From the Burmese Way to Socialism to Myanmar’s current crisis
By Alessandro C. Demarchi
When Burma (also known as Myanmar after 1989) became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948, it was a poor country destroyed by World War II, in an increasingly bellicose region of the world: China and India were resolving their internal conflicts but would soon become the two rising giants of Asia, while the Indochinese Peninsula was in the middle of a bloody conflict between the retreating French forces and communist guerrilla groups that would keep the region into various wars until the mid-1970s.
In a climate like this it would have been reasonable to expect Burma to get caught up in the conflicts which started gaining the attention of global superpowers in the emerging scenario of the Cold War. Although Lieutenant General Li Mi of the Kuomintang controlled part of Shan State and communist-friendly militias started forming within its borders, Burma did not immediately collapse into major conflicts. This was in part given by the fact that Li Mi concentrated his forces against the People’s Republic of China and to the attention of communist countries being directed at friendly militias in Indochina instead. Burma remained substantially neutral for its first years after independence, taking different stances that satisfied both the East and the West. It also participated to the Bandung Conference of 1955, where along with Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan it set the foundations of what would later become the Non-Aligned Movement.
Ten years after independence, in 1958, Burma started seeing the effects of its post-conflict economic recovery. Around that time however, its political situation started deteriorating.
The ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which under its former leader Bogyoke Aung San had opposed Japanese occupation during World War II and negotiated the country’s independence agreement with the United Kingdom, started to break into factions. This caused the party to split into the “Clean AFPFL”, led by Prime Minister U Nu, and the “Stable AFPFL”, led by Kyaw Nyein and Ba Swe.
Given that the Stable AFPFL had a larger parliamentary representation, its delegates presented a motion of no confidence against U Nu. But the moderate and democratic socialist Clean AFPFL was able to gather some support from the conservative National United Front (NUF) and independents. However, after surviving the no confidence vote U Nu was asked to resign by the Tatmadaw’s Chief of Staff General Ne Win, who took over as Prime Minister with the aim of stabilizing the country and leading it to an election in 1960.
In the general election that took place on February 6, 1960 U Nu’s new Union Party (the successor of the Clean AFPFL) won a large majority by capturing 57.2% of votes, followed by the Stable AFPFL at 30.7% and the NUF at 4.8%. U Nu’s moderates won nearly all the seats in the large cities, while the left-wing Kyaw Nyein and Ba Swe led their party to win various seats in the countryside.
The new government with U Nu as Prime Minister failed to live up to the people and the Tatmadaw’s expectations, becoming increasingly unpopular between 1960 and 1961. Furthermore, the unity of Burma itself seemed to be in jeopardy when the states of Shan and Kayah started floating the idea of seceding and the communist guerrilla groups in the country became more and more bellicose.
In these years it started to become clear that Ne Win was preparing for something big. Many senior military officials who opposed him either retired or were assigned to overseas diplomatic positions. Most embassies in Burma expected the military to take over again soon or later, but the conditions in Indochina and the tensions on the Sino-Indian border required all the attention that foreign powers could dedicate to Asia.
The situation became so uncertain that the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into its own hands to avoid any attempts of secession and avoid any foreign interference. On March 2, 1962, the military arrested Prime Minister U Nu, the members of his cabinet and the Chief Ministers of Shan and Kayah. General Ne Win immediately assumed the position of Prime Minister and Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council, which had replaced the country’s parliament and effectively became its new center of power. The new deliberative body consisted of sixteen members plus the Chairman. All its members came from the ranks of the Tatmadaw, except for the Foreign Secretary U Thi Tan.
After less than two months in power the Union Revolutionary Council issued a plan of action called the Burmese Way to Socialism, a blend of Marxism and Buddhism aimed at centralizing the country’s economy and eliminating foreign influence from it. The first step of the plan was the nationalization of Burma’s large enterprises: most mining, rubber, tobacco companies and banks were either taken over by the government or not granted new licenses if they refused to hand over their assets.
Starting in 1964 “Compensation Boards” were established to start buying out also large retail stores, co-operatives and local industries. Many entrepreneurs were forced to give up their businesses for much less than their value, since the decisions made by the Compensation Boards were arbitrary and unappealable. In 1965 the government bought all newspapers and forbid all types of publications by news outlets.
The next step the government took was freezing all foreign investments to eliminate external influence from the country’s economy. The Union Revolutionary Council also tried to keep foreign cultural influence out of Burma by making visas harder to obtain and by ensuring that guerilla groups in the country could never get strong enough to receive attention and external support. Ne Win targeted the NUF with a wave of arrests, cracked down on the separatist Kachin and Karen ethnic groups and tried to work out his differences with the communist militias that roamed along the country’s borders.
Although Ne Win ruled Burma as socialist State, it is important to note that he never was an orthodox communist and never fully embraced a specific current of communism (Marxism-Leninism, Maoism or Trotskyism), but rather took certain elements of the different variants and adapted them to the country’s needs. Another interesting characteristic of the Burmese Way to Socialism is that it was adopted by the Tatmadaw, a traditionally right-wing institution.
Although Ne Win’s communist sympathies emerged gradually and surprised some observers, his mistrust of democracy and traditional Buddhist view of Burma had always been a constant of his way of governing, already present in his first term as Prime Minister between 1958 and 1960. At a meeting of the Tatmadaw’s leadership before the 1962 coup, the final statement read:
“Man’s endeavor to build a society set free at last from anxieties over food, clothing and shelter, and able to enjoy life’s spiritual satisfactions as well, fully convinced of the sanctity, dignity and essential goodness of life, must proceed from the premise of a faith only in a politico-economic system based on the eternal principles of justice, liberty and equality.”
Meanwhile, the Union Revolutionary Council openly came out to criticize parliamentary democracy when it first drafted the Burmese Way to Socialism document by saying it had failed Burma through:
“[its] defects, weaknesses and loopholes, its abuses and absence of a mature public opinion.”
This statement inaugurated the custom of “guarding” and “educating” the country, eventually leading it to democracy in an undefined future time. This principle has since then been applied in many situations as an excuse to increase and conserve the Tatmadaw’s political and economic power. The new Constitution approved in 2008 rests on the assumption that Burma is not mature enough to enjoy a fully democratic regime and therefore needs the military to hold a fixed quorum of seats in parliament. The idea that the army alone can preserve democracy has been floated as recently as February 2021, when State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, along with most of her allies, after a landslide victory on the election of November 2020.
Ne Win’s economic policies proved to be a disaster for the Burma. The country’s rice exports sharply fell in the first three years of his rule and Burmese farmers (who at the time made up nearly two-thirds of the population) suffered more than anyone else. Burma’s conditions became so dramatic that most people had to rely on the growing black market to survive. After a short period of backtracking on his economic policies, Ne Win vigorously relaunched nationalizations in 1966.
Towards the end of the 1960s Burma slowly came out of the forced isolation it had imposed on itself. A couple of official visits established minimal relations with the United States; while tensions started rising with the People’s Republic of China, as Beijing started actively supporting the “White Flag” communist insurgents and the Karen separatists. These groups restarted the guerrillas that seemed to have been put out just a few years prior.
If Ne Win had problems with foreign countries and internal guerrilla groups, Burmese society was not much kinder to his government. Buddhist monks and students constantly opposed the Union Revolutionary Council’s rule, with major protests in 1965, 1969 and 1970.
Politically, the real change came in 1974, when Burma adopted a new Constitution. The new constitutional asset established the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, with the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) as the sole legal party. The Union Revolutionary Council was dismissed, and Ne Win assumed the title of President and Chairman of the State Council. Brigadier General Sein Win became the new Prime Minister.
The year 1974 was supposed to be Ne Win’s triumphal year with the official establishment of a socialist state in Burma. However, it was arguably his toughest year in office until in his resignation. At the beginning of the summer major strikes of the poorest workers paralyzed the country, while more protests at the end of the destructive rainy season in September seriously threatened the government. When students joined the protests as well, Ne Win decided to crack down on protesters from the civil society. The most severe consequence of the retaliation was the closure of Burma’s universities for three years, reducing the possibility for dissent to form and organize. The reason that had caused the students to join the protests was the refusal of the State Council to grant U Thant, the 3rd Secretary-General of the United Nations, a state funeral. As an ally of former Prime Minister U Nu, he was an adversary in the eyes of the Tatmadaw. In the last years of the 1970s the students became the prime target of the army’s repression campaigns, with many student leaders being imprisoned, tortured and killed just for demanding the reopening of their universities.
As the regime in Burma became more and more associated with Ne Win’s figure, he became increasingly concerned with the possibility of being ousted and started worrying about possible rivals. In 1983 this caused General Tin Oo, head of the Military Intelligence and of the National Intelligence Bureau, to be purged along with his closest allies in the intelligence sector. According to rumors, the gesture was not directly related to an internal power struggle in the Tatmadaw, but by the jealousy of Ne Win’s favorite daughter for the popularity of Tin Oo’s son.
Despite all the defects of the Ne Win’s regime, it would not be the failure of a specific economic policy or the excessive authoritarian nature of its rule that would cause its downfall. In fact, it would be the President’s obsession for numerology. His maniacal convictions persuaded him, in 1985, to demonetize 50- and 100-kyats bills without compensation and replace them with a 75-kyats bill, to celebrate his 75th birthday. 15-, 25- and 35-kyats bills were also introduced that year. In 1987 the 15-, 25-, 35- and 75-kyats bills were demonetized and replaced with 45- and 90-kyats bills (because they were numbers divisible by 9, for which Ne Win had developed a passion). This last move made three-quarters of Burma’s currency worthless, destroying millions of people’s savings from one day to the other.
At that point, university students took to the streets in Rangoon, while workers and monks invaded public spaces in Mandalay. As the protests continued into 1988, they quickly evolved into a battle for democracy. In July, Ne Win was forced to resign and appointed Sein Lwin as new Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, his actions in the following days and the brutality with which he repressed the protests would earn him the nickname “Butcher of Rangoon”.
The protesters decided to stage a massive demonstration in the whole country on August 8, 1988. This date was chosen to mock Ne Win’s obsession for numerology, since it could be written as 8/8/88. That day the “8888 Uprising” would take place. Although protesters were initially peaceful, the Tatmadaw did not hesitate to follow Ne Win’s order to shoot into the crowds and crack down on students, monks and workers. During the many rallies which took place in those days Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s founding father Aung San, emerged as one of the prominent figures advocating for a democratic multi-party system and encouraging protesters to engage in non-violent gestures to express their dissent.
After pro-democracy civilian politicians (led former Prime Minister U Nu) tried to establish an interim government and call for an election, the Tatmadaw took back control of the situation. When General Saw Maung became the new Prime Minister, he tore up the 1974 Constitution and brutally repressed the protests. As Ne Win stood behind the scenes and pulled the strings of the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), he gave his blessing to crush dissent by declaring that: “If the army shoots […], it shoots straight to kill.”
In the following years, the Tatmadaw continued to control the country under a military junta. In 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and would remain in that condition until 2010 (although she had some periods of partial freedom because of health reasons). In 2008 a new Constitution was approved in referendum heavily influenced by intimidations and irregularities on behalf of the military.
The country’s first democratic elections were held in 2010 but were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). However, in the elections of 2015 and 2020 the NLD won around 60% of the vote and impressive majorities in parliament. The new office of State Counsellor (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) was created for Aung San Suu Kyi, since the 2008 Constitution would have banned her from being elected President because her kids held British citizenship.
On February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw staged a coup and arrested all NLD elected officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. To justify their actions, the military insisted that the election of November 2020 was rigged and that the NLD stole it from their civil allies (I wonder where they got that idea from). After a decade of democratic flourishing Myanmar is now back to where it was in 1988, with the killing of peaceful protesters and democracy looking like a distant mirage.
So why won’t the Tatmadaw let democracy make its course in a country that despite the violence and repression keeps overwhelmingly approving of the army as an institution? Since the Burmese Way to Socialism was launched in 1962 the military have become increasingly jealous of their political and economic power. This is because the strong ideological principles of Ne Win’s regime left no room for political pluralism and therefore needed a governing institution to preach and apply them. Under Ne Win that institution could only be the Tatmadaw. Additionally, the massive nationalizations of the 1960s put nearly all economic power in the hands of the ruling junta. In a country such as Myanmar, which is both terribly poor and corrupt, it is no surprise that an institution such as the Tatmadaw would try and hold on to its privileges with all its strength. Unfortunately, this comes with a high cost for the people of Myanmar and as we have seen recently, for democracy and civil society itself.
So, can Myanmar’s socialist past be blamed for its current crisis? Firstly, as we have seen before, the Tatmadaw gained its political and economic supremacy thanks to its embrace of socialism after the 1962 coup. From that moment it started doing whatever it took to hold on to power. We may also consider another factor: former socialist countries tend to have less developed economies and highly corrupt political systems, which are indicators of a weaker and fragile state. Although this is not always the case, many former socialist countries have gone through a process of “democratic backsliding” in the last decades: Cambodia, the Republic of the Congo, Libya and Russia are perfect examples. Additionally, there are former socialist states such as Ethiopia, Hungary and Poland who seem to be slowly moving towards autocracy.
Whether the country’s current crisis is part of a general global decline of the democratic pluralistic state or just an isolated episode of authoritarianism motivated by greed, it is obvious that Myanmar’s socialist past has set the foundations for its autocratic present.
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