The Concept of Neutralism

What lies behind Burma's foreign policy

By James Barrington

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:

...in 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.

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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.

Independence, then, is the driving force behind Burma's foreign policy. It furnishes the explanation for most of the attitudes which Burma has adopted on international issues. From it stems her strong opposition to colonialism in any form. We realize however that to remain independent Burma must build up her strength. Unless she does so, independence would become nothing but an empty slogan. The most urgent need is for her to strengthen her economic and social foundations. And in order that she may do this the Union needs peace above all else.

Burma was twice a major battleground in World War II. In between the two major campaigns, she was continuously in the front line of war. The material damage which she suffered was so enormous that today, twelve years after the conclusion of the war, the work of reconstruction is still incomplete. Staggering as this is, it is only part of the problem which confronts the country. Much more serious than the material destruction, and much more difficult to repair, is the psychological damage which the war inflicted on the people of Burma. Many of the problems which we have had to face in the past nine years are an aftermath of the war. The Government, using democratic means, is straining every resource not only to overcome these problems, but at the same time to forge ahead in the economic and social fields. Two gigantic tasks have been telescoped into one, constituting a challenge such as few governments have faced. We are a nation in a great hurry. If the outcome is successful, a bright future is ensured; if it fails, the Union's future will be imperiled. If at this stage, while Burma is still grappling with the legacies of World War II, she were to become involved in another war, the further damage which she would suffer would almost certainly put recovery quite beyond her reach. And even if, by some miracle, she managed to stay out of the war, the general devastation which the war would bring would undoubtedly envelop Burma, and produce the same effect.

Burma needs peace because another war could mean her death. And peace promises more than bare survival; it would give the people of Burma the chance really to begin to live. Together with most of the countries of Asia, Africa, and South America, Burma was passed over by the industrial revolution. Before she has had a chance to catch up with them, the more advanced countries of the world are already moving into the era of the atomic revolution, threatening to widen the gap which already exists between them and the underdeveloped countries. If independence is to have any meaning for Burma, it is absolutely imperative that she should be able rapidly to narrow this gap, bringing to her people an increasing measure of the benefits which modern science can provide. If true peace is to be established on this earth, it is equally imperative that the other underdeveloped countries should do the same. We all realize that we cannot do this by ourselves within the time that our people are prepared to wait. To meet the deadline, we need all the assistance we can get from outside, particularly from the technically advanced countries. Burma therefore welcomes all such assistance, subject only to one condition: the acceptance of assistance must not in any way compromise our independent foreign policy. Provided this condition is satisfied, we are prepared to accept assistance from any quarter; and in token of our gratitude we would like to make repayment, now or in the future, for all such assistance to the extent that our resources will permit. We know however that there is a direct relation between the availability of such assistance and the state of tension in the world. An outright shooting war would probably mean the end of everything. It is for this reason that it has become unthinkable. But from the viewpoint of progress, it is not enough to be able to prevent a shooting war. As long as the major powers continue to set aside more than half of their national budgets for defense purposes, it would be unrealistic to expect them to make available the kind and volume of assistance we all need. And as long as world tensions remain as high as they are, we cannot expect any substantial reduction in expenditure on armaments. Therefore Burma's own interests require that world tensions should be reduced.

It is this combination of factors which gives a very special quality to Burma's yearning for peace. I would not like to be misunderstood on this point. I do not suggest for a moment that there are any people in the world who do not want peace. I do suggest however that Burma's recent experiences, and the circumstances which attend her today, give peace a very special meaning for us. In this sense, Burma may be likened to a youth to whom life means more than to an older man. Not that the older man looks forward to death; it is merely that he is somewhat more resigned to it. This is not to say that Burma is prepared to buy peace at any price. She would certainly fight in certain circumstances—if her independence were threatened, for instance. Her ten-year-old war against her own Communists and other insurgents is proof of this. But perhaps it does mean that she might be prepared, within these limits, to go to greater lengths in her endeavors to prevent another war than countries which have not shared her experiences, and do not face the same problems.

Unfortunately for Burma, she has had to live under the constant threat of war ever since her re-emergence as an independent state. Without assigning blame or sitting in judgment, she has come to deplore the existence of military blocs because she firmly believes that the formation and growth of such blocs only add further to the tensions already existing in the world. Furthermore, she has enough faith in human nature to believe that in a choice between mutual extinction and some form of mutual accommodation or coexistence, man will finally come to choose the latter. The ever-growing frightfulness of modern weapons is slowly compelling the two blocs to seek such an accommodation, but they need to be helped along, and it is here that the "neutral," "uncommitted," "unaligned" nations serve a useful, and perhaps even an indispensable, purpose. Who can doubt that the world would today be much closer to a shooting war if every nation on earth were allied with one side or other in the cold war? Thus in the existing circumstances of the world, we believe that the greatest contribution that the Union of Burma can make to the maintenance of peace is to keep out of the blocs, and from this position of active neutrality to work for the reduction of tensions whenever opportunity affords. In other words, Burma's attitude toward war and peace powerfully reinforces her basic position of independence in international affairs.

Burma's foreign policy has been much misunderstood and subjected to severe criticism in the past. We have been accused of "sitting on the fence." The implication is that we are waiting to jump on to the winning side when it becomes clear which side is going to win. This is completely untrue. It is ruled out because it is immoral, and also for the very simple reason that we do not believe there can be any winner if the present conflict sharpens. Nor do we try to play off one bloc against the other, since this again would not only be immoral but would also be directly opposed to our objective of reducing tensions. The main objective of our foreign policy is simply to preserve our independence. For this we need peace, and we need co-operation among all nations. In other words, we recognize clearly that there is a close link between independence and interdependence. I have no doubt that Burma's foreign policy will continue to be criticized in the future. Indeed, it is only right and even good that it should be criticized. But if this article succeeds in removing at least some of the current misunderstandings regarding the Union of Burma's foreign policy, it will not have been written in vain.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/02/the-concept-of-neutralism/306834/