Nargis naval stand off?

According to a newly leaked ‘wikileak cable’ Maung Aye, at the time junta number-2, was under the impression that the Russians would send three war ships to Burmese waters in response to the presence of US Navy vessels, who were in the Bay of Bengal, in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis.

“Maung Aye reportedly went on a tirade regarding “American warships in the Delta” and claimed that after a Chinese appeal to the U.S. had failed to remove them, the Russians had threatened to send three of their own ships in response,” the cable says.

The cable, which is dated 11 June 2008, also states that Maung Aye claimed that 300,000 people had been killed by the cyclone. According to the cable the ‘vice senior general’ told this to government business crony, Tay Za. The information was then relayed by Tay Za’s older brother, Thiha to the owner of the “business consortium” Myanmar Egress, Nay Win Maung.

Maung Aye, according to the cable was so incensed by coverage of the disaster that he ordered the sealing off of the delta region and is quoted in the cable saying that the death toll would be released; “over his dead body.”

The 300,000 figure compares with official estimates which are closer to 150,000. The cable’s figure would put Nargis in the league with the deadliest on record, alongside the lower estimates for Cyclone Bhola, which struck Bangladesh in 1971.

The source, Nay Win Maung claimed to US diplomats to be close to Tay Za’s older brother, Thiha. While his group, Myanmar Egress, which receives EU funding, was said in another cable to have imported diesel fuel, which it sold at market rates in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Thiha for his part is believed by sources to have been involved in the construction of secretive tunnels which were allegedly built with North Korean help.

Nay Win Maung meanwhile also told the US embassy that two factions emerged in response to the cyclone, in which Maung Aye and current vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo formed a hard line faction. According to the cable they became more “aggressive” as information about the devastation leaked out. Nay Win Maung is quoted as describing vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo as a “cowboy”.

However; “Nay Win Maung said it was Prime Minister Thein Sein who had appealed directly to Than Shwe to secure the Senior General’s permission to allow international and humanitarian staff to travel to the affected areas.”

He further described Thein Sein and head of the USDP, Htay Oo as “smart” and “pragmatic”.

The cable suggests meanwhile that Tin Aung Myint Oo’s rise, was an intentional policy of Than Shwe’s, in order to divide him from fellow “hard liner,” Maung Aye. Who it is believed may have formed a hard line faction, perhaps against the senior general.

The US offered to deliver aid via their naval vessels to the delta, which induced fears that the US would invade in similar fashion to their invasion of Iraq.

Maung Aye, who is now retired, is believed to be in poor health and be a heavy drinker, which has resulted in him being viewed as some what unreliable. He is roundly described as a hard line traditionalist who opposed even tactical signs of softening from the regime, such as cease fires with armed ethnic groups in the 1990’s and warmer relations with ASEAN countries.

However doubts will surely remain about the source of the information. Burma scholar Bertil Lintner described the possibility of a Russian naval presence as “impossible,” whilst stating that the information was probably “opportunism” on the part of Nay Win Maung; as he attempted to gain favour with the US embassy.

However Maung Aye was believed to have had strong ties with Russia, leading the most senior delegation to the country in 2006 since the sixties. The trip was allegedly responsible for spearheading Russian training of Burmese intelligence officials and physicists. This trip also allegedly included discussions of a weapons deal, with Maung Aye allegedly more fond of Russian military equipment than Chinese.

The most recent cables form part of an estimated 250,000 leaked cables that wikileaks released simultaneously, there are believed to be over 3,000 relating to Burma.

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