Myanmar And Its Neighbours History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Myanmar is one of the few countries in Asia which has reserved interest in what happens outside its border. This is often reflected in the country’s external relations policy. Perception of outside threat to her national security and sovereignty made Myanmar play an independent but inactive role in external affairs. Historically, though Myanmar’s immediate neighbours were tortured by strong kings of Myanmar in different period of history, Myanmar also suffered in the hands of the neighbouring kingdoms. Thus, the people of Myanmar have general fear and indifferent psychosis towards outside world. This is closely related to nationalism, xenophobia and insular habits. From geographical standpoint also, Myanmar has favourable physical structure and geo-strategic position that has a lot to hide from the outside world. It has been mentioned in the second chapter that Myanmar is surrounded by mountains on three sides and by sea on the forth (south), which do not provide easy access to inside Myanmar. Myanmar was also situated in a vulnerable geo-strategic location with India and China between which Myanmar is sandwiched; and between contending cold war sphere of influence represented by Communist China and pro-western Thailand, Myanmar stood huddled. During the heyday of cold war, Southeast Asian region became a hotspot of the global power politics with many countries of the region taking side either with the western bloc headed by United States of America or the eastern bloc under the erstwhile Soviet Union. But Myanmar tended to look inward in the name of maintaining sovereignty and independent action. This is reflected in the foreign policy of the country as evolved, first as policy of neutralism and nonalignment under U Nu, and second, as policy of isolation under Ne Win, until it adopted policy of opportunistic engagement with the world outside particularly since late 1988. The parliamentary democracy era of 1950s avoided active international engagement in pursuance of non-aligned policy. The establishment of military rule in March 1962 brought Myanmar’s nonalignment and neutral ideology into a strong xenophobic and paranoid nationalism, clearly aimed at reducing any foreign influence on Myanmar’s politics, economy and society. Only international engagement beneficial to military’s perceived ideology and interest was allowed. In response to the military regime’s monopoly of power and adverse human right records, many liberal democratic countries of the west imposed sanctions against Myanmar, and ostracised the country. In the meantime, global geo-political shifts occurred with the end of cold war in early 1990s following the disintegration of erstwhile Soviet Union. Geo-economics rather than geo-politics gained greater credence in the changed international environment. Economic integration and regionalism ushered in with globalization as the thriving force. Internally, the crisis of 1988 necessitate shift in the country internal politics and approaches to external countries. Accordingly, Myanmar made adjustment in response to changes in domestic and external environment. With western liberal democratic countries still following policy anti-thetical to the military’s ideology, Myanmar focussed to its immediate neighbours and region. While the western countries used sanction policy, neighbouring Asian governments followed a policy of ‘constructive engagement’. In doing so, they have filled much of the international political and economic vacuum in Myanmar, giving the military leaders to pursue its self-proclaimed political road-map.
This chapter is structured to highlight Myanmar’s foreign policy, the status of Myanmar in the world community, the country’s government-to-government relationship and relative integration with the world community, especially focussing its relationship with its three important neighbours namely China, Thailand and India. It will be conducted in three phases: period of neutrality and non-alignment under parliamentary democracy, period of isolationism under Ne Win and the period of engagement aftermath 1988. This chapter shows that Myanmar’s isolationism in external front is a necessary corollary of its domestic political setting. This chapter proves that Myanmar’s retreat from world of nations is premised on fear, security, non-interference, national interest, sovereignty and development. Though in its foreign relations, Myanmar has maintained regular relationship with all countries, in practice; Myanmar discourages the relationship between its people and those of other countries, so much so that it is like closing the country from the outside world and acts like a hermit of Asia. This chapter also deals with how domestic political-economic changes since 1988 have affected its external affairs policy. This chapter will show that Myanmar’s foreign policy and status in the international community was characterised by varying degrees of isolation, in response to its internal political setting and global political scenario. International isolationism became a comfortable state of the isolationist political system under the military leaders to deny the attention of the foreign powers as to what happen inside the borders of the country. From the military’s angle, international isolation was in pursuance of a strong, cohesive and developed Myanmar the basis of which was to ensure the military continue to stay in power until acceptable time had emerged to vacate seat of power. As the goal suggest, it will be shown in this chapter that Myanmar opens to outside world only it would serve its highly self-centred interests. Myanmar’s direct neighbours are often forced to undergo a difficult balancing act.
Myanmar in International Context
One fact of the pre-colonial Myanmar was that the Burmans were generally indifferent towards foreigners. Historically, Myanmar’s political and military ties with the outside world had feared the country. The Thais, Manipuris, Chinese or Europeans provided ill-experience of dealing with outsiders. The Myanmese never accepted the British presence in Myanmar; they saw the British institutions and practices had undermined the Burman culture. Myanmar’s ill with the outsider strengthened during the World War Two, when its ties with the British made it a Japanese target. The resulting oppression and destruction during the World War Two left Myanmar even more apathetic to outsiders. With such fear psychosis, Myanmar became independent in 1948, also with new hopes and vigour. But the period coincided with the onset of cold war, where the world was divided into two rival camps headed by United States on the one hand, and Soviet Union, on the other, and most of the lesser powerful states following them. Two traditional rivals, China, a communist country in the north, and Thailand, a pro-western ally to the east, were allegedly expressed sympathy for Myanmar’s anti-government rebels and insurgents in the border areas. Very differently from them, Indian, a non-aligned partner under the leadership of prime minister U Nu’s close friend Jawaharlal Nehru, had been emerging as a distinct force in the world. This situation was well commented by U Nu in 1950. U Nu lamented his country as “..like a tender gourd among the cactus. We cannot move an inch. If we act irresponsiblyâ€¦and thrust the Union of Burma into the arms of one bloc, the other bloc will not be contented to look on with folded arms” (U Nu, 5 September 1950 quoted by Thomson 1957:266 ). Back home, ethnic and political disunity erupted into rebellion and the ever increasing economic deterioration greatly disrupted legitimacy of the government and stability of the country. The new external and domestic challenges made materializing Aung San’s world-view difficult.  In response to the challenges, the new country’s leaders adopted neutralism and non-alignment as the cornerstone of the foreign policy of the country. At the same time, as Choudhary (2000:423) mentions, Myanmar also accepted the principles of maintaining ‘friendly relations with all countries’ especially with her neighbours without being engaged too closely with any one of them, and of receiving ‘no economic aid with string attached’. Commenting on the genesis of Myanmar’s neutralism in dealing with outside world, Silverstein (1977:169) concludes: “The policy of neutralism was based on certain realities that imposed themselves on either a civilian (before 1962) or a military (after 1962) Burmese government. Among them were Burma’s small memories of World War Two and the suffering and destruction inflicted upon its people and the land; its internal political instability; and its ethnic and political disunity.” These were superimposed on Myanmar’s ‘traditional withdrawing and isolationist attitude and influence of personality of U Nu’ (Bandyopadhaya 1983:152), the first prime minister of independent Myanmar.  These factors, among others, shaped Myanmar’s world-view, that Myanmar would be a neutral and non-aligned country in an effort to maintain friendship with all countries in the world. Myanmar joined United Nations and it became a leading voice and founder-leader of the non-alignment movement, organizing the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia along with like-minded leaders such as Nehru, Nasser, Tito and Sukarno; Myanmar also attended the first NAM summit held in 1961as the movement’s founder member. The foreign policy of Myanmar also sought a delicate balancing role between USA and USSR, and between India and China. India served as a model for Myanmar’s neutralism, non-alignment and democracy, but it never allied itself too closely with India, which could have upset its relations with China (Lintner 1992). Thus, Myanmar became the first non-communist country to recognise the new government of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Seekins 1983:54). When it feared its neutral policy would cease if it had joined the British Commonwealth of Nations, it wisely declined to join the body of former British colonies. Myanmar wanted to sever all ties with the outside world provided if it did not serve its interest, and if it proved against the principle of neutralism and non-alignment.
Myanmar’s neutralism and non-aligned policy was first tested in the Korean Crisis of 1950. Myanmar voiced U Nu’s call for a halt to North Korea’s aggression against the South Korea. When the United Nations forces crossed the 38th parallel, Myanmar withdrew its support on the belief that UN had overstepped its original mandate. In several other international issues such as Russian intervention in Hungary in 1956, Egypt crisis in 1956, Cuban crisis in 1961 etc. Myanmar did not followed big power line. Myanmar became a member of the Colombo Plan, but it refused to join SEATO founded in September 1954. Amidst hesitations, Myanmar received aid from both the US and USSR throughout the cold war period. The USSR offered specific gifts of a hospital, hotel and technological institutions, while US funds off and on after 1951 for agricultural and land reclamation projects. The government of U Nu tried to befriend with both India and China through his personal link with their respective leaders namely Nehru and Chou-en-Lai. In other words, throughout the parliamentary democracy period, Myanmar gained respect internationally by managing to live alongside large and powerful neighbours without compromising its independent foreign policy (Lintner 1992). It, thus, became one of the most respected leading governments in the region and its neutralism was much appreciated by western chanceries. The is proved by the fact that Myanmar’s U Thant was appointed, first, as the acting Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1961, and, later, twice elected to the position. U Thant led the world body for the next ten years.
When the military rule took over power in March 1962  neutralism of the era of parliamentary democracy became isolationism and non-involvement or negative neutralism (Maung Maung Gyi 1981). Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council followed an ideology called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, mixed with a strong xenophobia and nationalistic policy, and corollary to it, Myanmar withdrew from international community, shunning most of the diplomatic ties established during U Nu’s period. Ne Win heading the new military regime exhibited deep-seated antagonism towards the west and its support for Kuomintang (KMT) troops in Myanmar, distrusted India, and feared Chinese communist influence in the country (Turku 2009:124). Contact with the outside world was kept to an absolute minimum. The military denied joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations when it was formed in 1967 and even stunningly left the NAM in 1979, considering these organizations not neutral.
Soon after coming to power, the Revolutionary Council enacted several laws clearly aimed at reducing any foreign influences over Myanmar’s economy and society. The government announced that it preferred only government to government aid of bilateral and multi-lateral programmes (Holmes 1967:189), and discontinued acceptance of aid from the American philanthropic organizations, the Ford and Asia Foundations, and also the Fulbright British Council programmes, as the military considered it belittling to accept aid from private organizations (Silverstein 1964:167). Freedom of press was denied and the government also acted forcefully to curb propaganda and information activities of all foreign diplomatic missions (Holmes 1967:189), thus denied people to deal directly with the outside world. Foreign diplomats and party officials (BSPP officials) were also subject to very strict set of rules (Turku 2009:192). If the party official sought to speak to a foreign national or issue/accept an invitation from a foreigner they had to seek specific permission from the party, and upon return they had to give specific details on the conversations they had with foreigners (ibid.) The nationalisation programmes launched in February 1963 by the military government directly affected the Indians, Chinese, Anglo-Myanmese and Western agricultural, trade and banking communities, most of them were force to flee the country. The effort was indigenization of the economy by placing the private foreign owned enterprises in the hands of the people of Myanmar. Cynics argued that Myanmar’s new foreign policy basically meant no foreign policy at all apart from the concept of group survival; its embassies and consulates abroad did very little to improve relations with the host countries (Lintner 1992). Officially, the dictum ‘friendship with all the countries of the world’ still remained a cornerstone of Myanmar’s foreign policy, but in practice, the country did not take any positive interest in furthering friendly relations with other nations, except few (Singh 1977:181). As Lintner (1992) argues Myanmar under the military rule invented an intensely new dogma in foreign relations, that is, bilateralism, and preferably only with neighbours. General Ne Win made few official visits to Moscow, Peking and Washington, but few meaningful outcomes could be seen from the visits. For example, Ne Win’s visit to USA in September 1966 related to some business affairs, military support for its anti-communist military campaign and to play golf. There were no real diplomatic ties and this diplomatic vacuum was well commented by one-Rangon (Yangon) based foreign envoy in 1988: ‘We had no meaningful contact with any element of the Burmese government. They had a designated group of foreign ministry types who could come to our dinners and talk about golf and tennis, the weather and what fruits were in season…during my first three months in Burma, my backhand improved immensely, and I even took up the game of golf, which I had thought was just a waste of time. But I had time to waste’ (quoted in Lintner 1992, also see Lintner 1990:60-61). Under the leadership of the Ne Win, Myanmar’s military government sank into deep isolation. At the same time, because it had denied the economic benefits of engaging with other countries, and also since the military leaders lacked knowledge of managing economic affairs, the country gradually encountered economic recession. In response, the BSPP government showed inclination to international development assistance and projected its vast mineral wealth opportunities to the outside world. The government entered into development programmes with the World Bank, the IMF, the ADB and UNDP, as well as accepted increased bilateral aids. In 1976, World Bank set up an aid consortium, including Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Australia and Canada for consultation and the establishment of a common policy regarding Myanmar (Charney 2009:145).The BSPP regime also softened its state-controlled and autarchic economic policy, and by mid 1980s, foreign aids and loans began to enter Myanmar. Although Japan and West Germany were the largest of the foreign aid donors, the People’s Republic of China also emerged as a major source of loans to the country from 1970 (ibid.). However, the inflow of foreign loans also led to corresponding increase in long-term debt, producing a critical state of indebtedness by the mid 1980s. This together with internal political isolation and economic mismanagement produced socio-economic devastations forcing Myanmar to become one of the least developed countries in 1987. This shocked the proud and highly nationalistic people of Myanmar. It spurred the 1988 protests attracting the greatest international interest into the country’s political and economic situations. The brutal crackdown and suppression of the protest by the military junta was swiftly publicised in the international community and eventually western governments imposed sanctions to Myanmar. Many western governments including Japan, non-governmental organizations and business bodies ended operations in Myanmar. Immediately after the crackdown, US withdrew its ambassador from Myanmar. Sanctions by United States were formally enacted in 1997, which was further tightened after 2007, following the crackdown on the monks’ protest, until it was uplifted recently in 2012.  Some businesses such as Ciz Claiborne, Osh Kosh B’Gosh and Pepsi (which was a joint venture with a native businessman) ended operations in Myanmar due to pressure from American-based activists. Contrary to western governments, most of Myanmar’s neighbouring countries adopted policy of constructive engagement and as mentioned, in doing so they followed much of the vacuum created by international isolation of Myanmar. The country had normalised relationships with two neighbouring powers, China and India (see later), by skilfully exploiting the opportunistic intention of the two countries. Thailand was also captured by the economic prospects which engagement with Myanmar could provide. Following these events, Myanmar made changes to its external relation positions. It gave up its strict non-aligned neutralism  and isolationism and joined the regional GMS-EC (1992), BIMSTEC (1997), ASEAN (1997) and ACMCES (2003). Myanmar joining ASEAN in 1997 had greatly enhanced the credibility of the legitimacy hungry military government, because the ASEAN, citing their doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of the member countries rallied to the Myanmar government’s defence. All these indicate government of Myanmar willing to integrate with the world community, but as evident, it could be when it could provide more benefit to the country. The military regime undoubtedly preferred no foreign attention and involvement in its affairs. For example in 2005, the ruling military government SPDC shifted capital of the country from Yangon to a more reclusive region Naypyitaw where influence of outsiders would be so profound. Similarly, aftermath of cyclone Nargis 2008, Myanmar thought a long before letting in any humanitarian and relief aids to the affected people, and when it was allowed, the aid agencies and countries were often obstructed by the military. Moreover, preference was given to neighbours over the western countries.
For the last six decades, Myanmar has lived in varying degree of isolationism and opportunistic engagement. During the period of strict isolationism, Myanmar maintained diplomatic relationship with all the countries; it discourages relationship between its people and those of other countries, to such an extent that it is like closing the country from the outside world and acts like a hermit of Asia. The military junta certainly not liked foreign attention and involvement in its internal affairs. Myanmar is interested in foreign aids and loans, external trade and investments, but it did not preferred to abandon its policy of isolation. The pro-democracy uprising of 1988 divided international community’s perception on Myanmar. The western role with regards to Myanmar had long been policy of sanction and isolation, which proved counter-productive. The western countries such as USA, countries of European Union, France, Australia and Asian country-Japan and South Korea, imposed sanctions on Myanmar thus supplemented Myanmar’s policy of isolation. Myanmar junta’s poor human right record and denial of democracy invited western ostracism. Certainly, the sudden international isolation and sanction policy hampered Myanmar’s economy badly, and this prompted Myanmar’s attention and open policy towards its immediate neighbours. The immediate neighbours of Myanmar have acted as a balancing act for the military junta.
Myanmar and China
China is the largest, the most powerful and practically the nearest of Myanmar’s neighbours. Historically, Myanmar experienced memory of fear, distrust and entrenched relationship in relation to its northern neighbour. In different periods of history, China posed a threat to the security and sovereignty of the monarchical Myanmar. Many strong Chinese dynasties had intervened in Myanmar king’s affairs in different periods of history and caused considerable havoc. Kublai Khan sent armies from Yunnan in late 1980 to subjugate the kingdom of Pagan, effectively bringing to an end the first unified Burman kingdom (Seekins 1997:527). The last king of the Pagan dynasty, king Narathitrapate, earned the nickname Tarok Pye Min, meaning ‘the king who ran away from the Chinese (Trager 1966:234). Chinese had invaded Myanmar during the Chinese Qing dynasty. It was an important event in the history of Myanmar that when Chinese Qing king launched several mission to subdue the arrogant Myanmar king between 1765 and 1768, Chinese professional armies was utterly outfought and its viceroy was forced to sue for peace (Tinker 1967:338). Professor Yingcong Dai (2004) writes, ‘not only did one after another commander-in-chief of the Qing dynasty fail to conquer Myanmar, but the Qing troops also suffered extremely heavy casualties’. When Myanmar was incorporated into British Indian Empire, China adopted a cautious attitude in dealing with Myanmar.
Myanmar became an independent country in 1948. Next year, the civil war in China had ended with victory of the communist over the nationalist Chinese. China became a communist country under the leadership of Mao Zedong, which was given official recognition by the Myanmar authority. In fact, Myanmar became the first non-communist country to give recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  However, in a world divided by ideological and power competitions, Myanmar adopted a policy of non-alignment and neutrality, whereas China became a staunch proponent of international communism considering all countries beyond the socialist camps as imperialist or controlled by imperialist or anti-revolutionary forces. As a result, Myanmese neutralism and non-alignment policy could not win the trust of the Chinese authority. China believed, ‘whether in economic, military or political dimension Myanmar’s nature has not been changed; it is still a typical country’ even after its independence (Hongwei 2012:15). Hongwei (2007:18) cites Chinese authorities’ comment on Myanmar’s neutralism and non-alignment as follows:
On one side, Burma is bordering China, and hence do not dare to side with the imperialists [the West] and make China an enemy. At the same time, when Burma is having controversies with the imperialists, they want the support of China and the Soviet Union. (â€¦) On the other hand, the ruling class in Burma (â€¦) is to a relatively large degree depending on the imperialists.
On occasion, the Chinese government expressed its dislike for the Myanmese leadership’s alleged readiness to let the western powers (Great Britain and United States) influence over Myanmar’s economy and politics. For instance, on September 3, 1952, when Chou-en-Lai visited Moscow and talk with Stalin, he stated that ‘the Myanmese government conceal its real position on China, but it actually pursued the policy of anti-China following the UK and US’ lead’ (Hongwei 2012:15). In other words, during the period 1948-1962, China was not at all excited by the idea of Myanmar being an independent country as the Chinese still considered Myanmar to be under foreign influence. Conversely, Myanmar’s threat perception to its national security from China did not vanished even after independence. The Chinese factor, in turn, influenced Myanmar in adopting a policy of non-alignment and neutrality in a world divided by power politics and cold war. As Thomson (1957:336) writes, ‘fear of antagonizing China has also been at least partially responsible for Burma’s policy of neutralism’.
The first factor standoff in the Myanmar-China relations in the initial years of the independence was the unauthorised occupation by the remnants of the Chinese Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) in Myanmar’s northern border. When Mao Zedong had established a communist regime in China in 1949, armed forces loyal to Chaing-Kai-Sheik, the KMT leaders, by crossing over Yunnan province established base in the eastern part of the Shan state. It is alleged that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supplied money and arms to the illegal KMT forces, and encouraged them to raid into communist China from Myanmar’s border soil (Choudhary 2000:424, Seekins 1997:527). The Myanmese authority feared that China would use this as a pretext to invade Myanmar, and occupy the unsettled border areas under the guise of the elimination of the KMT troops (Hongwei 2012:14). Myanmar also feared that China would misunderstood that it was intentionally proving shelter to the KMT remnants and supporting Taiwan and the US anti-communist policy toward China (ibid.). Myanmar’s fear and distrust for China continued and as a result, Myanmar was very cautious in dealing with China. The two countries established formal diplomatic ties early in 1950s. While Myanmar attempted to deliberately avoid antagonizing China, China, in response, adopted a dual strategy. On the one side, China pursued a policy of establishing good diplomatic relationship with the government of the Union of Myanmar by establishing diplomatic ties and exchanging official visits, on the other side, it sympathized Communist rebel in Myanmar. It can be mentioned here that immediately after independence Myanmar faced severe threat to its national security from the communist rebels and ethnic insurgents. During this turbulent years of internal revolts, China extended covert sympathy in cause of the revolting communist rebels in Myanmar by endorsing party-to-party relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the White Flag Communist Party (BCP) of Myanmar led by Than Tun. The Chinese authority rendered psychological support and strategic advices to the BCP which was not liked by the Myanmese authority. So, the BCP with the support of the Chinese posed a serious threat to Myanmar’s national security.  This factor greatly held back the growth of a close and warmth government-to-government relations between Myanmar and China. Nevertheless, the bilateral relationship achieved significant milestone in 1954 when the Chinese Premier Chou-en-Lai visited Rangon in 1954, and with his Myanmese counterpart U NU issued a joint statement declaring the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’ which henceforth acted as the basis for the Myanmar-China relationship.  The government-to-government ties were further strengthened when U NU paid back a visit to China latter in the year 1954. Not to attract communist China’s wrath over the KMT issue, the previous year, the Myanmese authority had sought attention and support of the United States and United Nations. In 1953, Myanmar asked the United States to cancel its aid programme to the KMT remnants, and took the question of illegal Chinese nationalist forces inside Myanmar to the United Nations (Choudhary 2000:242).  However, despite the efforts of the world body, only a partial repatriation of the Chinese nationalist troops to Taiwan was affected, and the remaining KMT soldiers settled down in the Shan state and became involved with the Myanmese ethnic and political dissents and active in the illegal opium trade (ibid.) until the forces had been uprooted in late 1980s. The more significant development between Myanmar-China relations came when the two governments had managed to reach agreement on the historical issue of border settlement in 1960. The ‘Sino-Myanmar border treaty’ was signed in 1960 defining the international boundary between the two countries. The same year the two countries also signed a ‘treaty of friendship and mutual non-aggression’ which reinforced the treaty of 1954.  According to the treaty, the two parties would not invade each other and refrain from any military alliance directed against the other party. In 1961, China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) and army of Myanmar launched joint operations against the KMT forces operating between their borders.
The period before the military led By Ne Win had establish political control in Myanmar in 1962, Sino-Myanmar relation was nervously friendly. Myanmar, during this period, was very cautious not to offend PRC and courted its friendship because, unlike India, China posed potential threat to interfere in Myanmese internal affairs due to presence of KMT forces inside Myanmar’s northern border and also it adopted policy of ‘export of revolution’. Myanmar adopted and pursued policy of non-alignment and neutrality, and showed friendly gestures, which were largely grounded on maintaining its national security and freedom of action. The country maintained policy of neutrality during the Sino-Tibet affairs of 1950 and refused to brand China an aggressor in Korean Crisis of 1951 in United Nations meetings. But, the Chinese dual-track policy toward Myanmar continued. In 1957, U Nu spoke in Myanmar’s parliament that “new China’s relationship with the insurrectional BCP are not clear, but expressed some fraternal case” (cited in Hongwei 2012:12). To China, Myanmar’s non-alignment and neutralism was not genuine, but fickle and unpredictable. Thus, though there was mutual suspicion and mistrust, the period 1949-1962 was a period of ambivalent peaceful co-existence in the bilateral relatio
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