Culture: Political Science: Misunderstood Myanmar:
Chapter III: The Milieu Interieur (Part I)
By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.
International Business Executive, Political Scientist
Editor’s Note: This paper is the fourth of series of chapters excerpted from Dr. Koh’s book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective Study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’. With years of experience operating a business in Myanmar (Burma), Dr. Koh has first-hand knowledge and a deeply practical understanding of the economic and administrative opportunities and challenges currently existing in the country. This segment explains Myanmar’s internal affairs scenario. -JP
Fact of History
When I and those whom I call my “key respondents” or “research collaborators,” among them Brother, Sir, and Cousin, commenced our historical re-reading through chats and various communication, we started with the period 1942 to 1948. Brother pointed to its highlights squaring in at Myanmar’s attempts to gain independence from British colonial rule with the assistance of the Japanese. The most notable event in this period includes the return of Gen. Aung San to Myanmar in 1942 to head an anti-British Myanmar Army – the Burma Independence Army (BIA) – that he had set up in Bangkok with the other Thakins.1 The British colonizers were indeed finally forced out of Myanmar with the assistance of the Japanese and they retreated to India utilizing Simla as their Command Headquarters in India by around mid-May, 1946, but only after they had put into effect their “scorched earth” policy of destroying as much as they could in the Country. Although this British rampage was alive in the memories of my key respondents, most published accounts are silent about it, or as Maung Htin Aung puts it, “all European historians draw a veil over the British excesses in the so-called pacification of Burma.2
Having succeeded in removing the British, by August 1944, Aung San found the Japanese to have been also somewhat “intolerable” and he then operated a secret underground movement, which was to become Myanmar’s leading political organization – the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (“AFPFL”) - among others. Nineteen forty-three saw the second “return” of the British (along with the Allied forces) to Myanmar and with the collapse of the Japanese Imphal Campaign3 during the first quarter 1944, Myanmar was reoccupied by May 1945. Indeed prior to this, the Burmese National Army (the former Burma Independence Army (BIA) and the Burma Defense Army (BDA) following Aung San’s proposal to form the Anti-Fascist Organization (AFO) teamed up with the Allied Forces to rise and resist the fascist Japanese. Included in the group were people like Aung San, NeWin, the communist faction people like Thakin Than Tun and the PRP (which subsequently was known as the Socialist Party4 ). Thereafter attempts, headed by Aung San, were made at gaining independence from the British.
By 1947, the British Labour Government was willing to grant independence to Myanmar. However, in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated before Independence could be achieved. This notwithstanding, at 0400 hours on the 4th of January 1948 Myanmar became a fully independent country. This would have been a ball and yet Tucker, labelling those in charge “kleptocrats,” noted that “…rebels controlled most of the Country by February 1949 – 13 months after Independence – and Karen rebels were within four miles of Rangoon.” U Nu’s AFPFL administration of Rangoon. . .[became] the Rangoon Government5. Noting this, I enquired from Sir, a member of my “resource panel”: “Is there any truth in the matter?” His response was: “Tucker did not go sufficiently far back. We had problems much earlier. Since 1947, the communists, Kuomintang forces (KMT) and Karens’ “revolt” wreaked havoc by blowing up bridges, roads, railways, ferries, etc. These struggles of varying intensities went on, from 1940 until 1948.”
My communication to Brother seeking clarification on such details necessarily included the period between 1948 and 1952 when post-Independence civil war occurred. In his response, to my surprise, he revealed that, “the period of civil war stretched from 1947 until 1992. Since 1947, the communists had been planning to take control of the whole Country. On 6th June 1947, the plot was exposed. The Communist Party was expelled from main-stream politics along with its “cells” which had penetrated the armed forces. The result was that they went underground taking with them some small arms. Likewise by September/October 1948, 4 Karen battalions followed suit and the Karen National Democratic Organization (KNDO) headed by Saw Ba U Gyi together with others took the opportunity to revolt against the Central Government.”
“What about the KMT forces,” I enquired. Brother replied, “the Kuomintang (KMT) forces which occupied the eastern region of the Salween River and supported by the USA through its ‘Agents’ in Thailand posed yet another problem. After the Kandy Agreement was endorsed, we had only 500 officers and 5,000 other ranks to manage the State. Thus the insurgents and others took advantage of the situation and we virtually controlled Yangon only and thus we became known as the “Rangoon Government;” virtually the whole Country was under the insurgents’ control.” In a sense, Brother explained, “Shelby Tucker was correct. We have had to fight all these tangential forces for many years. However with time the armed forces was built up to meet the challenge at great cost to life and limb; today the dimension of strategy has changed. It has become political. Thus you might say the civil war stretched from 1947 until 1992.”
“What was the status as of 1992”, I asked. “By 1992,” Brother replied, “although 92% of peace had been achieved with the Minorities/National Races and the others, there were still some 8% of armed elements who were still active, eg., the Karen National Union (KNU), Shan Union Revolution Army (SURA) [which] is the splinter group of Khun Sa, mainly [related] to drug trafficking. This battle is really for control of the 1947 Constitution. All elements were preoccupied with ‘greedy and absolute’ control, with the primary object of power and control rather than what would be in the best interest of the Country in the circumstances as elucidated in Aung Thwin’s “Parochial Universalism6”. It was machtpolitic!”
To Brother, the highlight of 1950 to 1958 was the headship of Prime Minister U Nu and the political regime of the AFPFL Government. By 1953, the Yangon government moved towards the communist world and to Brother’s recollection, it started refusing any further US economic aid. By the end of 1954, Myanmar already concluded barter agreements with Russia and China covering one million tons of rice a year until 1960. By this time, however, Brother commented that Russians and the Chinese were already “disgruntled” because of unreliable deliveries and the poor quality of the barter products.
As will be discussed in some detail later, Army Commander, Gen. Ne Win, took over the Government in 1962 and implemented the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” On one of our meetings with the key respondents I asked them bluntly, “Based on what ideology?” Brother, “good fellow”, then continued: “To prevent the possibility of the communists gaining power, in September 1958. Brother, in his reckoning, replied in this wise manner: “Brother Koh, this was an amalgamation of traditional customary laws with some Marxist or Leninist leanings. The Party formed was named the “Burma Socialist Programme Party” (BSPP). Maung Maung and Aung Gyi persuaded Prime Minister U Nu to hand over power to a six-month Caretaker Army Government under Army Commander, Gen. Ne Win. This was after about over one year after the spilt up of the AFPFL. This, Prime Minister U Nu did by the way of a “Seven Point Letter” to the Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Ne Win, with the mandate to tackle and stabilize the deteriorating situation in the Country. This Caretaker period, as we now know in history, went on for 18 months, after which a national election was held and was won by U Nu’s “Clean Faction” which was renamed the Union Party (Pyidaungsu Party) which virtually collapsed by mid – 1961 because inter alia, of internal squabbling.” I then interrupted by saying, “so what happened thereafter because it appeared that U Nui’s, Clean Faction had a persuasive win in 1960, just some couple of years earlier?”
Brother retorted, “U Nu’s government did not perform as expected so that in the interim, armed insurgency grew with the national races taking up arms against the government. Indeed what was shocking was that even government ministries, departments/organizations became infiltrated by left wing elements. Strikes were created and orchestrated by left wing labour unions, paralyzing the Country. Indeed even the Armed Forces was infiltrated and left wing elements were instructed to subvert the armed forces, from within. Alarm bells were sounded to the Government to act decisively on the problems but these were not needed. The situation got chronic. “Again” I commented, “it appeared unreal that matters were allowed to get to such a stage.”
Brother responded with, “precisely. General Ne Win could not permit the problem to fester and so he was forced to take over the helm of the Government from U Nu under the banner of the “Revolutionary Council Government (Bogyoke Government) which was reminiscent of the 1958/1960 ‘Caretaker Government’ – nice and peaceful”. He then as an after thought remarked, “some scholars not informed of the circumstances surrounding the takeover, termed it a ‘bloodless coup’ whereas it was by any definition not a “coup” especially when used in a military context. It was just neither a coup de main, as due warning had been given nor was it a coup d’etat, as no violence was involved. Furthermore, this was not the act of some “young turks” trying to grab power but it was undertaken by the military chiefs, namely Brigadier San Yu, who was in charge of the Northern Command (later, the President of Myanmar) and Brigader Sein Win, the Commander of the Southern Command (later, Member of the Revolutionary Council) together with the Chiefs of Staff of the Navy and the Air Force. The two Commands incidentally, control the entire country. The entire exercise was undertaken professionally without any fuss or violence on a balmy evening when a Cultural Performance was held at the Open Air Theatre on U Wisara Road when all dignitaries e.g. the Prime Minister and other ministers and top bureaucrats with special local and foreign guests were all present, on the night of 1st March 1962 and by 7am on the 2nd March 1962, the entire country was secured without a single shot being fired”, though it was said that the prominent Saw Shwe Thaik was killed in the process.
Brother then narrated how Gen. Ne Win went on TV, Live, and delivered the State of the Union Message announcing the formation of the Revolutionary Council Government (RCG), the dissolution of the Constitution and subsequently the assignment of various ministries as well as that of formation of State and Divisional Councils, Foreign and international relations policies with direct rule imposed through State and Division Security Councils which in turn formed Township Security Councils thereby abolishing one step of control, namely, that of the District level councils, to speed up decision making. Gen. Ne Win thus became the Chairman of the Council and Head of State as well as Head of Government.
Reports observed that military coups were undertaken from 1962 onwards, but as I was informed by Brother, this was because the Country was heavily burdened by the socio-political events at that time. Thus for example that (a) the country under military administration which was drafting a new Constitution already held three Referenda, and (b) this was compounded when in 1974 President Ne Win headed a uniparty Government utilizing the BSSP (which was inaugurated in 1962).” Subsequently, a new Constitution was put in place in 1974, following a referendum.
The topic of autocracy never slipped my mind and a communication about autocracy –perhaps Myanmar’s most prevailing character cutting across historical time zones from the kings to the British to the present day Myanmar – resulted in the following explanation from Brother : “This [autocracy] might be attributed to the ‘carry-over effect’ from the old days of Dr. Ba Maw. In March of 1943, when Dr. Ba Maw visited Japan, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo insisted that Burma adopt an ‘autocratic’ form of government, combining legislative and executive powers in one office. It was Dr. Ba Maw who subsequently guided the Country to an autocratic institution without revealing that he had been so instructed.” To this Sir added, “I share Pye’s view that it was the influence of the colonialists who held power as ‘status’ and not as ‘utility’ that is for its utilitarian value” which seems to me that the traditional power concept does not allow for any competition between and among contenders. That power be held as a monopoly and not necessarily be spread among society. Myanmar being a military-based government probably adopted this policy under such circumstances, supposedly they are less inclined towards any diachronic moves.
The focus of my further communication pertained to Gen. Ne Win and his governance. In Brother’s view, fearing that the Union would disintegrate and considering that the integrity of the Union is of prime import, Gen. Ne Win felt it necessary to rule with a firm hand. Brother thought that essentially this was reminiscent of the earlier period after the AFPFL had achieved substantial unity and of how Governor Sir Dorman Smith felt that “Aung San and Company simply do not know the meaning of democracy”, he having been indoctrinated in Japan. So there is a precedent that any multiparty system (Democracy) would not work; not even among the “Big Three” that is Aung San, Than Tun and U Ba Pe, of the AFPFL6. But Brother offered the following perspective “from within”: “Historically Ne Win had seen how in the old post colonial days, practically, it has been noted how all the rich people were foreigners and Burmans had been reduced from being poor in a poor country to (being) poor in a rich country. So this position had to be reversed.”
Moreover, according to Brother, “a general election under universal adult suffrage terms only constitutes an external manifestation of democracy, and in no way is it really, truly, an index of real liberalism/democracy or accountability”. Brother elaborated on how Gen. Ne Win had raised issues of whether ‘good democracy’ was more important than ‘good governance,’ and of how he had queried rhetorically ‘given the choice of good governance and bad democracy, which should one opt for? In this context, likewise, Brother raised the issue of which was the priority: ‘loyalty (lugong) or brilliance (ludow)—lugong, ludow or ludow lugong’ and reflected that, “Gen. Ne Win concluded that ‘lugong ludow’ should prevail, from his experience.”
Subsequent exchanges with Brother revealed that Gen. Ne Win was not prepared to “trade aid for money and rapid development” for the possible loss of control and ownership of the Country, which he saw as a real threat under any guise, including that of democracy. His rationale was, added Brother, that “he had observed that many a scholar had commented that even some states in the Region, which had been democratic and received aid for a long time, did not produce prosperity or stability.” Brother added, “I seem to recall that an author, perhaps Michael Aung Thwin, wrote something like [a]ny assumption that lack of democracy is the stumbling block in the political development of Myanmar is fallacious.” Brother also commented that it had been said often by many, such as scholars like Michael Aung Thwin, that the outcome of the 1990 election in Burma “is evidence of this (democracy) desire, but neither the election nor their outcome necessarily suggest that people were voting for democracy per se.” Meanwhile, Josef Silverstein viewed it as Myanmar having gradually – or calculatedly – moved away from Western nations since these states started to interfere in its internal affairs post 19627, which was, by all means unacceptable to Myanmas who according to Guyot considered themselves a “Master Race”, as reflected in their call of “Dobama Thakin Myo, Hei Dobama8”. This would have entailed Myanmar losing what Dr. Ba Maw called “Adipiti, Ashin, Mingyi (King/God Concept9) and his Maha Bama Asi-Yone “Tatwe, Thathun, Tameint” (one blood, one voice, one command). Anachronistic as these concepts may be, as Daw Ni Ni Myint puts it to me, the fundamental problem of Myanmar during its march to independence is that Myanmas do not appear to have the “capacity to absorb outside influences” and so the idea of a “distinctive native character10” predominates.
These were some of the considerations, which led Gen. Ne Win to indulge in his “social vivisection” in the form of the practise of autocracy and autarky and indeed perhaps in extending it. “For” Brother noted, “it is only too well known that, many a sociologist had commented, post 1958, that the successful turn around of Myanmar under military governance could indeed be used as a development model for developing countries”.
As history revealed, the Ne Win regime collapsed. Brother recalled that Gen. Ne Win stepped down voluntarily from all political and administrative positions after the “Emergency Party Congress” held at the Saya-San Hall at the Kyaiksan Stadium grounds, in 1987. Gen. Ne Win proclaimed then that he would retire and turn his back on politics. I endeavoured to ascertain how serious Gen. Ne Win was about his leaving the scene. According to Brother, “his plan was to spend time meditating in his own house, implying that he would continue his practice since 1962, of meditating with his uncle who was a monk and for whom he had constructed a house at the former governor’s house.”
Upon receiving Brother’s response I countered: “But it is generally held by all that he was the “eminence griese 11” pulling the strings on one of the “Triumvirate” members.” The spontaneous rejoinder from Brother was: “This is only a perception, naturally. First of all the “triumvirate” members are quite knowledgeable and omnipotent. There is therefore no need to depend on any eminence griese. Secondly the old General being such a powerful figure for so long, it is tempting to conclude that though he has left the scene, he was still influencing developments from behind especially since one of the three had been one of his “blue-eye lieutenants.” Thirdly it is my guess that the one who started this “campaign” knows our history well and tied this “eminence griese” subject to the situation of the old King Bagyidaw in 1819. In this instance, externally after the death of the King’s grandfather, it was rumoured that there would be a war and an impending fall of the Nation. Consequently, he implemented three moves: (a) abandon the construction of Bodawpyas’ temple and great lakes projects (b) suspend for 3 years all taxes payable by the people, (c) remove the capital back to Ava. However it was generally known that these measures were actually orchestrated by the Chief Queen Mai Nu and her relatives who became known as the powers behind the throne, so that this question of “eminence griese” was raised. There is thus precedent in our history. You should read Maung Htin Aung12 who also confirmed this. But in this case I suspect this was merely put out to discredit the “Triumvirate” because in particular, one of them was relatively junior whereas many other ex-senior officers (generals) had been removed years ago and others were still being bypassed.”
Brother added, “I can tell you that as late as 1992, when “influential members” like U Than Tin and U Chit Hlaine (“old guards”) visited him for a “discussion,” he was insistent that he would only talk religion. I can also tell you that he keeps active mentally by reading and by playing his favourite chess practically everyday, apart from taking his ‘daily constitutional’, and whenever available, he continued to enjoy his gruyere cheese. You have been around long enough U Koh, you know the “drill” as you have close enough contact to him”.
After Gen. Ne Win stepped down, U Sein Lwin held office for 18 days after which he had to go following enhanced rioting because of his brutal treatment of university students in past riots. Indeed he became known as the “Butcher,”13 Dr. Maung Maung then took over holding the same office for three weeks. On September 18, 1988, there was the great “Conflagration” following which the Armed Forces took over the Government headed by the then General Saw Maung, thereby starting the regime of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) Government. This was seen as being the arrival in Myanmar of Dubcek’s “Prague Spring” – political reform and cultural liberalization – and perhaps the close of Myanmar’s Louis XV’s era as represented by “Newinism” when autocracy and autarky (including that of looking after the military’s well being) were introduced and the beginning of Myanmar’s Louis XVI era with positive moves of having powers vested in what was in effect an operating and operational Cabinet not to mention the setting up of reforms such as market economy and having a “General Election”, all for the benefit of the populace.
Impressions of a Former First Lady: A Seasoned Academic’s Tale
For further snippets on Gen. Ne Win’s life and rule, let me now turn to a respondent who became far closer to him than anyone else. It was fortuitous that, after some years of having been in contact with many members of the Myanmar government, I thought it useful to persuade my medical specialist friends to visit Myanmar to share their experiences with their counterparts. Having proven successful in this area, my government friends thought it useful to repeat the exercise in the humanities area, especially in developmental studies and history as the government was working on documenting Myanmar’s past history in a more coordinated way and also of events that occurred on the way forward.
In light of this, I requested some academic friends of mine from the UK to share their thoughts on developmentalism and a number of seminars were arranged. Economists and historians attended in full force and in the process I had the opportunity to meet several senior academics such as Daw Ni Ni Myint, Dr Than Tun, U Tun Aung Chain, U Maung Maung Aye, some of whom were responsible for researching and documenting the history of Myanmar.
Daw Ni Ni Myint is a former First Lady of the Country through Gen. Ne Win. Socially she has, from my observation, first class bearing befitting that of a First Lady of State, and is elegant of poise. She is quite unflappable, objective, analytical, even if a little taciturn. Intellectually and professionally she is a senior academic, having read history, political science and philosophy at the University of Rangoon.
An active researcher in the history of Myanmar, Daw Ni Ni Myint has a number of publications; her maguum opus being Burma’s Struggle Against British Imperialism (1885 – 1895). This is a book which ought to be “standard text” for all who want a clear perspective of the British vis à vis Myanmar kampf of the period. In addition, in the “Selected Writings” series of the Ministry of Education she has a number of very interesting papers and is active in the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education, Myanmar Chapter (SEAMEO CHAT), in Yangon.
Daw Ni Ni Myint is also supervisor for post graduate students and is examiner in history for both masters’ and doctorate candidates, having been Director General of the University Historical Research Commission and Member of the Myanmar Historical Commission. Above all, Daw Ni Ni Myint, being a former First Lady, is obviously and naturally privy to information and the raison d’etre for some of the governmental policies which the facile princeps of government, Gen.Ne Win, formulated - indeed, perhaps more “intimately” than that of my other government friends who have worked with or assisted other policy makers and shakers of Myanmar. These friends, however, as already been noted, are of necessity revealed under various noms de guerre in this thesis.
It was after an initial ten years or more of quanxi building that I was requested to speak at a Seminar held by academics in the Yangon University Convocation Hall. It was from this, not forgetting other informal meetings and chats, that I was able to gain an “in-sense” of the milieu interieur from the academic community of Myanmar. This, along with my other friends who are or were members of government further enabled me to unveil some of the motivations which led Gen. Ne Win to chart the course of economic and political development of Myanmar in his time.
History has shown that for some 26 years, under the aegis of what I would term “NeWinism,” Myanmar underwent a system of autocratic and autarkic vivisection guided, in the view of many a Western scholar such as Michael Barr, as being a rare combination of autocracy plus numerology and other forms of superstition.14. This it seems is the thumbnail sketch of Myanmar history under NeWinism, which I posed to Sayamagyi Daw Ni Ni Myint as a senior academic in her own right. I wanted to know what brought about this state of affairs over such an extended period of a quarter of a century and what the truths or myths are as she sees them from her privileged vantage point.
Speaking as a historian and academic, Sayamagyi’s retort was thus: “U Koh, I am pleased to know that there are now Asians, not from Myanmar, taking great interest in the study of Myanmar and are now undertaking academic research on it.” She was obviously well informed of the continually growing academic literature on Myanmar, which she feels may or may not reflect the true ground conditions. This made me realize that that was the opportune time to ascertain her thoughts on the external perceptions of Myanmar from her own research as well as her very priviliged position. She explained: “Thus far there have only been scholars, mostly Western, who seem to write authoritatively on Myanmar but who unfortunately have not been able to unearth many facts. This is understandable because the Government does tend to put a lid on information—no thanks to our past colonial experience! This is also in part because, among those who write about Myanmar, most have been what Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once called ‘parachute journalists15’.”
“There are also a handful of local scholars. Do you think they contribute much in terms of informed views and critical analyses?,” I enquired. Sayamagyi responded: “As for local scholars, there are generally two kinds. First, those Myanmas who write and publish locally but whose works do not get the necessary international exposure and those Myanmas who live abroad and write historical facts but they seem to be ‘ostracized,’ unless. . .,” I interrupted, “what?” “. . . they are part of the in-crowd / western gulag. . .,” “Like who, for example?,” I queried again, and she replied,“Historians like Maung Htin Aung16 who may not be quite conformist” (i.e., with foreign historians’ views).
“This aside,” I continued, “my initial impression is that Gen. Ne Win’s rule/regime or as I would term it, “NeWinism” was characterized by its move to implant cordon sanitaire – political and economic – over Myanmar. Would this be fair comment? And if so, why?” Sayamagyi replied:, “In [Gen. Ne Win’s] first experience with governance of the Country, he utilized the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) under the style of the Caretaker Government.” This was, she explained, “after the decline of the economy and democratic political structure under U Nu’s term for some 18 months - albeit it was initially envisaged, in compliance with the Constitution, to have been for 6 months) - following which both the economic as well as the political situation on the ground were stabilized. Soon afterwards, the Government was handed back to civilian rule under U Nu.”
I then commented that by 1962, it is well documented that the Country was again in turmoil andit appears that Gen. Ne Win had to step in by what many have termed a “coup,” to save the day, under the style of the Revolutionary Government. Sayamagyi continued her narrative: “Actually, standing on the sidelines, I too am fascinated by the “coup.” From what little I know, there was no cloak and dagger nor “fireworks” involved in the “takeover.” Circumstances were such that for the General, failure to take some action would have been negligent. You had anyway better ask your friends who know the mechanics of the so called “coup” more intimately but to me it was just another normal day. Indeed, under the Revolutionary Government controlled by the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces), all will attest to the fact stability and peace again prevailed, and notwithstanding the nationalization of practically all private economic enterprise right down to retail shops, due compensation was made following valuation by a proper Government Asset Valuation Body. Foreign organizations were compensated in their currency and locals, in Kyats. The General ruled from 1962 to 1974, over which time there was neither great general unhappiness nor objections to the moves made.” It appeared, according to her, that Gen. Ne Win continually conducted post mortems and reappraisal of his philosophy of governance post 1958 and again in the first half 1970s, e.g. how a militarily administered government set the country which was going topsy-turvy right, in 1958 and then again in the first half 1970s after the new Constitution which took into account changing circumstances, he got the Party reelected.
Talking about Myanmar’s foreign or international relations, a subject which I introduced out of curiosity, Sayamangi Daw Ni Ni Myint continued: “Taking cognizance of the political and economic developments or outcome under both British and Japanese regimes, the General concluded after a review that foreign government control, as well as foreign models of western democracy, were unsuited and incongruent to Myanmar.” “So what happened then?,” I enquired. “This no doubt spelled the coup de grace of western liberal democracy, on the one hand and the institutionalization of autocracy for Myanmar, on the other, for the Country. Autocracy in any case is not new. It had been put in place since the old Ba Maw days,” she explained.
Sayamagyi recalled: “It appeared [to him] on hindsight that since both the British and Japanese colonialists went into Myanmar with the immediate as well as long haul aims of extracting the natural, replaceable and non replaceable resources available, this would not be in the best interest of Myanmar, and because of this, since the basic staple requirement, rice, would be available on every table in the worst case scenario, Myanmar therefore could even exist quite independently off outside assistance/imports and hence “total independence” or “autarky” could be practised. Myanmar, as you know, had by that time become the “rice bowl of the world.” She added: “He thought that no one would starve!”
I then commented, “having heard you, it would appear that Gen. Ne Win hit both fronts, i.e. autocracy and autarky, at one go. To my mind, this is really drastic if not ‘hazardous.’ There must be some rather deep seated reason for this, or not?” Her rejoinder was: “It is a very long story but you are correct. The General as a freedom fighter was very passionate about the Country and was surprisingly exposed to many aspects of historical and economic development, perhaps because of this wide contacts and reading. He used to talk about how Adam Smith had written about how the British impoverished Bengal, which had a thriving textile industry, by shipping off its industry and converting it to a rural agrarian state, in the 1700s. Of how his friend Nehru had spoken (and written) about the level of poverty in India coinciding with the level of British control and influence in many parts of India. That even Ireland existed practically as a Third World State for a long time because it had been colonized. He felt that this too was probably why in Myanmar there is fighting between and among Myanmas and therefore this has stunted development. He compared this colonization effect with Japan, which was never colonized (till after the A-Bomb drop) and yet it was able to develop and even redevelop very quickly after that.” It appeared that when looking at countries in the region which were practising democracy, the General observed cynically that it looked like it was the case of government off the people, fool the people and buy the people, as Don Camilo Osias when campaigning for the position of Vice President said of President Elpidio Quirino’s government17.
The Sayamagyi continued with, “these ‘pitfalls’, Ne Win thought, must be avoided especially since, inspite of Independence, British influence in Myanmar was still strong. Considering the main staple food is available in abundance it was more adviseable to keep clear of unhealthy external influences.” Supposedly what had been overlooked is that isolation and alienation have a tendency to form a “vicious circle” leading to unsavoury consequences like ‘irrationality’ and identity loss,” my old mate18, a professor of psychiatry remarked when I narrated the “Myanmar Story” to him.
It seems that true to form as a military officer, according to Sayamangi, Ne Win bore in mind the words of his Thakin colleague and Commanding Officer, Gen. Aung San, who had philosophized that the “over dependence on foreign aid and assistance, begging and borrowing, and seeking other countrys’ help for anything, everything would lead Myanmar to become a ‘prostitute country’.” Sayamagyi went on to say: “This continues to be Myanmar’s fear and so it seems to have been perpetuated.”
This I would indeed confirm in the light of one of my dealings with the Government. When the Government wanted to purchase some highway equipment from my Company and having agreed on all terms and conditions, the order it appeared would be forthcoming, but it never did. I then pushed for the order and even offered a very accommodating “payable when able” terms because I suspected back then that the Government had other “priorities” for its limited foreign exchange. However, the Director, who subsequently became the Finance Minister, condescended to say that the order was delayed because “we do not go out to spend what we do not already have!” This is how prudent, conservative, or even proud the Government is, depending on one’s point of view.
To return to Sayamaygi, she stressed Gen. Ne Win’s experience and knowledge of the British exploitation of the Country’s natural resources and their “scorched earth” policy upon being forced to leave Myanmar, and the Japanese with their rather “unsavory methods” of governance and their own agenda of resource extraction, under the guise of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” slogan. All of these, she observed, led Myanmar’s leaders to the inevitable and irrevocable conclusion that the road to peace, stability and progress was to be more circumspect over any foreign parties’ offer of aid and assistance; over what their agenda and intentions are and how it would circumscribe Myanmar’s autonomy, sovereignty and progress. That this sentiment was clear to her, was the impression I got from my discussion with her. In her words, “rightly or wrongly the powers that be, being familiar with socialism in its various forms and since the world movement tended in the same direction at the time, opted for socialism tailored to Myanmar’s specific requirements through the agency of the Tatmadaw, which thus became the pivot of governance and the sociopolitical and econo-political activities of the State” . Though the Sayamgyi was not very explicit, the implications it appeared to me is that the General having contacts in the USSR and East European States saw these countries to be rather “successful” and moreover since socialism at the time was in vogue, thought it the right system to adopt.
In yet another chat with Sayamagyi, as it turned out, one of the prevailing themes happened to pertain to the collective memory of Myanmas. Almost echoing what Brother had said earlier, we can see how the past figures heavily in Sayamagyi’s understanding of Gen. Ne Win’s behavior: “The political and economic developments of the past, especially under the old colonial masters, and the legacy of the system inherited and perpetuated by local leaders forced Gen. Ne Win into the conclusion that foreigners and their systems of governance were designed to destroy the Country.” The outcome of it all, according to her, was that “… the General therefore developed a socially pervasive trauma.” “This trauma,” she explained, “is related to certain events or happenings characterized by foreign involvement or participation, directly or indirectly, overtly and covertly with Myanmas.” This was a ‘sentiment’ which, according to the General, he shared with other Myanmas, namely to be always ‘on guard’ against every foreign movement inward. The General also wondered why it was that while raking in income from the natural resources of Myanmar, the past colonialists, e.g., the British, considered Myanmar a “backwater” where family fortunes could not be made and that they appear to treat Myanmar simply as a place for ‘sojourners’.” And, from my twenty years of observation, I can attest that this philosophy still persists. Xenophobia, a certain “circumspection” and “skepticism” of foreign moves and agenda are strongly exhibited even if progressively, the Myanmar Government is getting to be less “cloistered” and more Asianphile but not necessarily Anglophile, (yet)!
Relating this moment with the informal chats with my other respondents and based on my own observations and experience it would appear that this “fear” has been transmitted to Ne Win’s successors, and is responsible for the past and current “suspicious” and “skeptical” attitude in Myanmar’s international relations. It seems patently clear to me that it was Gen. NeWin’s “unsavory” experience and that of his friends in the same position that gelled him into setting up his cordon sanitaire to the point that, in spite of the fact that Myanmar remains a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank (ADB), these relationships were scaled down. In point of fact from what I could gather later, chatting with my respondents, it was partly because of this that Myanmar did not accept a proposal to join a regional organization in Southeast Asia (i.e., ASEAN) as early as 1967 when it was mooted (as will be discussed further in subsequent chapters) and it took some time before it gained enough confidence to be persuaded by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia to join the ASEAN community many years later, in 1997.
Be that as it may, there is no getting away from the fact that the “trauma of the past” figures heavily on Myanmar’s leaders and this includes ‘personal differences’ among and between locals as well as with foreign countries,” Sayamagyi commented.
The foregoing narrative confirms Michael Aung-Thwin’s observation, inter alia, that the current upheavals, i.e., the situation of power struggles between the various “factions” which began in the 1930s and 1940s in Myanmar, may be attributable to conflicts among and between the descendants/beneficiaries of the original group of elites.18 In this context, Tucker has written as much about how riots were created to embrass a government ministry because of “unscrupulous political opportunism” leading to the Dobama Party split (March–November 1938) and the fall of the Ba Maw government (1939).19 Naturally, the split up of the originally very tightly cohesive AFPFL, which was anticipated “to last another 40 years or even 400 years, ” but which because of the feud between the Nu-Tin and Swe-Nyein factions’ claim to party leadership in more recent years (April to October 1958), crowns the very critical factor / element of internecine strife between and among leaders.20 Gen. Ne Win was clearly aware of the inherited historical baggage from Myanmar’s colonial masters, particularly the British who caused the feuding among and between various ethnic groups and personalities and who perpetuated it. It seems such a crying shame that because these beneficiaries have not been able to bury the hatchet of past conflicts between forefathers, these have flowed into the present as personal conflicts.21
I then raised the question as to, why the BSPP could be formed with the ideology of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and put in action for so long without any party raising any objections, as after a few years, the positive or negative impact of the policy would have been evident It seems, from Sayamagyi’s response, that, “the “organizers / followers / juniors” were not sufficiently well acquainted with the principles of socialism or orientated towards it and therefore, did not dare to query what had been laid down by the ‘higher authorities’22”. Nor would it have been thought appropriate to do so, I suppose because of the very hierarchical nature of the armed forces, not to mention the culture of always deferring to seniors. Perhaps also, subconsciously, this is a carry-over effect, so well drummed in by the former Japanese colonialist’s Heibei Kyoku, of the top down administrative / governance system so admired by Gen. Aung San himself.
“Be that as it may, what were the next moves?” I interrupted. Responding she said, “though in the earlier years of autocracy and autarky the Country performed reasonably well without problems, but after a long period of the autocracy and autarky, subsequent developments in governance fell short. The economic developments in the Country were not working up to scratch. Internally the situation was not stable and externally and politically, the winds of change away from socialism were blowing. By 1987 the General concluded that the economic and social structures were “anomalous” and the political system was ‘incongruous,’ ” Sayamangi intimated.
Further probes with Sayamgyi on the “difficult” situation revealed a rather similar scenario to what Cousin had mentioned to me at one of the earlier chat sessions, namely, that, a change in the system of governance was the hard reality and biting the bullet was the way out. After all, Cousin as well had pragmatically mentioned that, at that time, it appeared, “the very important rice farmers were facing problems of payments and receipts. Foreign debt repayments could not be settled in good time. In short, the economy was declining and debt servicing was posing a heavy burden even after various interim measures had been adopted to alleviate the problem. This time, it was felt, a “holistic solution was needed.” Thus upon the advice and recommendation of a good, trusted, foreign friend -- the then German Ambassador Baron von Marshall -- the solution to the problem was resolved by way of the “down grade of the nation to a Least Developed Country (LDC) for the dissolution” (of the national debt.)
From what I could gather from Sayamagyi, and this was confirmed by Brother, “at the time it was known that the big G7 Countries were about to write off all outstanding loans of LDC countries which was an added reason to apply for the LDC status, but financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF, ADB did not write off Myanmar’s loans as it was not a member of the G7 or for some such reason. It thus did not help Myanmar’s position in the end.”
“This is a serious matter and presumably it was not the usual ‘one man’s’ decision,” I commented. Sayamagyi replied, “from what I gathered, the recommendation was considered seriously and a review of the position was made by two people, namely U Ba Nyein and U Aung Gyi24 who were considered “unofficial advisors” to Gen. Ne Win. The proposition was then put to Thura U Tun, the Minister of Finance who was concurrently the Deputy Prime Minister, who after considering it passed it on to the Prime Minister, thence to the BSPP Central Committee which agreed to it. The matter was then passed on to the Pyithu Hluttaw (Parliament), which approved the plan. This was subsequently put to the appropriate international body. The downgrade was approved but the debt resolution did not materialize because ostensibly of the “G7 problem.” Sayamagyi remarked that, “this makes one wonder how and which way such international organizations work and quite clearly this is felt to be another let down by foreigners, bringing about Myanmar’s phobia.”
The Sayamagyi confirmed Cousin’s earlier narrative of how, by 1987, having concluded that a change of leadership and political and economic systems would be appropriate, General Ne Win called for a meeting with all his senior staff members and met at the Kyaikasan Club grounds in the Saya San Hall on the 6th July 1987. Sayamangi recalled how Ne Win had announced that as a gentleman and an officer he would be prepared to bear all the consequences of what had been done and would “accept any punishment that the Central Executive Committee thought fit to impose.” At the same time he announced his retirement from all his posts and with him, his lieutenants, and he intimated his desire to retire to spend his time meditating in his house.25 Gen. Ne Win advocated the turnaround/change immediately. However the majority of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) members voted that an Emergency Party Congress be called in November and December of the year, to make the necessary amendments and change. There were in the meantime appeals for him to stay on to lead but he was adamant his decision was irrevocable and that he would ‘turn his back’ on politics.”
Having been kept apprised of the situation leading to Gen. Ne Win’s retirement by my usual respondents, over this chat with the Sayamagyi I raised questions, inter alia, of whether or not Gen. Ne Win’s pull out was somewhat too little, too late and what the implications would be to him personally over the sea change in his position – from zenith to nadir as it were, or indeed if there was any “loss of face,” personally, and to the Country, in general. I could not help seeing that her narrative / anecdotes were essentially similar to that of my key respondents.
The Sayamagyi’s response served to confirm Brother’s and Cousin’s views in that, “Gen.Ne Win’s timing was not the problem either to himself or to the State. Personally there was no “ego” problem nor the cultural problem of “face loss” as foreign Asian observers (or locals) might think because he held sway to the very end. He volunteered to step down and not that he was forced to do so. Indeed there were appeals for him to stay on. Sayamagyi volunteered the information that, meditation apart, he had so many other ways of spending time e.g., chess playing and reading, which would keep him busy. Returning to the scenario of the time, it was said that at the State level, there was no open demonstration but just pockets of shows of unhappiness here and there and the Tatmadaw was still in full control of all the goings on; rice could still be found on the table. Indeed, even at a very late hour, Sayamagyi narrated, “according to one of your own ‘friends’ Gen. Ne Win had mentioned that in case any one created problems, unlike on previous occasions, any firing of guns would not be into the air, but direct. It was the delay in the follow up action after his resignation that was the problem, not to mention the quandary of the combination of confusion or mismatch of the psycho-cultural pon, awza and ana of his successors.” Sayamagyi concluded, “had action been taken immediately, probably the Conflagration would not have taken place.”
I then remarked, “But the turn of events seems rather hazy. Would you kindly give me some idea of what occurred just before the great 1988 riots or what I would term the “1988 Conflagration” when according to some foreign press reports, a few thousand people, including students were killed?” Sayamagyi obliged with the following narration: “It seemed that the events subsequently were that on the 7th July there were minor anti-government movements which, being left relatively unattended, escalated to a sort of ‘Trotskyite Peoples’ Power’ type of demonstration, as it were. Starting on the 21st August, the movement gained momentum till it reached a climax on the 17th September 1988, causing great danger with practically the total collapse of the Government and its administrative organs.”
I then interrupted, “You know the economy was supposed to have been in tatters and yet the students and others were able to sustain and grow the numbers for the better part of three months complete with BBC media support for propagation of the cause. This takes money, organization and support. Where did all these come from? Foreign, local or where?” The Sayamagyi responded: “You have heard from some of your knowledgeable and well placed friends previously about the six warships near Pathein; that the BBC broadcasts were not only about the rioting but also about the disagreement between the armed forces chiefs and their possible ‘defection.’”
So the Sayamagyi felt she had nothing else to add but that as far as the locals were concerned she was conscious of those who felt, rightly or wrongly, “[that] they had been left out in the cold for a long time prior to the rioting.” She added that she felt that, such matters were “an ‘open secret’ between and among your ‘friends.’ You should check with them.” Anyway, the outcome was widescale looting, arbitrary killings, arson, etc., which occurred so that there was total anarchy and the Country was gripped with fear. It was then only that a new leader, Gen. Saw Maung from the army, emerged to act decisively and immediately to pull the brakes on the rapidly escalating mayhem. Then only did the psycho-cultural confusion/mismatch sort itself out. For Gen. Ne Win, personally, as she saw it, he wondered whether internally, reports reaching him from the ground all the while had been “doctored” so that he mulled over his ‘Ludaw Lugong’ or vice versa, again.”
“But surely it must have been “difficult or traumatic” for him,” I remarked. Sayamagyi’s spontaneous reply was, “This is what (urbanized) WOGs (western oriented gentlemen), even if Buddhists, understandably do not appreciate. For those who understand the arcane and arcana of doctrinal Buddhism, we fully understand the impermanence of everything and the cyclical nature of life and living. So you may be sure that Gen. Ne Win, having given his word to be held responsible for all that had transpired under his stewardship, took things in his stride, indulged in meditation and was as happy and free as a lark, in retirement. Especially for people like him, who practise meditation, the vipassana mode is easily achieved and they are then truly in their private domain; the mind becomes clear and worries, if any, evaporate.”
“However,” she continued, “on the macro/national level, frankly perhaps Myanmar might have suffered some disadvantage. Autarky kept Myanmar closed and isolated whereas the Myanma “diaspora” and the disgruntled elements inside kept in touch with the outside world and therefore this served as a conduit to transmit all sorts of disinformation and misinformation. This is one of the reasons why the outsiders have ‘misunderstood’ Myanmar and labelled Myanmar in rather unsavoury terms; also the reason some parties inside get the support of the outside world, I suppose,” she said. On raising the subject of the General’s relationships with his subordinates / aides / collegues, Sayamagyi replied, “I have no comments. I suppose you could check with your other friends. Anyway, as a matter of fact, over the years I have often wondered if the General is indeed such a tyrant or dictator as some have tried to make him out to be.” If this is so, she concluded, “why is it that ‘Hume’s Paradox,’ that is, of the population submitting to the rulers even though force always lies in the hands of the governed, had not been disproved many years before 1988?”
1 Thakin means “master”, and was a parody of the British. There were 30 of them who formed the original
Burma Independence Army to fight for independence, headed by Gen. Aung San.
2 Maung Htin Aung, A History of Burma, Columbia University Press, New York, 1967, p.349.
3 Izumiya Tatsuro, The Minami, Organ, Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo 1967 (Translated by U Tun Aung Chain, Professor of History, Dept, Arts and Science University, Rangoon, 1981. p.202
4 Naw Angeline, Aung San and the Struggle for Burma Independence, p.109.
5 Shelby Tucker, Burma the curse of Independence, Pluto Press, London 2001 p.185
6 Aung Thwin said as much. It was the jockeying of power for control more than anything else which did not permit the original undertaking of the Union to go smoothly, p. 496.
6 Naw Angeline, Aung San and The Struggle For Burmese Independence, Silkworm Books, 2001,p.143.
7 Josef Silverstein, “Burma and the World: A Decade of Foreign Policy Under the State Law and Order Restoration Council,” in Burma: Political Economy Under Military Rule, ed. Robert Taylor (London: Hurst & Co., 2001), 119-136.
8 Dorothy Hess Guyot, The Political Impact of the Japanese Occupation of Burma, PhD. Dissertation, Yale University, 1966, p.107.
9 Naw Angeline,, p.40
10 Ni Ni Myint, Myanmar Two Millennia: An Excursion Through History, Keynote Paper delivered by Daw Ni Ni Myint at the International Association of Confederation of Historians of Asia, held at the International Business Centre, Yangon in 2000.
11 “Eminence Griese” – Pere Joseph (Francois du Tremblay – the “Gray Eminent”) a French monk and diplomat worked his way to become a confidant of Cardinal de Richelieu (the “Red Eninent”), the Chief Minister of Louis XIII of France (1624 – 1641.) Consequently he had so much power, and acted like he was the foreign affairs minister even deciding on financing France’s particepation in the Thirty Years War. Yet the real power did not lie with him but with the “eminence griese,” the “Gray Eminent.” Simply,“the power behind.”
12 I ascertained that Maung Htin Aung did indeed give an account of this in his History of Burma, p.210.
13 U Sein Lwin, a Lt. Col. the then Secretary of Ministry of Home Affairs. He called upon the Army to use force and many students were shot dead, the students Union Building was demolished and he earned the name of the “Butcher.”
14 Michael D. Barr, Cultural Politics and Asian Values London and New York: Routledge, 2002, p.17.
15 Sayamagyi was referring to Lee Kuan Yew’s comment on journalists who write or comment “authoritatively” on state affairs after spending a few nights at a bar in some hotel somewhere sipping e.g. Singapore Sling – a cocktail of gin, brandy, assorted fruit juices and liquors created and made famous by the heritage Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew was at the time Prime Minster of Singapore.
16 Maung Htin Aung wrote A History of Burma, (Columbia University Press, 1967), but some NUS/Yangon University scholars thought in his attempt to prove his modernity and objectiveness as an important Myanmar historian he did not differentiate between a ‘moral view point’ and a ‘perspective’ and still viewed the situation as if from the Gymkhana Club grounds, in Yangon.
17Primitivo Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Union Square Publications San Francisco, 1976, p.280.
18 An informal chat with Professor Chee Kuan Tse, Institute of Medical Health, Singapore, over the problem of a case of this nature.
18 Aung-Thwin, “Parochial Universalism,” p. 500.
19 Tucker, p.83
20 U Sein Lwin, The Split Story, The Guardian Ltd, Burma, 1959, p.2
21 Aung-Thwin, p.500
22 “higher authorities”(otherwise generally known as Ahted. Lugyi ): This is the most commonly used expression within the Bureaucracy. It is used to denote some general/minister or someone more senior; it seems an expedient way out of all and any “quandry.” But even at the level of a general, “higher authorities” is not precisely known. It seems something “amorphous;” whether mortal or not is even not known precisely!
24 A quick check with Cousin subsequently revealed that U Ba Nyein an ex-Indian Civil Service officer was considered bright though relatively young and so Gen. Ne Win unofficially made him one of his “advisors.” Likewise U Aung Gyi was considered “clandestinely” advisor to Gen. Ne Win and was made the Second Chairman of the Restoration Council Government. He was subsequently removed from office by Gen. Ne Win for “certain reasons” and sent in exile to the North Kachin State (Putao) in 1964 where he spent some 1 ½ years and returned to Yangon, later.
25 Sayamagyi repeated the story that meditation was practiced regularly by Gen. Ne Win for a long time. Indeed he did this so regularly that he had a “chapel” constructed in the palace compound and often meditated with his uncle who was a monk.
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