There is an enduring myth that in 1948, when it achieved independence from Britain, Burma was a rich country with every reason to expect a bright future and that the policies and practices of the military government are alone to blame for today’s miseries. It is beyond dispute that many of these policies and practices have been disastrous. But there is a deeper history of misfortune which needs to be understood.

At independence, Burma was a country devastated by war, with a collapsed economy and a peculiarly debilitating colonial legacy dating back to 1885, when Lord Randolph Churchill, the secretary of state for India, dispatched an expeditionary force to sort out the ‘Burma problem’ of the day.

When the Burma Expeditionary Force seized Mandalay, British policy-makers decided not only to dethrone the king, Thibaw, but to abolish the monarchy altogether. The nobility was soon disbanded too and families who had held sway over their villages for centuries were fatally undermined. The old social order collapsed during the ‘pacification’ campaign of the late 1880s, when tens of thousands of British and Indian troops attempted to quell unexpectedly harsh guerrilla resistance, and with this collapse came the disappearance of an ancient tradition of Buddhist and secular scholarship. This was followed by a period of peace and considerable prosperity, which lasted from the early 1890s to the late 1920s. There were new connections – intellectual as well as commercial – to England, India and elsewhere, and a generation of well-educated men and women hoped to be part of a more progressive world. But the foundations of future problems were being laid.

There was, for example, a massive influx of immigrants from other parts of British India. In some years, more than two million Indians arrived in Burma, mostly to work, and though many eventually left, enough stayed for the Indian portion of the population to grow rapidly. In the 1920s and 1930s, more than two-thirds of the inhabitants of Rangoon were ethnic Indians. Indians became the country’s wealthiest businessmen, doctors and lawyers, as well as its shopkeepers, industrial workers and labourers. Their presence was, in many ways, a huge advantage to the country, but any sudden, large-scale immigration is bound to create problems, and this one contributed to the growth of a particularly sour and defensive Burmese nationalism.

Equally damaging was London’s long indifference to Burmese concerns and sensitivities, its treatment of Burma as just one more province of India. Ethnic minorities – the Karen and the Kachin, for example – were brought into the Indian army and military police, but the ethnic Burmese (two-thirds of the population) were classed as a ‘non-martial race’, which angered a people brought up on stories of ancient military prowess. In the 1920s, young radicals looked to the IRA for inspiration; in the 1930s, to Stalin’s Russia. Some also looked to Japan.

The Japanese invasion of 1941-42 turned Burma into a giant battlefield, drawing in hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, and igniting an ethnic conflict, between the Burmese and the Karen, which continues to this day. Over the course of the war, dozens of cities and towns were obliterated; bridges and railway lines, dockyards and ports, oilfields and refineries were blown up; and the civil administration collapsed everywhere. A small group of Burmese student politicians, led by the charismatic Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), escaped from the country, received military training from the Japanese, and then reappeared alongside the invaders as the Burma Independence Army. They helped to form a government of collaborators, before tiring of the Japanese and eventually turning against them in March 1945, just in time to style themselves as an Allied force. Student radicals had turned into partisans, and in 1945 the country was awash with weapons.

London meanwhile needed a Burma policy. During their wartime exile in Simla, Reginald Dorman-Smith, the governor before the British retreat in 1942, and his colleagues drew up what became a White Paper for the reconstruction of the Burmese economy and a gradual transition to home rule. A representative executive council, including all the political parties, would advise the governor before fresh elections could be held. Ethnic minorities in the highlands would be fully consulted on their place in an independent Burma. But Aung San’s group, now fashionably called the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, demanded to be recognised immediately as a provisional government. The 31-year-old Aung San was already wildly popular and his speeches were attracting huge crowds. But for London, in late 1945, Burma was low down on any list of priorities.

A showdown took place, between Dorman-Smith, increasingly aware of the need to placate Aung San but charged by Whitehall with implementing his dated White Paper, and Aung San himself, presiding precariously over a coalition of Communists and socialists, militia leaders and former Japanese collaborators, all now dreaming their different dreams of the Burma to come.

In August 1945, Aung San had flown to Kandy to meet with Mountbatten, then supreme allied commander for South-East Asia. What emerged from their discussions was a new Burma army, with half its battalions drawn from the old British-trained Burma Army, mainly Karen and Kachin soldiers from the highlands, and half from Aung San’s Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army, almost all of whose officers were die-hard Burmese nationalists. Throughout the colonial period, the highlands had been ruled with a light hand and separately from ‘Burma proper’. Many of the Karen and Kachin had converted to Christianity and there was considerable distrust between the two halves of this new army. It was a recipe for disaster.

In the Burmese version, the story of 1946 is the story of Aung San and his colleagues refusing to compromise, heroically leading ‘the people’ and facing down the British Empire. In fact, in 1946, Burma was at best a minor irritant given the enormous challenges Britain faced at home, as well as in Europe, Palestine and India. Allied forces in Burma had been rapidly scaled down and Nehru made it clear that Indian troops would not be on hand to quell a nationalist revolt. Aung San threatened violence, then pulled back from the brink to demonstrate who was now in charge.

Had Britain desperately wanted to remain in Burma, it would have been able to deal with Aung San, but with India on the eve of independence, the Burmese economy a shambles and the country no longer of any strategic importance, Burma just wasn’t worth the effort. The Labour government decided to give it up. The White Paper was revoked; Dorman-Smith was replaced by Hubert Rance. Aung San then called a general strike: tens of thousands took to the streets. Rance quickly entered into negotiations with Aung San, who was invited to London. And in London, in January 1947, Britain agreed essentially to hand over power to Aung San and his League. Independence would come within a year. In the interim, he would form a cabinet and effectively be treated as a dominion prime minister.

What happened next is seen by the Burmese as the central tragedy of their modern history. Aung San, a man with a strange and magnetic personality, had managed to gather together in his cabinet many of the country’s most able politicians, including several ethnic minority leaders. But on the morning of 19 July 1947, as the cabinet was meeting in downtown Rangoon, armed men in uniform burst through the wooden doors and killed nearly all its members, including Aung San. It still isn’t clear precisely who was responsible; at least some British officials were most probably involved, though (contrary to Burmese conspiracy theories) there is little to suggest any involvement by the British government. For a politically divided country ravaged by war the loss of these men was incalculable.

The coalition that Aung San had put together disintegrated. The Communists, under their leader Than Tun, condemned the ‘sham’ independence from Britain, called for a people’s revolution, and prepared for an armed insurrection. Other groups – among them, the Islamic Mujahidin in Arakan (along the Bengal border) and the ‘White Flag’ Communist guerrillas of Thakin Soe – were already in revolt. Even more uncertain was the loyalty of Aung San’s own paramilitary organisation, the huge People’s Volunteer Organisation or PVO: demobbed partisans and newer recruits, young men who had grown up in wartime and could imagine nothing more exciting than the battles they hoped were coming. Nervously watching from the sidelines were the ethnic minorities, especially the Karen, who had seen the rise of a militant ethnic Burmese nationalism and had suffered terribly at the hands of the Burma Independence Army in the early days of the war.

And so when the last of the Yorkshire Light Infantry sailed away from the docks at Rangoon, Burma was far from being on the road to a happy future. Within weeks, Than Tun’s Communists had attacked government posts up and down the Irrawaddy valley and were soon joined by the PVO. The army began to fall apart, some ethnic Burmese units joining the growing insurrection. In late 1948, the Karen battalions, British-trained and representing more than a third of the armed forces, also peeled away. Cities and towns throughout the lowlands fell to one rebel faction or another, or to bandit gangs and local militia. Mandalay was jointly held by the Communists and the Karen. By February 1949, the army was down to a couple of thousand men, barely holding on to the outskirts of Rangoon and facing widespread insurgency. At its core was the Fourth Burma Rifles, trained by the Japanese and led by General Ne Win, a deputy of Aung San and now the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

When Aung San was killed, the governor selected his close colleague U Nu to take his place. U Nu was very different from Aung San, less the enigmatic tough guy and more the eccentric, the charmer, the consummate politician – he went on to win three general elections for his party. He was also a committed democrat. In the darkest days of the civil war, it was U Nu who rallied the government side, flying around the country in a seaplane, and setting out his vision of a progressive and internationally-minded Burma. His best friend and confidant, especially on matters of foreign policy, was my grandfather, U Thant, who would later become Burma’s ambassador to the UN and then its third secretary-general. They had both been uneasy with Burmese nationalism’s flirtations with Fascism and were also resolutely opposed to Communism.

In the meantime General Ne Win and his Japanese-trained officers were doing the actual fighting in the countryside. And it wasn’t easy. Barely had Ne Win’s small army managed to push back the Communists and the Karen when an entirely new enemy emerged in the eastern Shan hills. In 1949, with the fall of Peking and the retreat of Chinese Nationalist forces to Taiwan, a small remnant of Nationalists had retreated southwestward into Burma. The United States began arming and supplying them. The Burmese protested vigorously against this at the UN but in vain. The lesson for Ne Win was clear: Burma couldn’t rely on the UN or international declarations of friendship; it had instead to build up a professional military machine, able to crush the insurgencies but also to defend itself against all its enemies.

As the insurgents were pushed back, the army began taking over administrative tasks, largely because the civil structures were so fragile and so compromised by political rivalries. The military fretted about political interference in their affairs, and believed that party politics – often corrupt and violent – were too messy to meet Burma’s needs. In the early morning of 2 March 1962, tanks and mechanised units loyal to Ne Win rolled into Rangoon, surrounding Government House and the Secretariat, arrested U Nu and all the other senior political figures, and installed the military dictatorship that survives to this day.

An army coup in East Asia in the early 1960s was no big deal. Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia were or would soon be military dictatorships. But Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council made disastrous policy decisions, which even now lie at the heart of many of Burma’s problems. The first was to nationalise all major industries, including banking and international trade, even though the state lacked the capacity to run them. The second was to expel approximately 400,000 ethnic Indians, including many whose families had lived in Burma for generations. The third was to undermine and eventually dismantle civilian institutions. The parliament was done away with immediately, and over the next decade, the courts, the police, the universities, the civil service and the old British-era system of district administration were critically weakened or abolished as army officers took over. The fourth wrong decision was to seek a military rather than a political solution to the country’s long-running civil war. At first there were talks with the rebels but they soon collapsed and the fighting became more brutal still. Fifth and most important was Ne Win’s decision to isolate Burma from the rest of the world.

Exactly why he did this is difficult to explain. A failed university student and one time post office clerk, Ne Win quickly came to dominate the armed forces after Aung San’s death. U Nu trusted him. He had a reputation as a man about town, an avid golfer, often to be seen at the race track or the better diplomatic parties. Even after his coup he continued to travel the world, shopping in London and for a while seeing a psychiatrist in Vienna. But he seems to have absorbed the colonial prejudice that the Burmese were, yes, nice people, talented in their own way, but unfit for self-rule, a people not quite ready for the responsibilities of government and needing direction and an iron hand. The Burmese must learn to do things for themselves, the general often said.

There were other, perhaps higher motives for his actions. In the early 1960s the Vietnam War was underway and China’s Cultural Revolution was imminent. It was easy to see how Burma might be drawn into a superpower conflict. Hiding from the outside world would provide a degree of protection. But it was a catastrophic policy even so. Aid programmes were terminated and all inward investment was banned. Burmese were very rarely allowed out and foreigners were not allowed in, even as tourists. The economy creaked to a standstill. There were shortages of every kind. Very little outside information filtered in. Rangoon turned into a big sprawling village, and the country settled in for a long, nightmarish sleep.

By the mid-1980s, few people were happy. Ne Win was approaching eighty and increasingly eccentric. Always a keen numerologist, he one day changed all currency notes to denominations divisible by nine (9, 90, 180). Everyone began to feel that something had to change. Even the army was tired of its never ending battles in the distant hills and looked enviously at its peers in South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, who were getting rich in business. In 1988, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets and then rallied behind Aung San Suu Kyi, there was no one to defend the status quo. But how exactly would the country change? Who would be in charge? And how could the outside world best help?

For the army, the uprising of 1988 was a shock. The government came close to being toppled and the strength of popular feeling was plain to see. Hundreds of people in Rangoon were killed as the government crushed the protests. But then there seemed to be some desire for compromise. People were allowed to form political parties, Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians were (for a while) permitted to campaign, and elections were held in 1990. But when the election returned a landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (rather than the mixed parliament the army was possibly hoping for), and when some in the NLD began to talk about ‘Nuremberg-style’ trials for senior officers, the army went back on its promises.

Meanwhile, a completely new development – almost entirely unreported in the West – was transforming the political landscape of the country. In the summer of 1989, the Burma Communist Party, the government’s chief battlefield opponent for forty years, with an army of more than twenty thousand well-trained and well-armed troops, collapsed after a mutiny. In the 1960s, the government had come close to defeating it, only to see it re-emerge with the active support of Communist China. By 1970, it controlled a huge swathe of territory in the Shan hills. But in 1989 its army splintered into several ethnic-based militias. The government, reversing its decades-long policy of seeking only a military solution to the civil war, entered into talks with these successor militias and all sides agreed to a ceasefire. The militias would be allowed to keep their arms and their territory, pending a final settlement. (Many turned to trading in narcotics.) Government forces were then able to pressurise or persuade nearly all the remaining ethnic insurgencies to stop fighting. By the mid-1990s, only the Karen National Union held out, but it came under fierce attack and lost all its remaining bases near the Thai border. For the first time in half a century, the guns were almost silent. There was an opportunity finally to end Burma’s civil war, the longest-running armed conflict in the world.

For many in the West, the Burmese morality play of the past fifteen years has pitted Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters against the army leadership and its Orwellian-sounding State Peace and Development Council. One side stands for democracy and human rights, the other locks up opponents and allows very little political freedom. It’s easy to take sides, easier still to support sanctions or boycotts and be happy that national governments and the UN should continually be expressing concern. But it’s important to see that at least three different challenges currently face Burma: the need to find a just and sustainable end to the armed conflict; the need to help the country undo decades of economic mismanagement and develop its economy; and the need to begin a transition to democratic rule.

Burma’s history makes all these challenges exceedingly difficult. With the collapse of royal institutions in 1885 and the subsequent failure of colonial institutions to take root, the army is, for better or worse, the only effective national institution left. It’s no surprise that the leading officials of the NLD (other than Aung San Suu Kyi) are all retired army officers. A transition to democracy means not just removing the army from government, it means building up the other institutions that would make a civilian administration possible. Equally important is the country’s history of militant ethnicity, the failure of successive political elites to understand that they live in a multicultural country and need to develop a more inclusive national identity. We tend to see Burma as a Velvet Revolution gone wrong, when in fact it is an impoverished war-torn society of 55 million people, half of them under the age of 18, with armed forces of more than 400,000 men (and over a dozen insurgent armies) who know only the language of warfare.

Some people still argue that trade and investment sanctions against the Burmese government are the only way to push the army leadership into talking with Aung San Suu Kyi. But the sanctions argument is deeply flawed. First, it assumes a regime very different from the one that actually exists. That is, it assumes a government that is committed to rejoining the world economy, that sees clearly the benefits of trade and investment or is in some way sensitive to the welfare of ordinary people. True, there are some in the army who like the idea of trade and investment and care about popular welfare, and for them sanctions might constitute a sort of pressure. But many in the military don’t care. For them, national security, as they see it, is everything. Compromise might be possible on other issues, but if the choice is between political suicide and interacting with an outside world they fundamentally distrust, then there is no debate. Isolation is their default condition: not ideal, but comfortable all the same.

Second, sanctions really only mean Western sanctions. In the years since 1988, Burmese trade with China and several other neighbouring countries has grown considerably, and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore. To believe that China would impose sanctions and cut off their access to Burma’s energy supplies in order to push the country towards democracy is naive. Sanctions going beyond those already in place would mean in effect increased influence for China; not something likely to lead to democratic change.

Third, imagine for a moment that somehow, miraculously, extremely tight sanctions were possible – involving China, India and Thailand – and that these brought the government to its knees, without a dollar or renminbi left to pay for vital imports. While there is a possibility that reasonable heads would prevail, there is also a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their Führerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them. Many of those who support sanctions hope that greater outside pressure would lead to disagreements within the army. Nothing could be more dangerous: the country could easily fall apart into dozens of competing military factions, insurgent armies and drug warlord militias. If that happened, all the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t be enough to put Burma back together; it would be a disaster for Asia.

The problem with sanctions is best illustrated by the opportunity that was lost in the early 1990s, when a new generation of generals, eager for change, launched a series of reforms and opened up the economy to the outside world. Hundreds of foreign companies set up shop. Rangoon was transformed, with new hotels, shopping centres and official buildings, traffic jams on previously empty roads, and the first real influx of tourists in years. Satellite dishes went up everywhere. But thanks to boycotts and then, in the later 1990s, more formal sanctions (as well as continued government mismanagement of the economy), Western firms began to pull out, leaving Burma in limbo: with more than enough regional trade to stay afloat, but nothing like the momentum to begin changing society. If, over the last fifteen years, there had been aid and investment (as there has been in Vietnam), rather than a half-hearted ‘regime-change’ strategy from the West, there could have been real economic growth and social change. The isolation on which the regime depends would have diminished and it would have become increasingly clear to the officer corps that proper government is too complex for the army to manage. And this in turn would have created a better situation for Burma’s democrats and more leverage for Western governments. As it is, Western leverage is close to zero. Focusing on political change at the top is not the answer.

This is not to say that Burma shouldn’t be a democracy, or that the Western supporters of democracy and human rights in Burma should give up. Far from it. Liberal democracy is the only sustainable form of government for a country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Burma, but we need to start from the way things are. Per capita aid to Burma is less than a tenth of per capita aid to Vietnam and Cambodia: this should not be acceptable. Serious diplomacy that includes both the Burmese government and its neighbours should have priority over a new round of condemnation.

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