60 Years On: Where did it all go wrong?
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024

60 Years On: Where did it all go wrong?

By Min Zin Friday, January 4, 2008


During the struggle against British colonial rule, a young nationalist, Thakin Nu, once told his colleague, Than Tun: "You will be the Lenin of Burma and I'll be your Maxim Gorky."

When Burma achieved independence in January 1948, Thakin Nu (later known as “U Nu”) became prime minister while Than Tun was general secretary of the Communist Party of Burma. Unfortunately, Burma's Lenin and Gorky fell out and became arch-enemies. Then, civil war broke out. The irony of Burma's independence politics is that it started with a failed dream.

"We were all young and passionate then," said Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician who knew both U Nu and Than Tun. "As result, many of our key leaders took extreme stances in post-independence politics and, at the same time, weapons were easily available in the wake of WWII."

The CPB leadership declared independence to be a sham and “under cover of this sham, British imperialism would work a stranglehold on the defense and economic life of the country." Consequently, the CPB decided to launch an armed rebellion in March 1948 to achieve "genuine" independence.

"Dichotomous perspectives, such as genuine-versus-sham and right-versus-wrong is a dominant paradigm among the political oppositions of Burma throughout history," said Tin Maung Than, a famous Burmese writer and political analyst. "When they waged arm struggle, the CPB looked at politics not from a power dimension, but from an ideological perspective. They decided to disengage from the political mainstream."

It wasn’t only the communists—some of the ethnic elite also neglected power politics. They overlooked the reality of basic maturity in politics that you cannot always get your own way, especially in fragile and uncertain post-independence Burma.

A series of negotiations took place between Burman leaders and ethnic representatives some time before independence. The general consensus was to create four ethnic states: Shan, Karenni, Karen and Kachin. In the drafted constitution for the new union, a provision was also included for the possible formation of new states in the future. The Shan and Karenni were granted the right to secede after ten years if they were not happy with their status. The hardest nut to crack was the Karen issue. The designation and status of the Karen state boundary remained unresolved as Karen nationalists demanded Tenasserim, Irrawaddy and parts of Pegu Division.

In October 1947, U Nu's cabinet offered the Karen a state that would have included the Karenni State, the substate of Mongpai, Salween District and some of the Thaton, Toungoo and Pyinmana hill tracts. However, the Karen National Union demanded much of the delta as well, including the whole of the Irrawaddy Division and Insein and Hanthawaddy districts. From the perspective of U Nu's government, the controversial demands made further negotiations impossible.

"U Nu failed to carry out Aung San's promises for the Karen people," said David Tharkapaw, a senior Karen leader and chief of the Information Department in the KNU. "U Nu was a Burman chauvinist. While trust between the KNU and U Nu's government was then weakened due to the mutual propagandas and vilifications, Gen Ne Win's private militias started attacking Karen villages. Then the Karen's revolution became inevitable."

As a result, the KNU launched an insurrection in January 1949. The Karen nationalist movement gradually receded from the center stage of Burmese mainstream politics, and the power of the KNU also dwindled over time. Some observers believe that the KNU should have pursued a more careful strategy than opting to compel the Karen people to an armed struggle for greater autonomy.

"The government's offer could then have been considered very generous by today's standards, but the KNU was not willing to compromise, and [became] increasingly militant," said Thakin Chan Tun. "It was a tragic story of missed opportunity."

In fact, idealism compounded with militancy—whether violent or non-violent—has been a major trait of Burmese politics. The concept of legal opposition, in terms of making compromises and enjoying inclusive participation, has never rooted itself in the country. Post-colonial conflicts in Burma proved that when the opposition tended to resort to violent means to achieve their absolute goals, the government moved to eliminate them.

U Nu's government was also unable to resolve the country's multiple crises and was even disparagingly called the "Six-Mile Rangoon Government" because various rebel groups controlled the suburbs of the capital, Rangoon.

U Nu, modeling himself after Burmese kings of the past, attempted to establish himself as a patron of Buddhism, but he never managed to make his ideal compatible with the daily realities of politics.

1  |  2  next page »

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

more articles in this section