Blast from the Past a Window to the Present

By Sean Gleeson 29 May 2015

RANGOON — An insurgency in Burma’s northeast, a mass exodus from Arakan State, fears of Chinese regional domination and students in prison. The year was 1978.

A review of the latest release of US diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks on Wednesday, is a reminder that many of Burma’s dominant political problems have their provenance in the years of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, led by Gen. Ne Win.

The 904 cables from the US Embassy in Rangoon, of which 176 remain classified, cover approximately half the tenure of Ambassador Maurice Darrow Bean, a career diplomat appointed to the post in September 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

Lacking access to the reclusive dictator, much of Bean’s perspective was gleaned from fellow ambassadors and regular meetings with Gen. Sein Lwin, at the time the Religious and Home Affairs Minister and later dubbed the “Butcher of Rangoon” after briefly succeeding Ne Win and instigating the bloody crackdown on demonstrators during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

War on Drugs

The ambassador was tasked by the Carter administration to assist with drug eradication programs in the Golden Triangle, at the time home to 80-90 percent of the world’s opium cultivation, and Sein Lwin became an important liaison to the US Embassy on the military’s drug eradication efforts.

The US government, in keeping with its attempts to stem the global drug supply, offered logistical help from the Drug Enforcement Agency and helped to broker a meeting between Burmese and Thai leaders, hoping to kick start a regional response to trafficking in the region. A state visit by Thai Prime Minister Gen. Kriangsak Chamanan in June, who had seized power the previous year in a coup, failed to improve relations between the two countries, and leaders could not come to an understanding over the presence of Shan, Kachin and Karen ethnic rebel armies on Thai territory. Bean reported that Ne Win was “irked by the visit.”

“As we have seen so often in the past, Burmese actions are not so much determined by logic as by the whims of U Ne Win,” the ambassador wrote of the meeting.

China and the Rebels

The Burmese government was eager to curb heroin production at the time in order to cut off finances to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) insurgency raging in northeastern Shan State. At the same time, the regime was hamstrung by the remote location of opium fields and the military’s lack of capacity to fight the rebel army.

With the downfall of the Gang of Four in China, the Ne Win government believed that Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese leadership could be persuaded to end its support of Communist insurgencies abroad. A five-day visit by Deng in January was occasioned by what Bean reported was considerable fanfare but little detectable substance, and was followed by fresh battles three weeks later.

Bean reported that 1978 saw “fighting of a scale and intensity so far this dry season that clearly exceeds that of previous years” in the northeast. The CPB at one point made a successful assault on Lashio, at that time home to what was the military’s Northeastern Regional Command. The ambassador said that this incident was conspicuously absent from state-run newspapers, which had also consistently underreported the military casualties that he was told numbered close to 1,000 soldiers.

In April, the Israeli ambassador relayed a conversation with Gen. San Yu, then the de facto deputy of Ne Win, in which the general expressed his distress that China was continuing to refuse a modification of its stance in support of the Communist insurgents. It would be another decade before the CPB disintegrated into rival ethnic factions, amid the tumultuous events of Tiananmen Square and the collapse of Eastern European communist states in 1989. The military is currently engaged in a conflict with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), one of the successor armies of the CPB, near the Chinese border.

Operation Dragon King

By May of 1978, much of the ambassador’s efforts come to be devoted to Operation Naga Min (Dragon King). Characterized by Human Rights Watch as an “ethnic cleansing” campaign, Operation Naga Min was an attempt by the regime to document the Arakanese Muslim population that eventually drove around 200,000 people into Bangladesh.

Despite receiving permission to send a US Embassy officer to Sittwe and the border townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, Bean found it difficult to report reliable information about the operation. Both Burma and Bangladesh traded accusations over the affair, with the former denying a massive increase of its troop presence in Arakan State and Bangladesh denying it was inflaming political tensions in the border area.

Several of the cables at key points in the operation remain classified, along with seemingly innocuous dispatches relating to agricultural output, Burmese foreign policy and cables detailing the history of various ethnic armed groups. As tensions eased in Arakan State, Bean helped to facilitate efforts to repatriate the refugees along with his counterpart in Dakah and the United Nations.

This American Life

The cables published by Wikileaks on Wednesday, numbering more than half a million, capture a region in flux after the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the seismic shifts in the Chinese politburo following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Lacking consular representation in Vietnam and Cambodia, the United States watched from the sidelines as the Vietnamese Army prepared to topple the Khmer Rouge. The embassy in Delhi reported on the re-election and subsequent arrest of Indira Gandhi. American diplomats noted with approval the Australian government’s decision to formally recognize Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, inflaming a lingering sore in domestic politics that would polarize public opinion for the next two decades.

Locally, the Rangoon Embassy cables provide an insight into the deteriorating political and economic conditions inside Burma, at a time when doctrinaire socialism and four-year plans were the official instruments of governance. As a snapshot of the government’s intolerance for dissent, Bean reported that prior to the 1978 water festival, the government announced the amnesty of around 200 students, convicted in military courts for participating in student protests in 1975 and 1976. Around 2,000 students were believed to remain behind bars at the time.

The Rangoon cables are also a revealing insight into their author, who spent most of his career as a servant of US diplomacy in Asia, during his first and last ambassadorial posting. According to the online encyclopedia Black Past, Bean was born to a blue-collar African-American family in Gary, Indiana and attended a racially segregated school in the area before entering the US Foreign Service in Indonesia in 1951. He became a proud and devoted employee of the newly formed Peace Corps in 1961, rising to the position of Philippines Operations Director before rejoining the State Department in 1966.

During his tenure as ambassador, Bean was an advocate of increased US aid to Burma. He sent a cable in January mourning the death of Hubert Humphrey—the controversial former Democratic Party Vice President, lead author of the Civil Rights Act and cofounder of the Peace Corps, who Bean mourned in a condolence message as “among my greatest inspirations”. The following month, the ambassador spearheaded an attempt to introduce a Peace Corps volunteer group in the country, at a time when foreign access to Burma was strictly controlled by the Ne Win regime.

Sadly, Bean died in 2009 at the age of 81, before his ambitions were realized. Burma will accept a Peace Corps volunteer contingent for the first time next year.