Burma’s failing socialism—1984

©Sjon Hauser – Burma’s failing socialism—1984 (Translated from Dutch)

Published in Dutch as: Birma’s mislukte socialisme, Intermediair, 14 September 1984.

img682e■ View of a large pagoda just outside the town of Pegu, March 1980.

In Burma’s capital Rangoon the Strand Hotel is what the Raffles is in Singapore—the entrance to the colorful colonial past. While the French Renaissance-style Raffles is surrounded by futuristic sky-scrapers and other achievements of the city state’s ‘economic miracle’, the eighty years old Strand looks modern midst the dilapidated buildings from the British colonial days—the outcome of a tragic stagnation. Once the bar in the Strand Hotel was one of the favorite places of Somerset Maugham, where he brooded over the plots of his short stories. At present, it is the only spot in town where larges bottles of Mandalay Beer are served. The label on the bottle learns me that the brewery was founded in 1886, the year that the third Anglo-Burmese War ended and the British accomplished complete colonization of Burma. Burma would remain an administrative province of British India until the 1930s.
The Strand is lacking the colonial grandness that made the Raffles a legend and one of the best hotels in the world. The Strand’s soberness is almost depressive. Sparrows flock in the bar, there are no ashtrays and the floor is littered with cigarette buds. At nine in the evening the terrace doors are closed and barricaded with worn out rattan chairs. The lights are switched off off, the hotel is closed.

Burma-zw wit drieluik-870■1. The atmosphere of decay in a living quarter in Rangoon (photograph: ABC). ■2. Ne Win, the architect of Burma’s ‘backwardness’ (photograph: ABC). ■3. A western luxury product, a refrigerator, was carried through the Moei River, the Thai-Burmese border, and arrived safely on the Burmese bank (photograph: Sjon Hauser).

In the darkness in front of the building, foreigners are approached by local men wearing their traditional longyis. They are not pushed to buy cigarettes, contrarily, the men are begging them to sell their foreign cigarettes. They were disappointed when I told them that I had already traded my box of 555. Western cigarettes and whiskey are obligate luggage for the Burma traveler. From the profit made on the black market, foreigners can finance much of their seven-days trip. All western products are welcome: ballpoints, T-shirts, malaria prophylaxis, jeans, dollars, etc. More than thirty per cent of the country’s import is illegal. The official import consists mainly of capital goods.
At 9 PM the poorly illuminated center of Rangoon is like a ghost town. Occasionally, a single car passes by—a rusted through Dodge truck or Japanese pick up. During the walk from the Strand to the YMCA, the sober lodging house where I stay, the pavements are full of tricky holes that demand my full attention.

Stagnation
To the visitor of the socialist republic, Burma’s economic backwardness is evident at first glance. In fact, it is one of the things that makes the country attractive to many travelers. The friendliness of the people—even the authorities and officials smile—is another plus. Visitors usually experience their trip as a success, and the country is later assessed in a positive way. Travel accounts and newspaper reports often bear headlines such as ‘Burma—the forgotten country’ or ‘Journey into the past’.
In the first half of the 1980s, the largest country of Southeast Asia received little serious attention in the western press. Burma’s many years of closed doors politics had resulted in a stagnation of information about the country. To learn more about Burma’s remarkable, in fact disastrous stagnation, the works of scholars have to be consulted, e.g. the studies of David Steinberg. Then, it will become clear that the roots of this backwardness go back to the British colonial days. (1, 2, 3)

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volksbuurt-teaser-sizeBritish colony
The Burman’s (4) world view was shattered when, in 1886, the British accommodated the throne of king Thibaw in a Calcutta museum, as Buddhism and nation were believed to be united in the person of a (usually despotic) monarch. The British transformed the country into an export colony. It became the world’s number one exporter of rice. To achieve their purpose, Indians were encouraged to settle in Burma. In particular, the Chettar caste from Madras invested large scale in the agricultural sector. Many rice paddies in the central plain of the Irrawaddy changed hands. The Indian agricultural credits resulted in one of the most serious land grabbing ever seen. (1: p. 122)
From 1913 to 1930, 4.5 million Indians settled in Burma, transforming Rangoon into an Indian city. Implementing a politics of ‘divide and rule’, the British mainly cooperated with the Indians. The latter were sought after as officials, while the ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, were favored as servants in the army.
The Buddhist Burmans, the ethnic majority group, were degraded to third-rate citizens. In the 1930s, a strong nationalist and anti-colonial movement was firmly rooted among these Burmans. In the nationalist activities an alliance of Buddhism and socialism was taken for granted, an ideological merger that would determine Burma’s political course as soon as the country achieved independence.

Anti-colonialism
Under British rule, the once influential Buddhist Sangha (‘church’) was reduced to a powerless institution. However, it remained loyal to the population and central to the social and cultural life of the Burmans. Buddhism was pivotal to Burman identity and therefore its incorporation into anti-colonialism was self-evident. On the other hand, socialism was the more pragmatic ideology in the nationalist force against the British.
It has often been emphasized that the spirit of Buddhism is essentially socialist, because Buddhism teaches common action to pursuit social aims, and consequently should be opposed to capitalism. For others, this alliance is not self-evident, and many nationalists even rejected the affinity between Buddhism and Marxism, while in Thailand such a supposed affinity has never found clear ideological expression.

In Burma it was the product of Burman anti-colonialism (5) and turned out to be very durable. To date, government representatives use Buddhist terminology to express socialist ideas and to strengthen the credibility of worldly aims. The garbs of the Burmese monks are bright red, as if to symbolically express this alliance. And since the 1930s, Rangoon’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the foremost Buddhist sanctuary in the country, is a major center of political activism.

In World War II, Burma’s economy was shattered completely. Probably no other Asian country had suffered the ravages of war as intensely as Burma. It took the country fifteen post-war years to regain the prewar production level. During the war, the Burman nationalists had embraced the Japanese invaders, a tactical miscalculation that was despised by the ethnic minorities.
After the war, Great Britain hardly made efforts to retain the devastated colony under their rule. ‘When the British government learned from the resoluteness of the nationalists that their policy was  not unacceptable, and that it was unlikely to be pushed through without jeopardizing her long-term interests, she resigned herself to the inevitable. In such a case no efforts were made to suppress the nationalist movement or to impose her will by military force…’ (6, p. 396-7).

Ne Win-teaser-sizeIndependence and Burmanization
At Burma’s independence in 1948, the British left a country with an amalgam of ethnic groups, most of whom were hostile or, at least, suspicious towards the Burman nationalists. Before independence, this ethnic hodgepodge of peoples seemed to be more or less united, much to the credit of the prestigious nationalists’ leader Aung San. However, in 1947, Aung Son and other nationalists were killed in a bomb-outrage. Due to illness, another nationalist, U Nu, had been absent at the meeting and survived the attack. U Nu was a Buddhist purist and he became a leading force in creating a Buddhist state dominated by the Burmans. During this process of ‘Burmanization’ there was a growing dissatisfaction among the ethnic minorities that comprise about forty per cent of the population. The Buddhist overtone in U Nu’s politics is quite remarkable. It was not exceptional when the leader retreated to a meditation center to achieve thin-khar-rupel-khanyan (a certain meditative stage), and instructed his subjects not to send for hem. ‘[Not] even if the whole country is enveloped in flames. If there are fires, you must put them out yourselves’ (5, p. 123).
For U Nu eliminating capitalism (which encourages selfishness) was above all a meritorious act in the Buddhist sense. U Nu’s socialist aims had little in common with a Marxist strategy focusing upon the proletariat, neither with a focus on peasants and farmers. The superiority of Buddhism was frequently expressed by U Nu: ‘It will be our duty to retort in no uncertain terms that the wisdom of knowledge that might be attributed to Karl Marx is less than one-tenth of a particle of dust that lies at the feet of our great Lord Buddha.’ (5, p. 125)
In 1960, much to the credit of U Nu, Buddhism was proclaimed Burma’s national religion. The social reforms during U Nu’s governments were relatively modest, and following a number of setbacks, a more liberal course was set about. It is difficult to assess the effects it had on economic recovery due to the exceptionally miserable situation at the end of Word War II.

Coup and militarization
Ethnic minorities had revolted against the Burman dominance as soon as the country gained independence. In 1960, the separatism of the Shan people seriously threatened the unity of the country. This threat is generally seen as the major reason of army leader Ne Win’s (bloodless) coup in March 1962.
The purpose of the military intervention was to restore unity, but the new leader soon turned out to become a dictatorial strongman who does not refrain from violently suppressing any opposition. In particular student activism was brutally put down. And after failing to accomplish agreements with several minority groups, Ne Win retorted to military means. Civil war soon raged in large parts of the country.
In the past, Ne Win had been a brother in arms of the respected nationalist leader Aung San. However, unlike Aung San, the new strongman lacked any flexibility, while his personality has been characterized as xenophobic and paranoid. And unlike U Nu, Ne Win was not popular among the Burmans, who did not consider him a ‘good Buddhist’. U Nu’s pragmatic Buddhist-style socialism was substituted by Ne Win’s doctrinal socialism.

Industrialization got priority within the economic scheme. All major companies were nationalized, and the country was no more open to foreign investments for the subsequent fifteen years. The investments by the non-indigenous nationals were restricted, which resulted in the exodus of the Indians. The economy was not only ‘burmanized’, it was also ‘militarized’. Ne Win-loyal army men—who usually lacked experience in economic life—were placed in all top positions. The strong centralization of the new economic development discouraged the participation of the few talented.
In 1974, a more liberal course is set about to counter economic stagnation, but at present [1984] Burma remains one of the least industrialized countries in Asia. Despite a fourteen-fold increase of government investments in industry, its output grew only slowly. Less than ten per cent of the gross national product came from industry—only in Bangladesh this rate was lower. In 1980, the production of electricity was 32 kWh per capita, a tenth of the production in Thailand (318 kWh), Burma’s predominantly agricultural neighbor. (7)

sjouwer-teaser-sizeBurmese Socialist Program Party
Following the coup of 1962, the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) was founded. Initially this was a ‘cadre party’, but starting from 1963 it accepted applications for membership. In 1966, the party had only twenty members, but there were 99 634 candidate members and 167 447 sympathizers. The major ideological manifest of the party, the System of Correlation of Man and Environment: the Philosophy of the BSPP, was published in January 1963. ‘The socialist society based on justice, upon which we have set our hearts, is a prosperous and affluent society, free from exploitation or oppression of man by man, where there is no class antagonism that threatens human welfare, and where man’s physical well-being and spiritual happiness are assured.’ (1, p. 30)
In this new ideology a number of Buddhist and socialist views have been integrated.
A year after its publication, dissidents were persecuted, a strict censorship of the press was implemented and all political parties except the BSPP had been outlawed.
Because of Ne Wins ‘extremely neutral’ foreign policy, the internal developments in Burma were hardly followed by most foreign countries. Burma’s neutrality was above all the product of Ne Win’s xenophobia. Burmese diplomats rarely participated in international conferences, and in 1979, Burma even withdrew its membership from the Non-Aligned Movement.
Though few in dept studies have been possible under military rule, it is fair to conclude that Ne Win’s politics had been disastrous to the economy. Following the 1967 crisis in the agricultural sector, there are outbursts of strikes and unrest. In 1970, the country controlled only two percent of the world trade in rice, compared to 28 per cent in 1950. There were shortages of almost anything. Gradually, the rise of an extensive black market partly compensated for this. Most products in the black market were smuggled into Burma from Thailand. Various ethnic rebel armies, in particular the Karen’s, finance their struggle against Rangoon by controlling the illegal import of western consumption products.

Shan State and opium trafficking
On the other hand, in the northeastern Shan State, the rebel armies support themselves by smuggling opium and heroin to Thailand. Because of these drug links, the rebels in the Shan State have been in the limelight of the foreign media, which show more interest in the sensational aspects, such as the opium warlords, than in the roots of the problem. (8, p. 403)
In fact, the present anarchy in the Shan State, which borders the Golden Triangle, results from centuries of mutual mistrust between the Shan and their Burman neighbors. The opium trade is even directly linked to Ne Win’s Road to Socialism. ‘All businesses and banks (foreign and otherwise), shops, industries, factories, etc. were nationalized, and business and trade by individuals and private concerns came to a dead stop. Naturally, in such an economic vacuum there arose a black market economy which for opium traffickers was a boon as they, and only they, were equipped to exploit this sad situation.’ (8, p. 417)
To prevent public unrest, Ne Win is forced to tolerate the black market—as the black market supplies anything the state does not produce. Indirectly, this inevitable tolerance is supporting the ethnic rebellions.
On the other hand, a quarter of the nationa