Chairman Mao once observed that to be a successful prophet, one must predict often. Last year, in one of their many pronouncements, Chinese astrologers predicted that natural disasters would smite the globe in 2008.
The recent cyclone in Burma (Myanmar) and the massive earthquake in China seemed to tragically confirm the astrologer’s predictions about the Year of the Rat.
China’s last major earthquake was in 1976 when 240,000 died in the city of Tangshan. The Communist Party, then run by the fanatically Maoist Gang of Four, covered up the disaster and delayed relief efforts.
This time around, Beijing’s response was swift, efficient and remarkably open. Even public accusations of shoddy construction were permitted by the government. But Beijing rebuffed most offers of aid from abroad, so far allowing in only a small number of foreign rescue teams.
Burma also refused aid from other nations, the UN, and international aid organizations, bringing a storm of worldwide condemnation against its isolated regime and threats from Western powers of forced humanitarian intervention. As of this writing, the Burmese military regime’s response to the cyclone disaster has been halfhearted and inefficient, leaving hundreds of thousands without shelter, food or water and a time when the first cases of cholera were being reported.
Why did Burma’s generals spurn foreign assistance when up to 2 million of its wretched people were in grave distress and facing another lethal storm?
First, pride. The fiercely nationalistic, xenophobic regimes that have ruled impoverished Burma, rejected all foreign influences and kept this nation isolated for nearly fifty years. Burmese isolationism is a weird tradition begun in the 1960’s by the late, crazed military dictator Ne Win who surrounded himself with astrologers and sorcerers.
Second, Burma’s generals claim their 400,000-man army, known as the “Tatmadaw,” is able to provide all necessary relief. The presence of foreign aid workers would insult the army’s honor, risk undermining its unquestioned authority, and recall the era of British colonialism. Many senior Chinese officials had similar feelings. Besides, charged the Burmese, who was Washington to talk after New Orleans?
Third, the Union of Burma created by British imperialists is an unstable South Asian version of Yugoslavia. Two thirds of this nation of 47 million people are Burmans. But the remaining third are a bewildering collection of ethnic minorities like Shan, Karen, Katchin, Mon, Wa, Chin, and descendants of two former Nationalist Chinese Army divisions who have been battling the central government for independence since 1945. In recent years, a shaky truce has held between these minorities, many whom deal in drugs and bootleg timber or emeralds, and the government.
The military junta has also grown wealthy dealing in supposedly protected timber and precious stones. In fact, the “Tatmadaw” is the nation’s most important commercial as well as military institution, having interests in many businesses and ensuring a decent standard of living for its members while the rest of the country is sunken in dire poverty that recalls Asia in the 1940’s.
Burma’s generals fear relaxing their iron grip will spark renewed demands for independence by the heavily-armed ethnic rebels. They also believe the Western powers are determined to overthrow Burma’s government and seize the nation’s natural resources that include gas and, potentially, oil. The generals see Western offers of humanitarian aid as a thinly disguised attempt at “regime change.”
The military regime is odious, but their possible loss of power could cause Burma/Myanmar to fly apart and destabilize the entire region. That’s why Burma’s neighbors and allies, Thailand and China, quietly back the junta.
The generals, however callous and brutal, are not far wrong. “Humanitarian intervention” may be coming to play the same role that “peacekeeping” did in recent years — a way for foreign powers to insert their influence into Third World regions under the guise of good works. Potentially oil-rich Darfur is the latest example.
Burma is also wary of international aid organizations. Some, like the Red Cross, are apolitical and perform splendid humanitarian work. But others have hidden agendas, such as trying to promote evangelical Christianity or left-wing government. Neither Burma nor China wants any part of these professional disaster chasers who use calamities to raise money that funds their organizations. Christian missionaries have done much to stir up rebellion among Burma’s ethnic groups, particularly Baptist missionaries among the Karen.
Finally, geopolitics. China is Burma’s closet ally. The US, its allies and particularly India are deeply alarmed by the opening of a Chinese-run port in Burma at Kayauk Phyu, its connection by a planned 900-mile rail and pipeline to Kunming in southwestern China, the eastern terminus of World War II’s fabled “Burma Road” that brought supplies from India to the anti-Japanese forces of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in Yunnan Province.
Kayauk Phyu gives the Chinese Navy access for the first time to a port on the Bay of Bengal, hitherto the exclusive domain of the US 7th Fleet and Indian Navy, and an opening to the Indian Ocean. In recent years, growing Chinese naval and intelligence activity on Burma’s coast and in the Coco Islands have further alarmed India, which is boosting its own naval and intelligence presence in the nearby Andaman Islands.
The US has laudably offered major humanitarian aid in this crisis. A US task force lies 50 miles off the Burmese coast, awaiting permission to launch a rescue mission. This is the kind of operation that America’s armed forces should be doing instead of bombing tribesmen in Afghanistan and Somalia.
However, the Pentagon would very much like to oust Chinese influence from Burma. So would India, China’s Asian rival. The disaster in Burma offers an interesting opportunity to begin loosening the junta’s hold on power and asserting Western influence in a strategic, potentially resource-rich nation that has been in self-isolation from the world since the 1960’s.
Finally, neither China’s Communists nor Burma’s generals will risk losing face by admitting they need substantial outside help when both have large, capable armed forces. And particularly from westerners.