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Burma: a brief history

Later this year, Burma is expected to hold its first multi-party elections for twenty years. We look

World War II

Burma was a major battleground for the British and the Japanese. Three hundred thousand refugees fled to India, but by July 1945 Britain had re-taken the country from the Japanese. The Burma National Army, formed by revolutionary and nationalist Aung San in 1937, initially supported the Japanese, but in 1943, fearful that the Japanese promises of independence were not sincere, changed sides and joined the Allies.

Post-1945

After the war, Aung San was instrumental in restoring civilian politics from the military administration established by the British. He also negotiated independence for Burma with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

In 1947, the first elections were held in Burma since its split from the British Raj. Aung San's Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) won 176 of the 210 seats, but Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers were assassinated by paramilitaries loyal to colonial era Prime Minister U Saw. Several British military officers were also implicated in the plot, and were tried and imprisoned. U Saw was executed.

The Union of Burma

Following Aung San's assassination, the leadership of the AFPFL passed to U Nu, who oversaw the country's final transition to an independent Burma in January 1948. U Nu became the first prime minister of the Union of Burma.

Under the constitution of 1947, a bicameral parliament was elected. General elections were held in 1952/3, 1956 and 1960, with the AFPFL continuing to dominate both houses.

In 1961, Burmese civil servant U Thant was unanimously appointed UN Secretary-General, the first non-westerner to hold the position. Among the Burmese staff he took with him to the post was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San. But in 1962, just two years after the republic's third general election as an independent state, the government of U Nu was overthrown in a coup d'etat lead by General Ne Win.

The 'Burmese Way to Socialism'

Ne Win ruled the country as a one-party state until 1988, under the auspices of an ideology he called the 'Burmese Way to Socialism'. This lead to economic and political isolationism, the expulsion of foreigners, and the nationalisation of industry.

Student protests at Rangoon University in 1962 resulted in 15 deaths, and similar student activism in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were also suppressed. In 1974, anti-government protests at the funeral of UN Secretary-General U Thant were quickly and violently suppressed by the military.

On the 8 August 1988, frustration at economic mismanagement and brutal oppression lead to the nation-wide protests known as the 8888 Uprising, in which students, monks, and citizens took to the streets to protest against the military junta.

Once again, the revolt was brutally put down, with many casualties. Precise numbers differ, with opposition groups claiming thousands of people were killed by the military, whilst the regime say only 350 lost their lives.

Rule by military junta

A group which was to become the still-ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), lead by General Saw Maung, seized power and declared martial law. In May 1990, the first multi-party elections were held in 30 years.

The National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 of the 498 seats, but the SPDC refused to relinquish power. In 1992, Saw Maung unexpectedly resigned for health reasons, and current dictator Than Shwe succeeded him as head of state, secretary of defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has subsequently spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

In 2007, following the junta's decision to remove fuel subsidies, causing the price of fuel to double overnight, demonstrations took place. After an initial crackdown, marches continued under the leadership of thousands of Buddhist monks. Thousands were arrested, and 14 of the leaders were sentenced to 65 years in the infamous British-built Insein prison.

Buddhist monks have been a rallying point for opposition since the early 20th century, when riots broke out over the issue of the British colonists refusing the remove their shoes in the temples.

Beyond the 2007 uprising

Ethnic violence continues in the country, with the Karen people of southeastern Burma particularly prominent in their insurgency. There has also been protracted conflict between the junta and the Han Chinese, Va and Kachin people in the north.

The devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 in the Irrawaddy rice-farming region was severe, with around 200,000 people estimated to have died. However, the isolationist stance of the junta and the endemic corruption in major industries and local government prevented either domestic or foreign aid having much of an impact. United Nations planes bringing food aid and medical supplies were delayed by the junta.

In 2009, an American named John Yettaw swam across Lake Inya to reach Aung San Suu Kyi's residence for the second time (he first visited in May 2008), and was arrested and deported for breaching the terms of her house arrest. As a result, she was given a further 18 months' confinement, meaning that she can take no part in elections held in 2010.

Under the new constitution ratified by referendum amid the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the new democratically-elected assembly will reserve a quarter of its seats for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has said that it will boycott the elections because of laws that prevent their leader from participating.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain