Burma's Socialist Democracy

Some problems of practical politics

The new state of the Union of Burma which was established early in 1948 is professedly founded upon two basic concepts - socialism and democracy. The constitution provides for all the fundamental freedoms, and for a system of parliamentary government, based largely on the British pattern, with an elected legislature and the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The Government has taken a further step toward extending democratic procedures by selling a Ministry for Democratization, whose task is to institute and operate a system of local government in which all those who rule, from the village level upward, shall be elected. This system is still experimental, and over the major portion of the country, centralized rule, that is through Government-nominated civil servants, continues side by side with parliamentary practice.

The growth of true democracy has undeniably been hampered by the strife-torn period which has existed without break from the very earliest clays of our independence. When the insurrection was at its height, the Rangoon Government was unable to find men or arms to send to a hundred threatened towns and villages and was forced to find its friends wherever it could. More often than not these friends were simply thugs and desperadoes. But because they were prepared to fight the insurgents, the Government armed them and supported them. In those days of chaos, the country quickly reverted to a more primitive form of political organization than democracy—the rule of the strongman. In their petty domains, these strongmen became little kings, with power of life and death over the people. Soon, the people began to hate the tyrants, and once their usefulness was exhausted, even the Government became ashamed of them. Gradually, they were dispensed with, pensioned off, and disarmed. But there still remained the vacuum of power which could not be filled democratically by an unenlightened electorate, ill-used to the sensation of governing themselves.

This power vacuum is filled today by the AFPFL, the coalition party which has been dominant in Burma since independence and which, as its name of Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League indicates, was originally a wartime popular front rallying all shades of nationalists against first the Japanese and then the British. With its vast ramifications, the AFPFL reaches out into almost every village in the country. No other political party has an organization even remotely approaching this colossus which lies like a net over the whole nation and maintains itself in power by patronage and sometimes even, in the last resort, by intimidation.

The AFPFL cannot be thought of as a political party like those in Britain or the United States. It is far, far more than that. It is the vehicle of the economic and cultural as well as the political life of the country. It affects the day-to-day living of the humblest rural cultivator in ways that he can see and understand. Land allocations, crop loans, Pyidawtha ("Happy Land") development projects, welfare benefits, purchase of the harvest – all are controlled by AFPFL adherents. This is patronage. Intimidation sometimes occurs too, in areas remote from courts and police. For though the big tyrants have gone, the small ones still wield enough power (they have the guns) to make opposition to them distinctly uncomfortable. Thus our political life, which we hope one day to make completely democratic, is in reality still a compromise between one-party rule, strong-arm tactics, and a fully documented system of courts, elected legislature, and individual freedom. The insurrection is largely to blame. But it must also be admitted that the AFPFL leaders have a "Messiah" complex by which they can justify deviations from democracy with the excuse that they must remain in power for the good of the country.

Having cut their political teeth on the works of Marx and Lenin, men such as Prime Minister U Nu and Deputy Prime Ministers U Ba Swe, U Kyaw Nyein, and Thakin Tin are also firmly wedded to the idea of mass organizations. They delight in huge rallies, at which crowds turn out waving banners and shouting slogans, even if it is only because they are given a free meal and a day's wages to do so. Our present system of political thinking depends more on the agitator, the propagandist, and the cell-organizer, than on the more flexible and free-thinking methods of the Western democracies. Thus the AFPFL has built such organizations as the Trade Union Congress of Burma (the labor wing of the party), the All-Burma Peasants Organization, and the All-Burma Women's Freedom League. These units, not arising spontaneously from the people, but planned and stimulated from above, have come straight out of the Marxist textbook which prescribes "mass" and "class" organizations. Yet it cannot be denied that the forms of democracy are maintained, and are sincerely acclaimed by the AFPFL leaders, who declare that they actively desire freedom of speech, a strong, free press, impeccable courts, and a democratic opposition.

If these leaders – and many of them are still comparatively young, having only recently finished college when they took up the light for independence - are themselves somewhat confused about the kind of democracy they are shaping, how much more the people, to whom both Marxian socialism and Greek democracy are only names. Reared on a history of strongmen struggling for power, and a succession of dynasties, followed by the strong centralized rule of the British, they arc but ill prepared for the choices which democracy inevitably presents to the electorate. To see what these choices are – for the Burmese – let us take a closer look at some aspects of our recent history.


The late General Aung San, who successfully led our independence movement only to be assassinated by a political rival in 1947, will always be a hero to Burmans. He secured independence without firing, a shot. He gained his point against the British by obstinacy and threat, which are not the hallmarks of diplomacy, but which sometimes achieve results where compromise would have been bound to fail. But General Aung San has made it extremely difficult for his successors to duplicate his feats. Flaming rebels can win independence for their country. It is what conies after independence that often proves to be their undoing.

The very fact that freedom came so easily was responsible for the momentum which the Communist movement gained when the party decided to go underground early in 1948. The Communists used with great effect the slogan that the new independence was only a sham - that the new leaders did not really intend to create a better social order for all the people - and large segments of the population swung behind them. Thanks in part to the steadfastness of the frontier people, whose primitive instincts told them no good could come out of murder and crime, the Union Government was able to take the brunt of the Communist onslaught. Since then, the AFPFL has gone to great lengths to make independence real to the people.

One of its first acts was to send the British civil servants and other foreign technicians packing. Not only the senior administrators, engineers, doctors, and experts in finance, agriculture, and forestry, who were mostly Europeans, but even many Anglo-Burman subordinates in the railroads, customs, and other services were replaced. The loss in efficiency is incalculable, and Burma now finds herself obliged to bring in new and expensive Western technicians for positions which the earlier incumbents could have handled at far less cost.

The nationalization of land, forests, inland water transport, and certain public utilities was rushed, in order to disprove the Communist charge that the independence which Burma had won was a fake. But some of the very elements which most loudly demanded nationalization proved to be its most implacable enemies. In nearly ten years of civil war, nationalized land has been seized, burned, or taxed as the local insurgent leader willed; nationalized timber "kidnapped and held for ransom"; and the nationalized steamer service incessantly pirated. The railroads have been sabotaged, and trains blown up, shot up, and robbed, again and again.

Keeping up with the Communists, like keeping up with the Joneses, proved to be a tiresome business and every bit as expensive, so when it came to oil and minerals, the Government decided to draw line. Despite intense Communist opposition oil and mining operations were reconstituted as "joint ventures," partly owned by the former British companies, which provide top management, partly by the state. The Government. had learned the lesson that while it cost nothing to inveigh against capitalism, doing things to frighten it away could be attended with serious aftereffects.

Doctrinaire socialism has thus had in give way to common sense. When in doubt, the AFPFL adopts trial-and-error methods. It does not learn its lessons as quickly as it should, but experience is a hard school which never fails to instruct. In an important speech last June, U Nu felt obliged to make a drastic reappraisal of his Government's policies. With characteristic frankness ("I am mainly responsible for our hasty actions"), he confessed that the AFPFL had "committed several blunders.” The greatest of these was in "putting the cart before the ox'' by starting on large-scale development and welfare programs before law and order had been fully restored. Other mistakes were in planning too ambitiously without a sufficiency of capital, trained personnel, and basic materials, and in taking too much of the economy under the wing of the Government.

How far U Nu can convince his AFPFL colleagues of the merit of such old-fashioned economic ideas remains to be seen. But there is no question that his foreign policy has the full backing of the socialists, and even of the Communist-oriented segments of the opposition. This is because the policy of "active neutrality" has met with the approval of the world Communist bloc, and because Burma has entered into barter agreements not only with Russia and China, but also with European satellite countries.

The motives behind neutrality are noble or realistic according as one views neutralism as a moral force holding itself ready to join the hands of East and West the moment both should wish to extend them, or as a policy of fence-straddling, pure and simple. But barter, although it meets with the approbation of the Burmese Communists, was not designed for their especial delight. Partly because of the falling prices on the world market for rice and other commodities of which Burma has surplus to export, but also because the insurgents were making transport and storage difficult, the Government was forced into a trade policy which it may yet live to regret. The price and quality of the cement supplied to Burma were open scandals, and there have been other similar disappointments.

Today the tide of fortune is running against the Communists, and they are openly and unashamedly suing for peace. They had been hoping, of course, that Red China or Russia would intervene to help them. But China's position at the Bandung Conference of 1954 and U Nu's warm reception in Moscow later that year made it clear that active interference in Burma was not part of the present Communist world strategy. Since then the party line has been to seek peace through negotiation.

Up to March 31, 1956, there was a general amnesty open to the Communists. To the last moment they seemed undecided whether to surrender or not, but the deadline passed with Thakin Than Tun, their leader, still in the jungle. It is reported that he is prepared to admit his error in staging the rebellion when he did but is not willing to "come into the democratic fold" without some such face-saving device as "peace talks" with the Government. Than Tun seems to have realized that the game is up, as far as the rebellion goes, but he is not finished as a politician. Exhaustion and malaria may drive him out of the jungle, but he will come to terms only if he can "trade bullets for ballots" – that is, if he is assured of a salubrious climate in which he can organize as the main opposition to the Government, with all the freedom that a recognized Communist party enjoys in working in a democracy. The AFPFL rejects this evolution and is pressing on with military action against the remaining insurgents. (The Communist party was outlawed by an act of parliament in 1954 - not because of its ideology, but because its members had used force against the Government. Since then, the "aboveground" Communists have functioned politically under other party headings.)

Another tribulation for the harassed AFPFL has been the process and problems of accommodating and integrating the minority races in the country - the regional peoples described in an earlier article in this collection. Under the British the "frontier areas" had been administered separately from Burma proper, and there was real doubt whether these frontier peoples would go along with the Burmans in demanding freedom, or would elect to remain with the British in some other form of association. It was only the personal appeal of General Aung San which persuaded the regional leaders to throw in their lot with the Burmans. He promised that their rights would be protected, and despite generations of latent mistrust – for the Burmans as the more developed race had long placed themselves on a higher level than their more primitive compatriots - they decided to trust him. The "Union" was formed and all seceded together from the British Commonwealth.

All went smoothly except for one of the minority races, the Karens, which also happened to be the largest. The Karens' trouble was that, unlike the other minorities, they had no well-defined homeland, but lived interspersed with the Burmans. Believing that they were as much entitled to "states' rights" as the other minorities, they demanded a separate Karen State, and, when it was slow in coming, decided to lay down their lives for it. Early in 1949, the tension flared into conflict and raged over in the country, opening grievous and tragic wounds winch to this day have not been entirely healed. Though the leaders of this particular rebellion are for the most part out of the struggle, a Karen State has been granted, and only a few die-hards still continue to fight.

Also dissatisfied with their position today are the Arakanese, who inhabit. Burma's western seaboard nearest to India. Cut off from the rest of the country by a high mountain range, the Arakanese have for generations developed a cultural identity of their own and although of Burmese origin, are actively demanding autonomy. The Government, fearful of fragmentation, is determined not to agree.

The AFPFL, hoping for a unitary state in the future, has made strong efforts to extend its own type of political organization and control into the minority areas. Thus far it has been most successful among the Kachins and the Chins. In the Shun State the transition from feudal rule to a democratic structure is not moving altogether smoothly. Two years ago, the sawbwas, responding to the prevailing feeling in the country, and warned by the Central Government that they were a target for Communist propaganda, agreed to relinquish their powers. But the details of the changeover are yet to be finalized. Owing to confusion of policy, the sawbwas are unhappy, and the Shan people – to whom the disappearance of their hereditary rulers is unimaginable – are bewildered.

Then there is another problem involving the frontier peoples: the threat of subversion from Red China, the neighbor who has, living in adjacent border areas, tribespeople similar in stock to those on the Burma side. Reliable information about Chinese activities is hard to come by, but it appears certain that the border Burmese are encouraged to trade and to seek medical and agricultural assistance across the line. There may also be some infiltration in remote areas where immigration checks are difficult. Thus, the importance of keeping the frontier peoples in close touch with Burma proper, and satisfied that they are getting their fair share of attention and of benefits in the shape of schools, hospitals, and modernization from the Central Government, cannot be underestimated.

Apart from the local Communists, above and below ground, the average person in Burma is but little concerned with the international relations of his country. Among the intelligentsia, however, there are two main groups: the Communists, vociferously attached to Russia and China; and those who are more quietly, but nevertheless fairly firmly, pro-West in sympathy, tastes, and inclinations. Yet one international problem recently became the focus of widespread attention because it touched a point of national tonal pride.

Late in 1955, Red China sent troops across the frontier in a remote area adjoining Yunnan, inhabited by a primitive tribe called the Was. Clashes with Burmese troops led to a series of talks between the two governments. The Chinese amazed the Burmese by questioning the validity of the whole fifteen-hundred-mile frontier. They proposed a "package deal" whereby they would agree to the old line, and would withdraw from the Wa area, if Burma would cede another small strip around Hpimah in the Kachin State.

The Burmese were angry, but not for long. They soon saw that even if this was blackmail, it was worth while to buy off the blackmailer if in return for the area demanded he would henceforward hold his peace about the rest of the long and virtually indefensible frontier. Premier U Nu himself promised that if this deal was agreed to he would make no further concessions and would firmly protest the slightest violation of the new line. The Burmese approved, also asking for a small tract around Namwan, but as of this date, the Chinese have yet to sign, seal, and deliver the "package."

Most Burmese, perennially optimistic, do not today believe that Red China will invade. Theirs is not a temperament to cross bridges before they come to them. But Red China's action has increased the awareness of even the man in the street that his mighty neighbor can be tough, and may someday prove seriously menacing.


What are the special roles of the AFPFL leaders who are shaping the destiny of Burma? Prime Minister U Nu, of the striking personality, is the best known. He has an easy charm and sincere friendliness which he has carried into the capitals of the world on his diplomatic tours. He likes to travel but finds time to keep an eye on all phases of government. A man who can be moved to compassion as well as to anger, he has matured with experience and with the practice of Buddhism, of which he is one of the most ardent supporters in Burma, devoting a part of each day to meditation and prayer. In politics, he has always been an independent.

U Ba Swe, U Kyaw Nyein, and Thakin Tin, all Socialists and each a Deputy Prime Minister, are U Nu's wheel horses in the Government. As Defense Minister, U Ba Swe seems to have made up his mind that it is a waste of time to parley with the Reds, but his war-to-the-knife policy would have been more successful if, as has been proved, Thakin Than Tun had not, at one point, known ahead of time every move planned against him. (A high-ranking army officer was recently retired following disclosures that his orders and the dispositions of his troops were known to the Communists.)

U Kyaw Nyein, as head of economic affairs, has had a hard time overcoming the shortcomings of the civil and technical services. A man with a keen mind and an alert intelligence, he still cannot locate enough assistants capable of discharging the banalities of administration. Rangoon has a new first class airport, but built at the cost of two; a cotton spinning and weaving factory, with machinery bought from America, spindles from Japan, erected by Italian engineers - and so far running at a loss; a steel rerolling mill that bids fair to become a white elephant; a pharmaceutical works; a jute factory; while Japanese reparations are being used in part for a hydroelectric scheme. U Kyaw Nyein arranges loans, looks into currency and exchange, and does the thousand and one things that socialist planning demands. Burma may be mulcted, gypped, and squeezed, but some machines do arrive and are put to work, some buildings are going up, and rice is being sold or exchanged as fast as it is milled.

It is, however, in Thakin Tin's department that the future of Burma rests: how to get the average peasant and worker to put in the effort that is so necessary for survival as a nation. The Burmese have an old saying, "Contract debts; the king pays." The Government has been accused of making huge profits out of the rice monopoly, at the expense of the cultivator. But no amount of subsidy can get the peasant to change his way of life. The Burman is capable of sustained effort, but only for a little while. He is inordinately vain. He is imprudent to a fault. Millions have been written off in the way of loans which he cannot, or will not, repay. His love of adventure, no less of short cuts and change, is what leaves him open to the Communist blandishment. The insurgents may have hurt him economically, even physically, but past injustices are soon forgotten (already the Japanese have been forgiven their wartime brutalities) and are not the Communists in Burma Burmese?

In this devil-may-care attitude may be seen the greatest threat to the stability, and the sanity, of Burma. The Communists, whatever may be said in their disfavor, are not lacking in boldness, ingenuity, and devotion to their cause. The AFPFL is fond of proclaiming, "Let them come and fight us in elections. We're ready to take them on." With a more educated, less volatile people, Communism would not have the appeal that it apparently does in countries where nature is less bountiful. But with conditions as they are, and the people the way they are, is there something in the AFPFL's confidence that others can share?

U Nu's answer is: "Spread religion to the country's farthest confines; make Buddhism a living religion; keep ourselves uncorrupted and striving after the common good; despite our failings we will win." He may be right.