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Burma and Iran: unity under a Western cloud

Burma and Iran have been compared for their authoritarianism and their people’s valiant struggle to shake said authoritarianism. But now the two countries are undertaking a new bout of official ‘friendship’.

Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and Burma’s deputy foreign minister, Maung Myint, met this week. The two discussed their adoption of a similar stand on issues such as defying ‘bullying’ powers and an unjust international system, given their membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Mottaki reportedly said.

No doubt they also railed against Western sanctions, unruly students and how tarnished colours like saffron and green have become these days. What is apparent however is that misguided Western political actions have hardened tyranny and eventually usurped rights from citizens in both countries.

And in Obama’s own convoluted way, because he has reassured us that he will ‘engage’ with ‘multilateralism’ (read inaction), the old adage ‘axis of evil’ has slowly morphed into ‘circles of tyranny’, and we sit and wait for another fuel protest and more activists to be gunned down.

In 1952, both countries were fledgling democracies basking in the post-war, post-colonial hope that the age possessed for so many former colonies. In Iran a man named Mohammed Mossadegh was prime minister: he came up with the ‘novel’ idea of nationalising Iran’s greatest natural resource, oil.

At the time, like in much of the Middle East, there was a British monopoly on oil and gas, in particular the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the precursor to the now ubiquitous British Petroleum (BP).

US intelligence, led by the CIA at the behest of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, designed ‘Operation Ajax’ to overthrow Mossadegh. “The United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister,” admitted former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000.

This ‘engagement’ led to the new Shah taking power. Although a fairly competent manager of the economy and a relatively progressive ruler, the Shah eradicated most viable opposition, bar the hard-line Shia Islamic groups, deemed untouchable. These groups finally had enough with the relatively liberal rule of the Shah and staged the Islamic revolution in 1979. The current rulers of Iran are ‘children’ of this event.

In Burma in 1952 an efficient general called Ne Win held the office of chief of staff of the armed forces. He had successfully restored order in periods of serious instability and had been a staunch and successful warrior against the communists who, when allied to the Karen National Union, had come close to de-seating U Nu in Rangoon.

At this time neighbouring China had just seen Chairman Mao and his followers take power.  The Kuomintang (KMT), Mao’s Chinese nationalist opponents, was slowly pushed out of China’s southern Yunnan state and into northern Burma. These rebels were keenly supported by the United States for a number of years. Harbouring hopes they could reinvade and topple Mao, the CIA engaged with them by providing arms flown in from Taiwan via a compliant and helpful Thailand. This was called ‘Operation Paper’, and was facilitated by a secret fleet of planes named ‘Air America’.

What also occurred, with ramifications on the political economy of the region that exist to this day, was the production of heroin and opium by the KMT to fund their activities after the US gradually scaled back their support in about 1953. This history was detailed by the US scholar Alfred McCoy in several groundbreaking books.

The US engaged not only with the KMT but was a staunch supporter of Ne Win before and after his 1962 coup, with suggestions that the US and other Western secret services even backed this coup. Right up until the 1980s Ne Win was fighting ethnic armies with US hardware; evidenced by the Karen National Liberation Army shooting down two US-made Bell helicopters in the 1980s. Ne Win, as commander-in-chief of the Burmese army, took over the mantle of being America’s local anti-communist.

Political analyst Roland Watson noted that “the US provided radar stations to Ne Win. Following widespread anti-Chinese riots in Burma in 1967, the US sent surface-to-air missiles and artilleries, including 105mm howitzers, 75mm recoilless rifles, 106mm recoilless rifles, etc. All of this was meant for defence, in case of an attack on Burma by China. Burma army officers received training in the UK and the US. The UK and Israel also reportedly trained [Burma army] intelligence personnel.”

Ne Win’s western friendship was a practical consideration in the West’s obsessive campaign against communism and in countering China. When Nixon met Mao in 1972 in their infamous summit in China, the US agreed to halt its overt support of the KMT.

The late 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the imperative. The West’s withdrawal of support after the events of 1988 opened a window for China; the West it seems ‘lost’ Burma with the fall of one tyrant and the emergence of a new one. Just like in Afghanistan, Western backing had created a vigorous authoritarian system to fight communism that now sat like an embarrassing, festering wound whose cause could all too easily be forgotten.

So as these two enigmas of Western interest this week sought closer “political, economic and social” ties, as the Iran Student News Agency reported, it seems that, like many states, their shared disaffection also draws them closer.

While Iran witnessed a serious increase in US opposition funding under Bush, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, Burma’s proximity to China seems to proffer a bit more caution to expansive US intentions.

Yet the ogre of ultra-nationalist authoritarian regimes continues unabated in both states, with a condemned silence emanating from third countries, aware perhaps of the history: put off by the record of Western interventions and put off by the hypocrisy of Hillary Clinton’s anti-nuclear crusade in the Middle East that allows Israel to possess weapons whilst Iran is lambasted. Aware perhaps as well that, as Karl Marx lamented, “history tends to repeat itself….the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.