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Exploiting a human tragedy

Published Jun 1, 2008 9:17 PM

I thought I was the only one who felt this way, given the giant shadow cast by the U.S. propaganda machine. But Sara Flounders’ piece on the Myanmar cyclone hit the nail on the head. [“U.S. hostility hampers relief,” May 22]

When it concerns Myanmar there seems to be an overarching ideology that shapes nearly all Western (and Westernized) media interpretation of events. Everyone seems to be of the same mind-set, underlying which is an uncritical, zealous, evangelical crusade regarding what the U.S. considers “democracy.”

It began with the 1988 riots in Myanmar, continued to percolate throughout the past 20 years with other incidents, then escalated with the riots of September 2007. Now the recent cyclone has brought Myanmar once again into the political limelight, when the focus should have been a humanitarian one. All these events of the past 20 years have been placed within a stock, “good versus evil” framework of analysis, so that not only are the differences amongst them not acknowledged, the conclusions are predictable and self-fulfilling as well.

As Sara Flounders points out, exploitation of this terrible tragedy was by design. At the White House press conference called almost immediately after the cyclone hit Myanmar, Mrs. Bush began by politicizing the disaster right off the bat. One sentence was spent on the tragedy, the rest of the press conference was on her political agenda of regime change.

The dominant American and other English language media reports followed the White House cue, which was repeated ad nauseam during the next two weeks. The image of the Burma government was made to fit that crafted during the past 20 years, even in such a disaster where nearly 130,000 lives were reportedly lost. Whatever the Burma government did was ipso facto considered to have had evil intentions.

One correspondent who belongs to the dominating “Foreign Corresponden[ts] Club” in Bangkok once told me that any positive news coming out of Myanmar is suppressed as part of its credo.

Congress and other organizations with a similar “consolidated vision” have pumped in more than $200 million during these past 20 years to create this image. So-called “private organizations” such as the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy (run by ex-State Department types), but with the same mind-set, contributed also; the latter allotting $40,000 in its 2006 budget for Myanmar monasteries. This was to be used for “educating” Burmese monks about how to hold “democratic” demonstrations. Is it any surprise the riots led by a small group of bogus monks and “outlaw monasteries” occurred shortly thereafter? (I wonder how much the U.S. has spent in the 60 odd years on its propaganda regarding little Cuba?)

Most of the money allotted by Congress annually goes to support dissident groups and their propaganda, usually “newspapers” (such as the “Irrawaddy” located in Thailand) and lobby groups with press and government connections. Since these news groups live in dozens of different countries and write from there, it appears as if there’s a grassroots groundswell of opposition to the government in Burma when it is really only a small group whose livelihood depends on these funds. (In fact, they remind me of the Miami Cuban community with regard to Cuba.)

Thus, one of the reasons reconciliation is not the objective of these groups is that if that occurred, their cash cow would be eliminated. What they are pushing for instead is regime change. But if one thinks that’ll bring peace and cooperation, law and order, and improve the lives of most of the ordinary people in Myanmar, think again. Most likely such a scenario will result in civil war in which the bulk of the casualties will be civilians and of course “easy pickins” for the U.S.

Oil and gas is a factor, as Ms. Flounders points out. But control of, or direct access to the Straits of Malacca—the fastest and easiest way to and from the Bay of Bengal to the Pacific, with the borders of Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia on the Straits—may be another reason.

Also using the old cold war policy of “encirclement” of China may be yet another. With the U.S. military in Afghanistan, allies Pakistan and India on the west, Thailand on the southwest (already in the U.S.’s pocket), Cambodia and Vietnam on the near southwest (which the U.S. is now wooing), South Korea and Taiwan on China’s south, and Japan (and Hawaii) on its east, the only gap left is Myanmar on the southwest. Creating a brush fire there completes the circle, as there is no hope of allying with Myanmar now after 20 years of hostile policy. (The U.S. even has a head of the Sangha-Buddhist Church ready to be installed if there is the regime change it wants.) Myanmar, therefore, is just another pawn in the grand design of the U.S. in Asia.

It is too bad that the possible deaths of some of my relatives in the cyclone have been exploited for such mercenary motives.

Michael Aung-Thwin
Professor of Asian Studies
University of Hawaii at Manoa