Continuity in Burma

The survival of historic forces

About two years ago, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, hoping to weld the neutralist nations into a dynamic third force in international politics, made state visits to India and Burma. His reception here was enthusiastic, but, he found that in spite of coincidental similarities the situation in our country and his was fundamentally quite different The strongest impression that Marshal Tito is reported to have taken home was of the all pervading continuity of historical attitudes and behavior in Burma.

As a successful Marxist revolutionary, Tito seems to have been puzzled and not a little disappointed by the Burmese. Our brand of socialism struck him as too gentle and too tame. Socialists such as Tito have rather standardized attitudes about history. They expect us to believe, for example, that the medieval despotism of pre-colonial Asia is as dead as the dodo, having left no trace of itself on the modern world. As for the colonial period which followed, it is anathema, and any vestigial remnant from it is a slur on the efficiency and good name of the modern socialist. The cleaner the slate is wiped of the past the better.

Burma, however, has not behaved according to these rules. In fact, she has been stubbornly independent, following a middle course between the “lines” of both great power blocs, and managing, in the process, fully to satisfy neither. I suspect that what irritated Marshal Tito most in Burma must have been the seeming inefficiency with which a marvelous opportunity for a really drastic and thorough socialist revolution had been let slip. I am sure he felt that our revolutionaries had not gone nearly far enough in cleaning house of the past. He probably did not realize to what extent the freely elected leaders of the new Burma have been conditioned by our history—and that surprise should only have been felt if they had behaved differently than they have done.

A considerable measure of ruthlessness was an essential requisite for a socialist revolution such as the one in Yugoslavia. And in the context of Burmese history a similar ruthlessness might well have been expected in the character of our leaders. Quite to the contrary, their political behavior has been benign. To understand this paradox we must go back for a look at Burmese history.

From the very beginning its trend was toward autocracy. Our earliest forebears were a people who had wandered away from the region now known as Kansu in western China. Probably they started on their long trek in order to escape absorption into the Sinic world. The rigors and dangers of their migration must have created pressures toward the appearance and acceptance of a leadership pattern. Over twelve hundred years ago, when they were on the threshold of what is now Burma, they were caught for a while in the clashing ambitions of Tibet and Tang China. Both sides impressed these early Burmans into service as auxiliaries in their wars.

We do not know what the Tibetans called our ancestors, but the Chinese knew them as “the Meng people.” The Chinese often named a people by the title of their ruler, and in the Chinese "Meng" some scholars see our Burmese “Min,” which still denotes the wielder of power. Thus “Ingaleik Min” was our equivalent for the expression “British Raj” in India. It seems probable, then, if this philological evidence is accepted, that by the beginning of the Burmese historical period authority had become centralized.

After the entry into Burma, the pressures toward centralized authority were maintained, perhaps even increased. The region settled earliest by the Burmese was that around Kyaukse, just south of the present Mandalay. Here a number of perennial streams were developed into an elaborate system of irrigation which has remained important through the centuries. We know from the examples of ancient Egypt, the fertile crescent in Mesopotamia, and ancient China that the construction and maintenance of large irrigation projects have always demanded centralized authority. Society usually responded by giving arbitrary powers to a king. Inevitably, individual kings used these powers to acquire more. Burma followed this normal pattern.

Later, with the spread of the Burman settlements from Kvaukse over the more fertile adjacent regions, where irrigation was not needed, a tendency toward decentralization might have developed and perhaps in little led to the overthrow of the authoritarian principle. But this did not happen; such a development was inhibited by the introduction of a totally new factor: Theravada Buddhism, which was adopted by King Anawrahta of Pagan as the state religion in the eleventh century.

Now essentially, the teachings of the Buddha stress the importance of the individual—his salvation from the sorrows of the mind through dependence on his individual efforts. No external authority can affect the progress of a man's soul toward perfection in the slightest. This recognition in Buddhism of the importance of the individual has affinities with the basic concepts of Western democracy, and the fervor with which the new faith was embraced by the Burmans might logically have resulted in a rapid transformation of their political ideology. That it did not can be explained by reference to certain other cultural elements that came into Burmese life along with Buddhism.

Buddhism was first introduced by the Indian colonists who were sailing all over the seas of Southeast Asia. These Indians brought with them not only their religions—Buddhism and Hinduism—but also the art of writing, mathematics, architectural skills, the science of astrology, international commerce, and the concept of the divine monarch. In Burma it was the king and his family who first took up the new religion. By his patronage and protection of the Buddhist faith, the king became the benefactor of all his people and thereby further strengthened his hold on them. His authority was justified as necessary to defend the purity of the precious faith and insure its survival. Moreover, he had the power and the means to make strikingly manifest the degree of his faith as no other Burman had. The architectural wonders of the city of Pagan bore witness to the king's position as the first lay Buddhist of the land. Indeed, the fact that he could be such a magnificent patron was accepted as proof that he had the most virtuous accumulation of meritorious deeds from previous incarnations to his credit and was therefore deserving of his superior powers. It was this religious sanction for the royal prestige which outweighed the tendencies toward decentralization of power that lay in the territorial expansion and the concept of personal freedom inherent in the teaching of the Buddha.

There was only one other social factor that might perhaps have affected the king's claim to complete supremacy. This was the Sangha, the Order of the Buddhist monks. Monkhood is the ultimate expression of Buddhist self-purification, and the Burmese have always accorded their phongyis an intense veneration. But the true monk, held in reverence by virtue of his very renunciation of the world, could not interest himself in struggles for power. Those who did so fell at once to the level of mere worldly plotters and could be disposed of without public outcry.

The good monks, on the other hand, commanded the king's respect; as a practicing Buddhist, he had to recognize their status and honor it with special privileges. There was, in effect, a balancing of forces. Thus in cases where execution had been ordered, a monk could fling his robe over the condemned and demand his life on condition that he retire to the monastery. Or where the megalomania of local officials became unbearable, the monks were the only ones who, in the name of the individual and humanity, could appeal to higher authority. Personal good faith and humanitarian ideals have functioned in this fashion through the centuries. This tradition—call it, if you will, the guarantee of civil rights by the spirit of religion—is part of Burma’s most precious heritage. And it is still very much alive today—a deterrent to totalitarianism or the ruthlessness of some socialist revolutions.

The frequent rebellions of our monarchical period were not aimed at the destruction of the idea of arbitrary rule but at the substitution of one individual, or rival family, for another in the enjoyment of royal power. So complete was the royal domination that neither hereditary courtier-official nor strong middle classes were ever able to arise in Burma. There was the king, and then, as Ignazio Silone said of the bad duke, there was nothing else, and then a long way afterward the peasants. Thus, when the British completed their step-by-step conquest of Burma in 1885 and deposed our last king, Thibaw, there were no vested interests to keep the tradition of monarchy alive. The British exiled Thibaw to a lonely island off the coast of India and attempted to substitute the image of the Queen-Empress Victoria. In this they never quite succeeded. Victoria never came out to Burma, and too many of her representatives isolated themselves from native ideas, affairs, language, and aspirations. She had the title "Defender of the Faith" but her faith was not that of the Burmese. The strength of the monarchist idea and its relevance to Burmese life shriveled away amidst alien symbols of power.

As the force of the monarchical idea declined, that of Buddhism gained strength. The psychological outlook of the Burmese at the final triumph of British arms accelerated this trend. Throughout their history, the Burmese had succeeded in maintaining their national identity and had fought off all their neighbors, including the Chinese under the great Chien Lung. Now in their forced integration into a larger and little understood world there were many factors to cause them dismay. As a fighting race they had been humiliated. Their commerce was negligible; their technical abilities were inadequate and obsolete. Painfully aware that their national pride—even their continued existence—was manifestly debatable, the Burmese had to produce something tangible and traditional to justify their future as a separate entity. They found what they needed in Buddhism. The assorted Europeans might be richer, stronger, better trained, but it was comforting to know that all this was as nothing because they did not possess the jewel of the true faith. Buddhism began at this stage to acquire nationalist overtones, and, at the same time, its emphasis on individualism became increasingly significant.

The Burmese were treated as inferiors by the British, but they themselves never felt that they were really inferior and sought in many ways to approach equality with the European. Even under their kings, before the final conquest, they had tried to discover what it was that made the European so formidable. The first impact of British power on Burma had come during the time of the East India Company. So King Mindon, in the 1860’s and ’70’s, set up various trading companies and manufacturing concerns. His chief minister, the Kinwun Mingyi, came back from a tour of Europe convinced that the panacea was constitutional government. It became obvious, however, that he had a personal ax to grind, and constitutionalism did not gather momentum. Various other ideas and theories were taken up, but gradually, as the new generation of Burmans began to study in England, the concept of the democratic system of government became more and more popular. It was in harmony with Buddhism and it could be turned against the British: their own people had self-rule, let them give it to their colonies as well. However, the kind of democracy which would eventually take root in Burma was to be largely determined by the influence of economic factors.

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.

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.

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.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin


Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In