U Nu meets with Gandhi, 1947.
U Nu meets with Gandhi, 1947.

Reframing the ‘Burma question’

It is important that Burma's well-wishers better understand the country's complex history and complicated present, and use creative and sensible ways of negotiating with its military establishment.

Over the monsoon of 1946, as the contest between the Congress Party and the Muslim League was determining the fate of the Subcontinent, a very different fortune for colonial India's erstwhile province of Burma was also being framed.

A little a more than four years earlier, the Fifteenth Imperial Army of General Shojiro Iida had driven the British out of Burma, turning the country into a gigantic battlefield in a vicious fight that led to the complete destruction of nearly every city and town. The radical nationalist fighters under Aung San had first collaborated with the Japanese, and then in the spring of 1945 turned against their mentors, Aung San declaring himself an Allied commander and head of a provisional government.

The returning British at first chose to sideline Aung San, planning for a long period of reconstruction, elections and gradual transfer of power. But Aung San upped the pressure, attracting huge crowds of supporters and quietly threatening a mass uprising. Jawaharlal Nehru insisted that the Indian Army would not be available to quell a Burmese revolt and the British, their hands full with Palestine and India, decided that the prudent thing to do was to quit Burma.

And so they did, in January 1948. But six months beforehand, Aung San, together with most of his Cabinet, had been gunned down in a still-mysterious terrorist attack. The most senior Burmese in the Indian Civil Service, U Tin Tut, a King's Commissioned Officer and slated to head the new Burma Army, would soon be killed as well, by unknown assailants. Even worse, the country's leading communists – including many of the brightest and most capable of their generation – had gone underground and were plotting rebellion. By the time the last of the Yorkshire Light Infantry had sailed away from Rangoon harbour to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne", Burma was already at civil war – a war that has continued without interruption to this very day, the longest-running armed conflict in the world.

For months, the infant Burmese government, under Aung San's friend and colleague U Nu, battled against an array of communist insurgencies, at first depending on the loyalty of ethnic Karen and Kachin battalions, trained by the British and now merged together with the Japanese-trained battalions of Aung San's partisan force. Slowly, however, the army began to splinter. New militia and bandit gangs overran the Irrawaddy Valley. Meanwhile, the Karen, seeking their own state within the Commonwealth, split from the Burma Army and raised their own flag of rebellion. In early 1949, the Karens and the communists jointly occupied Mandalay. The soldiers of U Nu's government, led by General Ne Win, fought to hold the frontline just outside Rangoon. Over the next few years, the fighting would only intensify, but with a new inter-ethnic element, adding to the immense destruction already wrought by the Second World War.

Today, sixty years later, there is a belief among many that the 'Burma problem' is something new. The anti-government demonstrations of 1988, crushed with great brutality; the failure of the military government to respect the results of the 1990 elections; the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi as leader of the opposition – all of these frame a seemingly straightforward picture of 'democracy vs tyranny' and 'progressive change vs intransigence'. For many, the problem of Burma is the problem of the present military government and that government's failure to move towards meaningful democratic reform. There is a sense that all would be well if only the military would step aside, and to make this happen many advocate sanctions, boycotts and long-distance condemnation as a way of pressuring the Burmese generals to see the error of their ways. But all this is based on a singularly ahistorical understanding of Burma's present predicament, of the country's poverty, war and dictatorship. To be more mindful of the country's past is the first step in knowing better how to help Burma today.

The old kingdom

There is no doubting that the Burmese military governments are much to blame. That blame runs deep, not just to the past ten or 15 years but to the very beginnings of army rule in 1962, and perhaps even further back to the corrosive role of militant nationalism during the country's emergence from colonial rule in the 1940s. But we must begin at an even earlier date: 1885, the end of the old kingdom.

It was in 1885 that Lord Randolph Churchill, Secretary of State for India, decided that the kingdom of Burma would be annexed to the British Indian Empire. His hope was for a speedy colonial victory, one which would bolster chances for his Conservative Party in the general elections that November. The expeditionary force under Sir Harry Prendergast reached Mandalay with little opposition and immediately exiled King Thibaw to Madras, and then to Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast. But soon, unexpectedly, a determined guerrilla campaign emerged to fight the British occupation. To crush this would require a further 40,000 British and Indian troops, summary executions and the large-scale forced displacement of entire communities. By the end of it all, in the early 1890s, Burmese society had been turned upside down. The old social structure, one which had evolved in the Irrawaddy Valley over centuries, was no more. Burma, more than any other part of the British Empire in Asia, would enter the 20th century with an abrupt, traumatic rupture with the past.

The Burmese were left with other problematic colonial legacies. With the old order destroyed, the British imported nearly wholesale the governing institutions of the rest of British India, entirely alien to the Burmese experience and political culture. A massive flood of people from all parts of the Subcontinent then entered the country in the wake of the occupation. Immigration on a large scale is bound to have its difficulties in any country, but to have this happen under colonial domination led to a bottling up of tensions that in the 1920s spilled over into violence. The hill regions of Burma, inhabited by minority peoples and comprising about a third of the country's population, were deliberately kept apart by British policy – something which would have dire consequences for the future. Then, the British withdrew almost as quickly as they had come, after only some 60-odd years. Colonialism dismantled Burmese tradition but left behind only the most fragile of institutions for the new, post-independence leadership.

It was into this vacuum that the Burmese army stepped. In the 1940s the army was down to a couple of thousand men, including the Japanese-trained officers of General Ne Win's own Fourth Burma Rifles. They fought back the insurgents and reclaimed territory, all the while expanding, purchasing new arms from abroad, learning lessons, becoming more professional and, in many places, forming the de facto administration. There were setbacks, and there was foreign interference. The US, for example, supported remnants of Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalist armies as they retreated into eastern Burma and established opium-producing sanctuaries. Thailand long supported the Karen fighters along its border. And Beijing, in the late 1960s, all but invaded Burma in order to claim a vast swathe of territory for its protégés in the Burma Communist Party. Slowly, however, the Burmese army prevailed, mounting new and ever more brutal counter-insurgency campaigns, and becoming for all purposes a shadow government. In 1962, it was easily able to overthrow U Nu's elected government.

Village Burma

Gen Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council then did three things that would be disastrous for Burma in the modern period. First, like Idi Amin a few years later, he expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians, including many whose families had lived and worked in Burma for generations. They left with little more than the shirts on their backs. For better or worse, under colonial rule, ethnic Indians had come to dominate nearly all modern and urban occupations, from factory work to the professions to big business. The British had overturned the old royal and aristocratic elites, and then they themselves departed. Now the urban Indian classes were expelled. There would be little left besides village Burma.

Second, Gen Ne Win imposed a pure military dictatorship, which step by step dismantled or undermined all other state capacities. Hundreds of well-trained senior bureaucrats were promptly dismissed, and the Burma Civil Service was undone. Whereas in many other military regimes in Asia army officers preside over other state institutions, in Burma the army became the state. As a result, all else began to wither away.

Third and most disastrously, Gen Ne Win nationalised all major businesses and then isolated the country from the rest of the world. Foreign investment was banned, as was nearly all trade. Tourism was stopped, and for more than a decade no one was allowed to visit the country. Aid programmes were halted and foreign advisors sent home. Burmese citizens were not allowed to travel and few could study abroad. A series of catastrophic economic decisions were made, and Burma's economy quickly entered a downward spiral. Within this cocoon, the Burmese army was able to evolve and grow and to fight insurgencies the way it wanted. Isolation became the army's default and happiest state.

What does all this mean for Burma today? By 1988, when tens of thousands took to the streets to demand an end to army rule, a quarter-century of Ne Win's policies, coming on top of two decades more of war and a peculiarly difficult colonial legacy, had already brought Burmese society to its knees. A whole generation had grown up with little contact with the outside world – Burma had evolved as a strange, parochial society, which knew little else than dictatorship and economic mismanagement; but the people nevertheless knew that things could be better. Even in the army there was a new generation that hoped to join the ranks of Asia's now fast-growing economies, but it did not have a clear idea of how to get there.

In March 1989, there was a dramatic new development in the hills: the Burma Communist Party, in armed revolt since 1948, collapsed as a result of an internal mutiny. The Burmese army quickly agreed to ceasefires with successor militia and then persuaded or pressured many of the other insurgencies to agree to ceasefires as well. For the first time in more than half a century, the guns went silent in many parts of the country.

There seemed to be an opening that allowed for something new. Nearly everyone wanted an end to the complicated, multi-front civil war. Nearly everyone wanted an opening-up to the rest of the world and economic development. In the early 1990s, the government reformed aspects of economic policy and made possible foreign investment and private trade, for the first time since 1962. But the tragedy of recent Burmese history is that this opportunity for a new beginning is being squandered for want of agreement on the country's political future. For the army, an end to the civil war and economic development must precede any political change, which it sees at most as a slow and gradual process that will take place on its own terms. For others, 'regime change' and 'democracy' are paramount and must come first. In the West, activists have successfully campaigned for trade and investment sanctions and boycotts. But to try and further isolate one of the most isolated countries in the world, whose poverty, repression, ethnic conflict and political violence are in many ways fuelled or made possible by decades of self-imposed seclusion, would be immensely counter-productive. What is needed instead is a fresh approach which takes into account Burma's long history of problems and seeks not a magic bullet which will transform the country into a prosperous democracy, but some realistic first steps which can break the pernicious cycle of recent years. Progress should be sought across the range of issues – humanitarian, development, political and human rights – ideally in cooperation with the United Nations.

To realistically address Burma's problems, it will not do to place democratic change exclusively at the core of the agenda. Such placement of democratic change at the very centre of focus tends to sideline the necessity for a just and sustainable end to 60 years of armed conflict. It also marginalises the urgent need to get the Burmese economy on track, to invest in basic needs such as healthcare and education, and to meet the serious humanitarian challenges now emerging. All these matters, including the building of democratic values and institutions, are linked and should be made to progress together. With development and an end to the civil war, real options for democratic change will rapidly emerge.

It is important that the Burmese authorities be convinced that change is not a zero-sum game, that progress on all fronts is possible and desirable, and that the United Nations will help the country through the transition. This will require patient and creative diplomacy, and not just long-distance censure, from all concerned.

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