Heightened fears of foreign invasion and an obsession with saving face drove Burmese junta chief Than Shwe to block rescue efforts in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta, according to leaked US cables that shed light on the push factors behind the catastrophic death toll in 2008.
The cables, dating from May and June 2008, also reveal a split in the top ranks of the Burmese junta between hard-line generals such as Than Shwe, who were bent on refusing outside help, and the position adopted by current President Thein Sein, who quickly realised the political and humanitarian implications of the soaring fatalities.
In a cable dated 8 May 2008, six days after cyclone Nargis made landfall, the then-US Chargé d’Affaires Shari Villarosa warned Washington that “the military and bureaucracy remain paralyzed with fear”.
Titled ‘BURMA: THAN SHWE IS THE PROBLEM’, it reveals the anxiety felt by the hermetic 78-year-old as he watched events unfold in the delta. “Unpleasant pictures in the media reportedly make the Senior General retreat even further into isolation,” it said, adding that despite pleas from various ministers, “no high-level government officials have dared to frankly describe the full scope of the disaster to [him]”.
Indeed the images of the destruction that circulated on international media and on pirate VCDs inside Burma “were embarrassing the generals”, said another cable, dated 11 June 2008. “As a result, he said that Maung Aye [second-in-command] had ordered access to the Delta for international staff to be tightened” for fear of more footage leaking out.
The Burmese junta was roundly condemned for its lax response to the disaster, which eventually claimed some 140,000 lives and left 2.4 million destitute. What hadn’t been apparent in the months after the cyclone was the distance that key players in the junta went to isolate the delta area, with third-ranking General Thura Shwe Mann refusing to sanction “a four-division strong rescue team [of Burmese troops] ready to deploy to the Delta”. This was decided after a meeting with Than Shwe and Maung Aye.
The military’s initial refusal of overseas aid, which drew the sharpest rebukes from the international community, was, according to the cables, borne out of a combination of fears over a foreign invasion and perceived threats to the its reputation.
“[Than Shwe] does not want the Burma Army to be seen as needing assistance to deliver relief, and would rather let thousands of Burmese die than accept massive international assistance,” it said.
Moreover, such was the paranoia about the aid-laden US warships anchored off Burma’s southern coast and ready to supply relief that Vice-Senior General Maung Aye sought assistance from allies to remove them.
“During the meeting, 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,” said the 11 June 2008 cable. “Only then did the U.S. agree to move its ship, Maung Aye implied.”
Exacerbating fears over the increasing outside influence was “a change in the power dynamic” in the delta that emerged after foreign aid groups were allowed in. Cash-strapped local government ministers began losing their influence over the local populace to the UN and international NGOs who could provide for them, an issue the cable says was “not lost on the Army”.
What will come as little surprise to Burma observers is the like-mindedness between Than Shwe and Maung Aye, with the latter telling an official that only “over [his] dead body” would he go public with the 300,000 death toll originally calculated by the government.
The cables are among thousands released by whistleblowing website, Wikileaks. They also reveal French concerns about business operations in Burma, US fears over Burma’s cosying relationship with North Korea and allegations that Than Shwe ordered the shooting of monks in September 2007