Burma's Socialist Democracy

Some problems of practical politics

The new state of the Union of Burma which was established early in 1948 is professedly founded upon two basic concepts - socialism and democracy. The constitution provides for all the fundamental freedoms, and for a system of parliamentary government, based largely on the British pattern, with an elected legislature and the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The Government has taken a further step toward extending democratic procedures by selling a Ministry for Democratization, whose task is to institute and operate a system of local government in which all those who rule, from the village level upward, shall be elected. This system is still experimental, and over the major portion of the country, centralized rule, that is through Government-nominated civil servants, continues side by side with parliamentary practice.

The growth of true democracy has undeniably been hampered by the strife-torn period which has existed without break from the very earliest clays of our independence. When the insurrection was at its height, the Rangoon Government was unable to find men or arms to send to a hundred threatened towns and villages and was forced to find its friends wherever it could. More often than not these friends were simply thugs and desperadoes. But because they were prepared to fight the insurgents, the Government armed them and supported them. In those days of chaos, the country quickly reverted to a more primitive form of political organization than democracy—the rule of the strongman. In their petty domains, these strongmen became little kings, with power of life and death over the people. Soon, the people began to hate the tyrants, and once their usefulness was exhausted, even the Government became ashamed of them. Gradually, they were dispensed with, pensioned off, and disarmed. But there still remained the vacuum of power which could not be filled democratically by an unenlightened electorate, ill-used to the sensation of governing themselves.

This power vacuum is filled today by the AFPFL, the coalition party which has been dominant in Burma since independence and which, as its name of Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League indicates, was originally a wartime popular front rallying all shades of nationalists against first the Japanese and then the British. With its vast ramifications, the AFPFL reaches out into almost every village in the country. No other political party has an organization even remotely approaching this colossus which lies like a net over the whole nation and maintains itself in power by patronage and sometimes even, in the last resort, by intimidation.

The AFPFL cannot be thought of as a political party like those in Britain or the United States. It is far, far more than that. It is the vehicle of the economic and cultural as well as the political life of the country. It affects the day-to-day living of the humblest rural cultivator in ways that he can see and understand. Land allocations, crop loans, Pyidawtha ("Happy Land") development projects, welfare benefits, purchase of the harvest – all are controlled by AFPFL adherents. This is patronage. Intimidation sometimes occurs too, in areas remote from courts and police. For though the big tyrants have gone, the small ones still wield enough power (they have the guns) to make opposition to them distinctly uncomfortable. Thus our political life, which we hope one day to make completely democratic, is in reality still a compromise between one-party rule, strong-arm tactics, and a fully documented system of courts, elected legislature, and individual freedom. The insurrection is largely to blame. But it must also be admitted that the AFPFL leaders have a "Messiah" complex by which they can justify deviations from democracy with the excuse that they must remain in power for the good of the country.

Having cut their political teeth on the works of Marx and Lenin, men such as Prime Minister U Nu and Deputy Prime Ministers U Ba Swe, U Kyaw Nyein, and Thakin Tin are also firmly wedded to the idea of mass organizations. They delight in huge rallies, at which crowds turn out waving banners and shouting slogans, even if it is only because they are given a free meal and a day's wages to do so. Our present system of political thinking depends more on the agitator, the propagandist, and the cell-organizer, than on the more flexible and free-thinking methods of the Western democracies. Thus the AFPFL has built such organizations as the Trade Union Congress of Burma (the labor wing of the party), the All-Burma Peasants Organization, and the All-Burma Women's Freedom League. These units, not arising spontaneously from the people, but planned and stimulated from above, have come straight out of the Marxist textbook which prescribes "mass" and "class" organizations. Yet it cannot be denied that the forms of democracy are maintained, and are sincerely acclaimed by the AFPFL leaders, who declare that they actively desire freedom of speech, a strong, free press, impeccable courts, and a democratic opposition.

If these leaders – and many of them are still comparatively young, having only recently finished college when they took up the light for independence - are themselves somewhat confused about the kind of democracy they are shaping, how much more the people, to whom both Marxian socialism and Greek democracy are only names. Reared on a history of strongmen struggling for power, and a succession of dynasties, followed by the strong centralized rule of the British, they arc but ill prepared for the choices which democracy inevitably presents to the electorate. To see what these choices are – for the Burmese – let us take a closer look at some aspects of our recent history.

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The late General Aung San, who successfully led our independence movement only to be assassinated by a political rival in 1947, will always be a hero to Burmans. He secured independence without firing, a shot. He gained his point against the British by obstinacy and threat, which are not the hallmarks of diplomacy, but which sometimes achieve results where compromise would have been bound to fail. But General Aung San has made it extremely difficult for his successors to duplicate his feats. Flaming rebels can win independence for their country. It is what conies after independence that often proves to be their undoing.

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