The Public Weal

Excerpts from speeches by the honorable U Nu, Prime Minister of the Union of Burma

Editor’s Note: Because Burma is telescoping into a few decades the social development which required generations in other countries, Prime Minister U Nu must be a teacher as well as a leader to his people. In these excerpts from speeches made in recent years we see the personal concern which U Nu takes in many different aspects of the people’s life and the homely directness with which he instructs and encourages them. We can also see, by comparing “On the Three Evils” (1953) with “On Government in Business” (1957), how certain of his basic views have evolved in response to practical experience.


(From a speech to the All-Burma Peasants Organization at Mandalay, May, 1953)

Humanity has been led astray by three evils – greed, hatred and ignorance. Whether we are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Animists, or Atheists, we cannot escape the three inevitables: old age, disease, and death. Nobody can deny that the five sense objects – pretty sight, delightful sound, fragrant smell, savory taste, and nice touch – are only fleeting phenomena. They are neither lasting nor permanent.

Nor can anybody deny that property is transitory: no one can carry away his property after death. Men have been chasing these transitory pleasures with a dogged tenacity mainly because they hold false views regarding property. They forget that this life is not even one millionth part of the whirlpool of Samsara (the cycles of rebirth), and go on amassing wealth even though it never brings them full satisfaction.

This insatiable greed for wealth results in the profit motive which is not directed toward any utilitarian purpose. Once upon a time all commodities were common property, and everybody had a right to use them for his own benefit. But with the advent of the profit motive these commodities became objects of exploitation. They became instruments of wealth and stimulus for greed. This led to the following phenomena:

1. Human society was split into two classes: Haves and Have-nots

2. The Have-nots had to depend on the Haves for their living, and thus the evil system of exploitation of one class by another emerged.

3. With class exploitation, the poor became poorer because they could not get adequate returns for their work. They had to resort to evil ways like stealing, looting, and prostitution.     

4. The Lord Buddha has taught us that there are four causes of death: kamma, frame of mind, weather, and food. Under the system of class exploitation, how can the Have-nots enjoy good food and protect themselves from extremes of weather? Can there be any sense of happiness or contentment for them? Can even a good kamma favor one who is cheerless? Thus one who is born into the class of Have-nots is handicapped in all the above four factors, and disease is the inevitable result.

5. How can the Have-nots care for education with their hard struggle for a bare living? Lack of education breeds an ever-increasing band of ignoramuses and Mr. Zeros.

6. How can a country abounding in ignoramuses and Mr. Zeros ever progress?

It is evident that most of the evils in the world can be traced to the advent of the profit motive. Do you remember the legend of the Padaythabin (the tree of fulfillment) we heard as children?

According to the legend, there was once a time when men and women could get whatever they wanted from the Padaythabin tree. There was no problem of food or clothes or housing, and there was no crime. Disease was comparatively unknown. In course of time, however, the people fell victim to greed and spoiled the tree of fulfillment which eventually disappeared. Then a class of people who could not afford to eat well, dress well, or live well appeared, and crime became rampant.

Now I ask you to think of the Padaythabin as the natural wealth of our country, both above and under the ground. If only this natural wealth is used for the common good of mankind it will be inexhaustible, besides satisfying the needs of everybody. But greed comes in the way. The poorest of the poor wants to become rich; the rich want to become richer, and the process goes on ad infinitum. Spurred on by greed, people are apt to “botanize on their mothers’ graves,” so to say, in order to become richer. Thus the distribution of wealth becomes unequal. While some can amass wealth which cannot be spent in ten lives, others have to wallow in extreme poverty with bare rags on their bodies.


(Extracts from a speech made in February, 1954)

You might well ask why the Government proposes to distribute vitamin tablets to the people of the country free. The reason is no other than our desire to replenish the lamentable food deficiency of the peoples of the Union. The death rate in Burma is the highest in the world. Even among those who live, 60 per cent are physical wrecks who have to be kept alive on all sorts of medicines and mixtures, like an old, leaky boat that is kept floating by repeated stuffings of the holes.

Yet our history books are filled with the wonderful physical exploits of our forefathers: Nyaung-u-bee, who could swim across the Irrawaddy both ways and run up the bank without any sign of exhaustion; Nga-htway-yu, who could climb a thousand toddy palms without rest; Nga-lone-let-phe, who could handle thirty pairs of oxen under yoke at one time – all these were sons of our soil. Why have those splendid human specimens disappeared and been replaced with so many emaciated wrecks and weaklings? There are, of course, several contributory factors, but experts agree that food is one of the main solutions to the whole problem of ill-health.

Our main food consists of rice and curry. Only a very small minority can afford to eat fowl or pork. The vast majority have to be content with ngapi-htaung (dried fish) and boiled vegetables for their curry. But the basis is rice, and both the Haves and Have-nots eat rice in a form which is far from nutritious. You must understand that the white grain of rice only serves the purpose of filling our stomachs. Nutrition we can get only out of the bran which forms a thin layer over the white kernel. By the normal process of milling, rice comes out with very little of the health-giving bran. Then before cooking, rice is usually washed about three times with water. And when it is boiled, the white liquid is again thrown away. Therefore the rice which is ready for the table is completely lacking in all nutritive qualities.

The rice eaten in olden days – in the days of Nyaung-u-bee and Nga-htway-yu – was prepared in a very different manner from what it is today. Then people ate pounded rice, which in Burmese is called “maung-htaung” or “lone-dee.” Only the husk was removed. The grain retained almost all the nutritious bran covering it. And in those days people cooked rice without throwing away the boiling liquid. The water used for cooking was just sufficient to soften the hard grain to make it palatable. Do you remember the story of how King Thalun once rebuked a woman whom he saw discarding the boiling liquid from the rice pot?

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Prime Minister U Nu was born in 1907 at Wakema in Myaungyma District. Educated at Myoma National Boys High School and the University of Rangoon, he began his political career as president of the University Students' Union. He became a leader of the nationalist Thakin movement and was jailed by the British during World War II. Released when the Japanese overran Burma, he served as Foreign Minister in Dr. Ba Maw's Government. After the reoccupation of Burma by the Allies, he was elected Vice-President of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League and Speaker of the Constituent Assembly. On the assassination of General Aung San in 1947, he became Prime Minister and successfully negotiated with the Attlee Government for the peaceful transfer of power. A forceful writer, U Nu has published short stories, novels, and plays.

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