Memorandum by Mr. William M. Gibson, Office of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs, to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Merchant)


Subject: Supplying Arms and War Materials to Burma

With reference to the memorandum of your conversation with the Burmese Ambassador on this subject, the following comments and suggestions are offered.1

It has been our policy to recognize the primary responsibility of the British to supply arms, ammunition and war materials to Burma, and we have coordinated our actions in this field with the British. This policy was apparently recognized by our representative at the Tripartite Military Conference in Singapore.2 The British have treaty arrangements with Burma under which they agreed to furnish materials of this kind, and maintain a military mission in Burma, which is able to screen and evaluate the requests received.

The British believe that the Burmese have requested materials in excess of their real needs and that the surplus quantities would be improperly used or find their way into the hands of insurgent groups. They have therefore been supplying less than the quantities asked for, and the Burmese are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement. It appears that the British are using their monopoly as a lever to extract information from the Burmese.

It is the opinion of PSA that with the present demoralized, corrupt and inefficient state of the Burmese Army, additional supplies of arms and war materials would not contribute very much to its effectiveness and that a part would either be sold to the highest bidder or be used for the strengthening of the Socialists’ “Peace Guerrillas” or other private armies. The present conflict between the Socialist leaders and Lt. Gen. Ne Win, the Commander-in-Chief, gives an added incentive to both sides to buildup unnecessary stocks of arms that may eventually be used in an internal struggle for political power.

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It appears to be generally agreed that additional arms would not materially increase the will or ability of the Burmese Government to suppress the Communist insurgents or resist aggression from Communist China. The Burmese Government is not yet prepared to depart sufficiently from its policy of neutrality in the “Cold War” to become an active ally against Soviet imperialism.

In view of these circumstances, it is recommended that the Burmese Ambassador be informed that because of the extraordinary demands being made upon our resources by our own defense effort and our obligation to supply defense materials to our allies under mutual defense agreements, we are unable to undertake additional commitments at this time. We would not therefore be able to support Burmese requests for important quantities of arms, ammunition or other war materials.

To permit consultation with other interested parts of the Department and other agencies, it is recommended that the reply to the Burmese Ambassador be postponed for a few days.3

  1. On the previous day, September 12, Mr. Merchant, Mr. Acly, Officer in Chargé of Burma Affairs, and Ambassador Barrington discussed the possibility of Burma’s procuring arms and war materials in the United States. Mr. Merchant informed the Ambassador that if the U.S. Government supplied such items, an agreement would have to be signed under the terms of the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. Arms obtained from commercial sources, however, did not require an accord. (790B.5–MAP/9–1251)
  2. For extracts from the Conference Report on the Tripartite Talks on Southeast Asia held at Phoenix Park, Singapore, May 15–18, see p. 64.
  3. Mr. Merchant made the following manuscript notation to this document: “I think it important to give the Amb a sympathetic response—what, if anything we can supply must await a knowledge of their desires. They will surely be at the bottom of this list & certainly we don’t want to assume all the responsibilities which are properly the UK’s & India’s.”