CASS Global was once tasked to conduct an in-depth feasibility study for a transnational client who was considering investing in Burma. The time frame was in 2007, prior to the more recent liberalization of the regime which has taken a marked shift towards transparency and democracy. Back in 2007, it was still very much a closed kingdom under a non-benevolent dictatorship.
CASS Global, along with the client, already knew all of that. Additionally the client, due to his position in life, had access to strategic intelligence unavailable to most organizations. But at the end of the day, as the operation would entail a significant quantity of expatriates, he wished to receive quantifiable intelligence from “boots on the ground” individuals.
As Myanmar was in the grip of economic sanctions placed by the rest of the world, CASS Global, in conjunction with the client, affirmed the absolute legality and the “moral high ground” of the undertaking. Careful selection and screening of key individuals was the next step, with a focus on surveillance and counter surveillance skills.
The mission was, at least on paper, fairly straightforward and included the following:
- Determine the political stability of the country
- Determine the actual level of corruption versus the anticipated one
- Determine the level of social/civil unrest in the country
- Determine the level of support or resistance among the indigenous people in the projected area of operations.
- Determine the role played by Buddhist Monks, who were still held in positions of esteem by the majority of the populace.
- Assess the competency and level of corruption existing in Government security forces
- Draft and submit the appropriate report.
As this was a “softly, softly” approach, a mixed team was thoroughly prepared and briefed. As with all things CASS Global, the key to ultimate success is the preparation phase, which was both lengthy and intense for the individuals in question. Language training, communication formatting, fallback, duress code words, etc. It was not long before the operation began to resemble a military one as opposed to a site survey of a distant country. The truth of the matter was that once the team successfully entered the country, there were on their own. It was impossible to communicate via standard methodology which created an information vacuum for the rest of the support element located outside the border. Mission success required a high degree of self-reliance, adherence to the highest standards of professionalism, and the ability to maneuver adroitly in the verbal sense if confronted by potentially hostile individuals or groups.
The element entered via the frontier with Thailand, and hence made their way to Rangoon (now called Yangon).
The team was in country for over a month, ranging from the remote regions bordering China to the Shan hills, where significant effort was expended. Interviews with Monks were transcribed in remote monasteries and a hard eye was cast upon Army capabilities during an expedition inside Fort Dufferin inside the fabled city of Mandalay.
The evaluation of Government security was the easy part. Ms. Collet, with experience in Libya, Mali and the Sudan, represented the highly visible target with long blonde hair and green eyes. Her mission was to draw them out and the rest of the team quietly watched the watchers. As expected, most of the Government were thugs in uniform with the mindset to match.
The same tactics were employed in a number of situations, all with invariable success.
CASS Global put in the miles, spoke with all walks of life for endless hours, and suffered through interminable luncheons with mid level bureaucrats whose sole aim was to line their own pockets at the expense of their people.
In the course of our due diligence it became readily apparent that there were in fact two faces of Burma. One was porcine and obese, which represented the government and its endless feed at the trough of corruption.
The other represented the vast majority of everyday Burmese, who were slowing starving to death, in both the literal and spiritual sense of the word. There existed at the time an enormous groundswell of anti-government sentiment that was silently growing every day. The week before we arrived had seen a public demonstration, which was practically unheard of, as to demonstrate in public in Yangon at that time was tantamount to a death sentence.
So we told our client the truth. The situation inside the entire country was tense, ripe for violence, and the upper strata had not a clue that it was coming as they were living in a Burmese version of Disneyland. The whole place was a powder keg, waiting for a spark.
We were able to confirm what our client already suspected. Now was not the time.
In retrospect, it was the right call. For less than 2 months later, the country exploded into violence, intent on suppressing an uprising led by ………monks. It was dubbed, “the Saffron Revolution” and entailed enormous risk for those brave enough to confront a military junta. The results are now a much freer and richer Burma.
CASS Global does not pretend to say that we forecast a revolution. We did not. But we did conclude that all the fundamentals inherently required for a social/political uprising were in place. And occasionally having a “boots on the ground” team who can provide real-time, firsthand intelligence is a huge boon for individuals and corporations who must mitigate investment risk in deluxe office suites far removed from the seething streets of Rangoon.