Burma - free and socialist

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 28 February 1948</strong>

The bloody repression of the Burmese people by the ruling military junta is only the latest tragedy to befall them since they gained independence from the British in January 1948. However, in the early years of freedom, there was widespread optimism that Burma would prosper and become a socialist model for the rest of south-east Asia. This positive mood was reflected in Dorothy Woodman's despatch from Rangoon.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Proud are the people who first secured a one-rupee note of the Government of Burma. Previously all banknotes were those of the Government of India, surcharged “negotiable only in Burma.” The peacock on one side and a beautifully designed Burmese boat on the other now take the place of the King’s head. I watched the opening ceremony of the Union Bank of Burma. The directors took the oath of fidelity and secrecy, just as the President, the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament, and judges took a month ago, in ceremonies dignified and impressive in themselves and symbolic of Burma’s freedom. Political independence has been won; economic independence involves intricate and unprecedented problems. But the essential point is that the Government is determined to move to a Socialist economy, and a State-owned central bank is part of the process. The budget position is strong; and, with bumper harvests and the general settling down of the people, the Government can afford to be optimistic.

During these first months of Burma’s independence I have travelled round the countryside. Everywhere there are signs of a constructive nationalism, a new pride and self-reliance, the release of creative energies devoted to the building of the new Burma. The Socialist Government of Burma is showing great wisdom in tackling the fundamental problems first - particularly the basic issues of land reform and the control of the country’s large resources. About 70 per cent of the people earn their living solely by cultivation and, in 1940, two-thirds of the tilled acreage were paddy (rice) fields. At that time 50 per cent of the land was owned by absentee landlords, of whom half were Chettyars (Indian moneylenders). The rest of the land was in the name of cultivators who were predominantly Burmese. Many of them were in debt to Chettyars; in fact, at the time of the Japanese occupation, Burmese cultivators in Lower Burma owed at least 500 million rupees. Since the end of the war many of them have taken matters in their own hands and have refused to pay any rent or any taxes or interest on their debts. The Government has now declared that, in general, neither capital nor interest need be paid till 1951-2. This five-year moratorium will help the Burmese cultivators by regularising the position, and in five years’ time the problem of debts should be solved.

The complexities of land nationalisation apply particularly to Lower Burma. In Upper Burma, where crops are more varied - sesame, beans, cotton and millet - the land is already divided into smaller holdings. Most of the landowners are cultivators and smallholdings have remained in the same family for generations. Tenancies are variants of arrangement between landlord and tenant as to the distribution of cultivation expenses, labour and produce. The legislation announced by the Ministry of Agriculture therefore mainly applies to Lower Burma. The Government has taken power to allocate to cultivators all land now worked by tenants and all land now worked by owner-cultivators in excess of 50 acres per household. Land belonging to religious orders and land already controlled by the Government are excluded.

There may be opposition to this legislation, and there have been rumours in Rangoon that disgruntled landlords might give Ba Maw support if he revives his party. But his potential following is small, whilst the well-organised Peasants’ Union is solidly behind the Government. The Union is already busy on schemes of educational work among the peasants; their slogan is not only “land for the peasant,” but better crops, more animals and improved marketing.

The Ministry of Agriculture has also tackled the thorny problem of the teak forests. Teak is the third in importance of Burma’s exports, and about 100 million rupees have been invested in the industry, mainly by British firms. Most of the forests are worked on the lease system, and many of the leases are long-term. The Government has informed the timber companies operating in Central Burma that, in accordance with the Constitution, it has decided to nationalise teak extraction. From June 1, 1948, it will extract through its own agency approximately one-third of the teak in the reserved forests of the Burma Union. The more accessible areas in Central Burma are being taken over first, and the lessees are invited to discuss the details of the impending transfer, including staffs and capital assets.

The question of oil production is still under discussion. In 1941 about 75 per cent of oil production and 85 per cent of refining was in the hands of one company - the Burma Oil Company; the only other important enterprise was the Indo-Burma Petroleum Company, connected with Steel Brothers, the chief British trading firm in Burma. Apart from the problem of foreign control, there is the difficulty caused by the demolition of Burma’s oil wells in the spring of 1942. I travelled through miles and miles of derelict oil wells - “British pagodas,” a Burmese friend called them. Re-drilling and re-conditioning have only just started in the Chauk district. So far, the Government has made no statement. But there is no question of confiscation; and, given a reasonable attitude on the part of the oil firms, the Burmese Government hopes for friendly co-operation with the ultimate object of nationalisation envisaged in the Constitution.

Such is the picture since the hoisting of the Burmese flag. The Government has an impressive record. Every day there are new signs of it in many directions. There is the Salaries Act, for instance, which makes it compulsory for Ministers to give up their business interests - a wise precaution which convinced people of the Cabinet’s personal integrity. Then there was the opening of the Translation Society, when Thakin Nu, the Prime Minister, said that Burmans must seek “the four strengths “ - physical strength, the strength of knowledge, the strength of wealth, and the strength of moral conduct. The Society will prepare translations of literary and scientific works, and sell them cheaply to the large network of libraries which the Government intends to build all over the country. Another scheme which is under discussion is a National Theatre in Rangoon, which must be one of the few capital cities in the world without a theatre or museum. And so it goes on. Burma was semi-colonial country, but now has a Constitution into which Socialism is written. Her success can make a very important contribution to the future of Socialism in South-East Asia.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever