The Burmese Nationalist Elite’s Pre-Independence Exploration of a National Development Road

Li Chenyang

From the 1930s, patriotic intellectuals, mostly college students, led Burma’s national liberation movement. They actively pursued the country’s independence and simultaneously explored ways of developing the economy and political system, religious and political relations, ethnic minority issue and foreign policy of the country in the future. This proactive exploration by the Burmese nationalist elite focused on issues that might affect the course of the country’s modernization. To gain an in-depth, historical understanding of their quest, therefore, will help illuminate the deep-rooted causes of Burma’s stagnant modernization after its independence.

The Burmese Nationalist Elite’s Understanding of Socialism Before Burma’s Independence

From January 1948, when Burma won its independence, until September 1988, every Burmese government claimed to be building socialism in Burma but each of their efforts ended in failure. One reason is that national leaders such as U Nu, U Ba Swe, and Ne Win had many misunderstandings about socialism, both before and after independence.

[quote]The dissemination and influence of socialism in Burma before independence[/quote]

On January 10, 1923, the magazine Royal City (published in Rangoon) carried the articles “What is Communism?” and “What Kind of Ism is Socialism?” These were the earliest documents about socialism that we could find in Burma. Several years later, on September 7, 1927, the magazine Bandura published “The Soviet Union’s Development” by Gyi Ah. This article introduced readers to how the Soviet Union fought the imperialist powers and helped other countries win national liberation. U Ba U’s Politics, also published in 1927, was the first Burmese book to discuss Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen’s Utopian Socialism in a relatively comprehensive way. After about 1930, some Burmese intellectuals studying in Britain built relationships with the British Communist Party. Among them, Thakin Thein Maung brought back eight volumes of the Selected Works of Lenin that soon became popular among progressive youth. And with the books and newspapers of the British Communist Party mailed home by Thakin Thein Maung, the We Burmese Association (WBA) was able to publish many articles introducing socialism in its publication, We Burmese News, beginning in December 1931 (Yao, et al. 1993: 224-225). In spite of the fact that the British colonial rulers banned publication of books about the October Revolution and Marxism, and the late appearance of such books in Burma, young Burmese intellectuals such as Thakin Nu, Thakin Than Tun, and Thakin Soe soon became supporters and disciples of Marxism.

 The Saya San Library and the Nagani Book Club also played an important role in disseminating socialist thought. In November 1931, before peasant leader Saya San was executed by the British for his role in a peasant uprising, he entrusted to U Tun Pei, a journalist with the Burmese newspaper The Sun, the 300 kyats remuneration he had received for publishing of Pharmacopoeia, to be donated in turn to the We Burmese Association. With the help of British scholar J.S. Furnivall and with reference to the bibliography of Nehru’s Study of the Soviet Union, U Tun Pei purchased a series of Marxist and Leninist works and other progressive books. The Saya San Library was thus built up and became the center for leaders of the WBA to read and discuss the situation at home and abroad (Yao, et al. 1993: 225-226).

In April 1937, a new colonial government was set up under the Organic Law of Burma (1935). The Ba Maw government lifted the ban on the entry of progressive books into Burma. The key members of the WBA – Thakin Nu, Thakin Than Tun, and some others – following the model of the British Left Book Club, set up the Nagani Book Club on November 4, 1937. The club initially had only 217 members, but by 1939 the number reached 3000 (Yao 1984: 27). Although the club claimed it was not a political organization, its political viewpoints were quite clear. We can see from the club’s activities and publications that its members had done some primary research on Burma’s future development road, including infusing the idea of independence into all Burmese people, leading the people to win early independence, combatting suppression of freedom of speech and fighting for the right of self-defence, calling for a fair and equitable administrative system supported by the majority, opposing wars that make capitalists rich but the masses suffer, and advocating the basic right to subsistence (Yao et al. 1993: 227). Three books published by the club – Socialism by Thakin Soe, Socialist Theory and Practice by John Strachey, and a selected translation of Capital by Thakin Nu – had a profound impact on Burmese society. During the four years of the club’s existence, it made indelible contributions to advancing the anti-imperialism movement and disseminating scientific socialist thought in Burma.

 Moreover, the Socialist Book Club, founded in 1938, actively organized its members to study the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin through articles written for national newspapers. Its members had open discussions on major issues such as the Burmese national democratic revolution, the labor movement, and the establishment of a Marxist party. The club claimed that Marxism was the most reliable weapon to fight imperialism, fascism, and the capitalist class, and was the only means for reforming Burma.

Communist Party of Burma flag from 1939 to 1946
Communist Party of Burma flag from 1939 to 1946

By the late 1930s, socialism had become a banner inspiring the Burmese people to fight colonial rule and build a better society. We can even say that the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was founded under such a banner in 1939. Back in 1936, at the second Congress of the WBA, the newly elected president announced that the goal of the association was to set up a communist country in Burma (He 1985: 5). At the third Congress, the peacock image in the middle of the association emblem was replaced by the hammer and sickle. The resolution made by the Peasant’s Congress of Burma held in January 1939 pledged to “struggle for the establishment of a socialist country based on the alliance of workers and peasants” (Vasilyev 1975: 404). The resolution passed by one hundred delegates attending the Burmese Working Class Congress held in late January 1940 also stated that the ultimate goal was to establish a socialist country in Burma (Vasilyev 1975: 440). A statement by the WBA in the spring of 1940 stressed that one of the goals of the association was to realize a dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in Burma, to realize nationalization, and to nationalize all the land, forests, railways, large factories, and banks (Vasilyev 1975: 442-443). In order to overthrow Japanese fascist rule, the People’s Revolution Party, which later became the Socialist Party of Burma (SPB), signed a joint anti-Japan action program with the CPB in October 1944. In the program, they again proposed to take the socialist road in Burma.

 After World War II, socialism was the most popular system of thought in the world. But in Burma, there was a clear divergence between socialism and communism. In contrast to our understanding, socialism in Burma after WWII meant the political and economic doctrines pursued by the SPB and people holding the same views, while communism was believed to be the system pursued by the CPB and practiced in communist countries in the world (He 1985: 7). In reality, the SPB and CPB were against each other and left no room for co-existence. The SPB represented the petty bourgeoisie in urban and rural areas. Its role and position in Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (APFL) were strengthened after the CPB was expelled from the League. At the first congress of the SPB in December 1946, chairman U Ba Swe delivered a speech entitled Guide for the Socialist Party of Burma. The Guide systematically introduced the basic concepts of socialism. It stated that the SPB is “a party relying on workers, peasants, and paupers who make a living on brainwork or manual labor,” that the political theory of the party was “socialism based on Marxism,” that the goal of the party was to “release the Burmese people from being oppressed and exploited” and to build up a “socialist Burma” where everybody was as affluent as Burma as a whole and enjoyed equal rights to seek personal development. Furthermore, it emphasized that although the party was built on Marxism, it should seek the truth from facts and apply Marxism in line with Burma’s actual conditions rather than follow or develop political theory in a dogmatic way (Collection 1964: 67-68). The content of the Guide, together with the slogan Build a Socialistic Burma, indicated that the pursuit of socialism in Burma was not an expedient policy. In June 1947, a High-level Army and Government Conference was held in Villa Sorrento in Rangoon. Delegates to the conference proposed to abolish the colonial economic system based on the simple export of raw materials and to build up a socialistic economy with a focus on nationalization and industrialization. In September 1947, U Nu, who replaced Aung San as League chairman, claimed in the Constituent Assembly that “we must repeal the unfair and partial economic system once we take the helm of state.” The League again picked the slogan of building socialism in Burma (Yang et al. 1990: 119).

 Before Burma’s independence, young Burmese intellectuals did not have a holistic and systematic understanding of Marx’s scientific socialism, nor did most of them view Marxism as a proletariat world outlook or scientific theory. But Marxism’s staunch, uncompromising stance against the existing social system gave them sufficient reason to transform their thought into action. To the Burmese people, who lived under colonial oppression and and believed in Buddhism, the attraction of Marxism came from its attack on western materialism and colonialism rather than its historical materialistic theory. Marx’s assertion that capitalism would inevitably perish and socialism triumph sounds similiar to Buddhism’s doctrine of samsara (transmigration) and therefore could be easily accepted. Nationalist youth who had read Marxist works (mainly members of the WBA) accepted some of the theories from the standpoint of overthrowing British colonial rule. To convince more Burmese people, they explained Marxism in the terms and conceptions of Buddhism. Thakin Soe, one of the founders of the CPB, was a master of this strategy. He explained Lenin’s concept of combining revolutionary theory and practice from the standpoint of upholding the Buddhist scriptures to guide action. He used the concept of the acme of perfection in Buddhism to illustrate that the revolutionary leaders must have perfect qualities. He introduced the dialectical materialistic concept that matter is in constant motion with the Buddhist concept of metempsychosis. The theory of cause and effect in Buddhism was used to interpret that all matters are temporary, and the breakdown of such temporality was called “happening” in Buddhism (Zhang 1994: 345). U Ba Swe, founder of the SPB, used “happening” to describe the beginning of social revolution. He equated “heaven on earth” in Buddhism with the ideal society described in Marx’s theory of scientific socialism (Zhang 1994: 345). During this period, Burmese revolutionaries obviously combined Buddhist philosophy and Marxism. However, in practice, the central goal of most of the nationalist elite was not to build up a real socialist Burma but to win Burma’s national independence. Their political program was not a scientific proletarian socialist program but one that fell into the category of bourgeois democracy.

 In brief, socialism was highly influential before independence, and all political forces after independence would continue to hold the socialist banner high in order to gain popular support, seize state power, or to maintain power.

[quote]Aung San’s understanding of socialism[/quote]

As the main leader of Burma’s national liberation movement, Aung San was a pragmatic politician more than an innovative political philosopher or thinker. But he did some thinking about the development road Burma should take after independence and he had definite views on communism and socialism.

 Aung San made it clear that he was opposed to communism. He once said, “deeply touched as we are by the planned economy to be practiced under communism, still we are still very strongly opposed to it” (He 1985: 8). He believed that upon gaining independence, Burma could not immediately start its transition to socialism because of its backward economy. Instead, the necessary preliminary conditions for socialist reconstruction should be prepared first (Kaufmann 1975: 39). Aung San was nevertheless dead set against both imperialism and capitalism. He claimed that people of all ethnic groups must fight not only against oppression from foreign countries but against exploitation by native capitalists as well. He stated in a speech on January 20, 1946, that a “capitalism being based on anarchic production for profit and resultant inequalities in distribution of wealth, is no longer able to solve the problems that it itself sets. Instead, it [causes] irreconcilable antagonism between man and man, race and race, nation and nation [that] leads to a series of local wars. [This] will continue that way as long as capitalism exists on the face of this earth until it faces the logical music of history and transform itself into socialism” (Silverstein 1972: 56). However, Aung San admitted that the existence of some elements of capitalism might not be negative in serving the interests of the people. State control over private enterprises should be strengthened, however, confining their activities to contributing social benefit (Kaufmann 1975: 39-40). He said, “We could and should exercise control and restriction on capitalism. Only in this way can we develop our economic system and go through the capitalist stage and finally realize real democracy” (Vasilyev 1975: 722). Aung San defined his social and economic system as something between socialism and capitalism, a “middle-of-the-road” transitional system. This demonstrates that the leadership of the national liberation movement headed by Aung San had a hazy understanding of socialism and a cautious attitude toward taking the socialist or capitalist road after Burma’s independence.

[quote]U Nu’s understanding of socialism[/quote]

As the translator of selected chapters of Marxist and Leninist works, including some chapters of Capital, and the author of the article “I am a Marxist,” U Nu got to know Marxism when quite young. But U Nu was consistently opposed to communism, which he thought “went against the will of Holy Buddha” (Zhao 1982: 95). Early in his engagement with the student movement, U Nu fought against leftist students who believed in communism and managed to squeeze the socialist faction led by Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe out of the Nagani Book Club. After Burma’s independence, U Nu began to denounce Marxism openly and unscrupulously tried to lift the status of Buddhism. In 1950, in a debate on a bill of the Buddha Sasana Council, U Nu said in the Congress, “We have the responsibility to retort unequivocally that the wisdom and knowledge Karl Marx may have is much less than one tenth of a mote on the foot of our Holy Buddha” (Smith 1965: 126-127). In 1958, U Nu said before the opening of the League Conference, “It is totally impossible that Marxism and Buddhism are both accurate so that we can accept them both. We did not carefully research into Marxism when we were young. Our understanding came from hearsay or superficial reading of Marx’s books. And we rushed to claim that Marxism was the same as Buddhism. We feel very regretful now for we made such a reckless and unsubstantial conclusion” ((Smith 1965: 130-131). He added, “The Buddha’s instructions are much better than Karl Marx’s teachings in curing the chaotic Burma. The Burmese people can learn much more from the Buddha than from Karl Marx” (Cady 1984: 196).

Burma’s Political System

Change in the economic structure fundamentally determines a country’s political development, and the subjective choices of the national elite in power plays a critical role in this development. Burma’s historical development suggests that its political development may have followed this law over the long run. The establishment of its political system after independence was totally consistent with subjective choices made by the nationalist elite long before the country’s independence.

 Aung San drew a rough road map for Burma’s post-independence political development: first strive for national independence, then pursue the solidarity of all Burmese nationalities, thirdly realize democracy, and finally take the socialist road (Houtman 1999: 20). Aung San argued that Burma was a pluralistic society and different political structures should co-exist within a supreme cohesive framework. In other words, based on the fact that Burma was a multinational country, a unified national identity and national culture should be cultivated to lend legitimacy to the building of a national sovereign state.  

Aung San made it clear that he was opposed to communism.
Aung San made it clear that he was opposed to communism.

 In terms of the system of government, Aung San mentioned in the Free Burma Project in January 1941, that the initial objective was to build an independent Republic of Burma, and that outdated systems such as absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchy must be discarded (Vasilyev 1975: 465). There were both historical and realistic factors why Burma’s political elite adopted British-style parliamentary democracy. Back in June 1922, the British Parliament passed the Burma Reform Act which provided for the first Legislative Assembly election in November of the same year and the implementation of dyarchy. Under the latter, colonial Burma’s government was divided into branches reserved to the British (such as national defense, foreign affairs, finance, etc.) and branches handed over to the Burmese (such as education and public health). Legislative Assembly elections were subsequently held in 1925, 1928, and 1932. Although not many people voted, all classes in Burma gradually became familiar with British-style parliamentary democracy. In August 1935, the British Parliament approved the 1935 Burmese Organic Law which separated Burma from India on April 1, 1937, and made the country Britain’s direct colony. It also cancelled dyarchy and set up a cabinet nominally responsible to the Lower House of Parliament, but actually dictated by the British governor in Burma. This system lasted until Japan’s invasion in 1942. Therefore, the Burmese nationalist elite of the pre-independence period knew the British system best. Practically speaking, it was impossible for bourgeois representatives like Aung San and U Nu to accept the people’s democratic dictatorship system as advocated by the Communist Party. And, too, the British would never allow Burma to become a country ruled by a communist party after independence.

 Aung San himself favored unitary state power and a one-party system in the state’s political administration. “What we want is a strong state administration as exemplified in Germany and Italy, There shall be only one nation, one party, one leader. There shall be no parliamentary (sic) opposition, no nonsense of individualism.” he said, “The one-party rule is so far the best form to give and maintain a strong stable administration although we cannot say that it is the ideal form forever” (Silverstein 1972: 14). But Aung San and other leaders did not forget to protect the basic rights of citizens. The first declaration and guiding principle of Banishing the Japanese Fascist Invaders, passed at the AFPFL Inaugurating Meeting in August 1944, stated that citizens’ freedom of speech, writing, opinion, and association should be ensured (Zhao 1991: 109). Talking in June 1947 about basic principles in the constitution-making process, Aung San pointed out that the constitution must ensure social, political, and economic equality and guarantee freedom of thought, speech, religion, profession, association, and action, as well as equality of status and opportunity before the law (Maung Maung 1962: 125) The new constitution passed in September 1947 also included protection of citizens’ free and democratic rights.

In establishing state organizations, the 1947 constitution implemented a parliamentary republic. Although the President was Burma’s chief of state, he had very limited power; executive power was in the hands of the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. The Federal Parliament had the legislative power, with the upper house being the House of People and the lower, the House of Nations. The Supreme Court and superior courts had the judicial power.

 Economic Development Strategy and Specific Policies

Though not an economist, Aung San had been aware of Burma’s urgent economic problems earlier and with greater understanding than his peer patriots (Kaufmann 1975: 33). In the Free Burma Project, released in January 1941, he proposed to confiscate British capital, exterminate land ownership by landlords, carry out land reform, realize industrialization, coordinate the relationship between labor and management, and strengthen supervision over compulsory primary education, administrative reform, foreign trade, and the price of commodities (Vasilyev 1975: 465). Aung San also proposed that the country nationalize the means of production, land, natural resources, forest, mines, oil fields, electric energy, means of communications, and co-ops, that industrial enterprises and public utility firms be operated by the state, that foreign trade be operated by the state, and that the principle of “land to the tiller” be put into practice, giving poor peasants priority in getting assistance (Kaufmann 1975: 39).

 In agriculture, Aung San stressed the importance of crop diversity and proposed to ban the import of agricultural products that could be planted at home. He encouraged the export of farm produce to raise funds for the development of industry. Other measures included setting up credit co-ops and united trading firms, supporting the development of agriculture with loans, establishing protective policies for investment in agriculture, improving agricultural infrastructure construction, carrying out incentive policies to increase agricultural production, cutting loan repayment under disastrous circumstances, and arranging the production of different agricultural products in rational proportions (Tin Zaw 1974, cited in Hao 1998: 5). In terms of industry, Aung San encouraged cottage industry to lay the foundation for the development of heavy industry. He stressed that industry should ultimately be controlled by the government and that industrial protection policies should be implemented. In order to maintain national sovereignty, he suggested reducing loans from foreign countries, although he also believed that such loans could serve as an important source of funds to develop the country (Hao 1998: 12): “We shall accept foreign capital, provided it will work under proper controls. And not exploited as in the past. Foreign capital should reap fair rewards, and we would, on our part, benefit from the employment it gives our peoples, and in the growth of our economy.” (Maung Maung 1962: 134).

 Aung San firmly believed that only nationalization could improve people’s living standards. Therefore, he said in a May 23, 1947, speech: “We must nationalize the basic  industries and the vital utilities such as electricity, transport and communications. The benefits of the economy must accrue to the general welfare. We must prohibit monopolist organizations such as cartels, syndicates and trusts” (Maung Maung 1962: 129-130). And: “Other enterprises can adopt cooperative or joint state-private ownership when the government cannot operate them temporarily” (Aung Than 1964, quoted in Zhao 1983: 418). This shows that Aung San’s arguments provided sources of thoughts for Ne Win to carry out the massive nationalization of the early 1960s. But Aung San also pointed out that “Burma will need foreign capital for fast economic growth, and we must welcome it.” (Maung Maung 1962: 134). This is quite different from Ne Win’s self-imposed isolation policy and total, long-term refusal to accept foreign aid.

 Thakin Than Tun, General Secretary of the CPB, carried out rural reforms as head of the Agriculture Ministry in the Ba Maw government after WWII. The reform measures included reducing land taxes, re-allocating land, diversifying crops, developing rural co-ops, and offering agricultural credits. These reforms were very successful and consequently built up Thakin Than Tun’s prestige among Burmese peasants.

 The 1947 Constitution embodied the Burmese nationalist elite’s basic blueprints for the country’s economic development. The Constituent Assembly of the Free League’s interim government passed the new constitution on September 24, 1947. The constitution stipulated that “Personal property and personal right of establishing a business will be protected by the constitution. But this right must not be exercised in a harmful way. Price manipulating, market monopolizing, and other means by private monopolies that are injurious to the national economy are strictly banned. When necessary, private enterprises can be nationalized by the state. Only businesses, 60% of whose assets are owned by Burma or Burmese citizens, have the right to exploit Burma’s domestic natural resources”. On the issue of land, the thirtieth clause of the constitution stated that “The state has the supreme ownership of all Burma’s land. The state has the right to adjust, change and cancel the ownership of all land and recover any land and allocate it for collective agriculture, cooperatives or tenants. No one is entitled to own large pieces of land. If situation permits, one can only own the maximum allowance of private land according to the law” (Vasilyev 1975: 750-751). The 1947 Constitution also expounded the prime guidelines for Burma’s economic development: “The economics of the Federal Burma must be programmed in the direction for increasing social wealth, improving people’s living standards, raising the cultural level of the people, consolidating the nation’s independence and strengthening national defence” (Kaufmann 1975: 41).

The Ethnic Minority Issue and Government Structure

Before independence, there had been a loose relationship, few interactions, and a diverging tendency between the ethnic minorities and both the dominant ethnic group and the state due to historical factors and the colonial policy of “divide and rule” and “controlling foreigners by foreigners.” Aung San realized that Burma could not win independence without solidarity among all ethnic groups (Kaufmann 1975: 38). In fact, Britain would allow Burma’s independence only when the main ethnic group, the Burmese, reached an amicable settlement with the ethnic minorities living in frontier areas. For this reason, leaders of the national liberation movement attempted to cultivate a national culture or civil ideology to provide legitimacy for a coherent political order (Tarling 2003: 232), and meanwhile to avoid building up a state structure that might prompt secession. Aung San’s initial plan was to improve the relationship between the state and the ethnic minorities by adopting the union of republics model of the Soviet Union, but because the issue of Burma’s independence was the top priority, he amended the ethnic policy when he found that model to be a failure in practice. In order to prevent separation of the ethnic minorities from the republic, he moved to bring all ethnic minorities into a federalist regime and enhance internal solidarity before promoting a Burmese national identity (Zhu 2004: 382). Such ideas were presented in his book Blueprints for Burma, written in 1941.

In the process of making and implementing policies, Aung San paid much attention to strengthening unity with the ethnic minorities and protecting their rights and interests. He wrote: “In my view, every nation in the world should develop nationalism corresponding to the nation’s well-being, regardless of the differences in nationality, religion, class or sex. This is the nationalism I mean.” He criticized the outdated feudal system in the Shan State and suggested the problem be solved by the people in the Shan State. He said, “People living in the mountainous areas have their own right to choose the best way of managing the district. The Burmese people will not intervene in their internal administrative affairs”. It is clear that Aung San recognized in principle the equal national rights and self-determination of the ethnic minorities. However, in early 1942, the Burma Independence Army led by Aung San, together with the Japanese, attacked the British army, leading to bloody conflicts with the Karen people who supported the British army. Aung San soon realized the severity of the event and tried to mitigate the conflict. In preparing for the anti-Japanese armed uprising, he set up a Karen battalion in the Burma National Army and appointed two Karen leaders as military officers in the army (Han 1982: 34). The first declaration and guiding principle of Banish the Japanese Fascist Invaders, passed at the League Inaugurating Meeting in August 1944, stated that all ethnic minorities had freedom of political activity and economic exchange (Zhao 1991: 109). The policy on ethnic minorities’ habitation in frontier areas, passed by the League on November 4, 1946, again stressed, “We should set up a Burmese federation or union to control and manage the internal affairs according to the will of all ethnic groups in Burma. Each state will have their right of autonomy to govern themselves” . After that, Aung San visited areas inhabited by the Kachin, Karen, and Chin people and the Shan State.

On January 27, 1947, the Aung San-Attlee Agreement was signed, formally committing the British government to Burma’s right to complete independence and the possibility of ethnic minorities’ joining with Burma on a voluntary basis. Under this commitment, leaders of the League, chieftains of the Shan State, delegates of the Chin and Kachin nationalities, and the British government met at Panglong village in Shan State from February 9 to 12, 1947, and passed the historic Panglong Agreement. Aung San subsequently introduced the spirit of this agreement into the constitution at the meeting of the Constituent Assembly on June 16, 1947. Of the seven basic principles raised and accepted by the drafting commission, the fifth required the provision of sufficient means to protect the rights of ethnic minorities (Maung Maung 1962: 125).

 The Panglong Agreement stated, “All the delegates believe that freedom will be more than speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins by their immediate cooperation with the interim Burmese Government.” The delegates also agreed to “establish the Supreme Council of the Frontier Areas Union which can then elect a delegate participating in the frontier areas affairs” (U Kyaw Win et al. 1990: 675). In this way, the frontier areas where Burma’s ethnic minorities lived and the area where the Burmese people lived would basically reach unity through state-to-state relations. However, the Karen elites, headed by leaders of the Karen National Union, refused to attend the Panglong Meeting and even sent a delegation to London to ask for autonomy and a place in the Commonwealth. This heralded the complexity of Burma’s relations between nationalities after its independence.

Although Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947, the principles of the Panglong Agreement found their full expression in the Constitution of the Union of Burma passed on September 24, 1947. Article 2 of Chapter 1 stipulated that Burma, as a sovereign state, included the native state, the Shan State, the Kayah State, the Kachin and the Chin mountainous districts, etc. Article 3 of Chapter 1 stipulated that Burma had a federal system of government. The first item of Article 3 set seven conditions for establishing ethnic minority states, and the fourth item specified that differences in nationality, language, culture, and historical tradition between ethnic minorities and other ethnic groups must be recognized. Chapter 11 explained in detail the ethnic minority people’s rights of man, rights pertaining to customs, cultures, and free contact, and right to send delegates to the Legislative Council. For example, the House of the People was required to set apart seats for ethnic minorities in proportion to their population. In the House of the Nations, there could be more seats for ethnic minorities than those set aside by their population ratio. Chapter 12 stipulated that the federal and autonomous states must be given the right of secession from the Union. But the states could not use that right within 10 years of joining the Union. If, after 10 years, a state desired to separate from the Union, it must acquire the permission of over 2/3 of its Legislative Council members and hold a referendum to decide whether secession was in accordance with the free will of its people (U Kyaw Win et al. 1990: 685-733).

 Objectively, the 1947 Constitution was an enlightened document with regard to the rights of ethnic minorities (Tarling 2003: 323). Yet it set up future trouble by allowing the states to choose whether to secede from the Union after 10 years. It is arguable that under the historical conditions of the time, this stipulation was justified: If the Burmese had not made such a concession, they would not have reached agreement with the ethnic minorities on the issue of national independence. Moreover, the British would not allow the independence of Burma without such a compromise.

 This issue might have developed in a better direction if, after independence, the U Nu government had carried out the stipulations in the Constitution to the letter. But U Nu had a different attitude towards the ethnic minority issue than Aung San. U Nu stressed the unity and equality of all nationalities in Burma instead of the difference between nationalities and the specific rights and interests of ethnic minorities. As his philosophical thinking was based on his Buddhist belief that all humans were fundamentally the same, he believed that it was natural for all nationalities to stay united because people were all “sons and daughters of this same piece of land” and that “Burmese citizens, including the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Rakhine, and Mon nationalities are close relatives living on a common land from cradle to grave”. U Nu emphasized: “There should be a unified constitution in Burma. I require leaders of all ethnic groups to have the necessary qualities to implement the Constitution…. The solution to the ethnic minorities issue lies in strengthening the connection between nationalities rather than dismembering the federal system and setting up respective states”. Therefore, although the Constitution established a federal state structure, the central government of Burma, headed by Burmese people, did not really follow it. On the contrary, after independence, it restricted, weakened, and took back ethnic minority elites’ rights it had committed to in the Constitution before independence in an attempt to unify the country politically, economically, militarily, and culturally. Moreover, because the Burmese nationality was in a predominant position and carried out a chauvinistic policy, real ethnic equality did not become a reality.

 Burma’s Foreign Policy and Relationship with its Former Colonial Power

The relationship with the former colonial power has been an important factor affecting the modernization process of third world countries after WWII. Burma chose to withdraw its membership from the Commonwealth before independence. In fact, Aung San’s initial proposition was to turn the country into a dominion in the Commonwealth on the premise that Britain would allow Burma’s independence, using conditions offered to India as the standard. Accordingly, Aung San said: “In passing, I wish to say that though we could not get on with the British when the relation of the ruler and the ruled existed, we will be good friends when the relations end.” (Maung Maung 1962: 124). U Tin Thu, the only one proficient in administration in the executive committee of the interim government of Burma, claimed in public that dominion status would be beneficial to both Burma and Britain. In the Constituent Assembly, he tried to persuade the delegates responsible for making a resolution to accept such status (Trager 1966: 84-85, cited in He Yue Why Burma Separated from the British Commonwealth after World War II, p.11).

 U Nu was also fully aware that Burma would need assistance to cope with domestic and foreign difficulties in the first years after its independence and would get help more easily if it remained within the Commonwealth. Therefore, in the Constituent Assembly on June 17, 1947, U Nu decided that Burma would become an independent republic and proposed that Burma join the planned economic union of states within Britain’s range of influence. But after Aung San’s assassination in July, Burmese nationalist sentiment was running high. In the absence of a political leader enjoying Aung San’s popular support and high prestige, policy makers of the League no longer dared to choose to stay in the Commonwealth. Foreign scholars have maintained that with the assassination of Aung San, Burma lost a nationalist leader who might have held Burma together and kept close relations with Britain (Tarling 2003: 281).

Ultimately, Burma withdrew completely from the Commonwealth. The main reasons are as follows. First, Burma had gained nominal and temporary independence when it was ruled by Japan, and Burma’s nationalists did not want to lose this independence after WWII. They were also concerned about failing to gain autonomy if the British regained a dominant position in Burma’s national economy [22] (946). Meanwhile, in early 1942, the British suffered one defeat after another from the Japanese, and Thailand suffered much less than Burma in the war. These realities made the Burmese doubt whether they could resist a third party’s aggression after joining the Commonwealth.

U Nu was aware that Burma would need assistance with difficulties in the first years after its independence
U Nu was aware that Burma would need assistance with difficulties in the first years after its independence

Second, as Burma plunged into a state of chaos after WWII, nationalism became popular and widespread and the power and influence of the Communist Party of Burma grew continuously. Under such circumstances, the League headed by Aung San and U Nu, as well as the British government, faced hard choices. The Communist Party would have come to power if the League had chosen to stay in the Commonwealth or if the British had insisted it do so. After Aung San was assassinated, the chance of Burma’s staying in the Commonwealth as a dominion was virtually eliminated.

 Third, Burma had been taken by the British for the purpose of maintaining British interests in India. When the Attlee government decided to withdraw from India in late 1946 and early 1947, there was no point in maintaining a protected Burma (Tarling 2003: 282). Therefore, the British government did not take further measures to make Burma stay in the Commonwealth. From the point of view of post-independence modernization, we can see that Burma’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth has brought it far more disadvantages than advantages.

 Though the nationalists had not worked out systematic foreign policies before independence, Aung San and others had given much thought to their relations with other countries. In the meeting of the Supreme Council of the League held in August 1946, Aung San pointed out, “One fact we cannot escape is that no nation, big or small, can stand alone. This is a world of increasing interdependence. A free Burma must take her place in the family of nations…But we must have friends and allies. If we cannot find friends and allies, we must seek them elsewhere. We cannot stand alone.” (Maung Maung 1962: 128). Aung San placed great emphasis on Burma’s relationship with other Asian countries. He said, “We Asian countries should not be in a state of disunity. We should unite closely… only in this way can the power and future of our Asian people be respected by the whole world” [23] (82-83). At the Panglong meeting on February 11, 1947, Aung San stated: “With unity within our frontiers, we should next look beyond and cooperate with our neighbours, such as Indonesia, India, Indo-China, and other countries of the region…We must realize that in this world no nation can stand aloof or alone” (Maung Maung 1962: 124). A Soviet scholar concluded that Aung San stood for reaching understanding and cooperation with India and Southeast Asian countries, coordinating a common position to solve common problems, establishing contact and relations first with China and other Eastern countries, strengthening solidarity with all exploited nations fighting imperialism, establishing friendly relationship with all people in the world, staying alert against imperialism, and making good by taking advantage of the mistakes, miscalculations, and contradictions of imperialist countries (Kaufmann 1975: 40). It is a rare and profound understanding of international relations that that Aung San held at that time. From this perspective, Ne Win’s passively neutral stance and infrequent contacts with other countries after 1963is a total departure from Aung San’s thoughts and guidelines.

 Relationship between Religion and Politics

In a Buddhist country like Burma, religion has played a key role in people’s daily lives as well as in the struggle for national independence. The relationship between politics and religion after independence continued to be an issue of great importance. Aung San made public his position as an atheist in his early article “Burma and Buddhism” in April 1935, yet at the same time he recognized the strong impact of Buddhism on people’s lives and on society as a whole. He called on the nationalists to take this issue into account and consider the feelings of religious people (Kaufmann 1975: 34). Aung San expressed his own view on the relationship between religion and monks and politics at the League’s meeting in January 1946: “Religion is a matter of individual conscience, while politics is social science. We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including the right to freedom of religious belief and worship. We must draw a clear line between politics and religion…If we mix religion with politics, then we offend the spirit of religion itself. [We] can clearly see how our priesthood has rendered service and leadership to our society. Our priests have taken on many social tasks, such as educating our young people, and the high standards of literacy that Burma has is due to a large extent to this service. Our priests have enriched our culture and our civilization, and generally helped our society in its march forward in history…Buddhism is the religion of the great majority of our peoples and I sincerely believe it can become, if we remove the ritual and get out of its noble essence, the greatest philosophy in the world. I would therefore like to address a special appeal to the Buddhist priesthood. Reverend Sangha, you are the custodians of a great religion. Please purify it and give it to the world. Your message to the peoples, not only of Burma but of the world, is that of love and brotherhood. We hear, and shall heed the message which is one that the world also need to hear and heed increasingly these days. Reverend Sangha, you have larget and noble functions to perform in spreading peace and love in Burma and the world. Those are your high functions and high politics. Please take the message to the peoples, set their minds free from fear, bigotry, ignorance and superstition; teach them to build themselves a nobler, happier life. Those, and no less, are your tasks and your calling” (Maung Maung 1962: 127-128). He further pointed out: “In politics there is no room for religion in as much as there should be no insistence that the president of the Republic shall be Buddhist or a minister of religion should be appointed to the cabinet” (Silverstein 1972: 3-4). It is very clear that although Aung San held that “Buddhism is the greatest philosophy in the world”, he took religion as a person’s private affair and was opposed to the religion’s involvement in politics.

 In contrast, Aung San’s successor U Nu attached great importance to Buddhism and used it as a means of encouraging political participation. In his late 1930s article “I am a Marxist,” he wrote that “Working for Marxism at the same time represents our gratitude towards Buddha” (Silverstein 1972: 61). Therefore, U Nu should be regarded first as a Buddhist and second as a politician. Why did Aung San and U Nu have such a sharp difference in their attitude towards the relationship between religion and politics? An important reason is that Aung San, a prestigious popular hero, did not need support from religion in his political career (Houtman 1999: 243), while U NU had to rely on Buddhism to reinforce his political legitimacy because of his lack of brilliant political skill.


In sum, the exploration of Burma’s nationalist elite for a national development road has the following characteristics:

 First, their exploration focused on nationalism and revealed a lack of democratic and scientific substance. This is best illustrated by the motto of the We Burmese Association as late as 1935, “Burma is our country. Burmese is our character. Burmese is our language. Love our country. Promote our character. Respect our language” [24] (105). Aung San even believed that scientific socialism was merely an illusion before reaching the national goals in Burma. Even though it would never be too much to emphasise a nation’s own characteristics in fighting against colonial rule, it is obviously not conducive to modernization to put aside democracy and science. Moreover, among Britain’s former colonies, Burma is the only country that withdrew from the Commonwealth on the eve of independence. To break off relations with its suzerain represented an extreme nationalism.

 Secondly, their exploration revealed a simple mentality of trying to accomplish the final goal at one stroke. Burma’s nationalist elite laced understanding and preparation for the hardships and protracted nature of the modernization drive after independence. After years of study, the German scholar Hans-Bernd Zoller commented, “The Nagani Book Club, the same as the Young Buddhist Association, the Saya San Rebellion and the Thakin Movement led by Aung San, is one of the efforts made by the Burmese people to build up a happy new Burma. But these organizations and movements are all characterized by their magnificence and impressive scale. This all-inclusive, omnipresent political culture existed long after Burma’s independence. U Nu’s ‘National Prosperity Project,’ Ne Win’s ‘Burmese-style Socialism,’ and the ‘Four Objectives’ pursued by the current government are all epitomes of such political culture [25] (5).

 Thirdly, their exploration was relatively simple. During the same period, Gandhi and Nehru, leaders of India’s national liberation movement, did deep research into India’s industrialization and agricultural modernization road [26] (1-44). But although Burma’s movement was deeply influenced by India, and especially the Indian Congress Party, the Burma’s nationalist elite’s exploration of a post-independence development road and related issues was superficial and crude. Both the We Burmese Association and the Thirty Comrades led by Aung San considered mainly how to win independence and did not think enough about development after independence. Nevertheless, despeite the fact that Aung San’s thoughts were much simpler than Nehru’s, another important cause of Burma’s slow modernization after independence is that subsequent national leaders departed in many aspects from what he had laid down. Therefore, Aung San’s early death on July 19, 1947, at the age of 32, was a great loss to the post-independence modernization process in Burma.

Li Chenyang
Li Chenyang is Associate Researcher at the College of International Relations, Yunan University.
This article was first published in Southeast Asian Affairs 2006, no. 4 and translated for KRSEA.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 10 (August 2008): Southeast Asian Studies in China


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