Democracy and its Roots

Before Burma regained independence on 4 January 1948, an uneven leadership struggle developed between the older leaders of the prewar period and the young men who had formed and led the wartime Burma army and the coalition nationalist party, the Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). While the former were prepared to work within the framework of change offered by the British, the latter were not. The people backed the AFPFL from the outset, and its legal right to lead was confirmed in the 1947 election and in the constituent assembly.

Before the authors of the 1947 constitution took up their task they had, at least, three traditions to draw upon. They could have returned to some form of monarchy, such as existed before British rule (Koenig 1990:65-97). But that idea had been rejected during the war period when the Japanese granted Burma independence (Cady 1958:4-5) and again by Aung San, the nationalist leader, when he addressed the AFPFL on the eve of the constitutent assembly (Silverstein 1972: 92-100). They could have created a bureaucratic-authoritarian system, after the model the British instituted at the end of the nineteenth century or that of the constitutional dictatorship fashioned by Dr Ba Maw, under Japanese tutelage, during World War II (Christian 1945:60-76; Maung 1959: 54-62). This, too, was rejected. They had a third model, parliamentary democracy, which the British introduced as early as 1921 to put the nation on a course to self-rule (Christian 1945:77-105).

Most amongst the young elite were Buddhists and were influenced, to various degrees, by Buddhism’s values and traditions. Many, however, like their leader Aung San, were Western-educated, holders of university degrees and believers in liberal democracy with its emphasis upon separation of church and state. They came to maturity in a period when democracy was evolving in Burma and they were able to study and debate the political ideas of their day – democracy, fascism, communism – and the meaning and content of Burmese nationalism. Overwhelmingly, they were drawn to socialism, secularism and democracy (Khin Yi 1988; Silverstein 1980:134-161). These ideas were foremost in the thinking of Aung San when he addressed the preconstituent assembly meeting of the AFPFL and committed the party to their support (Silverstein 1972).

But there were divisions within the AFPFL. In a barely disguised struggle between communists and socialists rival leaders and member parties fought for control of the AFPFL and influence in shaping the future constitution. In 1946 the communists were expelled from the AFPFL and the ideas of the socialists, together with those of Aung San, were influential in the writing of the basic law.

The constitution of 1947 created a parliamentary system with two legislative chambers. It included a renunciation of war as an instrument of policy, a set of socialist-influenced unenforceable goals – called directive principles, a definition of relations of the state to peasants and workers, and fundamental human rights for all.

The AFPFL leaders had a special problem in that nearly 40 per cent of the population were members of various minority groups who lived either amongst the Burman (the Karens and Mons) or in the hill areas which surrounded the heartland (the Shans, Kachins, Chins and others). Because the minorities either had been given special treatment under British rule (the Karens formed a separate electorate and were given a specific number of seats in the legislature) or had been excluded from the evolving political process during the same period (the various hill peoples), the question of uniting everyone in the territory of Burma proved vexing. Discussions leading to promises made by the Burman leaders to the minorities resulted in the creation of a unique federal union, which was more unitary than federal, and led to most Karens and Karennis rejecting it. It also promised the right of secession to the populations of two areas but denied it to all others. Failure to solve the problems of national unity at the outset was a major cause of minority revolts after independence (Silverstein 1980).

Internal wars tested the nation. Between 1948 and 1952 the government nearly collapsed as it fought to recover control first of the heartland and then of the hill areas. Yet even as it faced the threat of being overthrown and the union destroyed, the legislature met and acted, a national election was held, the High Court and Supreme Court upheld civil and political rights against the effort of the government to ignore them in its determination to restore control and domestic peace, education expanded at all levels, and the press flourished as one of the freest in all of Asia.

Religion and politics were never far apart. The 1947 constitution established religious freedom, but in the same chapter it declared that Buddhism enjoyed a ‘special position’. As early as 1949, a Ministry of Religious Affairs was created and ecclesiastical courts were established. The state also conducted religious examinations and sponsored an international Buddhist celebration to commemorate the Buddha’s 2500th birthday (Mendelson 1975:112).

Although the state was declared to be the ultimate owner of all the land, in fact agricultural lands were in private hands and the farmers were free to buy and sell and to make all farming and marketing decisions. While some economic enterprises, such as transportation and power generation, became government monopolies, there was a private economic sector which flourished alongside government businesses and cooperatives.

Despite a non-aligned foreign policy and the illegal invasion and occupation of some of its territory by remnants of the Chinese Nationalist Army – causing the government to divert resources from economic recovery and development to the expansion of the army and the purchase of weapons – the economy slowly recov-ered to near prewar levels in all areas; many of the groups in revolt either ended their war and returned home or, if they continued to fight, were driven into the hills and the delta area. In 1956 the nation held a second national election which generally was free and fair and produced an opposition party in parliament which generated lively debates and moved the nation from a one-dominant-party to a multi-party system (Silverstein 1956). The institutions of democracy began to grow in an atmosphere of peace and stability.

But unity and stability in the AFPFL leadership did not last. In 1958 the leaders split and, in their struggle to win control of the party and government, the rivals provoked a constitutional crisis. Prime Minister Nu tried to resolve it through a vote in the parliament; but even though he won, his margin was small and his backing came mainly from the minorities rather than the Burman members. Having no dependable majority in parliament, on 26 October Nu stepped down as prime minister and recommended General Ne Win, the military commander, to form a caretaker government and restore political conditions under which new elections could be held to resolve the political crisis.

This was not the first time that Ne Win was brought into government. In 1949, at the height of the rebellions, Nu asked him to serve as deputy prime minister and take charge of several ministries following the mass resignation of the socialists from his cabinet. Ne Win held those posts for nearly seventeen months.

The multiple internal wars in the decade of the 1950s gave Ne Win’s army the opportunity to exercise political authority under martial law. In 1952 martial law was proclaimed in parts of the Shan state; it lasted for two years. The army abused the people and acted corruptly, giving rise to its reputation of ruthless and autocratic behaviour. Whatever popularity it had in the hill areas at the outset of its rule vanished as it exercised power.

Ne Win’s caretaker government of 1958-60 ruled without party support. It drew upon senior military officers and respected civil servants to serve in the cabinet and administer government offices. Ne Win scrupulously adhered to the letter of the constitution, even demanding its amendment to allow him to serve beyond six months as a nonelected member. But his strict enforcement of the law, insensitivity to the people, and impatience with the democratic process, turned the public against his rule even though his administration brought law and order to a good portion of the country and improved the economy.

Like the government before his, Ne Win’s had no compunctions against using religion for political ends. In 1959 it published a booklet entitled Dhammantaraya (Dhamma in Danger), which declared that the Burmese communists posed a threat to Buddhism, and mobilised 80800 monks to hold meetings and denounce the local communist movement (Ba Than 1962:71). It also continued the practice of mixing religion and politics by placing religious affairs under the deputy prime minister and enforcing all laws pertaining to religion.

When elections were held in 1960, the party favoured by the military suffered an overwhelming defeat while its opponent, led by U Nu, returned to power (Director of Information 1960; Silverstein 1977). A major issue was U Nu’s promise, if elected, to make Buddhism the state religion.

Between that election and the military coup on 2 March 1962, Nu worked hard to strengthen democracy and address the causes of national disunity (Silverstein 1964). But before he could accomplish his goals the military struck, seized power, and replaced democracy and the constitution with a military dictatorship.

Although the democratic experiment lasted only fourteen years, it established an important watershed for Burmese political thought and action. Three national elections had been held and a multiparty system proved workable; leaders coped with major economic and political problems and adopted pragmatic solutions. Human and civil rights generally were honoured, and when questions arose the courts acted independently in defence of the constitution.

Divisions in the ruling party were a major cause of criticism of the democratic process; however, it must be remembered that the AFPFL started life as a broad coalition of conflicting leaders and ideas. In the face of multiple rebellions which threatened to destroy the union as well as the democratic system, the leaders generally remained united. In 1958, when the nation began to enjoy real peace and thousands of people in revolt began to put away their weapons and drift toward a peaceful way of life, Nu tried to convert the AFPFL into a coherent and unified party; but divisions amongst its leaders already were evident and barely concealed in the party congress of that year. Three months later, AFPFL unity was shattered. A similar phenomenon occurred in U Nu’s party during his last administration and reinforced the idea that personal rivalries outweighed commitment to democratic rule. If the people did not rise up to defend democracy against the military in 1962 it was because most of those who thought about it recognised the reality of a totally successful lightning coup and because many of them believed that a new caretaker government was going to be established.