Burma’s Bond with Israel: From Meditation to Military Muscle

By Aung Zaw 25 September 2015

Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel has long sought to cultivate allies further afield, including in Asia.

In Burma, which achieved independence from Britain in 1948—the same year Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel—the Jewish state found an understanding ally.

Jacob Abadi, the author of several books on the Middle East, wrote in “Israel’s Quest for Recognition and Acceptance in Asia: Garrison State Diplomacy” that “Burma served as a workshop for Israel’s foreign policy in Asia.”

Both countries were born into conflict. Burma faced ethnic and communist insurgencies that sparked soon after independence, followed by the incursion of Chinese nationalist Kuomintang troops into Shan State. In the same period, Israel faced a fight for its very existence with the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Jewish merchants began arriving in Burma in the early 19th century. Historical sources describe the Jewish populace as largely flourishing under British colonial rule, however, the majority left Burma following the invasion of Japanese troops during the Second World War.

In Burma’s former capital Rangoon—renowned as a center of ethnic and religious diversity—the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in the 1890s. Today, the over 100-year-old synagogue remains a prominent cultural landmark in the city and a reminder of early Jewish influence.

Israel’s Ally: U Nu

After the war, then Prime Minister U Nu visited Israel in 1955, becoming the first Asian leader to travel to the Jewish state.

During his visit, U Nu toured several “kibbutzim” communities—settlements based on co-operative agricultural practices—and was sufficiently impressed that he established similar settlements in Shan State upon his return.

U Nu, one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, was seen as Israel’s lone champion in Asia, as one western diplomat put it at the time. Subsequently, hundreds of Burmese students, military officers and officials were sent to Israel for education and training.

According to Jacob Abadi, U Nu had pushed for Israel to be invited to the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, but reneged over concerns of alienating Arab states.

But Israeli officials likely noted U Nu’s public support and the budding bilateral relationship flourished. The two countries not only established economic and agricultural ties but also military cooperation.

Under U Nu, Burma purchased second-hand spitfires from Israel, as well as machine guns and ammunition, and a team of Israeli pilots was sent to Rangoon to conduct trainings.

Israeli construction company, Solel Boneh, was also involved in construction projects in Burma, again, at the invitation of U Nu.

Building Ties

Interestingly, there seemed to be little domestic opposition to Burma forging stronger relations with Israel. Instead, much, largely uncritical, local literature was widely available on the Jewish state’s quest for independence, its national intelligence agency Mossad and the eye patch-wearing defense minister Moshe Dayan.

Many Burmese in the 1970s even suspected that some of the country’s intelligence officers were trained by Mossad, but there were no grounds to substantiate such speculation.

In reality, U Nu could not pursue a pro-Israel foreign policy without countenancing other pressures, including from China, a country that fostered ties with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

U Nu publically distanced himself from Israel over the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. The Burmese leader condemned Israel and Western powers, including the UK and France, and backed the United Nations’ calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egypt.

But the honeymoon was far from over.

In 1961, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited Burma, seeking to make an immediate positive impression on his local interlocutors by wearing traditional Burmese headgear, or gaungbaung, during official functions.

On the lengthy overseas trip, the Israeli prime minister practiced meditation at U Nu’s residence, a man he described in his memoirs as representing a state that evinced more loyalty and sympathy to Israel than any other nation in the world.

Prominent Israeli figures including Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Golda Meir all visited Rangoon in the 1960s.

Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan came to Burma in 1958 where they met Ne Win, the nationalist general and former member of the legendary “Thirty Comrades” that were trained by the Japanese ahead of their ouster of the British colonial power in 1941-42.

The general informed his visitors of his strong support for Israel, a fact cited in Shimon Peres’ autobiography published in 1995.

Military Imperatives

In 1959, Ne Win, who was then serving as interim prime minister, reportedly made a strong impression on his Israeli counterparts during a visit to the country. Around that time, Burma sent some 80 soldiers and army veterans to study the agricultural methods practiced in Israel’s kibbutz communities.

Three years later however, the general staged a military coup and placed David Ben-Gurion’s friend, U Nu, in detention.

As Ne Win shut the door to the outside world and Burma’s foreign policy turned increasingly nationalistic, the general’s bodyguards were still equipped with Israeli supplied Uzi submachine guns.

Despite flagging ties, in the mid-1980s, Burma’s socialist government awarded Israeli communications firm Telrad a US$5 million contract to install public telephones in the country.

The deal, aided by the World Bank, was labeled by Telrad as the company’s “first breakthrough in the Burmese market.”

But the diplomatic warmth enjoyed when U Nu was in power had evaporated and there was only limited contact between the two countries throughout the 1980s, although diplomatic missions were maintained in Rangoon and Tel-Aviv respectively, as Jacob Abadi notes.

The Israel-Burma relationship came under increased scrutiny after the 1988 military coup in Burma that accompanied a ruthless crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests. After much of the international community had imposed sanctions on the country, in 1991, Israeli weapons manufacturers reportedly sold submachine guns and 150mm howitzers to the military regime.

Other Israeli companies also continued to deal with Burma’s ruling generals. Koor Industries Ltd. opened an office inside the country in 1995 and Telrad expanded its operations the following year to provide digital and switchboard telecommunications systems.

The visit to Israel by Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing earlier this month reminded many of the cozy, and at times controversial, ties of the recent past.

The commander-in-chief, alongside other senior military brass, toured Ashdod Naval Base to inspect FAC Super Dvora Mark 3 patrol boats, an unknown number of which have been ordered from Israel by Burma’s military. He also toured the offices of local defense manufacturers.

Speaking to journalists at a meeting in Naypyidaw on Monday, Min Aung Hlaing described the visit as an opportunity to promote cooperation between the nations’ armed forces.

The trip’s military focus, however, did little to convince observers of a genuine and robust re-embrace between the two countries.

In contrast to David Ben-Gurion’s 1961 visit, Min Aung Hlaing’s mission centered more on military hardware than modes of meditation.