Burma's Socialist Democracy

Some problems of practical politics

Another tribulation for the harassed AFPFL has been the process and problems of accommodating and integrating the minority races in the country - the regional peoples described in an earlier article in this collection. Under the British the "frontier areas" had been administered separately from Burma proper, and there was real doubt whether these frontier peoples would go along with the Burmans in demanding freedom, or would elect to remain with the British in some other form of association. It was only the personal appeal of General Aung San which persuaded the regional leaders to throw in their lot with the Burmans. He promised that their rights would be protected, and despite generations of latent mistrust – for the Burmans as the more developed race had long placed themselves on a higher level than their more primitive compatriots - they decided to trust him. The "Union" was formed and all seceded together from the British Commonwealth.

All went smoothly except for one of the minority races, the Karens, which also happened to be the largest. The Karens' trouble was that, unlike the other minorities, they had no well-defined homeland, but lived interspersed with the Burmans. Believing that they were as much entitled to "states' rights" as the other minorities, they demanded a separate Karen State, and, when it was slow in coming, decided to lay down their lives for it. Early in 1949, the tension flared into conflict and raged over in the country, opening grievous and tragic wounds winch to this day have not been entirely healed. Though the leaders of this particular rebellion are for the most part out of the struggle, a Karen State has been granted, and only a few die-hards still continue to fight.

Also dissatisfied with their position today are the Arakanese, who inhabit. Burma's western seaboard nearest to India. Cut off from the rest of the country by a high mountain range, the Arakanese have for generations developed a cultural identity of their own and although of Burmese origin, are actively demanding autonomy. The Government, fearful of fragmentation, is determined not to agree.

The AFPFL, hoping for a unitary state in the future, has made strong efforts to extend its own type of political organization and control into the minority areas. Thus far it has been most successful among the Kachins and the Chins. In the Shun State the transition from feudal rule to a democratic structure is not moving altogether smoothly. Two years ago, the sawbwas, responding to the prevailing feeling in the country, and warned by the Central Government that they were a target for Communist propaganda, agreed to relinquish their powers. But the details of the changeover are yet to be finalized. Owing to confusion of policy, the sawbwas are unhappy, and the Shan people – to whom the disappearance of their hereditary rulers is unimaginable – are bewildered.

Then there is another problem involving the frontier peoples: the threat of subversion from Red China, the neighbor who has, living in adjacent border areas, tribespeople similar in stock to those on the Burma side. Reliable information about Chinese activities is hard to come by, but it appears certain that the border Burmese are encouraged to trade and to seek medical and agricultural assistance across the line. There may also be some infiltration in remote areas where immigration checks are difficult. Thus, the importance of keeping the frontier peoples in close touch with Burma proper, and satisfied that they are getting their fair share of attention and of benefits in the shape of schools, hospitals, and modernization from the Central Government, cannot be underestimated.

Apart from the local Communists, above and below ground, the average person in Burma is but little concerned with the international relations of his country. Among the intelligentsia, however, there are two main groups: the Communists, vociferously attached to Russia and China; and those who are more quietly, but nevertheless fairly firmly, pro-West in sympathy, tastes, and inclinations. Yet one international problem recently became the focus of widespread attention because it touched a point of national tonal pride.

Late in 1955, Red China sent troops across the frontier in a remote area adjoining Yunnan, inhabited by a primitive tribe called the Was. Clashes with Burmese troops led to a series of talks between the two governments. The Chinese amazed the Burmese by questioning the validity of the whole fifteen-hundred-mile frontier. They proposed a "package deal" whereby they would agree to the old line, and would withdraw from the Wa area, if Burma would cede another small strip around Hpimah in the Kachin State.

The Burmese were angry, but not for long. They soon saw that even if this was blackmail, it was worth while to buy off the blackmailer if in return for the area demanded he would henceforward hold his peace about the rest of the long and virtually indefensible frontier. Premier U Nu himself promised that if this deal was agreed to he would make no further concessions and would firmly protest the slightest violation of the new line. The Burmese approved, also asking for a small tract around Namwan, but as of this date, the Chinese have yet to sign, seal, and deliver the "package."

Most Burmese, perennially optimistic, do not today believe that Red China will invade. Theirs is not a temperament to cross bridges before they come to them. But Red China's action has increased the awareness of even the man in the street that his mighty neighbor can be tough, and may someday prove seriously menacing.


What are the special roles of the AFPFL leaders who are shaping the destiny of Burma? Prime Minister U Nu, of the striking personality, is the best known. He has an easy charm and sincere friendliness which he has carried into the capitals of the world on his diplomatic tours. He likes to travel but finds time to keep an eye on all phases of government. A man who can be moved to compassion as well as to anger, he has matured with experience and with the practice of Buddhism, of which he is one of the most ardent supporters in Burma, devoting a part of each day to meditation and prayer. In politics, he has always been an independent.

U Ba Swe, U Kyaw Nyein, and Thakin Tin, all Socialists and each a Deputy Prime Minister, are U Nu's wheel horses in the Government. As Defense Minister, U Ba Swe seems to have made up his mind that it is a waste of time to parley with the Reds, but his war-to-the-knife policy would have been more successful if, as has been proved, Thakin Than Tun had not, at one point, known ahead of time every move planned against him. (A high-ranking army officer was recently retired following disclosures that his orders and the dispositions of his troops were known to the Communists.)

U Kyaw Nyein, as head of economic affairs, has had a hard time overcoming the shortcomings of the civil and technical services. A man with a keen mind and an alert intelligence, he still cannot locate enough assistants capable of discharging the banalities of administration. Rangoon has a new first class airport, but built at the cost of two; a cotton spinning and weaving factory, with machinery bought from America, spindles from Japan, erected by Italian engineers - and so far running at a loss; a steel rerolling mill that bids fair to become a white elephant; a pharmaceutical works; a jute factory; while Japanese reparations are being used in part for a hydroelectric scheme. U Kyaw Nyein arranges loans, looks into currency and exchange, and does the thousand and one things that socialist planning demands. Burma may be mulcted, gypped, and squeezed, but some machines do arrive and are put to work, some buildings are going up, and rice is being sold or exchanged as fast as it is milled.

It is, however, in Thakin Tin's department that the future of Burma rests: how to get the average peasant and worker to put in the effort that is so necessary for survival as a nation. The Burmese have an old saying, "Contract debts; the king pays." The Government has been accused of making huge profits out of the rice monopoly, at the expense of the cultivator. But no amount of subsidy can get the peasant to change his way of life. The Burman is capable of sustained effort, but only for a little while. He is inordinately vain. He is imprudent to a fault. Millions have been written off in the way of loans which he cannot, or will not, repay. His love of adventure, no less of short cuts and change, is what leaves him open to the Communist blandishment. The insurgents may have hurt him economically, even physically, but past injustices are soon forgotten (already the Japanese have been forgiven their wartime brutalities) and are not the Communists in Burma Burmese?

In this devil-may-care attitude may be seen the greatest threat to the stability, and the sanity, of Burma. The Communists, whatever may be said in their disfavor, are not lacking in boldness, ingenuity, and devotion to their cause. The AFPFL is fond of proclaiming, "Let them come and fight us in elections. We're ready to take them on." With a more educated, less volatile people, Communism would not have the appeal that it apparently does in countries where nature is less bountiful. But with conditions as they are, and the people the way they are, is there something in the AFPFL's confidence that others can share?

U Nu's answer is: "Spread religion to the country's farthest confines; make Buddhism a living religion; keep ourselves uncorrupted and striving after the common good; despite our failings we will win." He may be right.

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