The Concept of Neutralism

What lies behind Burma's foreign policy

Unfortunately for the Union of Burma, her emergence as an independent State coincided with the onset of that product of the nuclear age, the cold war. Since the cold war has dominated the international scene, either by drawing other international issues into its orbit so completely as to make them lose their original identity, or by reducing them to relative insignificance, it is not surprising that Burma's foreign policy, like that of every other State, should today tend to be judged by its attitude towards the cold war. Applying the terminology of war to the cold war, the States which, like Burma, refuse to take sides in the cold war have come to be known as the "neutrals." Later, when it became clear that the terminology of war did not quite fit the circumstances of the cold war, attempts were made to find a more apt description. Hence the evolution of the terms "uncommitted" and "unaligned." But these are only slight refinements of the original term "neutral." None of them provides a completely accurate description of the foreign policy of the Union of Burma—which is far more than a more attitude, or a series of unrelated reactions to successive international issues.

The basic content and continuity of Burma's foreign policy has its roots firmly embedded in the nation's past history. It must be recalled that Burma was one of the very last countries in Asia to fall under foreign domination. Although the piecemeal absorption of Burma in the British Empire began in 1823, the Burmese Kingdom remained as an independent political entity until 1885. The territorial losses of 1823 and of 1852, though extremely large, were regarded as temporary in nature, and had nothing like the same effect on the Burmese people as the liquidation of the Kingdom in 1885. This date, 1885, is significant. It points up the fact that Burma did not lose her independence until a hundred years after the United States had won her freedom, and that it was lost at a time when anticolonial forces were already stirring in the world, and when Burmese nationalism was already being kindled. The loss of independence was therefore particularly keenly felt by the Burmese people, and its restoration became an immediate objective. Thus the entire period of British rule after 1885 was in effect a continuous fight for independence. As the struggle intensified, so developed the yearning for independence—independence from the British in the first instance since they were the controlling power, but as later events with the Japanese proved, independence from any and everybody. When therefore, on January 4, 1948, Burma once again became a sovereign independent state, the people were united in the determination that they should never again lose the precious independence which they had just regained. Today, ten years later, the feeling is no less strong.

Genuine independence in Burmese minds is synonymous with an independent foreign policy. The reason for this is quite simple. To the great credit of the British, it must be admitted that they gave Burma progressive doses of "home rule," culminating in full internal autonomy in 1937. But right till the end, the British Government retained control of Burma's foreign affairs, with which was linked external defense. Thus the ability of a nation to make its own foreign policy decisions, without outside domination or pressure, became in the eyes of the Burmese people the test of independence. It remains so today. Any suspicion that the Government had accepted the dictation of another country or group of countries, or that it had succumbed to pressure, would immediately put the Government in trouble. This is one reason why the Union of Burma steadfastly refuses to join either bloc in the cold war. Prime Minister U Nu made the reasons for this position abundantly clear when he said before the National Press Club in Washington in July, 1955: the present circumstances of Burma, her membership in any alliance with a great-power military bloc is incompatible with her continued existence as an independent State. This may seem to be putting it strongly, but it is a fact. Our recent history is such, our experience with great powers is such, that in the minds of the people of Burma an alliance with a big power immediately means domination by that power. It means the loss of independence. You may question the validity of that belief. But perhaps you will accept my statement that it is a political fact of life today that any Government of Burma which aligned itself with a big-power bloc would at once lose the confidence and support of the people.

Here U Nu was speaking with special reference to the great-power blocs. But it should be emphasized that independence means complete independence, independence even from those countries which happen to adopt a line similar to the Union of Burma's in international affairs. Burma’s independence in foreign policy is therefore total, and is not directed against any country or group of countries. Her attitude toward the two blocs in the cold war simply fits into this total framework.


This determination to follow an independent policy does not mean that Burma adopts an attitude of blind neutrality toward all international issues except those in which she has a direct interest. She realizes that isolationism, which was the basis of nineteenth-century neutralism, no longer provides a safe refuge for any nation in the circumstances of today, and that there is no running away from the problems of the world. If proof were needed of this, it is provided by the fact that the first major move of the Union of Burma in the international field was to join the United Nations. There is thus all the difference between Burma's brand of neutrality, and the neutrality of the nineteenth century. Since there is no getting away from the world, we have decided that the best course for us to adopt is to maintain friendly relations with all other nations, to interest ourselves in the problems which beset this planet, and to help find solutions to them from our position of independence which we believe enables us best to judge each issue strictly on its merits. Thus Burma's neutrality is not neutrality as between right and wrong. It is neutrality in the sense that in an extended conflict in which neither side is absolutely right nor absolutely wrong, she refuses to line up absolutely with either side. Thus, her policy of judging each individual issue as it arises strictly on its merits causes her to vote sometimes with one side and sometimes with the other, or to abstain where the issue is not a clear-cut one. This is very far from the "plague on both your houses" attitude which we are sometimes accused of adopting toward the two blocs in the cold war.

Presented by

James Barrington has been Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office of the Union of Burma since 1948, except for a five-year period when he served as Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations. An Anglo-Burman, he was born in Moulmein in 1911, educated at Rangoon and Oxford, and then entered the Indian Civil Service, which administered Burma before independence.

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