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'Fear, isolation have long history in Myanmar'

Myanmar's stunning decision to refuse entry to foreign aid workers after the cyclone tragedy is simply business-as-usual for a secretive regime obsessed with projecting total control, analysts say.
AFP | By Griffin Shea
UPDATED ON MAY 11, 2008 11:51 AM IST

Myanmar's stunning decision to refuse entry to foreign aid workers after the cyclone tragedy is simply business-as-usual for a secretive regime obsessed with projecting total control, analysts say.

While the world looks on with fury at the government's insistence that it is not the time to let outsiders in, junta leader Than Shwe has a long history of decisions that are inscrutable to the rest of the world.

As Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch put it: "The Burmese generals are living in a fairly unique mindset."

The United Nations has been unable to reach Than Shwe by phone. When the prime minister of Thailand one of Myanmar's few friends proposed to visit the country after the storm, he could not arrange a meeting.

Than Shwe's detachment from the people is so great that he was not even shown on Myanmar's tightly controlled state television until one week after the cyclone hit, leaving 60,000 people dead or missing.

And that appearance was simply to vote in Saturday's national referendum, which critics say is intended to bolster the regime's grip on power -- and should never have been held with the country in the midst of catastrophe.

"It's beyond my comprehension," said Thailand-based analyst Win Min, noting that the people of Myanmar traditionally hold a day of mourning one week after death -- which would have been the day the vote was held.

"We do prayers for the dead one week after, but he doesn't care," Win Min said. "He just goes ahead with his plans."

The secretive leader has styled the military as the saviour of the nation, presenting the armed forces as the key to the nation's survival against an array of ethnic insurgencies.

The regime may fear losing that image if foreign aid workers start bringing food, shelter and medicine to the estimated 1.5 million people now in severe need after the storm, said Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar academic.

"They know that they have not been up to the task of helping the cyclone victims. Imagine 1,000 foreigners helping the needy in the area," he told AFP in Thailand.

"Then the military will lose face again. They will not get credit for helping the people," he said.

Than Shwe's behaviour is also rooted in the military's history of staunch isolationism and obsession with astrology.

Former dictator Ne Win barred all foreigners from the country for decades, and handed down bizarre orders apparently on the advice of his numerologist.

He triggered chaos by changing the nation's currency overnight to the awkward denominations of 15, 35, and 75, to give them more auspicious numbers.

Based on a dream, he ordered cars in the former British colony to start driving on the right side of the road instead of the left, causing years of mayhem on the streets -- with traffic lights stuck on the wrong side.

Than Shwe has shown similar tendencies.

After spending a fortune to secretly build his new capital of Naypyidaw in the middle of remote brushlands, he abruptly ordered the government to move there without warning, at a time deemed astrologically appropriate.

Experts chalked his decision to move the capital in part to fears of a possible US invasion, fostered by his alarm over the US invasion of Iraq.

His fear of the West has been encouraged by sanctions on his government over his failure to make good on promised democratic reforms, and underlies his refusal to accept aid for cyclone victims, analysts say.

"This disaster is coming after several years of strained relations between the authorities and the aid community, grounded for the most part in Naypyidaw's suspicions that humanitarian aid is somehow closely linked to the West's regime-change agenda," said That Myint-U, a Myanmar historian.

"Convince the government the West is no longer out to get them, and maybe they will let down their guard, " he said. "But I can't see that happening any time soon."

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