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Britain’s dirty Burma secret

The military regime used to be our friend.

Whatever the official results of today's elections in Burma – the first in 20 years (the last, won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, were ignored) – there is no doubt that the military regime will remain in charge, as it has done in various guises since 1962. This is why the leading dissident U Win Tin, who until his release in 2008 had spent 19 years in jail, is calling for an election boycott.

"The military junta wants to claim this election as free and fair and so we have to reduce the legitimacy of that claim by not taking part at all," he told today's Observer.

Ever since the crackdown by the authorities in 1988, during and after which Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence (she only happened to be in the country because her mother was terminally ill), most of the rest of the world has been united in condemning Burma's generals – if divided on how best to express its revulsion, given that sanctions will never work so long as countries in the region happily carry on trading with their pariah neighbour.

What we forget, however, is that for many years we were not at all bothered about the suppression of democracy in Burma. General Ne Win, who took power in the March 1962 coup and ruled until he stepped down in 1988, may have brought ruin to his country with his inept Burmese Way to Socialism and increasingly erratic behaviour, often related to his strong superstitious beliefs, but at least he kept the country out the communist bloc.

That counted for more than the fact that his regime was brutal, capricious and authoritarian. Right up until 1988, Japan was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into the country every year.

As Dr Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition, has put it: "No general in Burma's modern history was more exposed to the west than General Ne Win: even after his coup in 1962, the general was welcome at the White House and was reportedly sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He maintained a house in Wimbledon, played golf in Scotland, received annual medical check-ups in London, saw his psychotherapist in Vienna and stopped in Geneva to check his Swiss accounts."

One British connection is, I'm afraid, particularly embarrassing for the New Statesman – whose long-time editor Kingsley Martin turns out to have been on very good terms with the old tyrant. When Ne Win died in 2002, the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell recalled a visit that Martin arranged for him.

"Given letters of introduction to their friend Ne Win by the socialist editor of the New Statesman Kingsley Martin and his partner Dorothy Woodman, my wife and I were invited to a long and simple lunch of rice and mangoes by Ne Win and his wife Katie in June 1965." Dalyell wrote most sympathetically of the isolation Ne Win had chosen. "He had closed Burma as the only way of keeping his country out of the horrors of the Vietnam/Cambodia war.

"His friends Chou En-lai and the Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong wanted to use the Burmese forests as a haven for guerrillas, which would have invited American bombing and Agent Orange."

Calling on the Burmese dictator in the 1970s "at the modest house in Victoria Road, Wimbledon, which was his refuge", Dalyell said that Ne Win "was very candid about the mistakes that he had made" since his second wife, Katie, his favourite, became ill and died in 1972. Small comfort to the millions impoverished by his disastrous policies, one imagines.

It is entirely right that we should voice our opposition to and revulsion for Burma's generals. But it might also be appropriate to acknowledge our dubious part in that country's past – however much we might prefer not to remember it.

Tags:Burma