Burmese Way to Socialism
|History of Burma|
The Burmese Way to Socialism (Burmese: မြန်မာ့နည်းမြန်မာ့ဟန် ဆိုရှယ်လစ်စနစ်; also known as the Burmese Road to Socialism) refers to the ideology of the Socialist government in Burma, from 1962 to 1988, when the 1962 coup d'état was led by Ne Win and the military to remove U Nu from power. More specifically, the Burmese Way to Socialism is an economic treatise written in April 1962 by the Revolutionary Council, shortly after the coup, as a blueprint for economic development, reducing foreign influence in Burma, and increasing the role of the military.
The Burmese Way to Socialism has largely been described by scholars as being xenophobic, superstitious and an "abject failure," turning one of the most prosperous countries in Asia into one of the world's poorest. However, it may have served to increase domestic stability and keep Burma from being as entangled in the Cold War struggles that affected other Southeast Asian nations.
The Burmese Way to Socialism, by far, greatly increased poverty, isolation, and is described as "disastrous". Ne Win's later attempt to make the currency based in denominations divisible by 9, a number he considered auspicious, wiped out the savings of millions of Burmese. This resulted in the pro-democracy 8888 Uprising which was brutally crushed by the military, which established the State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1988.
The Socialist coup led by Ne Win and the Revolutionary Council (RC) in 1962 was done under the pretext of economic, religious and political crises in the country, particularly the issue of federalism and the right of Burmese states from seceding from the Union.
Under U Nu and the AFPFL-led coalition government, Burma had implemented socialist economic and welfare policies, which yielded slow economic growth throughout the 1950s. On 28 October 1958, Ne Win had staged a coup, under the auspices of U Nu, who asked Ne Win to serve as interim prime minister, in order to restore order in the country, after the AFPFL split into two factions and U Nu barely survived a motion of no-confidence against his government in parliament. Ne Win restored order during the period known as the Ne Win caretaker government. Elections were held in February 1960 and Ne Win handed back power to the victorious U Nu on 4 April 1960.
By 1958, Burma 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 became very unstable in the Union 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. Newspapers like 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 Saopha 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 Saophas of their feudal powers in exchange for comfortable pensions for life in 1959.
The Burmese Way to Socialism has been described as Marxist, anti-Western, neutralist and socialist in nature, characterized also by an extensive dependence on the military, emphasis on the rural populace, and Burmese (or more specifically, Burman) nationalism. In January 1963, the Burmese Way to Socialism was further elaborated in a political public policy called the System of Correlation of Man and His Environment (လူနှင့် ပတ်ဝန်းကျင်တို့၏ အညမည သဘောတရား), was published, as the philosophical and political basis for the Burmese approach to society and socialism, influenced by Buddhist, humanist and Marxist views.
The fundamentals of the Burmese Way to Socialism, as outlined in 1963, were as follows:
- In setting forth their programmes as well as in their execution the Revolutionary Council will study and appraise the concrete realities and also the natural conditions peculiar to Burma objectively. On the basis of the actual findings derived from such study and appraisal it will develop its own ways and means to progress.
- In its activities the Revolutionary Council will strive for self-improvement by way of self-criticism. Having learnt from contemporary history the evils of deviation towards right or left the Council will with vigilance avoid any such deviation.
- In whatever situations and difficulties the Revolutionary Council may find itself it will strive for advancement in accordance with the times, conditions, environment and the ever changing circumstances, keeping at heart the basic interests of the nation.
- The Revolutionary Council will diligently seek all ways and means whereby it can formulate and carry out such programmes as are of real and practical value for the well-being of the nation. In doing so it will critically observe, study and avail itself of the opportunities provided by progressive ideas, theories and experiences at home, or abroad without discrimination between one country of origin and another.
The policy sought to reorient the Burmese economy to a socialist economy, to develop the Burmese military, and to construct a national identity among many disparate ethnic minorities and the majority Burmans.
Impacts of the Burmese Way to Socialism were multi-fold, affecting the economy, educational standards, and living standards of the Burmese people. Foreign aid organizations, like the American-based Ford Foundation and Asia Foundation, as well as the World Bank, were no longer allowed to operate in the country. Only permitted was aid from a government-to-government basis. Also, English language instruction was reformed and introduced in secondary schools, whereas previously it had started in kindergarten. The government also implemented extensive visa restrictions for Burmese citizens, especially to Western countries. Instead, the government sponsored travel of students, scientists and technicians to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to receive training, to counter years of Western influence in the country. Similarly, visas for foreigners were limited to 24 hours.
Furthermore, freedom of expression was limited extensively. Foreign language publications were prohibited, as were newspapers that printed "false propaganda news." The Press Scrutiny Board (now the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division), which censors all publications to this day (including newspapers, journals, advertisements and cartoons), was established by the RC through the Printers' and Publishers' Registration Act in August 1962. The RC set up the News Agency of Burma (BNA) to serve as a news distribution service in the country, thus effectively replacing the work of foreign news agencies. In September 1963, The Vanguard and The Guardian, two Burmese newspapers, were nationalized. In December 1965, publication of privately owned newspapers was banned by the government.
The impact on the Burmese economy was extensive. The Enterprise Nationalization Law, passed by the Revolutionary Council in 1963, nationalized all major industries, including import-export trade, rice, banking, mining, teak and rubber on 1 June 1963. In total, around 15,000 private firms were nationalized. Furthermore, industrialists were prohibited from establishing new factories with private capital. This was particularly detrimental to Burmese Indians and the British, who were disproportionately represented in these industries. The oil industry, which had previously been controlled by American and British companies such as the General Exploration Company and East Asiatic Burma Oil, were forced to end operations. In its place was the government-owned Burma Oil Company, which monopolized oil extraction and production. In August 1963, the nationalization of basic industries, including department stores, warehouses and wholesale shops, followed. Price control boards were also introduced.
The Enterprise Nationalization Law directly impacted foreigners in Burma, particularly Burmese Indians and the Burmese Chinese, both of whom had been influential in the economic sector as entrepreneurs and industrialists. By mid-1963, 2,500 foreigners a week were leaving Burma. By September 1964, approximately 100,000 Indian nationals had left the country.
The unofficial black market became a major feature in the economy, representing about 80% of national economy during the Socialist period. Moreover, income disparity became a major socioeconomic issue. Throughout the 1960s, Burma's foreign exchange reserves (to $50 million by 1971, from $214 million in 1964) steadily declined, while inflation grew. Rice exports also declined, from 1,840,000 tons in 1961-62 to 350,000 tons in 1967-68, the result of both socialist policies and the inability of rice production to meet the population growth rates.
In the First Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) Congress in 1971, economic reforms were made, in light of the failures of the economic policy pursued throughout the 1960s. The Burmese government asked to rejoin the World Bank, join the Asian Development Bank and sought more foreign aid and assistance. The Twenty-Year Plan, an economic plan divided into five increments of implementation, was introduced, to develop the country's natural resources, including agriculture, forestry, oil and natural gas, through state development. These reforms brought living standards back to pre-World War II levels and stimulated economic growth. However, by 1988, foreign debt had ballooned to $4.9 billion, about three-fourths of the national GDP.
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