Burma's Socialist Democracy

Some problems of practical politics

The very fact that freedom came so easily was responsible for the momentum which the Communist movement gained when the party decided to go underground early in 1948. The Communists used with great effect the slogan that the new independence was only a sham - that the new leaders did not really intend to create a better social order for all the people - and large segments of the population swung behind them. Thanks in part to the steadfastness of the frontier people, whose primitive instincts told them no good could come out of murder and crime, the Union Government was able to take the brunt of the Communist onslaught. Since then, the AFPFL has gone to great lengths to make independence real to the people.

One of its first acts was to send the British civil servants and other foreign technicians packing. Not only the senior administrators, engineers, doctors, and experts in finance, agriculture, and forestry, who were mostly Europeans, but even many Anglo-Burman subordinates in the railroads, customs, and other services were replaced. The loss in efficiency is incalculable, and Burma now finds herself obliged to bring in new and expensive Western technicians for positions which the earlier incumbents could have handled at far less cost.

The nationalization of land, forests, inland water transport, and certain public utilities was rushed, in order to disprove the Communist charge that the independence which Burma had won was a fake. But some of the very elements which most loudly demanded nationalization proved to be its most implacable enemies. In nearly ten years of civil war, nationalized land has been seized, burned, or taxed as the local insurgent leader willed; nationalized timber "kidnapped and held for ransom"; and the nationalized steamer service incessantly pirated. The railroads have been sabotaged, and trains blown up, shot up, and robbed, again and again.

Keeping up with the Communists, like keeping up with the Joneses, proved to be a tiresome business and every bit as expensive, so when it came to oil and minerals, the Government decided to draw line. Despite intense Communist opposition oil and mining operations were reconstituted as "joint ventures," partly owned by the former British companies, which provide top management, partly by the state. The Government. had learned the lesson that while it cost nothing to inveigh against capitalism, doing things to frighten it away could be attended with serious aftereffects.

Doctrinaire socialism has thus had in give way to common sense. When in doubt, the AFPFL adopts trial-and-error methods. It does not learn its lessons as quickly as it should, but experience is a hard school which never fails to instruct. In an important speech last June, U Nu felt obliged to make a drastic reappraisal of his Government's policies. With characteristic frankness ("I am mainly responsible for our hasty actions"), he confessed that the AFPFL had "committed several blunders.” The greatest of these was in "putting the cart before the ox'' by starting on large-scale development and welfare programs before law and order had been fully restored. Other mistakes were in planning too ambitiously without a sufficiency of capital, trained personnel, and basic materials, and in taking too much of the economy under the wing of the Government.

How far U Nu can convince his AFPFL colleagues of the merit of such old-fashioned economic ideas remains to be seen. But there is no question that his foreign policy has the full backing of the socialists, and even of the Communist-oriented segments of the opposition. This is because the policy of "active neutrality" has met with the approval of the world Communist bloc, and because Burma has entered into barter agreements not only with Russia and China, but also with European satellite countries.

The motives behind neutrality are noble or realistic according as one views neutralism as a moral force holding itself ready to join the hands of East and West the moment both should wish to extend them, or as a policy of fence-straddling, pure and simple. But barter, although it meets with the approbation of the Burmese Communists, was not designed for their especial delight. Partly because of the falling prices on the world market for rice and other commodities of which Burma has surplus to export, but also because the insurgents were making transport and storage difficult, the Government was forced into a trade policy which it may yet live to regret. The price and quality of the cement supplied to Burma were open scandals, and there have been other similar disappointments.

Today the tide of fortune is running against the Communists, and they are openly and unashamedly suing for peace. They had been hoping, of course, that Red China or Russia would intervene to help them. But China's position at the Bandung Conference of 1954 and U Nu's warm reception in Moscow later that year made it clear that active interference in Burma was not part of the present Communist world strategy. Since then the party line has been to seek peace through negotiation.

Up to March 31, 1956, there was a general amnesty open to the Communists. To the last moment they seemed undecided whether to surrender or not, but the deadline passed with Thakin Than Tun, their leader, still in the jungle. It is reported that he is prepared to admit his error in staging the rebellion when he did but is not willing to "come into the democratic fold" without some such face-saving device as "peace talks" with the Government. Than Tun seems to have realized that the game is up, as far as the rebellion goes, but he is not finished as a politician. Exhaustion and malaria may drive him out of the jungle, but he will come to terms only if he can "trade bullets for ballots" – that is, if he is assured of a salubrious climate in which he can organize as the main opposition to the Government, with all the freedom that a recognized Communist party enjoys in working in a democracy. The AFPFL rejects this evolution and is pressing on with military action against the remaining insurgents. (The Communist party was outlawed by an act of parliament in 1954 - not because of its ideology, but because its members had used force against the Government. Since then, the "aboveground" Communists have functioned politically under other party headings.)

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