Continuity in Burma

The survival of historic forces

After nearly ten years of sporadic fighting the rebels have still not been totally exterminated, but the Central Government flow controls nine-tenths of the country and is intensifying its drive to clean up the rest. In this process of rehabilitation, some of the local strongmen who held the fort have become a very serious problem. Good guerrillas do not necessarily make good administrators with a strong social conscience. Therefore U Nu took an extended leave from the premiership the year before last so that he could devote his whole attention to reforming the AFPFL party structure.

As the AFPFL consolidates its position—and there is at the moment no opposition group likely soon to be able to displace it—what will be the distribution of power in Burma? History had decreed that with the disappearance of the Burmese kings and then the Ingaleik Min, no one social class would have the tradition of power monopoly. There was no entrenched bourgeoisie, no rural aristocracy. The stage seemed clear for the rapid emergence of a government for, of, and by the people. However, the violence of the war years and the decade of rebellion after them, has raised difficulties that have delayed the realization of true liberal government. The AFPFL leadership is keenly aware of this fundamental problem and has made commendable efforts to meet it. In this it has been aided by one rather unusual circumstance.

That is the position and growing strength of the armed forces. The army has acquitted itself well and contributes significantly to national morale. Its work does not stop with military operations against the insurgents. It is helping to integrate the frontier regions into the Union, and after the rebels are driven out of any given locality, the army sets in to rehabilitate it, organizing schools and building roads, bridges and hospitals. It has become the most disciplined and dedicated arm of the Union Government.

Is there a danger that the army, realizing its strength and prestige, might try to control the

Government? Could Burma follow the familiar pattern of other small states where the military, in the name of the people, or efficiency, or national honor, have taken over complete control? I think this is most unlikely. In fact, there have been moments of crisis in the past decade when this could have happened and it has not. Today the armed forces of Burma work in complete harmony and partnership with the civilian leaders. The army chiefs feel themselves part of the team which has worked and fought together for thirty years to secure independence. None of them have displayed the egomania that would drive them to use the army as a tool for personal ambition. They are determined that the new Burmese army should be thoroughly democratic and imbued with the idea of service to the needs of the people.

The present strength of the army, navy, and air force is estimated at sixty thousand. What of that other army, the “army of prayer,” as it were, the hundred thousand monks who wear the saffron robe of the Buddhist Sangha? Before the colonial period, as we have seen, the phongyis kept aloof from worldly affairs. But under the British, Buddhism became a force in nationalist sentiment. Thus, for example, our Young Men’s Buddhist Association (modeled on the YMCA’s of the West) grew into a vital center of the independence movement. In the struggle for freedom many monks developed political consciousness.

Today, the phongyis’ training is still almost entirely religious, not secular, but there is no question that the Sangha indirectly influences some government decisions. To be sure, the Order is not organized on a national basis; there is no primate directing a hierarchy—its structure is decentralized. But undoubtedly there is consultation between officials and the monks at many levels, and it would be a foolhardy politician who took a position or attempted to push through a program that was clearly displeasing to the clergy.

Although the number of government schools is growing from year to year, the number of Burmese children who receive their first education at a monastery school is still in the majority. And it is not only in the rural districts that the humble people of the country go to the monks for counsel about their problems. Nor does there appear to be any decrease in the number of young men who are choosing the monastery as a way of life.

It is clear, then, that the planners who are building a new Burma must reckon with the Sangha in all their thinking. But it is equally plain that the Order is a strong force for stability in the nation, and one which can be counted upon to resist any leftward drift beyond socialism toward totalitarianism or alliance with the world Communist bloc.

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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