‘Building a New Burma’

By The Irrawaddy 18 July 2017

The devastation of World War II was just a few years in the past and independence for Burma was almost within grasp when Bogyoke Aung San addressed the country’s deep economic challenges in a speech that still carries bitter-sweet resonances today. The ideas that emerged at the event in Yangon which became known as the Sorrento Villa Conference went on to become the basis of independent Burma’s first economic development plan.

We meet here today to work together in planning for the rehabilitation of Burma. We are concerned more with immediate recovery, at this stage, than with long-term planning. I have noticed that there is a general feeling of defeatism in tackling the many problems that face the nation. That is not due to any laziness or apathy on the part of the people. Rather it comes from the attitude that the Government must draw up the plans and take the initiative, and the people must follow. Let us, therefore, draft the plans and get the people moving. The opportunity is ours to lead.

We must draft comprehensive and coordinated plans, and this may take us several weeks of ceaseless endeavor; those of you who may have been planning holidays should postpone them. Our one objective is to restore and revitalize the national economy without delay. This, we must appreciate, is a matter of extreme urgency.

The plans we draft must be practical, and flexible enough to adjust themselves to the circumstances and the needs as they go along. Also, let us remember all the time that we must plan for the common man. We must take his viewpoint and not that of expert. People are apt to be awed by expert opinion. I have met many experts in many fields. They are useful people but they are not infallible. Experts are human, after all, and their opinions can be wrong. Commonsense and experience, in addition to expert opinion, must guide us in our work.

Let me also utter a word of warning about statistics. They can be helpful and informative, but some statistics are produced in support of certain theories. We must be able to use statistics intelligently, and to do that we must know how and why certain statistics are gathered and produced, and then interpret them correctly.

We must take first things first. We should agree on the priorities and take up the subjects in the proper order. In fixing priorities, we must forget our own prejudices and pet ideas.

We must also be wary of routine procedures and routine thinking. Procedures are prescribed for efficiency, but when they become obsolete they may produce the reverse effect. When that happens, they must be revised or abolished. The same applies to thinking. We must not try to think alike, act alike and speak alike. Routine thinking is wasteful.

Our plans should be simple and practical, and they should not be over-ambitious. In our eagerness we may fall into the error of wanting to accomplish too much in too short a time. Let us go forward step by step. By that I do not mean we must be slow and cautious. Maybe, sometimes, we can take two or three steps forward together, but let us be sure that we have at least one foot on firm earth.

When we plan our economy, do not let us confuse issues by bringing in politics. I appreciate that economics and politics are intimately connected, but let us keep politics out for the moment. Let us not indulge in attacks on imperialism; let us not look for excuses. Things have changed now. Our destiny is in our hands, and it will serve no useful purpose to blame imperialism for every ill the country suffers from.

Broadly speaking, our plans must aim at reducing the cost of living, reducing or getting rid of unemployment, the improvement of transport and communications, housing, education, and public health, the reorganization of the administration, and the restoration of law and order.

The cost of living is high because we are having to pay for non-essential goods. We must, therefore, stop or reduce imports of such goods. The purchase of such goods from foreign countries is a drain on the country’s wealth and causes imbalance in the import and export trade. The people must get their primary needs, but they should not be permitted to indulge in luxury. We should also consider rationing, a measure which some countries still retain two years after the end of the war. The unpopularity of rationing is to a large part due to its association in the minds of people with profiteering and black-marketeering, and we should be able to devise means to suppress those unlawful and immoral activities. With proper rationing, we should also be able to save goods for export, and export alone can earn us a favorable balance of payment.

Cooperative organizations should be encouraged. Such organizations failed in the past because they did not have the support of the people. Where they could identify themselves with the interests of the people, they flourished. We will probably need to consider having inspectors to see that Co-operatives are properly run, and we should arrange for the distribution of information and intelligence regarding the Co-operatives.

We must devise means to prevent the flight of capital. We must encourage savings so that the need to borrow from foreign countries will be obviated as far as possible. We spend large amounts of foreign exchange in buying such things as vegetable oil, onions, and such items. We must grow and produce them at home to meet our needs.

Unemployment is a national evil and must be cured by drastic measures. We cannot leave it to the free play of economic forces; the Government must step in. We must step in. We must solve the problem by manpower planning on a national scale.

Transport and communications are poor in the country. I do not need to emphasize the great need for their improvement. Extending them in and with Arakan and the frontier areas must be a task of first priority.

The needs in housing are also acute. We must build government offices, schools, hospitals, and such for the general welfare, and public housing for the poor. Immediate needs may call for temporary arrangements, but temporary affairs in housing are often the least satisfactory, as sights in the city of Rangoon will prove.

Education is also a priority, but we cannot yet think in terms of compulsory education. We must, however, increase the number of technical schools and encourage vocational and technical education. We should publish more books on popular education in Burmese and we should set up a translation department to do that. We should send out more state scholars, but the students we send must be fully qualified, and on their return they must make their contribution in the reconstruction of the country. The subjects and fields for their study and training must be chosen carefully with that object in view, and the students must be guaranteed jobs and useful employment when they return.

Public health is another subject on our list. Prevention is better than cure, and we must plan for cleaner and healthier conditions of life for the people, promote health education, and improve and expand the training of doctors, nurses, and public health officers.

In the reorganization of the administration, there are two things I must draw your attention to. First, many departments are overstaffed or even unnecessary. We must check carefully and retrench, or abolish the unnecessary departments. We must review the fitness of personnel who are holding jobs, and those who are found of personnel who are holding jobs, and those who are found unfit must be removed. Second, we need to make the administration more popular. The Government is considering plans to form advisory councils in the districts and the towns, and these may render the administration more popular, clean and efficient and less expensive. With the people directly participating in the administration, by discussion and personal contacts, red-tapism should also end.

I have put law and order last on my list not because it is not an important subject but because it is linked with every question and every problem we take up. We cannot, therefore, tackle the question of law and order separately at all; it will come in when we consider transport and communications, trade and business, agricultural production.

When we have drafted our plans and come to the point where we look for money, we must be businesslike. We will never be able to find enough money for all our projects. So, the realistic and businesslike thing to do will be to find what we can and allocate it intelligently, giving more to those plans which need and deserve more, less to those which need and deserve less, and none at all to those which do not call for any spending.

Let me end by reminding you of an old way of ours, the classic way of getting things done, namely the people’s way of self-help and mutual cooperation. We must resurrect this classic way and stir and inspire the people to work together in the building of a New Burma.

The above excerpts are taken from Aung San’s inaugural speech delivered on 6 June, 1947, at a Yangon convention of national leaders in economics and government to draft plans for the rehabilitation of then-Burma. The excerpts are taken from the book Aung San of Burma, compiled and edited by Maung Maung, Yale University, 1962.