ON January 4, 1948, the sovereign and independent republic of Burma was born, and a connection with the British Crown begun 120 years ago with the annexation of Tenasserim and Arakan in 1826 was ended. The parting was friendly, and it is of interest to trace the recent history of Burma to disclose the reasons for this, and also, perhaps, to form some estimate of the new state's prospects.

Prior to 1937 Burma was a province of India, and shared in the constitutional advances embodied in the Government of India Act of 1919, which handed one part of the functions of government over to ministers who were responsible to an elected legislature. This system of "dyarchy" had defects, but in fact it did what it was intended to do: it set up standards of democratic conduct in public affairs and trained the country's political leaders in the art of administration. It prepared the way for the next step forward, which was taken in Burma with the passing of the Government of Burma Act in 1935. By this Burma was separated from India, and given a constitution which laid so much responsibility on the elected representatives of the people as to bring the country close to the position of a Dominion.

Burma had long been divided when, in 1886, the third Burmese war brought upper Burma under British rule. The lower-Burma farmer, who was growing rich under British protection, had no nostalgic longings for the Mandalay monarchy. In upper Burma, the prestige of the monarchy had sunk so low, and the country was in such disorder, that the common folk welcomed the security and justice of the British régime. But at the end of the First World War, men's minds had absorbed the doctrines of self-determination, and a new nationalism sprang up, bent on making Burma a free partner in the British Commonwealth. The slow advance in constitutional development, though welcomed readily enough by the nationalists, was inadequate to satisfy their demands.

Thus it came about that although the constitution of 1935 gave wide scope to nationalist aspirations it did not really meet them; the bone of contention was the reservation of defense and foreign affairs to the Governor, and thereby indirectly to the Secretary of State in London. All established political parties coöperated in working the constitution, however, while protesting against its limitations. Only a group called thakins, many of whom were students, opposed it uncompromisingly.

Though poor and ill-organized, this group brought a new stream of ideas into Burmese political life. Hitherto internal politics had been conservative, and parties differed little in their outlook on social, economic or political questions, though there was much personal and party rivalry. These young men, however, had studied Marx and Lenin and were greatly attracted by the doctrines of Communism. They were not orthodox Communists, having grasped the inherent unsuitability of formal Communism for their country, but they repudiated the older Burmese politicians as resolutely as they opposed the suzerainty of the British. They had a noticeable influence on the older parties, which were forced perceptibly to the Left.

The outbreak of war in 1939 did little to alter this situation. Burma as a whole was ready to coöperate in the war effort (which for the time being meant increasing exports at rising prices) and hoped for wider political powers in return. The entry of Japan into French Indo-China in 1940, however, brought fears of imminent Japanese attack -- fears not lessened by the difficulty of getting defense equipment and a training staff from Britain, then locked in a deadly struggle in North Africa. Rightly or wrongly, the Burmese felt that the British Government did not fully appreciate their danger -- a feeling which the British in Burma shared. Finally, toward the end of 1941, U Saw, the Premier, went to London and offered to intensify Burma's war effort to the fullest degree in return for an immediate promise of early Dominion status; but he made an unfavorable impression and was coldly received. He was subsequently arrested for making treasonable contact with Japanese agents and interned till the end of the war. His arrest caused no excitement in Burma, where a difficult and disappointing campaign was under way, and his Cabinet continued in office under his deputy until the evacuation in May 1942.

Meanwhile, most of the young thakins had been interned for impeding the war effort or had gone underground, and some, including U Aung San, had already made their way to Japan, to return in January 1942 with the invaders as guides and interpreters. They were thus well placed to take over the government under Japanese favor, but they had attracted to their standard a large number of doubtful characters and criminals. Once the occupation was complete, the Japanese partly suppressed them and entrusted the government to a group composed mainly of older politicians, under Dr. Ba Maw. The thakins, however, retained control of the Burma national army, which the Japanese had purged and reorganized, and Dr. Ba Maw had little or no authority over U Aung San, its commanding general.

Independence had been declared in August 1943 with much pomp and ceremony, and, though the Burmese soon found it to be without much substance, it fired their imaginations. For the first time in modern history, Burma made treaties in her own right, and exchanged ambassadors with other Powers; for the first time, too, she had her own army, under her own Burmese officers. The thakins, however, had not led the Japanese into Burma merely to enthrone Dr. Ba Maw as head of a puppet government. They wanted real freedom, and in desperation turned back to the British, with whom, at the appointed hour (March 1945), they joined forces in the war against the Japanese. Since Japanese resistance collapsed soon thereafter they fought few engagements, but the prestige of the Patriot Burmese Forces (PBF), as they were now called, stood high at the end of the campaign. The Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) which they organized aimed at amalgamating all nationalist parties, and although a few of the older politicians stood apart it became under Aung San's leadership the strongest political body Burma had yet seen.

A few weeks later, in October 1945, the civil governor returned, and set about forming a council which, temporarily, would be a nominated body. The Governor, however, feared that though U Aung San had relinquished his military rank, a government dominated by the AFPFL would amount to a military dictatorship, and negotiations with him broke down. In the end, a council was formed without AFPFL participation. But AFPFL, despite significant defections, was still by far the strongest political force in the country, and without its coöperation the intended change to an elected government would be impracticable. Negotiations were therefore renewed but by the summer of 1946 had again failed. AFPFL prepared secretly for a showdown, and, when in September a change of governor seemed to promise no immediate change of policy, called strikes in the police department and elsewhere which brought the business of the country to a standstill and forced the resignation of the Governor's council. Only AFPFL could provide an alternative council or handle the strike, and the leaders of the party claimed and were given a clear majority of seats on the Governor's council. It was a bloodless and successful revolution. The council assumed most of the powers of ministers under the 1935 Act, while U Aung San, who was vice-chairman under the Governor, took the "reserved" portfolio of defense and foreign affairs, hitherto administered by a European official.


Once in power, however, the AFPFL leaders found, like many others before them, that a change of government does not of itself cure a country's ills. The strikes could be settled only by extravagant concessions which the country could ill afford, and bred a crop of fresh disturbances, fomented mainly by Communists to embarrass the new régime. Police discipline had been undermined, and violence spread unchecked over wide areas, so that many farmers abandoned their fields and fled for safety to the towns. The AFPFL Government was in a dilemma, for it had denounced its predecessors as reactionaries, and now to its dismay found itself turning to the very measures it had condemned to restore order. The line taken was that this violence was the logical continuation of the Burmese resistance movement, and would cease when Burma was completely free; or, if it did not, at least the government would then have the support of public opinion in suppressing it.

The British Government in London meanwhile had not been idle. Its main concern was not, as AFPFL had thought, to consolidate British control over Burma, but to secure rapid physical reconstruction and the restoration of democratic government, and so reduce or at least define its own imperial obligations and financial commitments. British interests in Burma were not incompatible with democratic development, even if that should result in secession from the Commonwealth, though the British naturally hoped it would not; secession would be a cheap price to pay for peace and prosperity in at least one corner of southeast Asia. Thus the British had readily accepted the changes in September and were quite willing to discuss further changes if necessary. They accordingly called a conference in London in January 1947. This resulted in an agreement signed by Mr. Attlee and U Aung San by which the future status and constitution of Burma were left to the decision of a constituent assembly, which the Burmese delegates undertook to have elected in April. In the meantime, a freer hand was given to the Governor's council, which would now act as an independent cabinet in virtually all respects. The position of the Burmese hill peoples was to be safeguarded until they should have the opportunity to make a free choice as to their future.

In Rangoon, matters were in turmoil. Party headquarters under the leadership of Thakin Nu had been certain the London talks would fail, and busied itself organizing strikes and demonstrations. Some of these broke out prematurely, and it was months before the government, now shouldering full responsibility, had them under control. Meanwhile the Communists had exploited the situation to the full, and denounced U Aung San for having succumbed to the wiles of the imperialists. Two dissentients on the delegation to the conference, U Saw and Thakin Ba Sein, took a similar line, but the Communists were the more formidable. Numerically small, they were well organized, and in Arakan and two districts of central Burma held almost complete control. One wing, the "White Flag" Communists, had coöperated fitfully with AFPFL, and U Aung San continued to hope for their assistance. The Red Flag Communists, however, were implacable. Disorder was their object, and disorder they achieved. But Aung San went ahead with his plans, and his first success came when by statesmanlike concessions he won over the hill peoples, except for a section of the Karens. The elections in April passed off peacefully, and gave him an overwhelming majority. AFPFL, now firmly in the saddle, adopted a program for the constituent assembly which made it clear Burma would choose the status of an independent republic. This was confirmed a month later (June 17, 1947) by the constituent assembly. U Aung San's deputy, Thakin Nu, then led a delegation to London to discuss the transfer of power, agreement was soon reached, and Thakin Nu returned to Rangoon, while some of the delegation went off to visit other European countries to study their constitutions.

This was the position when, on July 19, the world was shocked by one of the most dastardly political crimes of modern times. About half-past ten in the morning, a gang of armed men drove into the Secretariat in Rangoon, shot down the sentry at the door of the council chamber and forced their way in. The Governor's council was in session, with U Aung San in the chair. The gangsters sprayed the room with bullets, and Aung San, with six of his colleagues and a Burmese secretary, fell dead or dying on the floor. Rangoon was thrown into panic, and for a time the wildest rumors and fears prevailed. In a few hours, however, the British Governor, Sir Hubert Rance, had sworn in Thakin Nu in U Aung San's place and filled the vacant seats with men pledged to carry out the policy of their murdered leader. Aung San's body was embalmed, and lay in state for weeks amid the mourning of the nation. The coup d'état had failed. Aung San had sealed his faith with his blood, and his successors pressed on with full vigor to bring his plans to fruition.

Suspicion for the murder at once fell on U Saw. His life had been attempted in the autumn of 1946, supposedly by an AFPFL faction that wished to keep him out of the Governor's council. He had taken part in the London talks in January, but had at the last minute denounced the Attlee-Aung San agreement; and he was thought to be jealous of Aung San's leadership. Some days after the crime a party of young desperadoes was arrested, and in their statements implicated U Saw and some of his associates. The trial took place before a special tribunal and in December U Saw and a number of others were found guilty and sentenced to death.


Preparations for the new government meanwhile went on apace. A British mission to Burma concluded a defense agreement on August 29, and the treaty itself was signed in London in October 17, to take effect January 4, 1948.

Thus Britain and Burma parted, not only without bitterness, but with cordial good will. Feeling between the British and Burmese had always been good, and with few exceptions the two races had never allowed their political differences to cloud their personal relations. But in the Burmese mind there had always been a suspicion, sometimes dormant, sometimes lively, that the British usually had some undisclosed and wholly selfish object in view. This suspicion was finally dispelled when the political leaders of the two countries met around the conference table in London. A new atmosphere was created, in which the conditions of a settlement could be determined with mutual satisfaction. The ready agreement of the British Government that a constituent assembly should be convened with full authority to decide whether Burma should remain in the Commonwealth, and to draft the new constitution, was the chief factor in creating this new atmosphere of mutual confidence. On the Burmese side, the decisive factor of the successful settlement was the determination of U Aung San and his successor to adhere to the London agreement in spite of pressure from his more extreme followers, and obstruction from the Communists.

The keynote of the new constitution is struck in the preamble:

We, the people of Burma, including the frontier areas and the Karenni states, determined to establish in strength and unity a sovereign independent state, to maintain social order on the basis of the eternal principles of justice, liberty and equality and to guarantee and secure to all citizens justice, social, economic, and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action; equality of status, of opportunity and before the law, in our constituent assembly this tenth of Thadingyut waxing 1309 B.E. (24th day of September 1947 A. D.) do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution.

The constitution then provides for a "Union of Burma," with Burma proper as the predominant partner. The frontier peoples enjoy equal status in the Union, but have autonomy for local affairs in subsidiary states. The Karens (other than those in Karenni) whose prospects under the new dispensation had aroused misgiving in Britain and the United States, are given an option to join with Karenni in forming a Karen state, and until they do will have a council and a minister for Karen affairs. Chapter II of the Constitution embodies a charter of citizenship and human rights. Chapters III and IV provide for the improvement of workers' and peasants' conditions; for the prohibition of large landholdings; for the improvement of social and educational services; for the care of ex-servicemen and their families; for the establishment of a planned economy based as far as possible on nationalized or coöperative enterprise; and, finally, for the protection and encouragement of all useful arts and sciences, and cultural institutions.

Chapter V provides for the quinquennial election of a President of the Union by both chambers in joint session by secret ballot. His powers are virtually limited to the appointment of a Prime Minister on the nomination of the Chamber of Deputies, and of other ministers on that of the Prime Minister. All legislation requires his signature, but if he does not sign within seven days, his signature is deemed to have been given. He thus has no power to reserve bills. He may, however, address, or send a message to, the legislature on any matter of national or public importance. He may also refuse to dissolve or prorogue the Chamber of Deputies when this course is advised by a prime minister who has lost his majority, but in this case he must call on the Chamber to nominate a new prime minister.

The legislature, which with the President constitutes "Parliament," consists of two houses. The upper house is a Chamber of Nationalities, with 125 seats, of which 72 are reserved for Chans, Kachins, Chins, Karenni and other Karens, while 53 go to the rest of Burma.[i] The lower house is the Chamber of Deputies, to consist as nearly as possible of twice the number of members as the Chamber of Nationalities. It is directly elected on a very wide franchise by constituencies of varying sizes within certain defined limits in the whole of Burma, with special provision for Karen representation. Except for money bills, legislation may be initiated in either house; the power of the upper house over money bills is extremely limited. Certain subjects concerning the states are reserved for the state councils, except when the President has proclaimed a grave emergency. When both chambers are not in session the President may, under stringent safeguards, pass ordinances which have a very limited duration.

The executive consists of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, who are collectively responsible to the Chamber of Deputies, and must have a majority there. Separate provisions are made for the appointment of an attorney-general, an auditor-general and a public service commission. A carefully drafted chapter (VIII) provides for the independence of the judiciary. In particular this chapter gives the high court power to try cases, and the supreme court power to hear appeals, involving questions "as to the validity of any law having regard to the provisions of the constitution."

The document is concise, and constitutes a workmanlike and reasonably complete blueprint for a new state. It meets ingeniously the particular difficulty of giving a fair amount of freedom to the frontier peoples without hamstringing the central government. And it attempts with fair success to combine the two ideologies from which it stems -- the traditional British reverence for parliamentary democracy (which in the last 30 years has become a commonplace of Burmese political thought), and the aggressive Socialism which its authors imbibed from European leftist writers. The declaration of human rights, the collective responsibility of ministers to parliament, the independence of the judiciary, and the second chamber with limited powers are typical of the former. On the other hand, the specific provisions for the socialization of industry, and the emphasis on the protection of workers and peasants, suggest that the doctrines of Socialism are meant to be basic in the state, and not open to discussion between rival parties in parliament.


In Article 1 of the treaty of October 17, 1947, between Britain and Burma, "the government of the United Kingdom recognize the republic of the Union of Burma as a fully independent sovereign state." Subsequent articles provide for the retention of British citizenship by certain persons, the payment of pensions to former British civil servants, the continuance of international obligations and of certain contractual obligations, the conclusion of a treaty of commerce and navigation, the continuance of postal, telecommunication, and civil aviation services, and so on. The treaty also provides for adoption of the defense agreement signed in Rangoon on August 29. An annex contains correspondence providing for compensation of United Kingdom companies if their property is expropriated or acquired in pursuit of the policy of state Socialism in the period before the conclusion of the treaty of commerce and navigation. The defense agreement provides for the evacuation of British forces, a British military mission to Burma, some military equipment from the United Kingdom, and mutual concessions on the use of airdromes and harbors.

The treaty was welcomed by the Burmese, since it recognized in full the independence of their country. It was generally welcomed by the British also, though in some circles there were misgivings lest the new government should go too fast with its Socialist policy. In November 1947, the Socialist Party in AFPFL made an alliance in a new "Marxist League" with the People's Volunteer Organization (known generally by its Burmese initials as the PYT) -- a para-military body of young men recruited originally by U Aung San. The more conservative elements in AFPFL are thus completely overshadowed, and at the first election under the new constitution the forces of the Left will probably sweep the board. These forces, however, are Socialist, and not Communist; indeed, the League was formed a few days after the final rupture between AFPFL and the Communists on November 18. But, since the presidium of the League is drawn from both the Cabinet and the PYT leaders, the natural result is to pull the government along the road to the Left. Consistent with this view was the announcement a few days later by the Commerce Minister U Ko Gyi, himself a member of the presidium, that the League hoped to nationalize the land and major industries within the next two years. Confusion was increased when at the same moment his colleague, the Forest Minister, offered a more practical proposal that Burmese lessees be substituted for Europeans in the forest industry over a period of the next ten years. Nationalization as demanded by U Ko Gyi would involve the expropriation or acquisition of existing plants and concessions, which could be done only with compensation and after proper inquiry. The government would then have to find the staff, technical and administrative, to replace the existing European experts.[ii]

In truth the task before the new republic is formidable enough without such added complications. Burma was fought over twice, and devastated by the air forces of both sides. For more than three years of enemy occupation, education and other social services either were at a standstill or retrogressed. Thousands of boys and young men have learned no calling but that of partisan, and need little encouragement to form armed bands that, whatever their ostensible object, often take to robbery. In 1945, arms and ammunition were easily acquired, and large quantities were carefully stored away. Robberies are planned affairs with modern equipment, and police work takes on the character of military operations. This makes law and order difficult and expensive to maintain. Again, railway, river, road and harbor equipment, electric plant and all kinds of machinery, were almost nonexistent at the time of liberation. Admittedly, in the last two years, good progress has been made, with British help, but Burma is as yet far from being a going concern. After initial hesitation, law and order have been tackled resolutely by Thakin Nu's government, and many illicit arms brought in, but areas in central Burma and Arakan are still quite out of control. Road, rail and river transport, posts and telegraphs, and port establishments are functioning, but to some extent on an improvised basis, and with only moderate efficiency. Most of the Europeans in all services have been dispensed with, and it will stretch the resources of Burma to the utmost to replace them.

Trade and commerce are just beginning to revive. Thus, the export surplus of rice products is rising from less than 1,000,000 long tons last year to 1,500,000 this year, but is still a long way below the prewar average of 3,000,000 to 3,500,000 tons. Forest work was stopped last year by the lawless conditions in the countryside, and this must cut supplies of timber in the near future. The oil fields and refineries were completely wrecked in 1942 in order to keep the Japanese from using them and now Burma has to import oil to meet her own requirements, instead of producing nearly 1,000,000 tons, much of it for export, as before the war. The oil companies have begun rehabilitation, but in the current atmosphere of physical insecurity and political uncertainty only limited progress is possible. Much the same situation prevails in the base metal mining industry, which though less important is by no means insignificant. The government's attitude toward invested capital deters the existing companies from spending more than a minimum of money on rehabilitation, and frightens off new investors. Since there is little free capital available locally, and an acute shortage of trained Burmese to work either as independent operators or as servants of a state industry, there is thus something of a deadlock. It cannot be broken until law and order are completely restored and the government makes up its mind how to reconcile its Socialist plans with the need to attract foreign enterprise. In the meantime, industry and trade languish, unemployment looms ahead, the country is short of foreign exchange, and the government is losing heavily from the loss of taxes and royalties.

No account of Burma's position would be complete without reference to her relations with India. Over 70 percent of prewar foreign trade was with that country, and about 1,000,000 Indians lived and worked in Burma, as laborers, artisans, traders, moneylenders and professional men. Some 400,000 left the country on the Japanese invasion, and the terms on which they are to be allowed back have been the subject of much acrimonious discussion. Burma is underpopulated, and the Indians in Burma had made a definite place for themselves in its society and its economy. But their predominance in many spheres, particularly money-lending, trading and the professions, proved repugnant to the rising nationalist feeling, while their success in humbler occupations aroused the jealousy of the masses, sometimes to the pitch of riot and murder. It would be pointless to try and apportion the blame for this unhappy state of affairs: what is important is that Burma and the two new countries of India and Pakistan should settle their differences expeditiously, and make a long-term agreement on trade and immigration. In almost every respect the interests of the three countries are complementary. Cordiality, however, is not yet firmly enough established to offer prospects of early success, and the fact that the old India is now split in two, while Burma has gone out of the Commonwealth, does not make negotiation any easier.

Such are some of the problems that face the new state. They are formidable, but the men who have taken responsibility for them are young and enthusiastic, and the whole country is pervaded with a spirit of optimism. Burma has many good friends, and if these admirable qualities of optimism and enthusiasm can be harnessed to the humdrum tasks inherent in building up a new state, this, the latest of republics, can face the future with confidence.

[i] The racial distribution in Burma is approximately as follows: Burmese 11,000,000, Shans (Tai) 1,500,000, Karens 1,500,000, Mons 400,000, Chins 300,000, Kachins 300,000, Chinese 300,000, Indians 1,000,000, others 600,000.

[ii] In January 1948 the Burma government gave notice that it would proceed immediately with the nationalization of the river transport, and of one section of the forest industry. Some British expert staff would be retained and compensation would be arranged after discussion.

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