Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
BURMA has just completed a decade of independence. The tenth year began auspiciously.
To all appearances there was a high degree of political unity. A government formed in 1948 by the dominant party, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (A.F.P.F.L.), had won huge parliamentary majorities in the two national elections of 1951 and 1956 and could look forward with confidence to the next. In the first month of 1958, it concluded its third All-Burma National Congress by approving, in an apparent burst of unity, a resounding four-hour speech by the Prime Minister, U Nu, which dedicated the party to democratic socialism and Buddhism and opposed Communism and Marxism, identified as synonymous.
The economic outlook was not unpromising. An economy based largely on the production and export of rice and a few other primary products had weathered the recession that followed the Korean War; was slowly being diversified; and was responding to a moderated industrial program adopted in 1956 after the first expansive planning spree had been sobered by the realities of economic development.
Domestic order was improving. A series of insurrections, started by assorted groups of Communists in 1948 and followed the next year by the rising of a major ethnic minority, the Karens, was close to attrition and liquidation. At one time these rebellions had threatened the very existence of the republic. By October 1957 nearly 30,000 rebels had surrendered. An amnesty campaign in conjunction with a steady increase in the strength of the Burma Defense Services supported the hopes for internal peace.
And finally, a neutralist foreign policy, cautiously directed toward friendship with all countries but unafraid to take independent stands on such issues as the Korean War, Suez and Hungary, had served the government well, gradually gaining for it genuine respect in many world capitals and in the United Nations.
The tenth year of Burma's independence, however, proved to be a troubled one, disturbing to her citizens and to her friends abroad.
In April 1958, the ruling coalition party, the A.F.P.F.L., irretrievably split into two bitterly hostile factions. Each side was led by two of the country's four most prominent political figures, who had been in constant association since the early days of the struggle for independence. Prime Minister Nu and a Deputy Prime Minister, Thakin Tin, headed the faction known as the "clean A.F.P.F.L." group. Deputy Prime Ministers Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein commanded the other group, known as the "real A.F.P.F.L."
This political crisis severely tested constitutional and democratic continuity. Until October 28, U Nu retained control of the government by a slim majority of eight votes, including those of erstwhile opponents, the crypto-Communists in Parliament parading under a variety of labels. Many citizens in Burma feared that the verbal violence of the conflicting factions would deteriorate into physical violence. Public and private industrial and commercial activity slowed down because of the uncertainty of the political situation. In addition, drought and flood conspired to diminish the 1957 harvest and consequently the 1958 export of rice, while lower world prices for other primary (mineral) products further impaired foreign exchange earnings.
Finally, U Nu resigned in favor of a new government headed by the Chief of Staff, General Ne Win, and the scheduled elections were postponed. The advent of the army contributes stability to the country at a time of political conflict and ensures against Communist subversion; but its assumption of control, however temporary and legal, inevitably gives rise to other anxieties about the future of parliamentary democracy in Burma.
Contrary to news reports as well as to partisan accusations, the cause of the political split was not doctrinal or ideological. Rather, the break occurred as the climax of prolonged irritation and suspicion among the leaders of the A.F.P.F.L. These men (and their often politically active wives) had worked together for almost two decades in which too many burdens had been carried by too few of them. They did not know how to broaden their ranks and lighten their loads, or they were reluctant or did not take the time to do so. Frequently they merged their rôles as cabinet officers and policy-makers with the daily tasks of operating the regular departments of government and the public sector of the economy. Although they still were comparatively young (U Nu was born in 1907, most of the others about 1915), they had been engaged in active daily leadership of the nationalist struggle, the war and independence without interruption for 20 years. They had been together too long.
What precipitated the split was a conflict over the appointment of the secretary of the A.F.P.F.L. This post has always been regarded as an essential control point for patronage, electoral manœuvrability and ultimate power in Parliament and in the cabinet. U Nu supported a candidate whom he regarded as completely loyal to him and who had resolved henceforth to be morally good in Buddhist fashion. U Kyaw Nyein rejected this candidate as excessively partisan and otherwise incompetent.
This was merely the final incident in a long train of personal and organizational abuses. What became the issue, though it was never clearly articulated, was the very nature and character of a one-party democracy in which provision for change was institutionally available but not in fact used. True, in the 1956 elections a sizable vote was cast for a new coalition, the National Unity Front (N.U.F.), composed of two parts crypto-Communists and one part dissatisfied groups and individuals led by a former non-Marxist Supreme Court judge. In fact, however, the parliamentary power of the A.F.P.F.L. was not seriously threatened. The same leadership which won the 1947 constituent assembly elections and the 1951 elections was still in command. But the strains and stresses were dangerously evident in 1956, and by 1957 there was the fight over an alleged ouster move against U Nu. Unless the inner cabinet group, the big four, found ways to dilute the intensity of their living together, to broaden the bases of actual power, to divest decision and policy-making from administration and execution, they would inevitably break apart. In the spring of 1958, they did.
One-party democracy has given some evidence in India and Burma of being able to operate democratically where the party represents a coalition of functional and geographical units. But when the operation is confined to the "top" few, the strain becomes intolerable; the base becomes flabby; the few at the top wear out. They no longer can stand each other; they seek separation. This is the conclusion to which U Nu had come early in 1958. He would no longer compromise with other cabinet leaders, even over an appointment to a party post. The time had come for a divorce.
In view of the socialist character of the A.F.P.F.L., it might be thought that the foregoing explanation is not enough. After all, socialists in Asia and elsewhere are supposed to be concerned with ideology and, as in Japan and India, have split their organizations as a result of ideological disputes. Why should Burma be an exception? Some Western reports suggested--and the acrimonious name-calling, mud-slinging campaign adopted by both sides supported the suggestion--that one faction was "pro-Communist," the other "pro-West." But this impression is quite wrong.
There were and are minor differences among the A.F.P.F.L. leaders--differences in Marxist vocabulary and definition--which were evident even at the Third All-Burma A.F.P.F.L. Conference in January 1958. But these differences in no way account for the split. U Nu's strongest political ally, Thakin Tin, regards himself as a Marxist of socialist persuasion. He did not like U Nu's equating Communism and Marxism. Similarly, U Ba Swe, the leader of the Swe-Nyein faction, did not like U Nu's assertion that Marxism and Buddhism are irreconcilable, for he had expounded a view which combined the two. And U Kyaw Nyein, U Nu's sharpest opponent in the present conflict, completely and vigorously supported U Nu's defense of democratic socialism without Marxism. To be sure, U Nu accepted crypto-Communist parliamentary support to defeat his rivals, and thereby suffered the charge of "pro-Communist," but this was acknowledgedly "politics" at the crass, nose-counting level. It no more represented the basic philosophy of the Nu-Tin faction than their cry that Swe-Nyein were "tools of American imperialism." And, as we shall see, it was largely to escape from political dependence on the Communists that U Nu stepped out of power.
Among all the principal leaders of the A.F.P.F.L. the ultimate reaction to their exposure to Communism has been quite similar. In the 1930s, during their struggle against British power, they read and absorbed an anti-colonial ideology somewhat indiscriminately. When they organized the A.F.P.F.L. in 1944 they did not distinguish too finely between socialists, Communists and other Marxists. However, such political innocence was not to last long. As early as 1946, the present A.F.P.F.L. leadership voted the Burma Communist Party (B.C.P.) out of the coalition. After independence they were severely tried by the Communist insurrection which began in 1948 and by the overt and covert support tendered to the B.C.P. by the Sino-Soviet axis, overtly before Stalin's death in 1953, since then in more subtle ways. For example, Burmese Communists are known to have been in Moscow and Peking at least through the summer of 1958, when this writer revisited Rangoon. Communist China had been a training ground for Burmese Communist cadres, and the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon has been charged indirectly with helping the crypto-Communists in the elections of 1956. There has been no final settlement of the troublesome border issue with China or of the problem of illegal Chinese immigration.
Gradually the Burmese leaders came to realize that no matter how "Marxist" they considered themselves, they were socialists and not Communists. They set about the task of clarifying their socialist outlook while retaining their anti-colonial orientation. The top four undertook extensive travel in Europe and elsewhere in Asia to confer with their peers and comrades. Burma became a founder of the Asian Socialist Conference (A.S.C.), which first met in 1953 and has since been directed from Rangoon, and leaders of the present Nu-Tin and Swe-Nyein factions have vigorously participated in all its meetings. At these A.S.C. meetings the emerging ideological agreement of the leaders made possible their effective and united stand on international questions and problems of socialist development. Gradually they espoused a philosophy of "democratic socialism" in concert with the humanist approach of such comrades as Sjahrir of Indonesia, Asoka Mehta of India, Sharrett of Israel and Djilas of Jugoslavia--all of whom had attended the opening Rangoon conference.
Thus the split, when it came, was as personal as it was demoralizing. Extravagant charges and counter-charges of corruption and maladministration, the whole panoply of alleged scandal, character-assassination and unfaithfulness filled the newspapers in the bitterness of a divorce between long-time political partners. The principals seemed almost to find some psychological release in exposing the weaknesses and foibles of their former friends. In disgust and sadness, a non-partisan newspaper noted the "blind vindictiveness" of the leaders and called for a "halt to the reciprocal recrimination . . . in the interest of the nation."[i] In this it was expressing the hope of a nation.
It was in an atmosphere of mounting excitement, dismay and worry over the potential violence that the armed forces under General Ne Win began to play a rôle which led finally to the formation of a new government. It was approved on October 28 by "unanimous" vote of Parliament--that is, no negative votes were registered.
Several times during 1958 the armed forces, speaking through Chief of Staff General Ne Win and his close associates, had declared that they were determined to assist any government in keeping law and order, would impartially carry out their duties as policemen to ensure peaceful elections, and would refrain from "playing politics." General Ne Win had warned both factions against the use of violence, had cautioned Prime Minister Nu against accepting parliamentary political support from the Communists, and had rejected all attempts to induct any of the surrendering rebels into the armed forces. Further, it was an open secret in Rangoon that the army was disturbed by the latitude of the general amnesty order of last August, which completely exonerated all surrendering rebels, including criminals. Among the 7,420 rebels who had laid down their arms between October 1957 and June 1958, 2,000 Communists and 2,200 crypto-Communists had been welcomed as they "came out into the light," a popular euphemism for surrender. On August 15, another group surrendered and promptly formed the People's Comrades Party (P.C.P.) with an overtly Communist program. It was widely asserted that they had not turned in their arms and that they were contemplating the use of such arms during the pre-election period.
On the surface, therefore, Prime Minister Nu's broadcast of September 26, and his exchange of letters with Ne Win, in which he asked the General to form a new government, made it appear as though the army had forced the so-called "invitation" and had staged a coup in order to thwart any danger from the "legal" Communists. Such an interpretation, though correctly reflecting the anti-Communist stance of the armed forces and the state of apprehension which pervaded Burma because of the verbal violence of the campaign, fails to account for the political facts.
The leaders of both factions had reason to want the elections postponed and both agreed in advance to General Ne Win's assumption of power. For during the summer and early fall of 1958 it had become increasingly evident to them that neither side was assured of victory if the elections were held on the November-December schedule. It seemed quite probable that the inspirational leadership of U Nu pitted against the organizational abilities of Swe-Nyein would cause a deadlock in which neither side obtained a majority. A determined minority, Communist or ethnic in composition, might easily acquire the balance of power in Parliament. U Nu had already had the unpleasant experience of paying dearly for an eight-vote majority, won in the special parliamentary session in June. However much he might desire to hold on to the premiership, he did not look forward with relish to being a minority premier. Given time, however, he might build a new party capable of winning a majority in a later election. The Swe-Nyein group, which in any case could never get the support of the crypto-Communists in the N.U.F., also believed that time was on its side in order to build a more coherent and stable political organization.
Finally, it was clear in August and September that the National Unity Front could no longer maintain its electoral unity. It, too, was coming apart, and indeed the Justice Party, which controlled 16 of the N.U.F. parliamentary constituencies, formally disassociated itself from the N.U.F. on October 27. The People's Comrades Party also gave some evidence of fragmentation. As a result, both the Nu-Tin and Swe-Nyein factions hoped to bolster their respective organizations by absorbing some of these elements, thereby strengthening their electoral chances. To both sides, the army appeared to provide the best assurance of a fair political fight and a stable interregnum. There is therefore little reason to doubt that U Nu did indeed invite General Ne Win, "as an individual," to assume the premiership in order to insure the peace and "to hold free and fair elections" at a later date. The General was to be elected to the premiership for a "six months' period" as head of a caretaker government of non-partisan, respected civilians, including the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of the High Court and the Chief Secretary of Government. Nor was the army called in to forestall a Communist coup. There was no chance of this unless foreign forces were used--and everyone knew it.
It should be borne in mind that the armed forces in Burma have achieved a most respected position. Unlike in Pakistan and Thailand, the military leaders have never evidenced dictatorial ambitions. In contrast to Indonesia, there has never been any serious contest between services or groups within a service. Hence it is a serious mistake to bracket the Ne Win government with that of any other Asian country. Pakistan avowedly presents the picture of a military coup complete with dictatorship. In Burma, entirely constitutional means were used to establish an interim government, headed by a general, but with an all-civilian cabinet, zealously guarding the conditions for democracy.
All non-Communist elements in Burma seem relatively content with the present arrangements. U Nu has made political capital out of his "invitation" to General Ne Win. By stepping down voluntarily he appears to have given the country into firm, quieting hands. At the same time, he has demonstrated his willingness to compete for victory on even terms with his opponents. The former fear of campaign violence is dissipated. The Swe-Nyein group, on its side, approved U Nu's solution and helped to elect a respected member of the Nu-Tin faction as Speaker. That is, they voted with the Nu-Tin group whom they had otherwise planned to defeat by every possible means had U Nu remained Prime Minister. Without the change in government the Swe-Nyein group would probably have voted to defeat U Nu even on a motion to ratify the United States loans and other aid which they had helped to negotiate.
The advent of General Ne Win's government closes the dismal tenth year of Burma's independence with a promise of stability and renewed hope for its democratic future.
In an interesting way the solution not only saves "face" for all parties involved in the factional conflict but also ensures the continuation of that variety of neutralism which has slowly but steadily found sympathetic understanding in the United States and in other Western countries. The Nu-Tin group gains at home from having patriotically stepped down, yielding the advantage of contesting the next election from the superior position of being the government. The Swe-Nyein group avoids the necessity of repudiating international loan and aid agreements to which they had given assent while members of U Nu's cabinet. Though Prime Minister Ne Win has already pledged his government to continue Burma's policy of "strict and straightforward neutrality," he declared in an opening statement to Parliament that remaining Communist insurgents would be hunted down relentlessly and treated as criminals. Once again the Burma Defense Services could feel that their sacrifices while pursuing the insurgents in the field would not be vitiated by a dangerously generous amnesty. After months of fear and instability the people of Burma could see their Parliament meeting in regular session in late October and November to pass the annual budget and otherwise provide for the normal operations of government.
The new Prime Minister reduced the size of the cabinet from 30 to 15, eliminated all the politically-appointed parliamentary secretaries (there had been 38 in the Nu-Tin cabinet), and thoroughly reshuffled 18 of the top-level civil servants who administer various ministries and departments of government. He then announced that his cabinet, pledged "to uphold the Constitution and democracy," would address itself primarily to four major tasks: the restoration of law and order; preparation for free and fair elections within six months, conditional upon "restoration of law and order and the coöperation of the political parties;" lowering the cost of living; and seeking remedies "for the economic chaos into which the country has fallen."
What are the prospects that Burma may achieve these goals under General Ne Win's caretaker government? All sections of Burmese opinion as reflected in the non-Communist press have apparently rallied to his support. The shake-up in the civil service may bring a fresh approach to the execution of policy, although it is not in itself sufficient to restore to the civil servants a sense of security from political reprisal. Revision of pay scales, better recruitment, in-service training and opportunity for advancement on merit are long overdue in the civil service. It may well be that a caretaker government cannot attend to all these reforms, but it may be able to make a start.
There is little doubt that the new government will make every effort to bring to Burma the law and order which it has sorely lacked. The remaining Communist and Karen insurgents can expect no quarter if they persist in rebellion. And, if at long last they elect "to come out into the light," they can expect no garlands and other special treatment such as they were previously accorded.
The loophole which has been left for postponing the elections beyond next spring is not without justification, for thorough and honest preparation of the electoral rolls is in itself a big job, requiring nationwide machinery. At most, the election may be moved from just before, to just after, the monsoon of 1959, thereby extending the term of the present government to one year.
The interim period is likely to determine the future political organization of the leading factions. Here there is latitude for a variety of eventualities. More than likely the A.F.P.F.L. must be permanently buried. Two parties may emerge, separated more by personality than by their domestic and foreign programs; and there will remain a Communist group. During these months both the Nu-Tin and Swe-Nyein groups will undertake a major recruiting campaign. But time may also heal some of the wounds that the leaders have inflicted on each other, leaving open the possibility of a new, consolidated democratic socialist party. The personality and leadership of U Ba Swe would be decisive in such a development.
The "economic chaos" to which General Ne Win referred at the opening of Parliament will be more difficult to resolve in basic fashion in any short-run period. In attempting to hurry the process of development, there has been waste of resources, some bad advice and planning and some extremely inadequate management. However, Burma has not yet suffered from an inability to finance her development program.[ii] Foreign exchange earnings, largely from rice but also from minerals and teak, reparations from Japan ($250 million), and foreign grants, loans and credits[iii] have together been adequate for the pace of economic investment in the public sector. But implementation of the Pyidawtha, or Eight-Year Welfare State Plan, 1952-1960, has suffered from inefficiency and lack of managerial and other skills. The political wrangling of 1958, coupled with a decline in the rice crop for export from 1.9 million to 1.6 million tons, highlighted these shortcomings in the national economy. Industrial development had been deliberately moderated after the Eight-Year Plan was overhauled in 1956; and this past year it was either curtailed or stopped because there was little time for making decisions or because projects identified with factional leaders, eo ipso, became political game for partisan criticism.
Despite these errors of omission and commission the "chaos" of 1958 may yield to some order in 1959. The aggregate national output has grown at a rate of 5 percent during the past five years and per capita output has increased more than 4 percent--"a remarkably high rate," according to the World Bank, and more than twice that of Burma's population growth. Two major factors combine further to lighten the economic clouds. Growing security in the countryside has encouraged farmers and farm labor to work the land, while the very good harvest at the end of 1958 will immediately help to improve Burma's financial position and will probably lead to a perceptible seasonal drop in the urban cost of living. Rice exports, according to preliminary estimates for 1959, may climb to approximately 2.5 million tons--the best postwar year. General Ne Win's government will also reap the first considerable benefits of a $5.4 million loan from the United States successfully applied to the expansion of irrigated paddies. The agreement was signed in late 1957 and most of the earth-moving and related equipment was delivered by April 1958. Reclamation of land and increase of yields on land improved by new embankments and drainage canals have added approximately 800,000 acres during the past two years. This is a key item in the agricultural improvement program, supporting the sturdy hard-working cultivators, who were often overlooked in planning before 1956.
The small rice crop available for export in 1958 further diminished Burma's use of the unpopular barter trade agreements with the Sino-Soviet bloc into which she had been forced by the glut of 1954-1955; and as she has been finding a steadier and expanding market for her chief export it is more than likely that this form of trading will further decline in 1959. This was confirmed by a Burmese delegate to the Colombo Plan Conference in Seattle at the end of October, and his remarks were quoted in Rangoon. But it is quite clear already that, barring "accidents," General Ne Win will concentrate on domestic problems, leaving Burma's foreign relations as undisturbed as possible.
Thus far the new government is off to a good start. Six months (or twelve) is a very short time; but it may be enough to determine whether Burma has purchased stability at the price of democracy or whether after this year of "troubles" she will again move forward effectively on the path of political maturity. The General, as Prime Minister, has pledged himself and his government to the second alternative. There is a good chance it will prevail.
[i] The Guardian, October 20, 1958.
[ii] See the author's descriptive analysis of Burma's successes and failures of economic development in "Building a Welfare State in Burma, 1948-1956" (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1958).
[iii] United States $118 million; Sino-Soviet bloc $42 million; World Bank $20 million; also Colombo Plan, United Nations and Ford Foundation.