes Landing Platform Dock, submarine, larger frigate, wider maritime air capability etc, were undertaken seemingly to reshape its naval doctrinal strategy of maintaining presence at sea with an immediate focus on achieving sea denial capability. How chancy is the Bay of Bengal’s maritime security environment?
Among the basin countries of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh shares maritime boundary with Myanmar and India, Myanmar with India, and Sri Lanka with India. All these countries have delimited their common maritime boundary. None but India seems to have overseas ambition. While the sea has generally observed calm, there were provoking activities on the land.
Incidents in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border were the manifestation of Myanmar junta’s arbitrary provocative action since 1978. Bangladesh has been consistently resolving problems peacefully. A peaceful way to resolve problems is certainly not weakness, but an indicator of the strength of diplomacy, wider international acceptance and the presence of strong back-up supporting political diplomacy. The problem created in the border by evicting Rohingyas from their ancestral land in 2017 was the latest in the series of unilateral provocative action beginning in 1978. The eviction of Rohingyas in 2017 was accompanied with deliberate, inciting military activities in the border. A military with the power of an overriding say on security affairs over the civilian government is unpredictable.
Nevertheless, despite all odds and unwarranted stories of the past, there are good reasons to view Myanmar’s naval development with positivity. A capable and responsible navy complements a peaceful environment at sea.
Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a retired commodore.
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