24. Burma's Turbulent Course after World War II

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Southeast Asia: “In prior chapters, we saw how many of my modern countries escaped the chains of European colonialism. Due to the armed insurrection of freedom fighters led by Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno, both France and the Netherlands were forced to set their colonies free. The Dutch West Indies became the country of Indonesia. And French Indochina reverted to the nation/kingdoms of pre-colonial days – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Except at this time, Vietnam was divided into North and South. In contrast to these countries’ violent path to independence, the journey to self-rule was peaceful for Britain’s maritime colonies – Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

Now let’s see what happened to Britain’s mainland colony – Burma/Myanmar, after World War II. It wasn’t pretty.”

Post WWII: The peaceful path to Burmese independence

Recall that Aung San, one of the leaders of the Thakin Burmese independence movement, had barely escaped arrest at the beginning of the war. He along with 29 Burmese, the Thirty Comrades, subsequently received military training and assistance from Japan. On his return to Myanmar, Aung San formed the Burmese Independence Army. Initially his army cooperated with the Japanese to establish control of Myanmar. Fairly quickly, he discovered that the true intent of the Japanese was to establish political dominance rather than grant independence. Shifting allegiances, he began secretly collaborating with the Allied powers led by the English to defeat the Japanese. In the last years of the war, the Japanese granted the Burmese sovereignty to encourage them to cooperate. It only gave them a taste of freedom.

After the Japanese capitulated, the British returned to reestablish control. To this end, they attempted to try Aung San as a traitor for ‘collaborating’ with the Japanese. However, Aung San had a fully armed military force and the Burmese behind him ready to revolt. Sensing the propensities of the situation, the British shifted administrators. Instead of coercion, they employed negotiation to gain trust. New administrators imprisoned Aung San, charging him with treason. With the Burmese on the verge of revolt again, England at last agreed to free Burma from colonial rule. On Jan. 4, 1948, Burma became a sovereign, independent republic.

During negotiations for a peaceful transfer of power, Aung San and most members of his cabinet were assassinated by gunmen associated with U Saw, a fellow Burmese and former colleague. This was not a good sign, an unfortunate harbinger for the future. Thakin Nu assumed control of the independence movement and was elected president of the new democratic government.

Burma’s turbulent democracy (1948-1962)

Burma’s infrastructure had been destroyed during the war due to bombing by both the Japanese and the British. With its economy in shambles and its towns and villages destroyed, Burma needed peace to rebuild. To this end, they adopted a policy of international neutrality during the ensuing Cold War that enveloped the eastern half of the mainland, formerly French Indochina. However, due to the many ethno-linguistic groups (estimated to be over 100), internal insurrections began then that have lasted for decades.

In the first years of the country’s independence from Britain a variety of diverse groups staged uprisings: 2 competing Communist factions, Aung San's veterans, the Karen of the Christian faith, and the Mujahids, Muslim separatists on the coast. Even a division of the defeated Chinese Nationalist troops occupied northern Burma for a time. To stabilize the country, Ne Win was placed in charge of the military, a position he would hold for another 40 years, until 1988.

Foreign powers, especially the U.S., continued to provide the Nationalist Chinese army with military assistance in the misguided hope that they would reinvade and overthrow Communist China. In response, Burma rejected all foreign aid to avoid the strings of attachment associated with gifts. In their attempt to show impartiality, they were one of the first countries to recognize both Israel and Communist China.

When the nation of Burma was first established in 1948, it was a traditional democracy with a constitution and elected representatives. Despite the continuing internal turbulence, the country was on the road to economic recovery. Unfortunately there were power struggles amongst the leaders.

Burma’s Military Dictatorship (1962-2011)

In 1958 amid rumors of a military takeover, the president Thakin Nu invited the army chief of staff, Ne Win, to take the premiership. The wolf was inside the chicken coup. Ne Win had been a member of the original Burmese independence movement, one of the Thirty Comrades, and Aung San's second in command. Having been part of the Burmese independence since the beginning, Ne Win had popular support. After becoming premier, Ne Win established internal security, stabilized the military situation, and prepared the country for general elections in 1960.

Thakin Nu won the elections. Instead of attempting to defuse the volatile ethnic rivalries, he asserted the Burmese majority views on the rest of the population. Shortly after the election, he declared that Buddhism was the state religion. This infuriated the Christian Karen population in the mountains and the Islamic population on the coast. Further because of his Burmese orientation, the Tai-speaking Shan in the north threatened to secede.

With all this turbulence threatening a popular revolt, Thakin Nu made his last mistake. He nationalized the import trade. Unfortunately for him, a military-controlled corporation was in charge of this trade. To protect these profits, Ne Win imprisoned all the democratic leaders including his colleague and fellow revolutionary, Thakin Nu. He then seized control of the government. His professed and time-honored justification for the military takeover was to prevent the nation from disintegrating.

Ne Win’s military coup of 1962 established a military dictatorship that is still in effective control of Burma/Myanmar 50 years later in 2014. Although the military junta was officially dissolved after a 2010 general election, they still exert indirect control via press censorship and by limiting social assemblies and dissent. Although the military is gradually allowing more civilian control over the government, their enormous influence is written into the constitution that was ratified in 2008.

Ne Win (1962-1988), Myanmar’s abusive father

Ne Win remained in dictatorial control of Myanmar from 1962 until the late 1980s when social disturbances threatened his regime. He resigned from the military in 1972 and the presidency in 1981. Even after he was not officially in charge, he continued to pull the strings from behind the stage as leader of the state party. Due to his long reign, it is safe to say that Ne Win is the father of modern Myanmar. Unfortunately for Myanmar, he was an abusive father.

This abuse manifested personally, economically and politically. Let’s start with him as a person. He stressed a return to the traditional values of Buddhism – no gambling, austerity, and a non-materialist approach to life. He was a terrible role model in this regard. He was a gambler, a womanizer, and led a lavish life style. Instead of vigilantly monitoring the results of his misguided policies, he spent 2 months a year in Wimbledon, London, where he had a home.

Ne Win’s neglect of his country was in stark contrast to other dictators of the era. China’s Mao and Singapore’s Lee were also repressive leaders, but they at least practiced what they preached. Although some of their policies were questionable, they seem to have been genuinely concerned for their nation’s welfare, which included the populace.

Ne Win’s economic policies were also abusive. Shortly after assuming the reigns of power, he suspended the 1947 constitution and embarked on an ambitious economic program to turn Burma, as it was still called, into what he considered to be a truly socialist state. To this end, administration was decentralized and the nationalization of land, commerce and industry was completed.

In some ways, this was a return to the traditional Burmese politico-economic system – no private property with a central government in control. However, it is here that the similarity ends. Traditional Burmese society was quasi-democratic. Village headsmen communicated needs to tribal chieftains, who then relayed these local needs to the advisors of a sympathetic and responsive monarch. In contrast, Ne Win felt he knew what was best for the country and didn’t take recommendations. His latent megalomania is revealed in the nomme de guerre (name) that he chose for himself. Ne Win means ‘Brilliant like the Sun’.

Instead of responding to modern propensities, Burma under Ne Win retreated into a xenophobic shell. All foreign investment was banned and all foreign companies were nationalized. Further, 200,000 Indian and Pakistani who had been living in Burma for generations were expelled. Citizenship was denied to anyone of foreign extraction. Also, Bengali Muslims on the Western border were required to register. This hostile act ignited an exodus of 200,000 former citizens. Ne Win and his government were at least equal opportunity racists. They exhibited equal disdain, at least during this time, for Britain, the U.S., the Soviet Union, China and their immediate neighbors.

This aggressive isolation was terrible for the Burmese economy. They continued to need international assistance to rebuild an infrastructure that had been completely destroyed by World War II bombings. Self-sufficiency is a practical impossibility in the modern world. Also foreigners of many nationalities, i.e. Europeans, Chinese, and Indians, had been the business leaders in Burma for decades, if not centuries. Instead of employing their talents, the Burmese seized control of their wealth. Besides completely alienating the international business community, they had no experience in managing these assets. Further, the central government, ignoring local needs, focused their attentions upon industrialization for ‘modernization’ at the expense of agriculture. This misguided intent led to food shortages, which further destabilized the political situation.

Besides repelling international investments, Ne Win’s policy of ‘Burma for the Burmese’ destroyed any hope for internal stability. For instance, the stress on Buddhism alienated tribes who belonged to other religions. Notably, it ignited a decades long insurrection of the Christian Karen tribes. Located in the remote hills of the Himalayas, they were not a cohesive unit. However, they united as one to protect their culture. Instead of establishing an atmosphere of assimilation and cooperation, the government’s racist intentions fostered hostility and ethnic tensions.

Contrast the Burmese strategy with the Malaysian strategy. The Malaysian move towards independence stressed accommodating the needs of all ethnicities as well as including them in the social network. This minimized racial tensions as well as neutralizing the Communist insurrection. Further the Malay, while maintaining tight control on political power, worked with the international business community rather than expelling them. This strategy led to national prosperity, which eventually benefited all Malaysians. It seems safe to say that inclusion is generally a better policy than exclusion, if one’s interest is in creating a safe and nurturing environment for the greater community.

However, exclusion is definitely the best strategy for creating a hostile environment that justifies a military dictatorship. Concentrating all the wealth in the hands of an unresponsive military elite, led to calls for social reform. Communism was the desperation choice after the cries for assistance were ignored. A sustained Communist insurrection engulfed the northern territories, especially the Tai-speaking Shan states.

Drug Trade: competition between Military & Communists

In addition, widespread corruption in the army led to cooperation with the opium warlords in the north. They controlled the so-called Golden Triangle, which encompassed the mountainous regions of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, and supplied the world with over half of its opium-derived heroin. The remnants of the aforementioned Chinese Nationalist Army combined with traditional Hill Tribes and members of the Burmese military to control this lucrative trade.

Opium poppy a traditional cash crop for Hill Tribes since 1200s

The Hill Tribes of the Himalayas had been using the opium poppy for a cash crop since the late 1200s. At this time, Arab traders first brought it to China, during the reign of the Mongol Kublai Khan. As a crop that does well on marginal agricultural land, the opium poppy thrives on the arid soils at high altitudes. Further, opium has tremendous medicinal powers, including sedation, which were employed widely by the many cultures of the region.

During Vietnam War Hill Tribes encouraged to deal in opium

During the decades of the Vietnam War, both the American CIA and communists had encouraged the Hill Tribes to plant and harvest the opium poppy to be converted into heroin. It would then be smuggled where it would be needed. This illicit and disgusting drug trade yielded huge profits to finance their wars. The various Hill Tribes made so much money during this decades long period that they abandoned their traditional crops in place of the more lucrative opium poppy. The profits were easy and the Hill Tribes were loath to give it up. In a 1999 guidebook that listed primary sources of income for the Hill Tribes, opium was still listed in the top three for the Hill Tribes of Thailand.

At one point the U.S. began supplying Burma with military aid with the avowed purpose of eliminating the drug trade. Instead, the corrupt military of the Burmese employed the supplied weaponry in an unsuccessful attempt to crush the Communist insurgency, who were also their competitors in the lucrative opium trade. In response, the Communist leaders claimed that the Burmese military dictatorship was a tool of American imperialism. In this particular case, it was probably true. The army employed the U.S. funds to rid itself of a rival, who happened to be the International Business Cartel’s enemy as well.

To top off these external and internal problems, the Burmese military was repressive, including complete press censorship and brutal suppression of human rights. Because of all these factors: international isolation, internal dissension, and political repression, Ne Win’s rule, which included the 1960’s, 70’s, and most of the 80’s, was not good for the bulk of Burma’s citizenry. Slender rays of hope only began shining after his reign ended.

 

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