The suffering caused by Cyclone Nargis seems far from the military's priorities [Reuters]

Bunkered away in the centre of the country, the secret and reclusive generals who rule Myanmar fear all foreigners.

 

A week after a deadly cyclone and facing huge pressure to open their country to international aid, they see everyone as a potential enemy intent on overthrowing their rule.

 

Rather than alleviating the suffering wrought by Cyclone Nargis, the top generals' primary concern at present is to preserve their power and protect their families' future position and wealth.

 

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Their outlook is solely shaped by military considerations, looking at the world through soldiers' eyes. But their nationalist xenophobia also has its roots in the style and superstitions of General Ne Win, the country's first military dictator.

 

He seized power in a coup in 1962 and the military have ruled ever since.

 

Reclusive and eccentric, Ne Win shunned contact with the outside world, turning the country then known as Burma into the hermit of Asia.

 

The first few years of his rule saw pogroms against the Chinese and Indian communities, forcing tens of thousands to flee the country. He also banned the teaching of English in the schools.

 

Fear

 

"Burma's military regime is extraordinarily xenophobic," says Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Australia's Macquarie University. "They are afraid of everything."

 

For years the generals' greatest fear has been that the US planned a strategic strike against them.

 

To prepare for that, they have built a rabbit-warren of bunkers around their new capital, Naypyidaw, in the hills some 400 kilometres north of Yangon.

 

They moved the seat of government and the military headquarters to the remote, purpose-built city abruptly in November 2005. Thousands of civil servants were only give a few hours' notice to pack up and move.

 

Myanmar's government says it wants
international aid but not aid workers [AFP]
During the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988, which brought the country to a stand still for months, they feared a US invasion when ships of the US Pacific fleet moored off the country's southern coast.

 

Then they turned to Beijing for protection and today China remains Myanmar's most-important diplomatic ally.

 

The regime is also highly suspicious of the UN and other international aid agencies, fearing they are in cahoots with the West and only want to whip up opposition to military rule inside the country.

 

Even before the current cyclone disaster hit Myanmar, international aid workers found it hard to travel around the country and visit development projects.

 

Rejected

 

Last year the government expelled the United Nation's top representative in the country, Charles Petrie, on the grounds that he was interfering with government policy.

 

"We must get rid of all the white faces," Senior General Than Shwe told his cabinet several times, according to reliable military sources.

 

Since then the government has refused to accept several Western nominees as head of UN agencies.

 

Senior General Than Shwe heads Myanmar's 
reclusive military government [Reuters]
An American candidate was rejected last year as head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees while two western nominees to replace the ousted UN representative were also recently turned down. Both posts have since been filled by an Asian from a developing country.

 

The restrictions on aid workers' movements are in part because the military regime fears that they will be gathering intelligence that might be used to undermine the government, but also because of the generals' paranoid obsession with being in total control of everything.

 

Given this mindset, there is no prospect the military regime will allow foreign aid workers to flood into the country, let alone allow foreign troops to enter.

 

"They're afraid that if foreign soldiers come in, they are the spearhead to overthrow the government," says Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor and Myanmar expert.

 

From the generals' perspective, he says, "aid workers could be carrying weapons to give to the people, they could give them ideas of how to overthrow the government."

 

Subversive

 

The families of Myanmar's ruling generals
enjoy a lavish lifestyle
For decades, the ruling military regimes have kept Myanmar isolated, fearing that opening the country up would impact both its businesses and culture, and still worse, foster subversive thoughts like freedom of speech and democracy. 

 

Even tourists were not allowed access to the country until the 1970s, when visitors were given a strict, seven-day visa.

 

This changed a decade ago, when the lure of foreign currency spurred a relaxation of the rules. Nonetheless, all visitors are closely controlled and constantly monitored by military intelligence officers.

 

Meanwhile, there has been an almost total ban on journalists, with authorities granting media visas only for largely meaningless army-arranged ceremonies.

 

The generals' paranoia and distrust extends to all civilians – they believe that only the army has the ability to unite the country and protect it from foreign invaders.

 

From their perspective, only the military represents the nation as a whole, not the factional interests of political parties or business people.

 

Intimidation

 

The irony is, of course, that they have divided the country as never before – political parties are effectively banned, more than 2,000 political prisoners are languishing in jail, there is strict censorship of the press and the people are beaten into submission through a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation.

 

Last year they alienated the country's revered Buddhist monks after they brutally cracked down on the saffron-led protests against rising food prices.

 

In the end, the real issue is one of control – the military government understands that it must remain united or perish.

 

Their greatest fear now is losing control, losing their wealth, and facing Nuremberg-style trials from a future civilian government bringing them to account.

 

The current military rulers, especially General Than Shwe and his family, have amassed vast fortunes through corruption and nepotism.

 

Little wonder then that, despite the overwhelming suffering caused by Cyclone Nargis, the generals seem so anxious to press ahead with their referendum and institutionalise their power.