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The Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma

Ne WinIn line with the Revolutionary Council's determination to transform the BSPP from a cadre to a mass party, a new party constitution was drafted in November 1969, laying out clear-cut party organizations on the regional and local levels, requirements for party membership, and specific intraparty decisionmaking procedures, based on "democratic centralism." The Revolutionary Council promised a transition from rule by a close-knit military elite to a "socialist democracy" having a broader base of popular participation. In this spirit General Ne Win and 20 other military leaders resigned their commissions in April 1972; U Ne Win continued, however, as prime minister and head of the BSPP.

At the First Congress of the BSPP, held in June-July 1971, the party constitution was officially adopted, and a committee was set up to draft a new state constitution, headed by Brigadier San Yu, a member of the Revolutionary Council. Its 97 members included 33 military officers and representatives of workers', peasants', and ethnic groups. At the October 1973 Second Congress the committee's draft constitution was approved. In a referendum held in late December, the document received overwhelming popular approval (90.2 percent of the 13.3 million eligible voters participating), though participation and approval rates were lower in the states than in the divisions. The Constitution was promulgated on January 3, 1974; in March 2, 1974, the Revolutionary Council dissolved itself, transferring power to the newly elected People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw). U Ne Win became president of the new Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.

The preamble to the 1974 Constitution states the new socialist republic's commitment to "socialist democracy" and "a socialist economic system." It recognizes only a single political party, the BSPP. The People's Assembly, a unicameral legislature popularly elected for a four-year term, "exercises sovereign power on behalf of the people," although administration is the responsibility of the State Council and the Council of Ministers, both of which it nominates (see Constitutional Framework, ch. 4). Below the national level is a three-tiered administrative structure, encompassing people's councils at the state and division, township, and ward and village-tract levels. The councils are structurally analogous to the national legislature and choose their own executive committees. The different levels are linked through the principle of "local autonomy under central leadership." On the regional level there are seven divisions and seven states, the latter including Karen State, Chin State, Rakhine State, and Mon State, as well as the states created at the time of independence.

The most striking contrast between the 1947 constitution and the 1974 one is the status of the national minorities. The quasi-federal structure and the specifically ethnic character of the states were abolished on the principle, enunciated by U Ne Win at the 1969 Party Seminar, that "our Union is just one homogeneous whole. A Chin, for instance, can go wherever he likes within the Union and stay wherever he likes. So, too, a Burmese [Burman]. Everyone can take part in any of the affairs, whether political, economic, administrative, or judicial. He can choose his own role." Given this assumption, U Ne Win argued, "we will not need to have separate governments within the Union."

During the decade of the 1970s national unity and "socialist democracy" remained elusive goals. In May 1974 there was a strike by oil field workers at Chauk demanding higher wages; the following month far more serious disturbances occurred as workers struck the railroad yard at Insein protesting food shortages and high prices. The strike soon spread to some 42 other state enterprises. Riots followed, and at least 22 persons were killed by police, although unofficial sources give a much higher number.

In December university students and Buddhist monks demonstrated over what they perceived was the government's refusal to give appropriate honors to U Thant, a close associate of U Nu and former United Nations secretary general. On November 25, 1974, former UN Secretary General U Thant died in New York. His body was flown back to Rangoon, where Ne Win had ordered that he be buried without any official honors. On the day of his funeral, December 5, tens of thousands of Burmese came out to pay their respects. Student demonstrators took U Thants coffin and paraded through the streets before the demonstrators buried him on the site of the demolished Rangoon University Students Union. Demonstrations and anti-government speeches continued until December 11, when government troops stormed the campus, killing several students and taking away U Thants coffin to bury it near the Shwedagon Pagoda. There followed riots throughout Rangoon, and students and monks called for the overthrow of "one party dictatorship." Martial law was declared in order to crush the student demonstrations; nine people were killed and some 1,800 arrested. A new law forbidding antistate activities was passed in early 1975. Student protests that broke out in subsequent years were also similarly suppressed.

In July 1976 opposition appeared within the ranks of the military itself as a number of younger army officers plotted a coup d'etat and the assassination of U Ne Win, U San Yu, and Colonel Tin Oo, director general of the powerful National Intelligence Board (see Intelligence Agencies, ch. 5). Members of the coup group were apparently disgruntled over the resignation of another popular military officer, Defense Minister Brigadier General Tin U, in March and were committed to reforming the socialist economic system, which they saw as condemning the country to ever-deepening poverty. They were put on trial in September along with Tin U, who apparently knew of the plot but did not inform the government. The coup leader was condemned to death, and the others were given prison terms.

Insurgency continued, and activities by more than a dozen major groups were recorded in 1977. These occurred in the north and northeastern border regions, where the BCP continued to pose the greatest threat when allied with smaller groups and posed a lesser threat in Rakhine and Mon states. The gradual withdrawal of Chinese support from the BCP Northeastern Command led it to engage more actively in the lucrative opium trade.

A stagnant, high-inflation economy in which growth in GDP barely kept pace with population growth and in which exports declined continued to worry government leaders. In November 1976 the Burma Aid Group had been formed under the auspices of the World Bank. This group, which included Japan, the Western nations, and multilateral lenders, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, approved increased aid for Burma and recommended reform of the socialist economic system.

At the Third Congress of the BSPP in February 1977 there was a purge of the Central Committee, and the socialist economist U Ba Nyein and 40 others were obliged to resign. The congress concluded that the faulty implementation of policy, rather than the "Burmese Way to Socialism," was responsible for the bad state of the economy. BSPP Secretary General U San Yu called for changes in the management of state and cooperative enterprises and better incentives for private producers. He also proposed the acceptance of a greater volume of foreign aid and suggested the possibility of the government's forming joint ventures with foreign firms. The Right of Private Enterprise Law was promulgated in September 1977. It guaranteed against the nationalization of a wide spectrum of sectors until FY 1993, the end of the Twenty-Year Plan. The inflow of foreign aid and investment, the growth of a small-scale private enterprise, and improvements in the state's methods of procuring rice from farmers contributed to an improvement in the economy after the Third Congress in 1977. In the 1978-81 period GDP growth rates averaged 6.2 percent (adjusted).

In February 1978 government officials began registering the Muslim inhabitants of the northern region of Rakhine State, arresting and detaining a number as illegal residents. This caused a panic among the Muslims, resulting in the flight of some 200,000 across the border into neighboring Bangladesh. Fears that the government was embarking on an anti-Muslim policy were quelled after negotiations with Bangladesh were concluded, providing for the repatriation of the refugees. Burmags remaining Indian minority, which included both Muslims and Hindus, looked with some apprehension on the expected passage of a new citizenship law, drafted in 1980, which denied nonindigenous citizens (those whose forebears had not lived in Burma before 1824) certain political and economic rights.

Burma's resignation from the Sixth Nonaligned Summit Conference, held in Havana in September 1979, represented a departure from the country's usual low profile in the international arena, though not from its stated policy of independence and neutrality. The Burmese delegation protested the pro-Soviet orientation of the conference, pushed by Cuba, as a violation of the movement's basic principles. According to Foreign Minister U Mying Maung, "the principles of the Movement are not recognizable any more; they are not merely dim, they are dying... there are those ... who deliberately exploit the Movement to gain their own grand designs".

In the early 1980s Burmese politics showed little or no outward sign of turmoil. Except for the seemingly endless insurgent activities in the frontier areas, the political arena was marked by tranquillity. The military-dominated power structure showed no evidence of internal stress. In May 1980 the government sponsored the First Congregation of the Sangha of All Orders for Purification, Perpetuation, and Propagation of the Sasana, held at Rangoon on the site of U Nu's Sixth World Buddhist Council of 1954-56. The 1,218 representatives of the various sangha communities agreed to establish a new institutional structure for the monkhood that would promote order and self-discipline and prevent imposters from infiltrating. An ecclesiastical court system was also revived. Some observers considered the congregation as the beginning of a new relationship between the state and sangha, similar to that which existed under the Burmese kings. Although the government did not abandon the principle of the separation of church and state embodied in the 1974 Constitution, it was perceived that U Ne Win, now an old man, was taking on the aura of a traditional Burmese ruler and patron of Buddhism. Thus he ordered the construction of a new pagoda, to contain Buddhist relics donated by the king of Nepal, near the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

On May 28, 1980, the government announced a general amnesty to last 90 days. It also established an honorary order, the Naing-Ngant Gon-Yi, to be given to those who had participated in the independence struggle, including opponents of the government who took advantage of the amnesty. A cash award for these now-aging heroes was also established. On July 29 U Nu returned to Burma under the amnesty's terms, saying that he would devote the remainder of his years to religious scholarship. In August 1981 at the Fourth Congress of the BSPP, U Ne Win announced his plan to retire as president following the October elections to the People's Assembly. He was succeeded after the election by U San Yu, former BSPP general secretary, although he retained his post as leader of the BSPP.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, there was general discontent with the disintegrating state of the economy. Ne Win retired as President in 1981 but retained control of the BSPP. Much speculation centered on the related questions of post-U Ne Win leadership and the dimensions of possible policy shits when the aging senior party official finally stepped down. In the meantime there was little doubt that U Ne Win enjoyed a considerable measure of popular support despite the authoritarian methods of his regime. The style of his rule was not "out of keeping with traditional models of political authority in Burma and, whatever the case, many Burmese were grateful that their country remained independent and, unlike Afghanistan or Vietnam, had not been drawn into the orbit of superpower conflict.

But by the late 1980s, the "Burmese way to Socialism" had induced serious economic decay. Efforts to repair the economy by lifting import restrictions and cutting public spending slowed growth, but not inflation. On 03 November 1985, the 25, 50, and 100 Kyat notes were demonetized without warning, though the public was allowed to exchange limited amounts of the old notes for new ones. All other denominations then in circulation remained legal tender. Ne Win was also known for employing a mixture of superstition and mysticism, which sometimes led to bizarre policies being introduced. On 10 November 1985, 75 Kyat notes were introduced, the odd denomination possibly chosen because of dictator Ne Win's predilection for numerology; the 75 Kyat note was supposedly introduced to commemorate his 75th birthday. It was followed by the introduction of 15 and 35 Kyat notes on August 1, 1986.

In 1987, the head of state Ne Win admitted in a television speech that mistakes had been made in his 25 years in power and that constitutional changes must be made "in order to keep abreast with the times". On September 5, 1987 General Ne Win replaced the 75, 35 and 25 currency notes (Kyat in Burmese) with new currency notes, 45 and 90, instantly wiping out the savings of millions as currencies of all other values became worthless overnight. Ne Win was advised to consider 9 as lucky number by his astrologer. The equation of 4+5 and 9+0 = 9. But General Ne Win's decision to replace newly currency made the economic crisis in the country worse. People were suffering more and more because of the government changing the currency.

In early 1988, years of frustration with the disintegrating economy finally came to a head when massive student demonstrations and riots occurred in many parts of Burma. In March 1988, the police and the military clamped down on student actions, leading to dozens of civilian deaths. Demonstrations continued from March through June 1988. Students were joined by Buddhist monks and workers. The military continued to respond with brutal tactics, and hundreds of civilians were arrested. Many suffered severe injuries or died from ill-treatment in detention. Many people were arbitrarily or summarily executed. On 23 July 1988 Ne Win announced his resignation as BSPP Chairman. His resignation in 1988, however, did not see him exit from the political scene as he continued to exert considerable background influence. He remained the most important political figure in the country for some years, and is thought to retain considerable influence. It was only in the 1990s that his influence waned as he became older and more reclusive.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:46 ZULU