Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Cyclone Nargis and Myanmar's Fears of Invasion

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Cyclone Nargis and Myanmar's Fears of Invasion

Article excerpt

After Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar (formerly Burma) in May 2008, the world was stunned at the response of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which initially refused to accept humanitarian assistance. (1) Even after international pressure forced the SPDC to modify its position, the regime imposed very restrictive conditions on aid delivery. Most of the official statements and public comments made about Naypyidaw's reaction to the cyclone dwelt on the military government's appalling human rights record, its obvious lack of concern for the cyclone victims and its blatant disregard for world opinion. A few observers, however, have tried to understand why the regime took the unusual approach it did. In their review of possible factors, they have drawn attention to the regime's longstanding concerns about foreign interference in Myanmar's internal affairs. In particular, they have pointed to the regime's deep-seated fears of armed intervention.

Most foreign observers dismiss an invasion of Myanmar as a regime fantasy, albeit one shared by some of its critics. In international relations, however, perceptions can be more important than objective facts. Fears of armed intervention by the United States and its allies, and of indirect interference in Myanmar's internal affairs, have been strong influences on the regime's defence and foreign policies ever since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. In that sense, they constitute a strategic reality which must be taken into account in the consideration of any future approaches towards the military government.

The 1988 Invasion Scare

Myanmar is no stranger to armed invasion, and invasion threats. Shifting geopolitical boundaries and name changes aside, since the thirteenth century Myanmar has suffered multiple invasions by China, India and Thailand. During the nineteenth century, the British Empire invaded Myanmar in three stages, defeating it in 1826, 1852 and 1885. Japan invaded Myanmar in late 1941 and early 1942, with the backing of Myanmar nationalists, and was only evicted after Allied forces re-invaded the country in late 1944 and 1945. Barely a year after Myanmar regained its independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1948, the new Union was invaded by remnants of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT). Three of these invasions have occurred within living memory. Through their schooling, military indoctrination programmes or direct experience, all have had a profound impact on those servicemen who suppressed the 1988 uprising, or who exercise power today.

During the uprising, there were calls to the international community for help in ending military rule. These requests were not unusual. They had also been made in 1974, for example, when activists appealed to the United Nations (UN) to help them honour the memory of former UN Secretary-General U Thant, and restore democratic rule. In 1988, however, the demonstrations were much larger, received greater publicity and prompted a higher level of international interest. They also aroused greater concerns on the part of the military government. Some demonstrators seized weapons from the security forces and others approached foreign embassies requesting arms to fight the regime. The new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) feared an alliance between the prodemocracy movement in the cities and the insurgent groups then operating in Myanmar's countryside. Such a development would pose major problems for the armed forces (or Tatmadaw). This link would be more problematic if it was supported by "foreign elements". An even more worrying prospect was direct intervention by other countries in support of the opposition movement. At the time, Myanmar's military leaders were convinced they faced threats from all these quarters.

The feared upsurge in insurgent activity in 1988 was publicly linked to external influences. SLORC Chairman General Saw Maung claimed that "ethnic rebels" had "taken advantage of misunderstandings" between some foreign governments and the new military regime to attack Tatmadaw outposts "in an attempt to receive more foreign aid". …

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