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January 2008

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The Burmese government's refusal to permit an effective relief effort for cyclone victims reflects the fundamental nature of a regime that has misgoverned the country for nearly half a century. Current news accounts prompt American Diplomacy's editor to recall his service as an American diplomat there in the 1970s.

Bad Times in Burma, Present and Past
By J. R. Bullington, Editor

Burma, now officially called Myanmar by its military regime, is much in the news because of the massive disaster produced by a cyclone that devastated its Irawaddy Delta region on May 3. This disaster is being compounded to the scale of an epic catastrophe and made truly tragic by the regime's refusal to cooperate with the international community in bringing relief to the victims.

Rational people can only be shocked and amazed at how any government could be so, so… What is the term? Cruel? Heartless? Paranoid? Stupid? All of these?

Even those of us who have served in Burma and have experienced its bizarre government have great difficulty in making sense out of this senselessness. Few of us, however, would find the regime's current behavior surprising.

An American presently in Burma with a non-government aid organization led off an Internet report not with information about the tens of thousands dead or the increasingly desperate situation of the hundreds of thousands homeless, but with a description of the constitutional referendum of May 10, which the regime insisted on proceeding with despite the cyclone (among other reasons because this date was chosen as auspicious by its astrologers). The draft constitution is designed to perpetuate the regime's power, so it mobilized its administrative and propaganda forces to produce a strong “yes” vote. And to assure the desired outcome, on the reverse side of the paper ballots the voters were required to provide their full name, father's name, national registration number, and signature!

This is an excellent illustration of the regime's character, which has changed little in the 46 years it has misgoverned the country.

I served in Burma as U.S. consul in Mandalay, 1975-76, and counselor for political and economic affairs at the embassy in Rangoon, 1976-78. All of us in the diplomatic community were amazed by the country's economic decrepitude and the paranoid perversity of the regime. “Things just can't get any worse,” we told one another. But they always did.

Burma had been governed as a province of British India until 1937, and then as a separate colony until independence in 1948. At that time, it was seen as one of the most prosperous and promising of the new countries beginning to emerge from colonialism. Its agriculture was highly productive and it was a major exporter of rice; it had rich fisheries and forests full of teak and other valuable hardwoods; its mineral resources included oil and precious stones such as rubies and jade; its people were relatively well educated and many of them spoke good English.

Burma's first government was democratic but not very effective. It was overthrown in 1962 in a military coup led by General Ne Win. This was the beginning of the present regime. Although it changed names and adopted civilian trappings, its nature has remained constant. Ne Win retained power until 1988, becoming Asia's senior evil dictator after the death of North Korea's Kim Il Sung. His successors, first General Saw Maung and now General Than Shwe, have carried on his legacy.

The regime's guiding policy, which mandated government ownership of all significant economic enterprises as well as oppressive social controls, was called “The Burmese Path to Socialism.” We joked that it should also be known as “The Road to Ruin.” I recall a conversation at my house in Rangoon with the Soviet ambassador in which he said, “The Burmese give socialism a bad name!”

By the 1970s, Burma had long since ceased to export rice or much of anything else except opium and heroin, and its people were among the poorest in the world. The infrastructure left by the British was in a state of advanced decay. We marveled that so many of the vehicles on the road were veterans of General Slim's 1945 campaign against the Japanese, held together by baling wire and ingenuity. I remember a trip from Mandalay to Pagan on an Irawaddy River steamboat that looked like it might have been launched when George Orwell was a Colonial Service police officer in Moulmein during the 1920s making notes for Burmese Days. Rangoon's Grand Hotel, where Somerset Maugham dined in splendor, was still the city's best, but it was a faded, ramshackle shell trying vainly to keep up appearances. Government buildings had not felt a paintbrush since colonial times.

Political opposition was not tolerated, and dissent was suppressed with a heavy hand. There was no independent press. The education system was politicized, and the use of English as a second language was fading. Visas were difficult to obtain, and there were few foreign visitors. The oppressive, police state atmosphere was tempered only by the regime's general incompetence and widespread corruption.

The government was extremely difficult to deal with. In my year as consul in Mandalay, the governors and other officials in the region would not even receive me for a courtesy call. There was little for me to do, and when I left I recommended that the post be closed. A few years later, it was.

Our principal interest in Burma was narcotics, as the country was at that time the world's largest producer of opium, which was processed in remote jungle labs into heroin that then flowed through Thailand to markets in the United States and Europe. The poppies flourished in the mountainous areas along Burma's northern borders, inhabited by non-Burman hill tribe people (Karens, Kachins, Shans, etc.) who had long been in rebellion against the Burmese government. Since the rebels were financing their operations primarily with narcotics profits, we found common cause with the regime in trying to suppress this trafficking.

Even with this shared objective, however, we found it highly difficult to work with the government in advancing our mutual interests. We developed a program to give them helicopters with which to attack the traffickers in the remote mountains; but they resisted accepting the technical assistance personnel that were required to keep the helicopters operational. In the end, much money was wasted, and little was accomplished.

Today, the United States has no important national interests in Burma, and the regime, though it persecutes its own people, does not pose a threat to its neighbors or support international terrorism. Narcotics trafficking has mostly shifted to other parts of the world. To the extent we are permitted, we should provide humanitarian aid to the suffering Burmese people while maintaining political pressure on their government through the UN and other international channels.

As much as we may wish for regime change, there is little we can or should do to effect it.


Ambassador Bullington has been editor of American Diplomacy since July, 2007. In addition to Burma, he served in Vietnam and Thailand as well as in several posts in Africa. After the Foreign Service, he was at Old Dominion University, and was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He is currently retired in Williamsburg, VA.

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