THE INDEPENDENT PERIOD OF BURMA
The first years of Burmese independence were marked by successive insurgencies by the Red Flag Communists led by Thakin Soe, the White Flag Communists led by Thakin Than Tun, the Yèbaw Hpyu (White-band PVO) led by Bo La Yaung, a member of the Thirty Comrades, army rebels calling themselves the Revolutionary Burma Army (RBA) led by Communist officers Bo Zeya, Bo Yan Aung and Bo Yè Htut — all three of them members of the Thirty Comrades, Arakanese Muslims or the Mujahid, and the Karen National Union (KNU).
After the Communist victory in China in 1949 remote areas of Northern Burma were for many years controlled by an army of Kuomintang (KMT) forces under the command of General Li Mi.
Burma accepted foreign assistance in rebuilding the country in these early years, but continued American support for the Chinese Nationalist military presence in Burma finally resulted in the country rejecting most foreign aid, refusing to join the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and supporting the Bandung Conference of 1955. Burma generally strove to be impartial in world affairs and was one of the first countries in the world to recognize Israel and the People’s Republic of China.
By 1958, the country was largely beginning to recover economically, but was beginning to fall apart politically due to a split in the AFPFL into two factions, one led by Thakins Nu and Tin, the other by Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein. And this despite the unexpected success of U Nu’s ‘Arms for Democracy’ offer taken up by U Seinda in the Arakan, the Pa-O, some Mon and Shan groups, but more significantly by the PVO surrendering their arms. The situation however became very unstable in parliament, with U Nu surviving a no-confidence vote only with the support of the opposition National United Front (NUF), believed to have ‘crypto-communists’ amongst them. Army hardliners now saw the ‘threat’ of the CPB coming to an agreement with U Nu through the NUF, and in the end U Nu ‘invited’ Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win to take over the country. Over 400 ‘communist sympathisers’ were arrested, of which 153 were deported to the Coco Island in the Andaman Sea. Among them was the NUF leader Aung Than, older brother of Aung San. The Botahtaung, Kyemon and Rangoon Daily were also closed down.
Ne Win’s caretaker government successfully established the situation and paved the way for new general elections in 1960 that returned U Nu’s Union Party with a large majority. The situation did not remain stable for long, when the Shan Federal Movement, started by Nyaung Shwe Sawbwa Sao Shwe Thaik (the first President of independent Burma 1948-52) and aspiring to a ‘loose’ federation, was seen as a separatist movement insisting on the government honouring the right to secession in 10 years provided for by the 1947 Constitution. Ne Win had already succeeded in stripping the Shan Sawbwas of their feudal powers in exchange for comfortable pensions for life in 1959.
On 2 March 1962, Ne Win, with sixteen other senior military officers, staged a coup d’etat, arrested U Nu, Sao Shwe Thaik and several others, and declared a socialist state to be run by their Revolutionary Council. Sao Shwe Thaik’s son, Sao Mye Thaik, was shot dead in what was generally described as a ‘bloodless’ coup. Thibaw Sawbwa Sao Kya Seng also disappeared mysteriously after being stopped at a checkpoint near Taunggyi.
A number of protests followed the coup, and initially the military’s response was mild. However, on 7 July 1962, a peaceful student protest on Rangoon University campus was suppressed by the military, killing over 100 students. The next day, the army blew up the Students Union building. Peace talks were convened between the RC and various armed insurgent groups in 1963, but without any breakthrough, and during the talks as well as in the aftermath of their failure, hundreds were arrested in Rangoon and elsewhere from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. All opposition parties were banned on March 28, 1964. The Kachin insurgency by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) had begun earlier in 1961 triggered by U Nu’s declaration of Buddhism as the state religion, and the Shan State Army (SSA), led by Sao Shwe Thaik’s wife Mahadevi and son Chao Tzang Yaunghwe, launched a rebellion in 1964 as a direct consequence of the 1962 military coup.
Ne Win quickly took steps to transform Burma into his vision of a ‘socialist state’ and to isolate the country from contact with the rest of the world. A one-party system was established with his newly formed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in complete control. Commerce and industry were nationalized across the board, but the economy did not grow at first if at all as the government put too much emphasis on industrial development at the expense of agriculture. In April 1972, General Ne Win and the rest of the Revolutionary Council retired from the military, but now as U Ne Win, he continued to run the country through the BSPP. A new constitution was promulgated in January 1974 that resulted in the creation of a People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) that held supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and local People’s Councils. Ne Win became the president of the new government.
Beginning in May 1974, a wave of strikes hit Rangoon and elsewhere in the country against a backdrop of corruption, inflation and food shortages, especially rice. In Rangoon workers were arrested at the Insein railway yard, and troops opened fire on workers at the Thamaing textile mill and Simmalaik dockyard. In December 1974, the biggest anti-government demonstrations to date broke out over the funeral of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. U Thant had been former prime minister U Nu’s closest advisor in the 1950s and was seen as a symbol of opposition to the military regime. The Burmese people felt that U Thant was denied a state funeral that he deserved as a statesman of international stature because of his association with U Nu.
On March 23, 1976, over 100 students were arrested for holding a peaceful ceremony (Hmaing yabyei) to mark the centenary of the birth of Thakin Kodaw Hmaing who was the greatest Burmese poet and writer and nationalist leader of the 20th. century history of Burma. He had inspired a whole generation of Burmese nationalists and writers by his work mainly written in verse, fostering immense pride in their history, language and culture, and urging them to take direct action such as strikes by students and workers. It was Hmaing as leader of the mainstream Dobama who sent the Thirty Comrades abroad for military training, and after independence devoted his life to internal peace and national reconciliation until he died at the age of 88 in 1964. Hmaing lies buried in a mausoleum at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
A young staff officer called Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint conspired with a few fellow officers in 1976 to assassinate Ne Win and San Yu, but the plot was uncovered and the officer tried and hanged.
In 1978, a military operation was conducted against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, called the King Dragon operation, causing 250,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
U Nu, after his release from prison in October 1966, had left Burma in April 1969, and formed the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP) the following August in Bangkok, Thailand with the former Thirty Comrades, Bo Let Ya, co-founder of the CPB and former Minister of Defence and deputy prime minister, Bo Yan Naing, and U Thwin, ex-BIA and former Minister of Trade. Another member of the Thirty Comrades, Bohmu Aung, former Minister of Defence, joined later. The fourth, Bo Setkya, who had gone underground after the 1962 coup, died in Bangkok shortly before U Nu arrived.. The PDP launched an armed rebellion across the Thai border from 1972 till 1978 when Bo Let Ya was killed in an attack by the Karen National Union (KNU). U Nu, Bohmu Aung and Bo Yan Naing returned to Rangoon after the 1980 amnesty. Ne Win also secretly held peace talks later in 1980 with the KIO and the CPB, again ending in a deadlock as before.