Letter from Myanmar
Toward the end of the meal, I broach the subject of Israeli military aid to Myanmar. Military relations between the two countries were established back in 1954, when there was nothing problematic about two young, democratic nations exchanging strategy and arms. But Israel also has a history of supplying weapons and military training to unsavory regimes—from apartheid South Africa to pre-revolutionary Iran and numerous right-wing dictatorships in Latin America—and for decades, there have been rumors that the Burmese junta, too, is a beneficiary. Mayer insists that Israel’s primary assistance to Burma has always come in the form of agricultural training. “Our military attache left in the 1980s, and we have no military ties today,” says Mayer. Another embassy official, Eliran Avitan, who oversees security is equally dismissive. “Everyone knows that Israel sells weapons to Myanmar, except for us,” he tells me.
The allegation can be traced back to a 2000 article entitled “Myanmar and Israel Develop Military Ties,” published in Jane’s Intelligence Review, a monthly British journal. The piece is attributed to William Ashton, a pseudonym for former Australian diplomat Andrew Selth. “It is now clear that all three arms of the Tatmadaw [Armed Forces] are receiving direct help from Israeli companies. Given its sensitive nature, it is difficult to see how this assistance could be given to Myanmar without the active involvement, or at least the full knowledge and support, of the Israeli government,” wrote Selth, an expert on Myanmar’s military who is a research fellow at the Australian Research Council.
I ask Mayer for his impressions of Than Shwe, who by now has ruled Burma with an iron fist for nearly 20 years. But the ambassador demurs, remarking only that Israel maintains a healthy relationship with Myanmar, although it has on occasion urged “restraint,” for example, during the crackdown on protestors in 2007. Unlike the U.S. and many European countries, Israel has never slapped sanctions on the junta.
We also discuss a mysterious and once powerful figure in Burmese politics—David Abel, Burma’s economics czar from the 1988 coup through the 1990s. Abel, who is of Jewish heritage, is rumored to have been a close associate of Than Shwe. A 2001 Jerusalem Report article asserted that Abel’s mother was born Jewish and his father was, too, according to his Israeli cousin, Esther Daniels-Philips. But Abel, a 75-year-old ex-military man, told the Israeli magazine that his father was an Indian Catholic. “I would not walk around and say I was Jewish. But if asked, I say I have some Jewish blood.” In the same interview he spoke disparagingly of Aung San Suu Kyi and repeatedly compared Burma’s political regime and situation to Israel’s. He expressed tremendous admiration for politicians like Ehud Barak, with their military backgrounds, as well as for Israel. Abel is said to have been purged from the government following a dispute over economic policies with Than Shwe, but Mayer, who has hosted him for Passover Seder, says he retired because of old age. David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and an expert on Burma, who also knows Abel, insists that he “was never a part of the inner circle.” Whatever Abel’s influence, the Jewish community “had good relations with him when he was in power,” according to Sammy Samuels, who adds that “all Burma considers him a good and very wise person.”
After dinner, we drive to Prime Minister U Nu’s pagoda. It is common practice in Burma for politicians to build pagodas to atone for their sins and to win favors in the next life. We remove our shoes and slowly walk clockwise around the huge structure, silently at first. Then the ambassador lectures me on the merits of Vipassana meditation. He tells me that when his stint is up he will be sad to leave Burma, a country that he sees as one of Israel’s few, true friends.