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1962 Military Coup in Burma

On 2 March 1962, General Ne Win, Chief of Staff, Burma Defense Forces, overthrew the Government of Premier U Nu in a swift bloodless coup d’etat. The Union Revolutionary Council (URC) which was established by General Ne Win to act as an interim government, has declared that it intends to continue a “neutral” foreign policy. This declaration of a neutral foreign policy follows the same pattern of the previous coup led by General Win in October 1958. In the previous 1958 caretaker government, General Ne Win did not shift radically from U Nu’s neutralist policies. However, General Ne Win did rescind U Nu’s cut-off of U.S. economic assistance and agreed to accept American aid for specific purposes.

The coup began on March 2 at 7 a.m. with the police and army securing Rangoon. At 8:50 a.m., General Ne Win announced that the army had taken control in light of the “deteriorating” situation. The US Department of State hesitated to extend recognition to the new regime. After concluding that the new government was in effective control, had the acquiescence of the people, and seemed able to discharge its international obligations and maintain friendly relations, the United States informed the new Burmese Government of its desire to maintain cordial relations.

The period from 1948 to 1962 Burma suffered widespread conflict and internal struggle. Constitutional disputes and persistent division among political and social groups contributed to the democratic government's weak hold on power. In 1958, the military was invited in temporarily by Prime Minister U Nu to restore political order. Civilian power was resorted 18 months later. But rebellions by Burma's minorities continued and there was also opposition to U Nu's plan to make Buddhism the state religion. In 1962 General Ne Win led a coup abolishing the constitution and establishing a xenophobic military government with socialist economic priorities. The Myanmar Socialist Program party was made the only legal political organization.

Beginning in the 1920s, and increasingly in the late 1930s, Western educated Burmese were allowed to participate to some degree in government decision making. These concessions came in response to nationalist agitation.

Popular elections to choose indigenous members for the legislature were introduced, and the colonial government embarked on a program designed to lead to eventual self-government for Burma. The initial experiment with Western parliamentary institutions under British tutelage was cut short by World War II. Early Japanese victories expelled the British from the country. This encouraged Burmese nationalism, especially after 1943, when the Japanese established a nominally independent Burmese government.

Within two years after the end of the war, Great Britain agreed to restore independence to Burma. The independent republic, the Union of Burma, came into being on January 4, 1948. The nationalist leadership of independent Burma was determined to rid the country of foreign influences, a determination first expressed in the 1947 decision to take the country out of the British Commonwealth. Efforts were made also to rid the economy of foreign dominance and to set up a welfare state along Marxist lines. A political system of parliamentary democracy, however, was to be followed, and the monarchy was not revived.

Shortly before independence day, the new nation suffered the loss of some af its ablest leaders through assassination. Other critical problems faced the new government were the result of ethnic group friction, ideological differences among the politicized elite, and severe economic difficulties. Constitutional means were abandoned by the government's opposition, and civil war began. During its first two years, the survival of the Union of Burma was at issue. The nadir was reached in mid-1949.

Although insurgencies and economic difficulties continued to trouble the country in the 1950 sand 1960s, the threat to the continued existence of the nation from internal upheaval was never as serious as in the first two years of independence. Parliamentary democracy did not survive, however.

After a decade of civilian rule had failed to provide effective government, the armed forces under General Ne Win established first a temporary caretaker regime, at the invitation of Parliament; in March 1962, after a brief interval of civilian rule, Ne Win returned to power by means of a military coup. General Ne Win's regime, called the Revolutionary Government of the Union of Burma (RGUB), promptly dissolved Parliament and began to rule by decree.

Postcolonial leaders, such as General Aung San and U Nu, had brief moments of success in bringing the new nation together in some kind of common cause, but at the edges of the country and within ethnic minorities in the deltas and the cities there was no lasting consensus. Even in the flush of independence, communist and secessionist leaders were planning divisive campaigns. In 1961 the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion in an Asian democracy provoked the minorities to rebel, which was used as one of the justifications for the military coup in 1962.

General Ne Win stated that one of his reasons for the latest coup was to check the disintegration of Burma. It would appear that General Ne Win was not only referring to the serious economic problems caused in part by the Government of U Nu but to the increasing demands of Burma ethnic minorities for a federal type government. General Ne Win has viewed skeptically U Nu’s handling of the ethnic minorities demand for a federal form of government which if approved would have made Burma proper a constituent state on a par with the other minority states within Burma.

The Burmese Army feared that the National Seminar on Federalism which was attended by all minorities and political parties was reaching a point where U Nu may have felt compelled to make concessions to the minorities or face the possibility of the secession of the Shan States from Burma. Also, the Burma Army was aware of Shan and Karen insurgent overtures to the Thai and Lao Governments for assistance in their independence struggle with Burma. The possibility of an outbreak of general rebellion in the ethnic minority areas of Burma against the Burmese Army is greatly increased by the Burmese Army’s position on the “Federal Form of Government” issue.

The first coup d’etat by General Ne Win in 1958 had the approval of U Nu and therefore the “caretaker government” of Ne Win had the support of many civil administrators and civil servants which ordinarily the military regime could not have depended upon. However, the 1962 coup did not have the sanction of U Nu and the new interim government experienced difficulties in finding qualified administrators who will carry out effectively the proposed policies of the new government. This problem was further compounded by the fact that most of the “purged” military officers now in diplomatic “exile”, who had occupied prominent posts in the earlier caretaker government and generally demonstrated administrative competence, were considered to be some of the most competent administrators within the Burmese Armed Forces.

The government and politics were under the control of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), or Lanzin, as the organization was called in Burmese. Founded by the military as a political instrument after it seized power in a coup in 1962, the BSPP's aim was to establish "a socialist demo cratic state" based on a set of guiding principles initially identified as "The Burmese Way to Socialism." In this socialist state the welfare of peasants and workers was to be promoted as a major national priority. The most dominant figure in the BSPP's effort to create a new Burma was U Ne Win, who had led the 1962 coup and headed the all-military Revolutionary Council until 1974 when military rule was replaced by a new system of rule under the Constitution of 1974. His current four-year stewardship as chairman of the ruling party will expire in 1985 — barring unfore seen circumstances.

The BSPP was mandated, under the Constitution of 1974, "to lead the State." As "the sole political party" of the nation, it continued to provide the only lawful channel through which the masses of the people could express their political sentiments. Any attempts to undermine the BSPP in all its manifestations were banned under a law promulgated in November 1974. As a result, competitive politics in a conventional sense were not manifest in Burma. The political scene was calm, as had been the case since the mid-1970s. Principal actors in the pre-1962 parliamentary politics faded from the public arena because of old age, the government's political crackdown, and the dominance of the military-led BSPP.

Students were once active as protesters, as were some Buddhist monks, but given the successful government effort to depoliticize them, there were no reports of unrest among students and monks after the mid-1970s. Participation in antigovernment activities was made difficult by a measure whereby anyone criticizing the government's leadership in any form would be subject to arrest. There was also an extensive network of neighborhood surveillance developed initially as part of a counterinsurgency campaign. All mass media were owned and operated by the government, thus effectively denying would-be dissidents any means of expressing their political grievances in public.

The coup leaders labored to create a national party system and to fashion a socialist, military-led mandala. On paper the system bespeaks success ful bureaucratic party control over every section of the country. One thousand years of Burmese history, however, suggest that in practice, such conclusions may be subject to challenge. In the early 1980s the center was Rangoon, and the Burmans, backed by military power, dominated the Burma Socialist Pro gramme Party (BSPP — see Glossary) hierarchy. Despite organiza tional charts that show a rationally unified country balancing seven divisions— containing mostly Burmans — with seven states featuring various minority peoples, true unity remained elusive.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:38:48 ZULU