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.

ON THE THREE EVILS

(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.

ON RICE AND THE PEOPLE'S HEALTH

(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?

Nowadays, we are so used to eating only refined white rice we may find it rather hard to change over to “lone-dee.” I quite realize that. You see, while I was in prison under the British, I had to take “lone-dee” rice served in metal plates. The smell of bran and the brownish color of the rice were really nauseating at first. We kicked up a row and white rice was given instead. But we soon felt the difference in our health and had to ask for “lone-dee” again. Once we were accustomed to it, we found the smell of bran quite pleasant and far from repulsive. And in spite of the very strenuous work the prisoners were required to do, they kept wonderfully sturdy. The only explanation was the “lone-dee” rice. Those who obtained polished rice from outside developed beriberi. The wag who coined the well-known Burmese saying, “You are my only love; all else are bran and husk,” betrayed ignorance of the priceless qualities of the bran…

I am personally in favor of enacting legislation requiring the milling of “lone-dee” rice only, so that the people will have no other choice but to eat it. But I know there will be strong protests. I am, however, not afraid of such protests, because my measure will be in the public interest. It is like “forcibly lifting a man up to heaven, seizing him by the neck,” as our Burmese saying goes.

I attempted to get the necessary legislation passed, but I found myself one against many. As you all know, “Lord Buddha could not prevail against the collective wish of the Sangha.” The public should first be educated to the virtues of “lone-dee,” I was told. Such proposals, of course, do not fit in with my temperament, as I have a weakness for quick decisions and immediate action. But for practical purposes I have to give in…

We have determined to save the poor masses by all possible means…The Government will purchase vitamins from foreign firms, while steps are being taken to set up state-owned plants which will manufacture these tablets by the million.

ON GOVERNMENT IN BUSINESS

(From a speech on the new Four-Year Plan, June, 1957)

In order to step up production in the economic field, the operation of all industrial and mining enterprises, except certain key projects, should not be entrusted solely to those who are only interested in getting salaries. They should be entrusted also to those who have profit motives.

If the Government continues to operate these enterprises, the salary-earners in charge of operations will go to their jobs as if going to picnics, without achieving results, like the Burmese proverb, “Mauing Pon cannot yet play the harp although silk strings are no more.” The result will be just squandering public funds.

From practical experience, I no longer like to see the Government’s finger in all sorts of economic pies. If it is allowed to go on unchecked, then due to lack of proper supervision and efficient management, the state enterprises will sooner or later only line the pockets of thieves and pilferers…In the circumstances, from now on, the Government will only concentrate on key economic projects.

As a second step, with a view to Union solidarity, facilities must he given to the people of the country – and especially to Government servants and workers in industrial factories – to buy shares in these enterprises. Such participation will encourage their interest in the stability of the Union.

ON NEGOTIATING WITH THE REBELS

(Further extracts from the same speech)

Since the insurgents are also among those who can help in the creation of a Pyidawtha (Happy Land) let me once again take this opportunity to beckon to them to come out of the darkness into light.

There has been, unfortunately, no perceptible progress in this matter of multicolored rebels coming into the light. As all of you are aware, they have rejected four offers of amnesty. In the last amnesty offer, in 1955, we even offered to legalize their political parties and allow them to contest in the general election if they wanted to, if only they would surrender their arms. But the rebels and their aboveground allies continue to press for negotiated settlement. This would provide them with the breathing space they need so much and thereby pave the way for further rebellions. The Government is averse to the idea of any negotiation. The situation therefore is static…

The so-called vendors of peace, such as the Peace Committee headed by Sayagi Thakin   Kodaw Hmaing who are pressing for negotiation with the rebels, have, of course, no responsibilities. The persistence reminds me of a notorious medicine man called Sayagi “Diamond Dagger” about whom I heard in my youth.

This sayagi would prescribe one standard medicine for all ills. One day a patient was given his famous medicine, but soon his son came running back to report, “Sir, my father is breathing hard.” The sayagi told him to administer another dose, but half an hour later the boy was back again say that his father was hot all over and having apoplectic fits. Another dose, and the father’s jaws stuck and he became unconscious. Still the sayagi did not lose his composure and ordered another dose. When next the boy returned he was in tears and informed the sayagi that his father was dead. At this the sayagi turned his face upward, looked blankly at the ceiling for two minutes and in slow drawl muttered, “That damned Diamond Dagger always acts like this.”

Let us assume that we accept these peace vendors’ offer of negotiation with the rebels, and then, at the earliest opportunity, the rebels once again go underground in accordance with their set policy and program. When the people go to these peace vendors and implore them, “Sayagis, the multicolored rebels have once again gone underground…please help us,” what do you think these peace vendors will do? They will look blankly at the betel-leaf box and spittoon before them for two minutes and drawl in slow tones like “Diamond Dagger,” “Those damned rebels always act like this.” Beyond that, they are not capable of doing anything to protect the people against the rebels.

No, we are not in a position to accept such belated repentance. Steps must be taken to prevent the recurrence of such things. Delayed action on our part will amount to fixing the rebels’ ropes around the necks of the people who have entrusted us with power. We will not, under any circumstances, acquiesce in such shameful surrender.

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