Continuity in Burma

The survival of historic forces

At the time of her integration into the colonial economy of imperial Britain, Burma was a fairly roomy, fertile land, underpopulated by a people conditioned to a slow tempo of life and, by the comparative ease of getting enough to eat, to a dislike of hard routine work. Her communication system was primitive, and, because the kings had never encouraged a merchant middle class, no financial structure had been developed to exploit her considerable agricultural, mineral, and forest resources.

Therefore British and Indian capital was poured into Burma to improve communications and to open up oil fields, the teak forests, and tin, silver and wolfram mines. Hordes of poverty-stricken coolie labor were brought in every year from India to gather the large exportable surplus of rice. South Indian moneylenders—Chettiars—exploited the Burmese farmer's improvidence, taking over his paddy fields by foreclosure. By 1937 the Burmans had lost a good 80 per cent of their arable land. Displaced cultivators became unskilled laborers in the mines and processing plants. Railroads and river steamers, banks and the other adjuncts to the new-style economy, were almost exclusively owned and staffed by British or Indians.

This situation easily convinced the Burman that he was being taken for a ride by foreign capitalism, so that when, from soon after the beginning of this century, our students and intellectuals came in contact with socialist doctrine they readily accepted the validity of Marxist theories. The socialist concept of ownership by and for the people seemed the right and only possible answer to Burma’s problems.

Enough of the past. But of course the past is very much alive in our present. The serious opinions of a typical educated Burmese today will center on his Buddhist convictions—a faith deeply felt and lived—with his religion’s spirit of humanity and individualism extending to belief in a democratic form of government whose economy is state socialism. At a less conscious level, his ancestors’ acceptance of monarchy will show itself in a sometimes excessive respect for the authority of elders, teachers, and superiors, and perhaps also in a tendency to give to popular leaders such as the late General Aung San, the “George Washington” of our revolution, the degree of loyalty which one associates with kingship.

Simplifying radically, we might define the Burma of 1958 as a Buddhist Welfare State, with the religion looking after a man’s soul and a planned economy his body. Are these two concepts really compatible? Are they self-defeating? Can a convinced Buddhist, who knows that the things of this world are insubstantial and worthless, bring to the hard and tedious task of developing a still backward and badly war-ravaged country the energy and perseverance the job will require? The attempt to reconcile these two philosophies is the essential action of our current history. The issue is still in doubt, but, by and large, our elected leaders are clear about their intentions, are extremely determined, and command the trust and respect of the majority of the people.

Their first severe tests came almost together with independence from Britain in 1948. The pathetically late but inevitable bid made by the Karens for a completely separate national existence, the determination of the Communists to seize power, the treachery of ambitions politicians who did not stop short of assassination (General Aung San and almost his whole cabinet were murdered in cold blood)—all these conspired to force the government leadership toward authoritarianism. Both politically and economically, the country was temporarily in ruins. It was tempting to think of dictatorship as a quick and justifiable means toward worth-while ends. But our leaders stood firm; they decided that Burma would in the long run gain more in terms of fundamental rights and happiness if they could muddle through without sacrificing the forms and principles of democratic government.

Our Government-in-power ever since independence has been that of the AFPFL party the heirs of General Aung San’s wartime Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, led since his death by U Nu, U Ba Swe, and U Kyaw Nyein in coalition. In 1946, the AFPFL was still a national popular front including the Communists—who had fought hard to drive out the Japanese and unseat the British—and its Secretary General was Thakin Than Tun, the Communist leader. Than Tun had managed to install many of his followers at the head of the AFPFL provincial organizations. The Communists were in a good position to seize power. However, Than Tun showed his hand a little too soon; he and his party were expelled from the nationalist front. This left the AFPFL’s district representatives depleted and weakened.

When in 1948 the Communists opened a full-scale civil war, the Government was pinned down for weeks in a desperate defense of Rangoon and could not muster from its own ranks enough regional leaders to face the mounting Communist attacks. In desperation, the AFPFL had to entrust its authority and resources to men often as ruthless as the Communists. In an alarming number of cases these were the local strongmen, or even bandits—un-principled opportunists greedy for power and spoils, but ready and able to recruit supporters and fight.

Presented by

U Kyaw Thet

Dr. KYAW THET is Professor of Oriental history at the University of Rangoon. Of Burman-Mon-Chinese ancestry, he was born in 1921 in Rangoon, took his doctorate of London University, and later taught for two years in the Graduate School of Yale.

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