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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09RANGOON205 2009-04-02 07:07 2010-12-12 21:09 SECRET Embassy Rangoon

DE RUEHGO #0205/01 0920733
P 020733Z APR 09
S E C R E T RANGOON 000205 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/02/2019 

Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Larry Dinger for Reasons 1.4 (b) & (d) 


1. (S) As the review of U.S. policy regarding Burma 
continues amid signs that the military regime wants to engage 
with Washington, we offer some thoughts about the senior 
generals, what motivates them, what they might want from 
engagement, and what the U.S. might place on the table. 
Burma's military machine is top-down, xenophobic and utterly 
focused on preserving national unity. At the same time, 
senior generals are embarrassed by their international pariah 
status and crave respect. Some are concerned with Burma's 
ever-growing dependence on China and its geostrategic 
location amidst historical foes. Others, having seen a 
glimpse of the international community's benevolence 
following Nargis, no doubt wish for a lifting of sanctions 
and economic assistance. No matter the motivations, a 
dialogue with Burma's senior military leaders will be slow, 
frustrating, and, within the U.S., politically charged. 
While dialogue is unlikely to yield major, near-term 
political outcomes such as changes to the constitution, it 
might sow seeds for future change by illustrating to the next 
line of leaders what an improved relationship with the U.S. 
could look like. Above all, a dialogue could lead to 
tangible benefits for Burma's long-suffering people, a 
worthwhile goal in itself. End summary. 

How do they think? 

2. (S) All major decisions in Burma are made at the very 
top. Senior general Than Shwe, Vice Senior General Maung 
Aye, and their inner circles call the shots. Than Shwe's 
dominant personality is keenly felt. Subordinates appear to 
share only good news, leaving the senior generals potentially 
ignorant of many realities. In this information vacuum, the 
generals continue to pursue their "roadmap to democracy" and 
ruinous, top-down economic policies. While self interest 
clearly is a factor in their thinking, it would be a mistake 
to think they are motivated exclusively by self-enrichment. 
These are true believers who are convinced they are divinely 
entrusted in the tradition of the Burmese "warrior kings" 
with doing what is best for the country and the people. They 
feel they are simply misunderstood by the outside world. 

3. (S) These are career military men, most with combat 
experience in Burma's past internal conflicts, who value the 
unity and stability of the state as a top priority. The 
senior generals assert, and seem genuinely to believe, that 
the military is the only guarantor of that unity and 
stability. Thus, they see a dominant role for the armed 
forces in governance to be essential. The senior generals 
inculcate this military ethos, indoctrinating new cadets to 
be "the triumphant elite of the future." 

4. (S) Since only very senior career military men make real 
decisions, such men would need to participate in any serious 
engagement effort with the civilian-led U.S. The Burmese 
military would be far more comfortable at the table in a 
mil/mil environment, their comfort zone. 

5. (S) The generals see themselves as devout Buddhists. 
State media have recently inundated the public with scenes of 
senior generals and their families consecrating the 
newly-constructed Uppatasanti Pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw, a 
replica of Rangoon's legendary Shwedagon Pagoda. Of course, 
such acts of Buddhist merit-making have a public relations 
aspect, but they also do reflect a philosophical base. 

6. (S) Families matter. The senior generals spoil their 
children and grandchildren. They seek to protect their 
families--some were sent to Dubai in September 2007 to ride 
out the Saffron Revolution protests and crackdown. The 
generals also seek to ensure a firm financial footing for 
their families' futures through lucrative positions at home 
and bank accounts offshore. The application of our visa bans 
against the generals' immediate family members irritates. 

7. (S) Western rationality is not always apparent in regime 
decision-making. Than Shwe reportedly relies on favored 
soothsayers. We hear one such seer advised moving the 
capital to the interior because Rangoon would be subject to 
street disturbances and a horrific storm. Numerology also 
factors in. Witness the overnight shift to a currency 
divisible by nines in 1987 and the release of 9,002 prisoners 
last September, reportedly to ensure an auspicious 2009. 
Such decision methods may sound strange to us, but they are 
everyday elements in the lives of many Burmese. 

8. (S) The senior generals are xenophobic. They don't seem 
to understand foreigners and certainly don't trust them, 
particularly those who challenge their legitimacy. This may 
be a reason why Than Shwe reportedly abhors Aung San Suu Kyi, 
who grew up overseas, married a UK citizen and then returned 
to Burma to challenge the military's authority. 
Historically, the Burmese have fought wars with all their 
neighbors, including China, India, and Thailand. While the 
current regime relies heavily on China for investment, trade 
and support in international institutions and accepts a 
degree of Chinese advice as a consequence, it is very 
unlikely that the senior generals would defer to Chinese (or 
any outsider's) demands on core issues, particularly on the 
military's central role in governance. 

9. (S) The generals are paranoid about the U.S., fear 
invasion, and have a bunker mentality. Past U.S. rhetoric 
about regime change sharpened concerns. One rumored 
explanation for Than Shwe's decision to move the capital to 
Nay Pyi Taw, far from the coast, was supposedly to protect 
from a sea-borne invasion force. The regime was truly 
convinced the U.S. was prepared to invade when a helicopter 
carrier sailed near Burmese territorial waters for 
humanitarian purposes after Cyclone Nargis last May. 

10. (S) Than Shwe and his colleagues view the current 
period as one chapter in Burma's long history. They profess 
that democracy requires a guided process of "gradual 
maturity." They believe the U.S. and the West in general are 
trying to force democracy on a country that is not yet 
developed enough to handle it. This is more than a cynical 
excuse to retain power. They think they know best. 

11. (S) At the same time, the generals are proud and crave 
the acceptance of the international community. They hate 
being subject to sanctions and aspire to be treated with the 
respect accorded other world leaders, including some 
authoritarian ones. Interactions with key foreign visitors 
and Burmese attendance at international fora always make 
headlines in the government newspaper. 

Why might the regime want to talk now? 

12. (S) Indications are that the senior generals are hoping 
for a fresh USG approach and are willing to explore 
engagement. Even before the U.S. elections, the generals 
were testing the waters. Last August, they suggested a 
senior U.S. military official should visit Burma. More 
recently, they have made clear they want conversations in 
Washington and have asked to upgrade from Charge d'Affaires 
to Ambassador for that purpose. They recently suggested 
narcotics and POW/MIA issues might be useful topics for 
initial discussion. They provided unusually high access 
when EAP/MLS Director Blake visited Burma last week. What 
motivates the desire to talk? 

13. (S) When the U.S. response to Cyclone Nargis last May 
was a major humanitarian effort rather than a much-feared 
invasion, the generals were reportedly surprised and 
gratified. More broadly, some senior leaders have drawn a 
lesson from the Nargis response that international 
humanitarian assistance can be valuable. Some in the military 
are nervous about an overdependence on China; all recall the 
difficult history with that looming neighbor. President 
Obama's engagement theme intrigues. The generals want the 
international respect that a more normal relationship with 
the U.S. would bring. They feel a degree of pain, or at 
least irritation, from sanctions, and want relief. It may be 
that some neighbors, ASEAN leaders, maybe even the Chinese, 
are urging the generals to try dialogue. 

14. (S) Also, it is entirely possible that the most senior 
generals are looking for an escape strategy. Retirement has 
never been an option for Burmese leaders. Historically, 
Burmese kings or generals and those close to them either have 
died in office, been killed, or been deposed and imprisoned. 
The current senior generals are getting old, but they have no 
desire to be held to account for what the outside world 
perceives as their crimes against the people. Than Shwe 
reportedly has mentioned to some interlocutors, including 
Indonesian President Yudoyono, his strong desire not to 
appear before an international tribunal. All the top 
generals undoubtedly want assurances that, if they 
voluntarily step aside, they and their families will retain 
their assets and will not be prosecuted. 

What might the regime propose? 

15. (S) Senior generals likely perceive that they have 
already made concessions. They allow foreign embassies and 
cultural units like the American Center to operate. They 
have received high-level UN visits, including four thus far 
in 2009. They have committed to a "roadmap to democracy," 
drafted a constitution, held a referendum, and announced 
elections. They have released some political prisoners, 
including several high-profile ones like Win Tin, though not 
yet Aung San Suu Kyi. 

16. (S) We should not expect significant progress on 
political core issues in the near term. The regime is very 
unlikely to reverse course on its "democracy" roadmap, to 
rehash the 1990 elections or to revisit the new constitution. 
The senior generals will not leave the scene willingly 
unless they are confident of their own safety and of 
financial security for themselves and their families. 

17. (S) Some possible offers: 

--The regime might accept some tweaks to the election 
process; a degree of international observation is reportedly 
already on offer. 

--They might relax some terms of ASSK's current detention. 

--They could possibly be persuaded to release some political 
prisoners in advance of the elections. At a minimum, they 
might consider resumption of ICRC access to political 

--The regime would likely seek cooperation on perceived 
win/win issues like counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, 
anti-trafficking, economic-policy advice, and disaster-risk 
reduction. They likely would relish mil/mil and law 
enforcement training opportunities. 

--There also may be willingness to make concessions on 
lower-profile issues that affect the operation of our 
Embassy, such as visas, increased in-country travel 
permission, and an expansion of our presence to include a 
re-opening of the former U.S. consulate in Mandalay and/or a 
USAID mission to oversee humanitarian assistance. 

--Symbolic gestures carry much weight with the Burmese. The 
regime has already signaled it wants to upgrade its COM in 
Washington from Charge to Ambassador. It aspires for the 
U.S. to use the country name "Myanmar," not "Burma." 

If the U.S. engages, what might we raise and offer? 

18. (S) Any engagement effort would likely take time, not 
just one meeting or two, but a series of encounters that, 
ideally, would gradually build confidence and a willingness 
on the Burmese side to open up. That is the "Asian way." In 
the early stages, it would be useful to dispel any regime 
concern that the U.S. intends to invade or dominate. We 
should hint that Burma stands to gain from decent 
relationships with the outside world and that there are 
alternatives to reliance on China. When leaders change their 
ways they can have a fruitful relationship with the United 
States based on shared mutual interests. 

-- Still, it would be important up front to reiterate key, 
long-term themes: the need to release political prisoners, 
including ASSK, and initiate genuine dialogue. 

-- Early on, we should accent shared mutual interests, such 
as the win/win topics mentioned above: counter-narcotics; 
trafficking in persons; disaster risk reduction; and remains 
recovery from WWII, with a note that U.S.-facilitated 
training in such areas could be possible. 

-- The effects of the worldwide economic recession offer 
opportunities. Burma's economy is suffering. Positive 
political steps from the regime side could lead to an easing 
of broad-based economic sanctions, spurring growth and 
diversification in Burma's economy. We could dangle World 
Bank and IMF technical assistance and, with progress, loan 
packages. We could consider revisiting current restrictions 
on the ability of UNDP to work with low-level GOB entities. 
With sufficient progress, the sanctions specifically targeted 
at the regime and its cronies could be on offer, too. 

-- We should make clear our desire to provide increased 
humanitarian assistance (outside of regime channels) to help 
meet crying needs. Unstated but true: such aid would subvert 
the regime both by building civil-society capacity and 
illustrating to the grassroots in Burma that the outside 
world helps and the regime doesn't. We should seek regime 
cooperation on the Rohingya issue, offering USG assistance to 
build livelihood opportunities in Northern Rakine State. 

-- We could formally open a PD outreach center in Mandalay, 
utilizing the U.S. consulate that closed in 1980. 
Countrywide, we could offer increased educational exchanges. 
Those who studied in the U.S. even many years ago retain fond 
memories and view the U.S. in a positive light. Access to 
quality education is priority one for Burma's citizens. 

-- We could consider accepting the country name "Myanmar." 
"Burma" is a vestige of colonial times that actually elevates 
the Bamar majority over other ethnic groups. Practically 
everyone inside uses the term Myanmar, as do all countries in 
Southeast Asia, though the NLD has thus far refused to bend 
on that topic. 

-- We could accede to the regime request to upgrade their 
COM in Washington from CDA to Ambassador. 


19. (S) Some propose that getting started at a better 
relationship is more important than insisting on 
difficult-to-achieve democracy and human-rights outcomes in 
the near term. In that view, U.S. regional and global 
interests should drive Burma policy. Others remain adamant 
that to demand less than the right democratic and 
human-rights outcomes would be to sacrifice the efforts of 
Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others in a wishful 
expediency. Any walk down the road of dialogue will require 
great patience and thoughtful judgments about how much to 
offer and how much to demand. The regime's inclination 
toward engagement is surely driven by its own perceived 
interests (reducing sanctions, achieving respect, modulating 
China's influence). However, the senior generals likely see 
rapid movement to the West's democracy and human-rights goals 
as downright dangerous. Still, one never knows how flexible 
the other side will be until negotiations begin. Also, the 
looming 2010 elections may be an opportunity. The process 
will be flawed, but an aspect may be stage one of a 
transition toward a next set of (mostly military) leaders. 
U.S.-Burmese dialogue now could signal to that next 
generation what a positive relationship with the U.S. might 
offer, planting seeds for future change. 

20. (S) Given the likelihood that major successes on the 
democracy front will be slow in coming, we believe it 
important for the U.S. to undertake a long-term effort to 
build the groundwork for future democracy. Per our MSP, we 
want to follow up on post-cyclone aid with a broader 
humanitarian-assistance endeavor. If properly designed, such 
assistance builds the basic capacity of people at the 
grassroots to survive and to think beyond mere subsistence to 
political goals. Such aid is subversive more directly as 
well: recipients understand who helps them (international 
donors) and who doesn't (the regime). In this context, 
"humanitarian" aid can encompass health, non-state education, 
micro-finance, and other local initiatives, all with 
civil-society capacity-building components. The U.S. should 
also focus on elements within the regime that show genuine 
interest in our regional priorities. The units involved in 
counter-narcotics, anti-trafficking, and infectious-disease 
efforts would be good places to start. They have shown 
willingness to act appropriately, but they need training. 
Aside from contributing to our regional goals, assisting such 
elements might encourage some broader re-thinking of regime 
attitudes toward the Western world.