Military Rule: First Phase, 1962–1974

The military justified the coup of 2 March 1962 on three grounds: to preserve the union, to restore order and harmony in the society, and to solve the economic problems facing the nation (Silverstein:1977:80). The men who made the coup were not the same as those who stood close to Ne Win in the caretaker period. Several had been sent abroad as ambassadors a year earlier. And those who remained were divided in their view of what the military should do with power. Brigadier Aung Gyi wanted to continue along the lines of the caretaker government, while his rival, Brigadier Tin Pe, wanted to turn the nation immediately down the road to socialism. A year later Aung Gyi was dismissed and Ne Win adopted Tin Pe’s position.

If the coup leaders were divided on their immediate course, they were agreed on abandoning their earlier commitment to the constitution and democracy in favour of dictatorship with no limits on their right to make rules and exercise power.

A month after the coup the leaders promulgated a new ideological statement, The Burmese Way to Socialism. In their new analysis they argued that Burma’s problems were the result of the economic system, which not only deformed society and the personal values and attitudes of the people, but contributed to disunity and social unrest (Silverstein 1964:716). Parliamentary democracy also contributed by failing to produce political stability and lent itself to misuse and personal profit by those in power. Thus, the priorities were altered: economic change and the creation of a socialist democracy – on the lines of the Eastern European states – must come before all else. Gone were all pretences of upholding constitutionalism and the liberal democracy of the past.

From the outset, the military displaced the institutions created at independence, replaced the civilian leadership with members of their own organisation, and substituted their thought for that of their political predecessors. The constitution was suspended and became inoperative in areas where the Revolutionary Council, the military governing body, issued decrees and promulgated orders. The courts were changed. The old parties were outlawed and replaced by the military’s own new party, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), the only political party allowed after 1964. The free press eventually was outlawed and replaced by an official publication, the Working Peoples Daily. Most of all, the federal system, while remaining in name, in fact became a centralised administrative system. Security Administration Councils, composed of representatives from the army, civil service and police, replaced state political and administrative organs. The new system was organised hierarchically with control located in Rangoon.

The changes were more than institutional. The people were cut off from contact with foreigners as the military’s propagandists and educators sought to change people’s beliefs, values and attitudes to those expressed in the new ideological documents. A police state emerged; people were required to inform on one another while a national network of domestic spies reported the activities and statements of ordinary citizens.

To bring an end to the various revolutions still in progress, the military rulers used both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’, holding peace negotiations in 1963 and, following their failure, resuming their military campaigns.

The Burmese way to socialism failed both to improve the economy and to gain real support amongst the people. By the end of the decade Ne Win and his co-leaders gradually shifted to a new direction.

In 1971 the BSPP was converted from a cadre to a mass party and Ne Win gave it responsibility for writing a new constitution. Despite changes in structure, the party remained a political vehicle for the military with General Ne Win as its head and senior military officers monopolising all subleadership posts.

In April 1972, while the party pursued its tasks, Ne Win and nineteen senior military officers retired from the Defence Services. At the same time the government changed its name from the Revolutionary Council to the Government of Burma. U Ne Win remained prime minister and most of the same senior military leaders, now retired, continued as government heads; four civilian cabinet officers were added to their ranks. During this period Ne Win abolished the secretariat inherited from the British colonial system, and transferred its responsibilities to the ministers. In terms of who led the nation, these changes were more nominal than real as the military retained its near exclusive control of power. A new constitution was approved by the people in a referendum in December 1973, and in elections held the following month candidates for seats in the national assemby and the three sublevels of government were elected. On 2 March 1974 the second phase of military rule began.