Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, August 19, 2019


Here Today, Gone Tomorrow


The last time Burmese went to the polls for a general election was in 1990.

Burma has produced a bewildering assortment of political parties over the past century, but most have been short-lived

Throughout Burma’s modern history, political parties have come and gone. Some have split up and formed new organizations or alliances; others have simply vanished. None has outlived the era that produced it.

Since the first modern election was held under British rule in 1922, Burma has undergone numerous political transformations, each one dominated by a different cast of leaders representing a complex array of interests. Many commentators have pointed to the sheer diversity of political forces in Burma as a source of weakness, but the real tragedy has been the lack of continuity in the country’s political evolution.

An NLD worker campaigns during the 1990 election.

No political party in Burma has ever survived more than a few elections, partly due to infighting and internal dynamics, but mostly because of external factors: British colonial interference, World War II and, worst of all, nearly half a century of military rule.

Burma’s first modern political organization emerged in 1920 and was itself the product of a split within the increasingly politicized Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), formed in 1906. The General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) was founded by younger, more radical members of the YMBA intent on furthering their nationalist agenda.

The GCBA in turn divided over whether to participate in the 1922 election, which was part of the British colonial effort to establish a diarchy system of limited self-rule for Burma’s people (albeit with ultimate authority remaining in the hands of the governor).

The election was won by the Twenty-one Party, led by Ba Pe, a journalist and former GCBA leader. The party captured 28 out of 58 seats, just short of the majority required to form a Cabinet. However, Ba Pe refused to enter into a coalition with the pro-British Golden Valley Party, led by Sir J.A. Maung Gyi, who went on to head the new government.

This situation repeated itself in elections held in 1926 and 1928: Ba Pe’s party (now called the People’s Party) won the most votes both times, but was unable to form a government or win any positions in the Cabinet because the British favored the Golden Valley Party. By this time, the Burmese realized that the diarchy system was a sham.  

In the following decade, however, a new generation of nationalist leaders decided to try again to use British reforms to achieve their ultimate goal of Burmese independence. In August 1936, the Dobama Asiayone (“We Burmans Association”), led by Aung San, created the Komin Kochin Party to contest the election held in November of that year. 

This election was held under the 1935 Burma Act, which separated Burma from British-controlled India and established a House of Representatives and a Senate. Besides the Komin Kochin Party, other participants included the Ngar Pwint Saing Organization, led by Chit Hlaing, a former GCBA leader who had advocated boycotting the elections of the 1920s, and the Poor Man’s Party, led by Dr Ba Maw, a prominent advocate of Burmese self-rule. There were also a number of individual candidates.

Ba Maw’s party won the election, and in 1937, he became Burma’s first prime minister. He served until 1939, when he resigned because of his opposition to Burma’s entry into WWII. In August 1940, he was arrested for sedition and imprisoned. He remained behind bars until he was released by the Imperial Japanese Army, which overran Burma in early 1942. He later became the head of a puppet government and was arrested in Tokyo in 1945 for his role in supporting the Japanese.

During the war, Burmese political aspirations became secondary to the larger geopolitical conflict that was changing the global balance of power. However, under the leadership of Aung San, Burma’s nationalist movement remained a potent force, and at the end of the war, the Burmese were finally in a position to demand complete independence from Britain.

Aung San’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), an umbrella organization consisting of no fewer than 10 political groups, including the Communist Party of Burma and the Socialist Party, spearheaded the final push to end colonial rule. In a constituent assembly election held in April 1947, the AFPFL won by a landslide.

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