Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Battle at Border Post 9631 in 2001: A Humiliating defeat and an Expensive Lesson for SPDC

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)

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.

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.

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)

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