The Communist Approach to Burma

“The drift of the world is such,”wrote DAVID L. COHN in the Atlantic in June, 1946. “that unless it is arrested, nearly a billion people in the Orient and the Middle East may fall under effective Russian domination within foreseeable time.”Mr. Cohn was in Rangoon again this spring and came away with the chilling conclusion that we are losing Southeast Asia to the Communists faster than he thought possible. And it does not have to be.



THIS year Buddhists who believe that 1956 is the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s death are celebrating it, the group including those from India, Nepal, Burma, China, Japan, and two Himalayan protectorates of India — Bhutan and Sikkim. But the Buddhists of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos will celebrate Buddha’s death next year.

Buddhism is experiencing a renascence politically significant to us. Thus, in the recent Ceylon elections Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, an outspoken friend of the West, was expected to win easily. He lost disastrously. Several factors contributed to his defeat, but important among them was the role played by 12,000 Buddhist priests who told the people that his election would be harmful to Buddhism. The political left has succeeded him, and the British have been told they must evacuate their Ceylonese military bases.

The Buddhist world is alive with activity. Pilgrims in greater than usual numbers are visiting sites sacred to Buddha in India, Ceylon, Nepal. Buddhists of many countries are meeting together, and efforts are being made to heal the break between the northern and southern schools of the faith. The World Fellowship of Buddhists, based in Ceylon, will hold meetings in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, in October and November. And the Buddhist stronghold of Burma has been the scene of important Buddhist conclaves during the past two years, the Great Council meet ing there being only the sixth in 2500 years. (The fourth convened in Ceylon in 20 B.C.) In Rangoon a re-editing of Buddhist texts was completed by priests from Burma, Thailand, Ceylon, Cambodia, and Laos, and they have been published in a definitive authorized version.

Since, then, there is a renascence of Buddhism and there are more than 150 million Buddhists — some estimates put the number much higher — governments are now courting the good will of members of the faith. Throughout this year in India, for example—the India that regards itself as the “cradle” of Buddhism — there have been nationwide observances of the anniversary of Buddha’s death, accompanied by sustained fanfaronades of publicity; and even Red China has enabled Buddhists to move holy relics about the country. For it is clear that Buddhism is already, or may soon become, an important unifying force among Asian countries that have recently acquired their independence from the West.

What occurs, therefore, in Rangoon, the capital that is now emerging as the Buddhist Rome, concerns us. If we should “lose” Burma to the Communist countries, the loss would be more than that of a small Southeast Asian nation. Hence we must understand how the Soviet Union is moving to dominate Burma and others in like case.

The Russians are buying farm surpluses in many places —and, simultaneously, good will. Among their purchases are Egyptian cotton and Burmese rice. In 1954 they scored a diplomatic victory by taking the entire southern Italian almond crop when our import quota was cut in response to pressures by American almond growers.

Russian trade policy is designed, first, to draw countries into the Soviet trade bloc, and second, to stimulate neutralist sentiment and weaken the effects of anti-Communist pacts directed against the Soviets. This policy threatens the Western position in lands plagued by farm surpluses, and its workings are clear in Burma. There the Russians recently agreed to take 400,000 tons of rice annually for five years — a large percentage of Burma’s surplus — and pay for it with machinery, goods, services, and factories of various kinds.

The agreement was signed in April, 1956, by the Burmese Trade and Development Minister, U Raschid (an able man who is the only Muslim in a Buddhist Cabinet), and the Soviet Ambassador, A. D. Shiborin. Yet as evidence that this was a significant occasion, the signing was witnessed by U Nu, the then Burmese Premier, and Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet First Deputy Premier visiting Burma, who is a trade authority and one of Russia’s keenest minds.

The Soviets iced the economic cake by promising to build and equip a cultural and sports center, hospital, and theater as a gift to Burma. Such “gifts” are relatively inexpensive, and are invariably of a spectacular or enduring kind, so that all may easily observe evidence of Russia’s “generosity” to struggling peoples.

By contrast, gigantic American gifts of food, equipment, and services often go unnoticed by those who receive them. It may reflect favorably upon our spiritual estate that we help others without gaudy display. Yet our position among uncommitted peoples is not improved when we permit Russian showmanship to blot out our good works.

Rice is life to the Orient. The world’s most important food, it supplies the principal food requirement of more than half of mankind. Americans consume only about 5 pounds of rice per capita annually. The Asian consumption of 300 pounds per capita is sixty times greater than ours.

If rice is life to the Orient, its export is a matter of life or death to Burma, a country of 20 million easygoing people occupying an uncrowded area slightly smaller than Texas. Prior to 1939, Burma was the world’s leading rice exporter and accounted for more than one third of the rice entering world trade.

An independent sovereignty for only eight years, Burma faces staggering problems. It must rebuild a war-shattered land, put down bandits and Communist guerrillas at crushing expense, increase productivity, diversify output, and remove the economic curse of one-cropping. This is quite a program for a newly independent, poor country, whose people are generally innocent of industrial techniques, and which lacks an adequate trained corps of civil servants. Meanwhile, having few factories, Burma imports most manufactures used by consumers or needed for internal development, and pays for them with rice.

Burma is rice. Rice accounts for 80 per cent of Burma’s exports, supports 75 per cent of its people, and is its largest source of foreign exchange. Under the circumstances, as goes rice so goes Burma. The country’s solvency and political stabilily depend upon the continuance of a favorable rice market. This cereal that only yesterday was urgently demanded at high prices has today become almost a glut on the international market.

For several post-war years, Burma prospered as it sold its rice in a seller’s market. But after 1952 there came a succession of good crops throughout Asia. Improved methods increased production nearly everywhere. Japan and India ate more wheat, while India’s production of food cereals grew astonishingly. Prices fell. But Burma’s state rice monopoly moved too slowly to lower prices, and importers turned to other suppliers. Thus, Ceylon exchanged rubber for Chinese rice, and Red China exported rice to Japan. Burma’s difficulties mou nted.

Here the United States was of little help. Ever since 1953 Burma has refused to accept American aid, its policy being to pay for what it gets from us or go without. What it most wants from us is not dollars but technicians; and when Premier U Nu visited the United States in 1955, he indicated that if we would accept Burmese rice in payment for the services of American technicians, he would take as many as he could pay for. Such a deal would have given Burma what it urgently seeks: the opportunity to acquire American skills. And it would have given us the chance to show a friendly, self-respecting, independent, underdeveloped country how our skills could benefit it and help to keep it democratic.

But what happened? We have a rice surplus and are debarred from acquiring rice elsewhere. It does not matter that there are only a handful of American rice farmers and that the nation subsidizes them and thus creates artificial surpluses. When it comes to a choice between their welfare and the welfare of other nations, whose attitudes toward us may decide our fate, we support our own rice farmers. Nonetheless, after nine months of talk, we did buy 10,000 tons of Burmese rice for approximately a million dollars, the rice to be given by us to Pakistan. Yet it did not escape the Burmese — or the Russians — that while with painful slowness we were concluding this insignificant transaction, we were simultaneously dumping 415,000 tons of our surplus rice in Pakistan and Indonesia, almost on Burma’s doorstep. Whereupon the touring Mr. Khrushchev, bending truth, told Burmese crowds that we were dumping rice to destroy their country.

The Soviets made ready for their economic coup in Burma as its fortunes sank. The Russians and their satellites have pledged themselves to move 600,000 to 1,000,000 tons of rice annually into the Communist countries. One million tons of rice would bring $100 million. But Burma will get no money. It will get goods of various kinds, not necessarily the goods it wants at prices Burma wants to pay. Thus Rangoon harbor and its docks and environs are now cluttered with thousands of tons of cement for which Burma has little use, which it cannot store, and which must congeal into an unusable mass when the monsoon rains strike it.


BURMA did not want a barter deal — Communist goods or Communist technicians. It wanted to be able to sell its rice and buy what it pleases where it pleases — largely in British markets. Burma, moreover, is not a Communist-oriented state but is, rather, a welfare state organized along socialist lines to cope with problems of land reform, education, living standards, social services, and so forth. When Burma achieved independence from Britain, Communists immediately attacked its new government and have since fought it with great loss of lives and treasure. It became the first duty of the new government under Premier U Nu to crush the Communist rebellion that beat even against the gates of Rangoon; and to this day considerable areas of Burma remain in anarchy, while Communist guerrillas terrorize villagers, destroy railroad lines, burn bridges, and seriously retard the country’s progress.

His country’s leader from its birth as an independent sovereignty until a few months ago, U Nu startled his countrymen and Asians generally — the more so since few Asian leaders speak well of us publicly—by announcing that the slogans of the American Revolution “have a tremendous importance to all men who struggle for liberty. In all those parts of the world where man lives under tyranny, or under foreign domination, or in feudal bondage, those who . . . fight for freedom do it in the name of the eternal principle for which the American Revolution was fought.”

Here, however repugnant to Communists, U Nu was evoking Jefferson’s words: “The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.” Scornful indeed of Burma’s Communists, U Nu has compared them to worthless men who “long for distant aunts” when their own mothers are at hand.

Why, then, did the leaders of such a government make a deal with the Communist countries that is economically disadvantageous to them and, as they realize, imperils their political independence? It may be that the failure of the Burma state rice monopoly to lower prices fully and quickly had brought Burma’s economy to a low estate. But the time came when the government had to get consumer and capital goods from somewhere, at whatever price, or face anarchic revolution. It therefore turned to the Communist countries, and while they take Burma’s rice and we dump our surpluses in Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India, neutralist Burma is being forced more and more into the Soviet orbit.

The Soviets, contrary to our dreamy illusions about their inefficiency, moved swiftly to capitalize on their Burma coup. During the first quarter of 1956, in the all-important category of electrical goods, none came to Burma from the free world. Imports of electrical goods, says Burma Commerce, were divided as follows: U.S.S.R. 50 per cent; Poland 20 per cent; Democratic Germany 20 per cent; Czechoslovakia 10 per cent.

In 1955 only 3 per cent of Burma’s imports came from the Communist countries. But such imports have already risen to 25 per cent and are increasing monthly.

This year all motor vehicles coming to Burma will be of Communist origin; so will most of the bicycles, sewing machines, typewriters, and industrial machinery. Then, since there is operative in a primitive agricultural economy such as Burma what one might call the principle of the compulsion of spare parts, it is clear that he who controls the spare parts potentially controls the economy.

Burma would prefer to have W estern goods and Western technicians, but now Communist technicians are pouring into the country as goods of Communist origin pour into it. One may expect that they are coming not merely to teach and train but also to destroy and subvert. Their task will be made the easier by the local Communist group and by the fact that Burma has a 1200-mile frontier with Red China. (Incidentally, it is evidence of Burma’s desire to stay out of the bear’s mouth, that she has employed as many technicians from Israel as that tiny country can spare.)

It remains to be seen whether Burma, in the economic grip of the Communist countries, can remain neutralist. And here we may recall U Nu’s bitter complaint as he resigned the premiership of his country to devote himself exclusively to political reorganization of the Anti-Fascist League, that it was becoming more and more difficult to govern Burma because of the interference in its affairs of the Red China and Soviet embassies in Rangoon.

We must remember, as we struggle for the favor of the world’s uncommitted peoples, that Burma shares a long frontier not only with Red China but also with India and East Pakistan, and still another with Malaya. Hence its domination by the Communist countries would place them in a strategically valuable area to affect the behavior of adjoining nations. One of them, Malaya, itself strategically important and the source of most of the free world’s rubber and tin, is now in political convulsion, while the others are constantly in political ferment. Nor is this all. Burma’s cultural and religious ties extend to Southeast Asian peoples and to Buddhist countries and enclaves of the Far East. Hence its political future may affect the status of huge areas, and it follows that our stake in Burma cannot be measured in terms merely of its small size or modest wealth.

Today Soviet trade activity, an enormously important phase of the economic cold war, threatens the political future of friendly Burma. Tomorrow? Amid uncertainty, there is one certainty. Unless the United States creates the clear and reasoned planning required by the world economic situation and its own long-range interests, we may expect to see more and more of the uncommitted peoples of the world being drawn into the Communist orbit — one from which no satellite has ever yet effectively detached itself.