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26 years ago today, Iraq destroyed Burma’s embassy in Israel

Heavy damage and rubble from an Iraqi scud missile hit on Uziel Street in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv — the same neighbourhood where the Burmese Embassy once stood. (Photo: Government Press Office / Alpert Nathan)

“My home in Tel Aviv was damaged [by the Iraqi Scud missiles],” Israeli Ambassador to Burma Daniel Zonshine told Coconuts Yangon when asked about the incident. “I did not know that the Burmese Embassy in Israel was hit in the Gulf War.”

This reaction is not surprising; hardly anyone has heard of or remembers the embassy being struck by an Iraqi missile, which happened on 9 February 1991 — exactly 26 years ago today.

The Scud strategy

Just a day had passed since Iraq was invaded by the largest military alliance since WWII, and President Saddam Hussein was already getting desperate.

Thirty-five countries joined the US-led military campaign to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait, which Saddam had annexed in August 1990. Operation Desert Storm began on 17 January 1991, with the coalition forces’ intense aerial bombardment of Iraq. The next day, instead of concentrating his efforts at home, Saddam began firing Scud missiles at Israel, which had previously not been involved in the war.

Saddam hoped to provoke Israel into attacking Iraq. This, he hoped, would push some of the nine Arab states out of the US-led coalition, assuming they would be unwilling to fight alongside Israel.

However, Israel did not get drawn in. Through diplomatic maneuvering and the deployment of Patriot missiles to defend Israel, the US prevented a direct Israeli response, and the coalition held together.

Over the seven-week course of the war, 39 Iraqi Scuds would land in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and one or two would fall into the sea, according to the Israeli government. The Jerusalem Post reported that 74 Israelis died as a result of the Iraqi attacks: two from a direct hit and the rest from suffocation or heart attacks. Approximately 230 Israelis were injured.

Though the human toll of the attacks was lower than Saddam had hoped for, it was large enough to leave a mark on Israel’s collective memory. The trauma of the bombardment has been immortalised by photos of Israelis wearing gas masks and hazmat suits in their homes and by stories of people injecting themselves with sarin antidotes, in case Iraq were to fire chemical weapons at them.

The story of Burma’s destroyed embassy, on the other hand, has not made its way into the mainstream narratives of either the Gulf War or of Burmese history.

There seems to be only one reference to the incident that a Google search will produce. A Human Rights Watch report from 1991, titled “Needless Deaths of the Gulf War,” tells this story:

One missile reportedly was fired at 2:40 am on February 9. […] There were no fatalities.

The location of the missile strike was the borders of Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak municipalities, east of Tel Aviv city. The impact site is recorded as having been off HaRoen, a major road in central Ramat Gan […].

The Burmese Embassy in Ramat Gan, 400 meters from the missile’s point of impact, was virtually destroyed, according to Israeli eyewitnesses who drove along the main road a few days later.

There are certainly many reasons this incident remains obscure. Israel and its allies initially suppressed the locations of Iraqi missile strikes and the extent of the damage they caused in order to prevent Iraq from improving the missiles’ accuracy.

However, a glance at Burma’s international relationships at the time may shed some light on why the story did not come out later, or at least make the story a bit more interesting.

Fellow pariahs

By the 1980s, Burma and Iraq were among the most notorious dictatorships in the world, often mentioned in the same condemning breaths.

When the Gulf War broke out in 1991, Burma’s military junta — the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC — had annulled the results of the 1990 election, which the NLD won by a landslide less than a year earlier. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, to the ire of the international community. The generals’ crackdown on the 1988 uprisings by killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands of their subjects was fresh in the minds of people around the world.

Even as they rained abuses down on their own people, the generals anticipated blowback. They were so terrified of an international intervention in Burma that they began to heavily militarize their stronghold in Rangoon.

An International Crisis Group report from late 2001 recounts: “During the 1988 uprising, the arrival of a US naval vessel in Myanmar waters reportedly caused panic in the War Office. Three years later, at the height of the Gulf War, anti-aircraft guns were put up around Yangon, suggesting military leaders feared an attack.”

A cartoon published in January 1991 by the state-run newspaper Working People’s Daily (which later became the New Light of Myanmar) reveals the military junta’s fear of being grouped with Saddam Hussein by international media. In the cartoon, Saddam is depicted provoking the US, while a man symbolising Burma worries that if the US is out to get Saddam, it might come for Burma, too. BBC and VOA are seen fighting on the American side.

SLORC so feared the comparison to Saddam Hussein that according to a 1992 Amnesty International report, “U Kyi Myint, general secretary of the Burma United Democratic Party and a high school teacher, was arrested in March 1991 after he reportedly compared Senior General Saw Maung to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.”

Even in 2003, some speculated that the more recent American war in Iraq would inspire regime change in Burma.

But while Burma’s military junta sought to avoid Iraq’s fate, it continued its Iraq-like behaviour. Furthermore, state media reported uncritically on the diplomatic activities of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Muammar al-Gaddafi, including declarations by Saddam that he would win the war.

Perhaps, when their embassy was destroyed, Burma’s leaders thought it wise not to publicise the misdeeds of a regime to which they were so strongly associated in the public mind.

Phillip Stonehouse, the deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Rangoon from 1989 to 1992, told Coconuts Yangon: “I don’t recall specifically that Burma supported Saddam, but on the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy,’ it’s likely it did.”

Israeli gun shenanigans

Burma’s leaders may also have suppressed the news of the embassy’s destruction to protect their relationship with Israel and its secret benefits.

Stonehouse said: “Burma also had quite a decent relationship with Israel, as I recall, based mainly on weapons sales. The elite Burmese troops — the ones guarding [SLORC chairman] Saw Maung — carried Israeli weapons. I saw that with my own eyes.”

Journalist Bertil Lintner has a similar recollection: “The bodyguards of [intelligence chief] Khin Nyunt — and perhaps also of Saw Maung, but I doubt it — had [Israeli] Uzi submachine guns.”

The guns, Lintner explains, were bought from a Singapore-based arms dealer that was also known to have bought Soviet-era weaponry from Israel, which then it re-exported to Burma.

“It is, however, uncertain whether the Israeli authorities were aware of these shenanigans. The guns were shipped from Eilat [in Israel] to Singapore, and there reloaded onto Burma Five Star ships and sent to Rangoon,” he told Coconuts Yangon.

Today, Israel’s weapons sales to Burma are well-known. (A group of Israeli human rights activists is petitioning their Supreme Court to put an end to the exports.) But back when Burma was an international pariah, this was not a relationship either country, especially US-friendly Israel, would want in the headlines.

Authoritarian media

Finally, there’s the likelihood that SLORC suppressed the news of the embassy destruction because that’s what it always did.

Until 2011, state media run by SLORC and its military successors openly and frequently attacked international media outlets, accusing them of “sowing hatred” and “generating public outrage.” They took credit for humanitarian aid that actually came from the UN, denounced Suu Kyi as a “Western fashion girl” and omitted any news that would reveal to the public how low their country’s reputation had sunk.

Last year, the Global New Light of Myanmar refused to publish on their front page a story about a pagoda that was destroyed by a wind storm because it allegedly gave the country a negative image. Perhaps the same could have been true about the news of the embassy.

Stonehouse, the Australian diplomat, said: “I’m afraid I have only a vague recollection of the specific incident you mention — Saw Maung’s suppression of the news about the destruction of the Burmese Embassy in Tel Aviv from a missile strike — but this would have been quite consistent with the way the junta handled all news.”

This story by Jacob Goldberg was originally published by Coconuts Yangon here.