Copyrighted material


by Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy magazine

on Burma cyclone

(PNS) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates was wrong to accuse Burma's military rulers of being deaf and dumb, when not allowing U.S. warships full access to distribute aid in Burma's delta region. Others have accused the junta of being xenophobic due to Burma's colonial past.

Burma's feudal warlords are none of these things -- although these politically traumatized generals are paranoid, self-important and live under the illusion that once they relinquish power, the country will disintegrate.

What the generals truly fear is that if they allowed U.S. warships and foreign forces to come to the aid of cyclone survivors in the Irrawaddy Delta, people would soon rise up and the regime would be overthrown.

But the regime has nothing to fear -- the U.S. warships, led by the USS Essex, will be leaving shortly. French warship Mistral with 1,000 tons of aid had left before reaching Burmese water -- expressing "shock" that Burma had not permitted the ship to unload its aid cargo directly for distribution in the Irrawaddy Delta, the worst-hit area.

The U.S. naval presence includes three amphibious ships, led by the Essex, carrying 22 heavy-lift helicopters and a small fleet of landing craft. The American helicopters were banned from Burmese air space, although the regime allowed several C-130 relief flights to land in Rangoon airport from Thailand's Utapao Airport. The regime leaders also insisted that only civilian aid workers would be allowed in the affected area.

Calling the regime's behavior "criminal neglect," Gates said the United States had made more than 15 overtures to the regime to allow the use of the Essex's helicopters to deliver aid, but all had been rejected. Thousands of villagers would die because of the regime's obduracy, Gates said.

But these deaths were easier for Than Shwe than the thought of U.S. military on Burmese soil. During the 1988 democratic uprising, Burma's military leaders lodged a complaint with the U.S. Embassy after sighting a U.S. naval fleet of five warships - including the aircraft carrier Coral Sea -- within Burmese territorial waters just six days before the army staged a bloody coup.

The sighting caused "major concern" among Burmese leaders including Ne Win, who in the 1970s had secured U.S. military assistance, including helicopters, in fighting communists and drug warlords.

In those years, Burma sent its officers to the U.S. General Staff College for training and study. Burma's official policy was, and remains: Americans are welcome, except in times of political crisis.

Applying this policy, the military leaders even refused permission for a U.S. C-130 plane to land in Rangoon in 1988 in order to evacuate U.S. embassy staff during the anti-government uprising.

There were rumors that U.S. warships were on their way to help democratic forces in the uprising in 1988, prompting thousands of young Burmese to leave the jungle and take up arms shortly after the September 18 coup. But the rumors were just wishful thinking -- the warships never materialized.

Twenty years later, the Burmese are still waiting for those warships, which this time carry humanitarian aid. And, by a bitter irony, the ships remain as illusory as ever.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, a joke shared among Burmese was "After diamonds, it will be the turn of gold," referring to the Burmese words for diamonds (Sein) and gold (Shwe), referring to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Burma's junta leader Gen. Than Shwe.

Now, a new rumor is spreading throughout Burma. People are saying that astrologers told Than Shwe that as soon as white men in uniform landed in Burma, the regime would immediately collapse. For that reason, Than Shwe, supported by his equally superstitious wife, refused assistance from the U.S. fleet.

Than Shwe's greatest fears are that soldiers landing from amphibious ships and helicopters with relief supplies could be mistaken for "liberation forces" and would no doubt ignite a popular uprising beyond the Irrawaddy Delta. U.S. soldiers would help refugees and rebels attack Than Shwe's stronghold and remove the regime. Observers and dissidents say it would take no more than 30 minutes to topple Than Shwe and his coterie of no more than two dozen leaders.

But that's all wishful thinking for now. Than Shwe has again escaped justice, saving his own life by sacrificing the lives of his countrymen and women by refusing aid from the warships.

Perhaps the United States knew from the start that its ships would not be allowed into Burmese waters, conscious that its forces might end up dislodging the world's most hated regime. And that mission could prove to be no less complicated than the task of cleaning up after Cyclone Nargis.

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Albion Monitor   June 4, 2008   (

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