Burma is a small country of eighteen million people, sandwiched between the two sub-continents of India and China and sheltered by a ring of high mountain ranges. In spite of occasional unsuccessful Chinese invasions, it stood as an independent kingdom for two thousand years, until 1885 when it was annexed by the British. It was at the height of its prosperity under the Pagan dynasty in the eleventh century, and the magnificent monuments and pagodas of that period which still stand intact at Pagan are a living testimony to the glory that was Burma.
Warlike by nature, though peace-loving by religious upbringing, the ancient Burmese were small imperialists in their own way and periodically invaded their neighbors— Arakan, Siam, Assam, and even Yunnan. It was during their attack on Assam in 1852 that they clashed with the powerful British in India and eventually lost their freedom to them in1885. This historical background is given to indicate that Burma, in spite of her fate as a British colony for a short period of half a century, has had an independent and proud past, with traditions and a civilization peculiarly her own.
When Burma was annexed by Britain, the Burmese peasants, ignorant and simple, became a prey in the hands of foreign moneylenders and absentee landlords. High administrative posts were held by the British, lower posts by Indians and Chinese; the Burmese were mainly clerks and menials. This pattern was repeated throughout the economy.
On the eve of World War II, the economic and social plight of the Burniese people had become worse. The peasants had lost three-fourths of their lands to a handful of absentee landlords, mostly British banks and Indians. What remained was under heavy mortgage. The export and import trade, the major industries such as oil, timber, and mining, were in the hands of foreigners. Even the professionals, the lawyers and doctors, were foreigners, and a continuous flow of Burmese university graduates found themselves without adequate careers. The country presented the picture of a social pyramid which had the millions of poor, ignorant, exploited Burmese as its base, and a few outsiders—British, Indian, and Chinese—as its apex.
In protest against such a situation the Burmese nationalists repeatedly but unsuccessfully rebelled against the British regime. The outbreak of the Second World War gave them another opportunity. The Burmese people rose up in arms against the British, then later on fought the Japanese when the latter did not keep their promise to bestow independence on the country. At the end of the war, the Burmese found themselves with a Resistance movement, whose strength, abetted by the anticolonial principles of a Labour Government in England, led at last to real freedom.
Burma declared her independence in 1948 and chose to withdraw from the British Commonwealth, though retaining financial ties with the Sterling Bloc. But the whole country was in complete ruin, fought over twice by the Japanese and Allied armies, both of which had used "scorched-earth" strategy. Three-quarters of our towns and villages had been razed to the ground. The national income, small enough before the war, was reduced by half. Hospitals and schools were gone, oil fields destroyed, cattle slaughtered, and population decimated. Our people had hoped that with independence and the withdrawal of the British capitalists social and economic problems would be quickly solved. But they were soon to be disillusioned.
A constitution, democratic and parliamentary, enshrining the best and noblest principles of individual freedom and social justice, was solemnly proclaimed, and an independent government sworn in, under the leadership of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League. This was the organization which had led the freedom movement against both the British and Japanese; it was a united front of nationalists, democratic socialists, Communists and various racial and ethnical minorities. The new government started its business in all seriousness.
But only three months passed before the Communists, who had collected weapons during the Resistance, made an armed rising. (Simultaneously there were Communist outbreaks in Malaya, Indonesia, and South India, all based on the decisions taken at the Asian Communists’ meeting at Calcutta in February, 1948, which were in conformity with the "Zhdanov" line adopted by the Cominform.) The Burmese Cabinet was accused of being a stooge for Anglo-American capitalism and the old landlords. The Communists held before the peasants the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, where there would be no landlords and no moneylenders.
To make matters worse, the Communist rebellion was followed within a few months by another revolt—that of a militant minority of the Karens, one of the numerous different ethnic groups that make up the Union of Burma. These Karens wanted a state of their own and were pro-British. The tiny Burmese Army at that time consisted of only eleven battalions of which six were made up of Karens, all of which revolted, while two others were Communist-infiltrated. The whole country went under and the capital, Rangoon, was threatened. Very few people thought that the Government could survive. Yet somehow it did. Dauntlessly and desperately it fought for time to build up a new army, and to rally the people around it, convincing them that the alternatives to democracy were either a military or a Communist dictatorship, and that either would lead to chaos. By 1951, the back of the rebellion was broken.