Burma's socialist road

Ever since independence was declared 60 years ago, Burma has been an insular country. In recent year

The New Statesman

3 May 1968

Burma, to the West at least, is a publicity backwater. A peaceful socialist revolution has less news value than war or racial violence. In March 1962, after a bloodless, military coup, the Revolutionary Council took over power from the former nominally socialist government. The new regime does not encourage journalists, who have often lied about it, but who perhaps would have lied less if visas had not been restricted to 24 hours. This restriction does not apply to an increasing number of doctors, scientists, technicians and other professional people who constantly go to and from Burma.

One result of Burma’s isolation is that its foreign policy is misunderstood. It has not changed with a change of government. In a major speech on the eve of his recent talks with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, General Ne Win told the Peasants’ Seminar: “I wish again to declare that Burma will not discard her policy of strict neutrality under any circumstances.” Burma remains the most non-aligned of all non-aligned countries. Not even the end of the honeymoon with China last June caused her, contrary to hopeful rumours, to look to the West.

The ostensible reason for China’s switch of policy was the Revolutionary Council’s refusal to allow Chinese students in Rangoon to wear and distribute Mao Tse-tung badges provided by the Chinese Embassy. Violent riots followed. Almost overnight Peking transformed General Ne Win into a fascist military dictator, an anti-Chinese lackey of American imperialism and Soviet revisionism. Simultaneously, Chinese broadcasts openly supported Than Tun, leader of the underground Communist Party since 1949, assuring him that this was China’s “proletarian international duty”. Today daily broadcasts in Burmese from Peking urge the peasants to refuse to sell their rice to the government and encourage national groups to fight against the regime.

During a month’s stay in Burma, I met two top-ranking communists who had served with Than Tun since 1949, but escaped to join the Burmese Road to Socialism Party, which they felt would do more for the Burmese people. Than Tun, they said, followed Peking blindly and believed implicitly everything the Chinese broadcasts said. Peking had supported the Burmese communist insurgents throughout, but until June it was unacknowledged. When Burma protested some years ago, Chou En-Iai replied it was not official Chinese policy, which was to support the Burmese government. Today Peking’s subversive policy spills over Burma’s frontiers. Recently Nagas and Mizos — reportedly about 300 — returned from China to India across the Kachin States, at the northern end of Burma. They had had guerrilla training and brought arms with them, some of which were left with Kachin insurgents in return for safe conduct. But the threat of China is potential rather than actual and Burma has plenty of problems to face here and now.

The Revolutionary Council is gradually transforming Burma into a socialist state. I visited the Political Science School where about 1,000 candidates of the Burmese Road to Socialism Party, men and women, and from all parts of the country, were taking a year’s course in history, economics and political science. In 1962 all political parties were abolished. In 1964 the Burmese Road to Socialism was formed. Students at this school analysed its specific characteristics, comparing them with social democracy and communism. They placed the main emphasis on the correlation of man and his environment, and, in discussions with many members, I can only describe its policy as a blending of Humanism, Marxism and Buddhism.

The question naturally arose: would any of the members of the former Socialist Party work with the new party? It is too soon to say. Most of their leaders were only released in February after a six years’ detention. I saw a number of them. None showed any bitterness, an extraordinary fact which I can only attribute to the continued strength of Buddhist teaching in Burma. Had they been Ne Win in March 1962, they said, they would have acted as he did to save the country from the disintegration which threatened it. Under detention they had had all the books and magazines they needed. Several of them wrote books. They listened to the BBC every day. U Ba Swe and U

Kyaw Nyein, two senior members of the Burmese Socialist Party, whom I had known for 20 years, and who certainly spoke frankly to me, shared my own bewilderment at the Labour government’s policy on Vietnam and immigration. They both acknowledged Burma’s strides in education and health made during the past six years. Ito possible that some way may be found of harnessing their political experience.

One of the most original and fruitful innovations I saw was the School of National Groups in Sagaing, a few miles from Mandalay. About 150 boys and girls between 15 and 18 were taking four-year courses. Chins, Kachins, Nagas, Mono, Arakanese and Karens studied each other’s cultures. They learnt Burmese, English, History, Political Science, Domestic Arts (girls) and Industrial Arts (boys). Their questioning for more than two hours showed how much Britain today is today a foreign country to them. A Naga asked whether there were different religious sects in Britain; a Chin, whether we had linguistic problems; a Kachin, why Indians were rioting in London; and a Shan, whether we were now a colony of America. All these boys and girls would return to their villages as teachers and community leaders. The teacher in Burmese had been trained Educational Guidance in Reading University. The school was an imaginative way of bringing about the integration of Burmese national groups which British rule had kept separated. A dissatisfied minority is the most fertile soil for subversive propaganda.

Though Burma may seem closed to most British tourists and journalists, it is not closed to the world. Indeed, it has contact with more countries than ever before in its history. British ministers may ignore official invitations to stop off in Rangoon, but representatives of Eastern European countries and West Germany, apart from Asian neighbours, solicit invitations. There is a new Institute of Foreign Languages. A paramedical hospital and a dental college in Rangoon, and a new hospital in Taunggyyi have been built with the help of British doctors, surgeons and dentists. This was mainly under the auspices of the Colombo Plan, which recently held its conference in Rangoon. The Ministry of Overseas Development provided a secretarial pool of 20 typists and has sent a good deal of modern medical and technical equipment to Burma. I attended a gem auction in Rangoon, where over 100 buyers from 12 countries bid for jade, pearls, rubies and other precious stones. A stroll through the bookshops shows that the Burmese are encouraged to read foreign books. Two daily papers in English have excellent foreign news coverage; in addition to all the news agencies, Communist and non-communist, Burma has made agreements for exchange of news with North and South Vietnam, North Korea and Czechoslovakia.

The most intractable problems Burma faces today are economic. The Revolutionary Council argued that it could never control its own economy and finance so long as British, Indians and Chinese had a stranglehold. They therefore nationalised the banks, and all foreign-controlled industry and trades. This revolutionary policy was carried out too quickly with no adequate preparation and without experienced people to manage the new economy. Naturally many commodities disappeared, and production and distribution temporarily suffered. Rice is the key to Burma’s internal economy as well as to her foreign exchange. Last year’s crop reached only 1.3m tons against 1.93m the year before. Rice, as well as clothing, is now distributed through trade corporations to district, township and village corporations. This year’s crop promises better and much is expected from a new strain of rice from the Philippines. But the Burmese peasants do not take easily to the bureaucracy which the state control of agriculture, trade and industry has created. What is the incentive to the peasant to sell to the government when he may get a higher price for paddy (unmilled rice) from the local, often a Chinese, rice-miller?

In spite of these economic difficulties and restrictions, I found shops well stocked, apart from rice and clothing, in towns like Mandalay and Taunggyi, and flourishing markets with plenty of fresh vegetables, household requisites and Burmese savouries. I first went to Burma in 1948. Today, I still find it a comparatively non-industrialised country without any consuming ambition. Modernisation (especially of agriculture), rather than industrialisation, is the primary concern of the Burmese. The development of their own rich natural resources seems more important than large industrial schemes dependent on foreign aid, with its accompanying political strings.

Their culture remains relatively uninfluenced by the West. On Sunday morning on the Shwedagon pagoda, I saw dozens of small boys, dressed like princes (Buddha was a prince before his enlightenment) in white and gold, taken shoulder-high by their fathers three times round the golden stupa. Their mothers followed, carrying the yellow robes which they would wear on entering a monastery, as all Burmese boys do, for a short period. This was, and remains, the basis of their firm culture.

Selected by Robert Taylor

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack