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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.


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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood