BURMA

Why the reclusive generals shun international aid

LARRY JAGAN

Burma's generals continue to effectively shun international aid efforts to help victims of the horrendous cyclone nearly two weeks ago. The junta has continued to ignore international appeals to let supplies and aid experts in to help cope with the disaster.

The Burmese junta is deeply suspicious of the outside world. Official statements from the regime say Burma welcomes aid from anywhere, but only the government would be allowed to distribute emergency supplies.

Burma's secret and reclusive generals, bunkered away in the centre of the country, fear all foreigners. They see everyone as a potential enemy, intent on overthrowing the regime.

At present the top generals' primary concern is to preserve their power and protect their families' future position and wealth. The top generals' outlook is shaped solely by military considerations, and they can only look at the world through a soldier's eyes.

But their nationalist xenophobia also has its historical roots in the style and superstitions of the country's first military dictator, General Ne Win, who seized power in a coup in 1962. The military has ruled Burma ever since.

Under Ne Win, Burma became known as the hermit of Asia, as the reclusive and eccentric leader shunned contact with the outside world. During the first few years of his rule there were pogroms against the Chinese and Indian communities _ when tens of thousands were forced to flee the country. He also banned the teaching of English in schools.

''Burma 's military regime is extraordinarily xenophobic. They are afraid of everything,'' said Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia 's Macquarie University.

For years their greatest fear has been that the United States is planning a strategic strike against them. To prepare for that, they have built a rabbit-warren of bunkers around Naypidaw, their new capital in the hills some 400km north of Rangoon. They moved the seat of government and the military headquarters there abruptly in November 2005. Thousands of civil servants were only give a few hours' notice of the move.

During the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988, which brought the country to a standstill for months, they also feared a US invasion when ships of the US Pacific fleet moored off the coast in southern Thailand. This forced them to turn to China for protection.

The regime is also highly suspicious of the United Nations and other international aid agencies, fearing they are in cahoots with the West and only want to whip up opposition to military rule inside the country.

Even before the current cyclone hit Burma, international aid workers had found it very hard to travel around the country and visit their projects.

Last year, the generals expelled the head of the UN team in Burma, Charles Petrie, on the grounds that he was interfering with government policy.

''We must get rid of all the white faces,'' the country's top general, Than Shwe, told his cabinet several years ago, according to reliable military sources.

The Burmese government has since refused to accept some Western nominees as head of UN agencies _ an American was rejected last year as head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, while two Western nominees to replace the UN resident coordinator, Mr Petrie, were also recently turned down. Both posts have been filled by an Asian from a developing country.

The restrictions on aid workers' movements are partly because the military regime fears they will also be gathering important intelligence that might be used to undermine the Burmese government; and also because of the army's paranoid obsession with being in total control of everything. In the light of this, there is no way the military regime will allow foreign aid workers to flood into the country, let alone permit foreign troops to enter Burmese soil.

''They are afraid that if foreign soldiers come in, they would spearhead the overthrow of government,'' said Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor and Burma expert.

From the junta's perspective: ''Aid workers could be carrying weapons to give to the people, they could give them ideas of how to overthrow the government.''

For decades, the military regimes that have ruled Burma have kept the country isolated from the rest of the world. They feared opening up the country would destroy both Burmese businesses and culture and, even worse, foster subversive thoughts like freedom of speech and democracy.

For the past 50 years, Burma has also severely restricted access to the country, even limiting the number of tourists.

Tourists were only allowed a one-day visit until the 1970s, when visitors were given a strict, seven-day visa.

This changed a decade ago, when Burma decided it wanted foreign currency from international travellers _ but all visitors are closely controlled and constantly monitored by military intelligence officers. Journalists are virtually barred from entering Burma, only occasionally being granted visas for largely meaningless army-arranged ceremonies.

The Burmese military rulers distrust all civilians _ they believe that only the army has the ability to unite the country and protect it from foreign invaders. They also believe that only the military represents the nation as a whole, and not the factional interests of political parties or business people.

The irony, of course, is that they have divided the country as never before; political parties are effectively banned, more than 2,000 political prisoners are languishing in jail, there is strict censorship of the press and the people are beaten into submission through a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation.

Last year they alienated the country's revered Buddhist monks, after they brutally cracked down on the saffron-led protests against rising food and petrol prices.

In the end the real issue is one of control _ the junta understands that it must remain united or perish.

Their greatest fear now is losing control and facing Nuremberg-style trials. They also fear that their property and wealth will be confiscated by a future civilian government.

The current military rulers, especially Senior General Than Shwe and his family, have amassed amazing fortunes through corruption and nepotism.

No wonder they are anxious to institutionalise their power through the new constitution that is being adopted via the referendum that was held last Saturday in spite of the massive suffering caused by Cyclone Nargis.

Bangkok Post