Myanmar: An "Unusual and Extraordinary Threat" to the US

Maung Zarni | 24 May 2020

This time of year, the US President ritualistically signs an executive order on Myanmar declaring "the continuation of the national emergency with regard to Burma", on grounds that the Southeast Asian country poses "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." This phenomenon owes its existence to the Freedom and Democracy Act of Burma that requires the President to review and renew sanctions against Myanmar periodically.

Unquestioningly, the international media deems this ritual renewal newsworthy. This helps further exceptionalise military-ruled Myanmar, particularly when the media provides little historical or contextual information about how the country got where it is today. Nor does it explain what the fundamental challenges prevalent in the process of post-colonial nation building, which the country is confronted with, beyond the well-documented rights abuses common across countries under autocratic or authoritarian regimes, some supported no less by Washington itself.

Economically mismanaged by successive national leaderships, Myanmar is a post-colonial mess, left behind by the British Raj sixty years ago. Its Second World War devastated economy worsened as a result of the violent internecine ethnic and ideological conflicts that broke out immediately upon independence, only to be fueled by the Cold War immediately thereafter. Over the last two decades, the country has been reeling from the legacy of externally-mandated isolation, while suffering from a siege mentality that casts one eye on simmering popular discontent at home, and the other on resource-hungry neighbours and a hypocritical West.

Throughout Asia, Myanmar is generally viewed, with good reasons, as a technologically backward, impoverished nation ruled by the military leaders whose mindset and style of governance resemble feudal lords of the 18th century, than one in tune with the age of globalisation and interdependence.

So, Washington's framing of Myanmar as a "threat to national security" must engender a panoply of emotions, not least a degree of numbness to such polemic especially in the context of the purported WMD threat from Iraq. To be sure, no one in their right mind on Capitol Hill –- not even Vice President Dick Cheney with all his pathological security obsessions - believes in such nonsense.

But public bewilderment at how this Third World country, caught in a 50-year time warp and incapable of producing even tooth paste for its own domestic consumer use - is a national security threat to the world's most militant and militarised nation should not be underestimated. As if to belabour the point, the appendage of the term "unusual and extraordinary", is even more perplexing when the President of the United States ad verbatim employs the legalese of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Of course, the open secret in Washington is that the US continues to ally with and prop up some of the most repressive regimes on earth, despite its exceptionally moralistic and customarily denunciatory policy towards Myanmar since 1988. Even the painfully stale argument – that the US adopts double standards on human rights and democracy in Myanmar's case – is misleading. For it assumes incorrectly the United States is a self-styled "indispensable" moral force that supposedly shines light on otherwise dark places in the world.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

A separate assessment of the evolving nature of US power and its role in the post-Cold War era tells a different story than this commonly official portrayal of the United States as a force for good. This is precisely how Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and now world-renowned professor of Asian studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, characterises the nature of US foreign policy, its global politics and behaviour. In a recent essay entitled "Evil Empire: Is Imperial Liquidation Possible for America?" Johnson wrote, "(w)hen Ronald Reagan coined the phrase 'evil empire', he was referring to the Soviet Union, and I basically agreed with him that the USSR needed to be contained and checkmated. But today it is the US that is widely perceived as an evil empire."

While the US talks non-stop about nuclear non-proliferation, its militarism makes the world at large progressively unsafe both from the senseless violence of non-state organisations and sovereign states, including itself. So far no international law or treaty, nor institutions such as the United Nations have proven capable of deterring, let alone, reigning in this American imperialism, although in fairness, international legal institutions were not created to combat the tyranny of the free world, so-called.

Given this, is the common man supposed to be shocked that sovereign nations which Washington customarily labels as "unusual and extraordinary threat(s) to US national security and foreign policy", such as North Korea or Iran or, of late, Myanmar - rush to go nuclear, if only because they fear the extraordinary threat from Washington?

All said, both regimes in Myanmar and the United States have more similarities today than at any other time in their history. At a fundamental and primordial level, Nay Pyi Taw and Washington exhibit a trait commonly found in schoolyard bullies –the military regime in Myanmar towards its own multiethnic populace and the United States towards the rest of the world who are not counted as allies in the trans-Atlantic sense. Both regimes have utter contempt for international norms, public opinion, or well-being of their own citizens. And certain chosen citizens are more equal than others (as the black communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may well testify and in the case of Myanmar, its citizens are second-class citizens while the junta rules as the overlord). The only difference between both countries is that Washington bothers to stage an elaborate international charade that is calculatively sophisticated, or so it thinks. But ultimately, both regimes share a common belief in the power of the gun - and its employment is seldom for defensive reasons.

Given the current circumstances, amplified by profound American foreign policy miscalculations, Hollywood inevitably provides some useful answers to the "unusual and extraordinary threat" posed by Myanmar. The messiah is John Rambo and his trusty crossbow. In the latest installment of Slyvester Stallone's epic due to be released in 2008, the man-machine finds himself recruited by a group of Christian human rights missionaries who deliver aid to the persecuted Karen people of Burma. After Burmese soldiers take prisoner some missionaries, Rambo is tasked to rescue them. Rambo is likely to face an unusual and extraordinary threat from these Burmese soldiers, but America is likely to remain very safe from Myanmar.


Maung Zarni is a Visiting Research Fellow (2006-9) at the Department of International Development (Queen Elizabeth House), University of Oxford. He was the founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

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