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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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times