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DispatchesBurma title

Burma title

Broadcast: Monday 02 October 2006 08:00 PM

From the foundation and fall of Mandalay through to the present day.

A Brief History of Burma

Foundation and Fall of Mandalay | Arrival of the British | Rise of Nationalism | Arrival of the Japanese | Independence | Civil War and the Rise of Ne Win | Military Rule | Constitutional Dictatorship | 'Road to Democracy'

Foundation and Fall of Mandalay

Burma has been home to many different ethnic groups for over four thousand years. The country was unified on three occasions: under the Pagan dynasty, from the 11th to the 13th century; the Toungoo dynasty in the 16th; and the Konbaung dynasty, founded at the end the 18th century.

The Konbaung dynasty founded Mandalay, the last capital of the Burmese kings, and extended Burmese control as far as Assam in the west and north into Thailand. But this was the age of European colonisation and they soon became embroiled in conflict with British colonial forces in India.

Some ethnic groups had no state; other states were poorly demarcated. In a well-crafted deal, it was agreed that the Karen and the Shan states were permitted to secede from the Union after 10 years. The first war with the British, in 1824, concluded with the surrender of the provinces on the Indian frontier; after a second war in 1852, the whole of Lower Burma was lost. Mandalay fell in 1885. After this third defeat, the Burmese King Thibaw was carried off to captivity in India.


Arrival of the British

Following the fall of Mandalay, it was inevitable that Burma would soon be under British rule. In 1886 the country began to be administered as a province of British India.

Throughout their Empire the British used a policy called 'divide and rule' where they played upon ethnic differences to establish their authority. This policy was applied rigorously in Burma. More than a million Indian and Chinese migrants were brought in to run the country's affairs and thousands of Indian troops were used to crush Burmese resistance. In addition, hill tribes which had no strong Burmese affiliation, such as the Karen in the south-east, were recruited into ethnic regiments of the colonial army.

A two-tier administration was established. Ministerial Burman was the central area dominated by the Burman majority. The Frontier Areas was where the ethnic minorities lived. Economic development, largely in rice and timber production, was concentrated in the Ministerial area. The Frontier Areas were left largely undisturbed under their traditional rulers, but suffered economic neglect.

The British 'divide and rule' policy left a legacy of problems for Burma when it regained independence.


Rise of Nationalism

It was not surprising that the first serious manifestation of nationalism was a student strike at Rangoon University in 1920.

Burma owed its highly developed pre-colonial education system to the Buddhist tradition. Every Burmese boy was sent to the monastery to learn to read and write. Girls' education was also encouraged. Consequently, Burma had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Under British rule, young Burmans took advantage of colonial education and read widely, absorbing foreign influences – everyone from Marx to Nehru. As the Burmese monarchy had been abolished, the country's students were open to other forms of social organisation. The unique ideological mix of Marxism and Buddhism proved an inspiring and seductive combination whose popularity spread rapidly amongst the educated urban elite.

In 1930, poor farmers, inspired by peasant leader Saya San, mounted a violent rebellion in south Burma. Impoverished by high taxation and the collapse of the rice market, they resented the growing economic power of the Indian community. Despite the British employing Karen forces to brutally crush the revolt, the uprising demonstrated that nationalism was not just the preserve of the students. The uprising gave birth to a new militant nationalist group, Dohbama Asiayone (We Burmese Association) which openly hostile towards Indian and Chinese migrants and the British.

By the mid-1930s, the Rangoon University Students' Union had become solidly nationalist. In 1936, the attempt to expel two student leaders sparked a university strike with such widespread public support that the authorities were forced to back down. The leaders in question were U Nu, who was to become the first president of independent Burma, and Aung San, a young man of 21 who went on to negotiate Burmese independence.

The success of the 1936 strike instilled confidence and within two years there was insurrection throughout the country. There were workers' strikes, student protests, peasant marches, as well as inter-communal violence.

Aung San became president of Dohbama. In 1939, he helped found and became general secretary of the Burmese Communist Party. However, as it did across the world, Hitler's invasion of Poland was to have enormous repercussions for Burma.


The Arrival of the Japanese

The war provided a unique opportunity for nationalists in European colonies throughout the world. Aung San remarked that 'colonialism's difficulty was freedom's opportunity'. He united the factions in Burma's independence struggle into a Freedom Bloc. He even attempted to contact the Chinese communists to obtain military training.

He never found the Chinese communists. Instead, the Japanese found him. They welcomed the chance to ally themselves with Burmese nationalists who could lend legitimacy to their own intended occupation. This marked a crucial increase in Burmese nationalism's political capital which the movement was only too happy to use. During 1941, the leaders of various nationalist groups (the 'Thirty Comrades' as they became known) travelled to Tokyo for military training. They returned with the invading Japanese army in December. Recruits flocked to join the newly-established Burma Independence Army (BIA) and, in March 1942, the BIA entered Rangoon, close behind the Japanese.

Although the Burmese nationalists allied themselves with the Japanese, most ethnic minorities remained loyal to the British. The British, and many ethnic Indians, retreated to the hills where they fought alongside the Karen, Kachin and Chin. The nationalists particularly disliked the Karen who they held as collaborators. The BIA took revenge for what they believed to be traitorous behaviour with reprisal killings and massacres of Karen civilians. These wartime events created lasting suspicion and ethnic hostility, which was one of the principal reasons the Karen took up arms against the state after Burmese independence.

In August 1942, the Japanese established a puppet administration in Burma. A year later, they granted Burma 'independence'. But, in reality, Burma had merely exchanged one occupying power for another which, it can be argued, had less respect for the Burmese than its predecessor.

The Japanese appointed Aung San as War Minister in the new government. At the same time, they reorganised the BIA and renamed it the Burma National Army (BNA) in an attempt to render it ineffective.

Many nationalists understood the Japanese aims and went underground to fight for the communist resistance. However, just as the country geared up for free trade, in tragi-comic fashion, Ne Win declared the country's high denomination banknotes invalid, without warning or compensation! Three-quarters of the currency in circulation became worthless overnight. Based upon Ne Win's lucky number nine, new 45 and 90 kyat notes were issued.

In 1944, Aung San and various nationalist groups secretly formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO), a united front to co-ordinate action against the Japanese. Burmese army officers made contact with the British to plan resistance and, in March 1945, as British forces under General Slim swept back into central Burma, the BNA attacked the Japanese army.

Soon the British and Burmese forces were fighting together and, in June 1945, the two armies marched side by side in a victory parade through Rangoon. The marriage of convenience was always unlikely to have a long honeymoon.



With the war over, the British civil service rather optimistically wanted to reimpose the old colonial system. Burma's political landscape was unrecognisable from ten years previously and this was never going to be possible. Aung San was now an established figure and the momentum of his nationalist movement was irresistible at the end of the war. It had become a well-organised political and military force.

Mountbatten saw that the Burmese National Army had to be recognised and he made it a part of the regular army. However, Aung San kept back nearly half the old BNA force to form a paramilitary nationalist army. Under Aung San's leadership, not for the first time most left-wing nationalist parties united and this time formed the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), an expanded AFO. Despite internal squabbles, in particular with the Communist Party, the formation of the AFPFL gave additional impetus to the independence movement.

In September 1946, Aung San and several AFPFL leaders were allowed to form what was in essence a provisional government. Five months on in January 1947, after further talks in London, he signed an agreement with British Prime Minister Attlee conferring full independence within a year. In the meantime, a constitution was to be drafted and the ethnic minorities could decide for themselves whether they wished to join the Burmese state. Aung San met with the ethnic leaders, guaranteed them equality, and succeeded in winning most of them over. When the time came to elect a Constituent Assembly only the Karen (and the Communist Party, which believed in armed revolution) refused to participate.

The new federal constitution contained important anomalies. Some ethnic groups had no state; other states were poorly demarcated. In a well-crafted deal, it was agreed that the Karen and the Shan states were permitted to secede from the Union after 10 years.

In July 1947, Aung San and six leading members of the AFPFL pre-independence cabinet, veterans of the independence struggle to a man, were gunned down at a cabinet meeting. The loss of these experienced politicians on the eve of independence was a great tragedy for Burma. Indeed, the consequences of that fatal day still reverberate about the country. Despite Aung San's death, Burma became independent as planned on January 4 1948. AFPFL vice-president and former student leader U Nu became the first Prime Minister. But Aung San was sorely missed: by the age of 32, he had come to be revered as a unifier, as a politician who could realise the aspirations of the people and as a leader who had both the support of the army and the trust of many of the ethnic minorities. The assassins had been engaged by U Saw, the leading right-wing contender for the presidency. U Saw was executed for the murders. This though brought scant consolation.


Civil War and the Rise of Ne Win

Within three months, the newly independent state of Burma was plunged into civil war. The Communist Party, which had been opposing the terms of independence throughout, acted on its belief in armed struggle began to attack the government and its forces in March 1948.

Army regiments which had been infiltrated by the communists mutinied. In the summer, Karen forces, whose antipathy towards the nature of independence still remained despite Aung San's conciliatory additions to the constitution (see 'Independence'), defected and attacked government positions. Aung San's carefully constructed army collapsed with a speed that belied the delicacy of the enthnic relations within the force. Other ethnic groups allied themselves with the Karen rebels and took up arms against the government.

By 1949, government control was confined to the area around Rangoon. However, the army was re-organised and a revitalised political force and its belated support rescued the nascent democracy.

The rebels had become beset by factional infighting which allowed the army to re-establish authority. The remaining Karen commanders in the army were sacked and replaced by Burmans, and Ne Win became the new Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Born Shu Maung, he adopted the name Ne Win, meaning 'brilliant as the sun', during the Second World War. The name and the man were to cast a shadow across 20th Century Burmese history.

In hindsight, the assistance Ne Win gave democracy is ironic. His motivation is unlikely to have been anything other than self-promotion, but, for whatever reasons, he led the army in delivering the country back into the control of the government. It was the rebels' disunity which brought their defeat.

One of the 'Thirty Comrades' and a member of a minority faction, the Burmese Socialist Party, Ne Win had often quarrelled with Aung San. Despite Aung San's opposition, the Japanese appointed Ne Win commander of the BNA in 1943. After the war, he had remained in the army, as commander of the 4th Burmese Rifles, and built up a personal power base while Aung San negotiated independence.

Now Ne Win used the civil war to consolidate his own political power and the Burmese Socialist Party emerged as the strongest force in the AFPFL coalition.

Throughout the 1950s, U Nu attempted to run the country as a socialist democracy, despite enormous odds. However, the country had never truly recovered from the economic devastation of the Second World War. With the civil war and continued low-level insurgency adding to the destabilising of the already fractured society, the ethnic minorities were alienated and increasingly regarded the Burmese forces as an occupying army. The AFPFL after all was not a party at all but a coalition, often riven by dissent even when it shared the common goal of independence.

All of these factors contributed to creating a country that was impossible to govern decisively. In a continuing state of war, there was no reason for a country newly aquainted with democracy to associate it with anything other than economic, social and political upheaval. As the army grew stronger and increasingly demanded a political role in society, few could summon the energy , enthusiasm or the conviction to voice opposition.

In the late 1950s, the AFPFL split. The army unsurprisingly supported Ne Win's BSP faction and, in 1958, in an honourable but perhaps naive effort to prevent chaos, U Nu handed over power to a Caretaker Government led by Ne Win.

While democratic rule was restored when U Nu won a decisive election victory in 1960, this was short-lived. He had allowed Ne Win to taste power and its appeal proved far stronger than any faint commitment Ne Win had to democracy.

On March 2, 1962, Ne Win seized power in a coup which inaugurated more than three decades of military rule.


Military Rule

The army soon consolidated its control with military efficiency. Ne Win and a small clique of senior army officers formed the Revolutionary Council and ruled by decree with the liberal democratic constitution being swept away.

Government and minority group leaders, including both U Nu and state President Sao Shwe Thaike, were imprisoned along with hundreds of political activists.

Students protesting against the coup at Rangoon University were simply mown down by the army – which then dynamited the Students' Union building. No mercy was shown for those opposed to Ne Win. Within the new administration, Ne Win had total control. He instituted his programme, The Burmese Way to Socialism, which was published as the manifesto of a new political party, the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).

The manifesto borrowed elements from Marxism, Buddhism and National Socialism to create an ideological hotchpotch which served as the justification for an arbitrary, left-wing military totalitarianism. The Burmese army, or Tatmadaw as it was known, was exalted as the only institution which could hold together such an ethnically-diverse country.

The regime closed Burma's borders to the outside world, rejecting foreign aid, trade and investment in favour of a narrow-minded isolationism.

As a result of Ne Win's 'socialist' economic reforms which included wholesale nationalisation, state control, rice procurement quotas and the abolition of the private sector - production damaged Burma's vulnerable economy; distribution declined, shortages increased and inevitably a black-market emerged. This particular brand of socialism was designed to increase central control rather than to benefit the people.

As the masses became increasingly poverty-stricken, those in government and in the army enriched themselves.

The army took over the role of the trading class, becoming Burma's largest commercial institution with interests in many key businesses such as banks, trading companies, construction, shipping, even newspapers.

It also controlled the only political party: 80% of the army were members of the BSPP and party membership was essential for any advancement in Burmese society. The army infused every aspect of Burmese society.

Once the army had centralised control in the Rangoon area, it launched a ruthless counter-insurgency campaign in the border areas. The main targets were a Karen alliance which held territory on the Thai border and the Burmese Communist Party, then backed by the Chinese, which had invaded the north-east region from bases in China.

During these campaigns in the border areas the army engaged in the human rights abuses – conscription of labour, forced relocations – which were to become its hallmark. The rebels could never remain united against the government and the threat of insurgency gradually diminished. Ne Win's power, if not absolute, was now established and fiercely imposed.


Constitutional Dictatorship

In 1974, Ne Win constitutionalised his dominance of Burma. A new constitution systematised central control over every aspect of life. Billed as a return to civilian rule, in reality the old leadership simply resigned from the army to lead the civilian government. It was no great surprise when, after one-party elections, Ne Win became President as well as Prime Minister.

This new government was no better at managing the economy. Within months, food shortages provoked riots. There was unrest in every quarter with workers, students at Rangoon University, ethnic minorities and improbably the army expressing discontent with the corrupted economy. In 1976, young army officers even attempted a coup. The ineptitude and corruption of the government had created disaffection throughout the country. However, the army responded with its customary ferocity, shooting, arresting and torturing demonstrators until the unrest was crushed.

By the end of the decade, there was no effective resistance outside the border areas. The government felt secure enough to release many political prisoners and to allow others, such as deposed Prime Minister U Nu, to return from exile.

In 1981, Ne Win resigned as President. He claimed to be making way for younger leaders, but, as Chairman of the Party, he remained in effective control.

Throughout the 1980s, the economy continued to decline. Problems were exacerbated because nearly half of all government revenue was devoted to the army and intelligence service.

In 1987, Burma, seeking relief on its massive foreign debt, applied for Least Developed Nation status. A quarter of a century of military rule had reduced this once-prosperous country to one of the ten poorest nations in the world. The economic crisis was so severe that, in the hope of stimulating agricultural production, the government finally permitted a free market in foods.

However, just as the country geared up for free trade, in tragi-comic fashion, Ne Win declared the country's high denomination banknotes invalid, without warning or compensation! Three-quarters of the currency in circulation became worthless overnight. Based upon Ne Win's lucky number nine, new 45 and 90 kyat notes were issued.

The motive was probably more than simple superstition: it dealt a crushing blow to private traders. But since ordinary Burmese used mattresses rather than bank accounts to hoard their savings, the effect was devastating. In Rangoon, students rioted for the first time since 1976. Discontent spread throughout the country. People had finally had enough of Ne Win's arbitrary and inefficient rule.


'Roadmap to Democracy'

Continuing reports of human rights violations in Burma led the United States to intensify sanctions in 1997, and the European Union followed suit in 2000. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again in September 2000 and remained under arrest until May 2002, when her travel restrictions outside of Rangoon were also lifted.

Reconciliation talks were held with the government, but these stalemated and Suu Kyi was once again taken into custody in May 2003 after an ambush on her motorcade and remains under house arrest once again.

In August 2003, General Kyin Nyunt announced a seven-step 'roadmap to democracy,' which the government claims it is in the process of implementing. There is no timetable associated with the government's plan, or any conditionality or independent mechanism for verifying it is moving forward.

In February 2005, the government reconvened the National Convention, for the first time since 1993, in an attempt to rewrite the Constitution. However, major pro-democracy organisations and parties, including the National League for Democracy, were barred from participating, and the government selected smaller parties to participate. It was adjourned once again in January 2006.

In November 2005, the military junta started moving the government away from Yangon to an unnamed location near Pyinmana and Kyetpyay, to the newly designated capital city. This public action followed a long term unofficial policy of moving critical military and government infrastructure away from Yangon to avoid a repetition of the events of 1988. In March 2006, the capital was officially named Naypyidaw Myodaw.

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