Burma’s Modern History: What If…

By David I. Steinberg 11 November 2016

The landscape has changed, roads have been realigned, traffic has exploded, and security increased. So what transpired back then may seem improbable today; it was nevertheless true…

It must have been early morning about 65 years ago.  I was in Rangoon on my way in my Land Rover to my office from my residence next to the Buddhist monastery at the end of Dubern Road.  There were few cars in those days and no printed signs or limits on the dirt road, so one felt quite free to speed. As I approached the main north-south road to town, Prome Road as it was called in those days, Dubern Road merged in a v-shaped arc with Ady Road to its south.  At the end of Ady Road, General Ne Win had an impressive mansion on Inya Lake.

Ne Win was driving alone in a little Fiat, which in those days was quite popular among some of the military. Driving far too fast, we both reached the intersection of the two roads at the same time, and I had to slam very hard on my brakes to avoid a crash.  My large Land Rover would have cut the Fiat in half, and General Ne Win, who was to become the most important, and deleterious, influence on Burma in the twentieth century, would have gone to whatever reincarnation was awaiting him. And then he had not yet had time to build his own pagoda.

I am not sure whether the general realized his near miss, for he drove on, but I was shaken for what I almost did, and it took me a few moments to recover, for I had immediately recognized him as the driver. No doubt if the accident had occurred, I would not have survived to write this; the U.S. Embassy instructions in Rangoon to Americans involved in traffic accidents in which people were hurt were not to stop but to go to the nearest police station because mob violence against the driver was likely to follow. The only other certainty in this imagined scenario was that this crash would have been followed by strident anti-American demonstrations and the charges that this was an imperialist CIA plot to remove Burma from its relatively harmonious (paukpaw-sibling) relationship with communist China—a close relationship in those days because of the border settlement of 1960, and that lasted until the anti-Chinese riots of 1967, when the Chinese Cultural Revolution was exported to Burma. The left wing was alive and well in Burma in those days.

What If…

Speculations on “what if…” may be an amusing parlor game, but they also can force us to consider alternatives to reality and how events might have been different or the same.  And in this case, what effect would a change in personal leadership have had on Burmese history? What would have happened to the civilian U Nu government, politically plural if not quite democratic, if Ne Win had not ended his rule with the March 1962 coup? Would Burma have managed to avoid the already strong centrifugal ethnic forces that might destroy the fragile multicultural unity of the state?  Would the economy have gone rigidly socialist? Would the lives of the various peoples of Burma been better? How would the military have fared under different leadership? And would Burma’s international relations have changed from neutralism?

It may be too simplistic to say that leaders make history, so we need not adhere to Caryle’s Hero and Hero Worship thesis. Leaders do influence history, but history also makes or influences leaders.  In Burma’s case, we are on slippery intellectual ground to made firm distinctions. Yet if this seems impossible, consideration of some of the issues might provide insight into continuing Burmese problems.

These questions, thus, cannot easily be answered, not just because attempting to be a soothsayer gets one placed into a very low circle of hell, according to Dante, but because all of these critical issues are so intertwined that their intellectual separation is both undesirable and impossible.  Was Ne Win, for example, really a socialist who, through the Buddhist tinged doctrine The Burmese Way to Socialism and the military-dominated Burma Socialist Programme Party, inaugurated a rigidly disastrous economic system that led not just to stagnation but to decay? Or would more moderate forces have prevailed, since Burma was a moderate democratic socialist state attempting to avoid internal and international communist affiliation?

Yet as one former military member of his Revolutionary Council told me, “Ne Win will be a socialist when Mao Zetong learns to play golf.” There were ardent, zealous socialists within the military and civilian sectors, and without Ne Win might a more Soviet-style approach to communal agriculture have resulted in even more disastrous economic policies?

A Theory

Perhaps the most credible theory relates to the tatmadaw (military). Ne Win was unique in his control, for he approved every senior appointment, and the leadership was generally loyal to him. His senior officers and his successor came from the 4th Burma Rifles, which he commanded. His word was law, and no other officer could approach his reach.  Brigadier Aung Gyi, his second in command, had served under Ne Win, but was not owed the scope of loyalty so evident in Ne Win’s case.  Aung Gyi was far less rigid than Ne Win, and might have pursued a more moderate economic course, but he probably could not have held the military together in a time of potential civil war among Burmans. There were a few other brigadiers who held more orthodox Marxist views, and at least one more conservative. In private conversations, Ne Win is said to have disparaged both minorities and foreigners. Yet ethnic minority officers were prominent members of his senior military—later purged by his successor military leaders. One daughter married into the Shan Kengtung sawbwa (maharajah) family—an occurrence with Burmese royal historical roots.

U Nu had run a democratically elected moderate socialist government under the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League, a loose confederation of national and localized interests with strong personalities among its leadership. It had splintered leading to the first, constitutional coup of 1958 to prevent civil war at that time. In spite of many talented individuals, its bureaucracy was not equal to its task. U Nu’s opposition leaders U Kyaw Nyein and U Ba Swe did not have the charisma of U Nu.

There was also a strong third force—the above-ground left that commanded some one-third of the 1950s vote.  The military has always felt the danger of “chaos” and that only the communists would benefit if the military did not exert control. The Burma Communist Party at that time was in central Burma, and although they could not gain control themselves, could there have been an alliance between the above-ground and underground left that might have taken over the central government (probably increasing minority dissatisfaction with the Union)?

A devout Buddhist, U Nu seemed to search for spiritual answers to practical problems when he was returned to power in a free election in 1960; he advocated building 60,000 sand pagodas to save the state. Against the advice of General Ne Win, he ran for election on the platform of making Buddhism the state religion—an immensely popular stance among Burmans but highly unpopular among some minorities, especially the Kachin, whom Ne Win predicted would revolt. Without a unified, strong military leader, political chaos would seem to have been on the horizon; the ethnic fracturing of the state had earlier begun, but quickened and intensified.

The Coup of 1962

Would Burma have held together under a civilian U Nu or other Burman leader? Ne Win’s coup of 1962 was ostensibly to stave off greater authority given to ethnic areas, which the military felt would lead to the secession that some ethnic groups had demanded. And the military’s primary ideological mantra was always the unity of the state. Would granting increased ethnic authority and some form of federal structure have prevented or stemmed decades of ethnic conflict that followed and that Senior General Saw Maung proclaimed cost a million lives since independence? Would, or could, the civilians or a more enlightened military absent Ne Win been able to hold the state together and might have solidified the national unity that is still lacking?  One might argue that without a strong, authoritarian military center, Burma would have fallen into unstable ethnic satraps with disputed boundaries.

Capitalism was in retreat in Burma in those days, and even if Ne Win had been absent, it seems unlikely at that time that a more open economic system would have prevailed. Legitimacy was in part predicated on some form of state control over much of the economy, for exploitation during the colonial period and by minority Indians (all from the subcontinent) and Chinese prompted highly nationalistic reactions that were evident in the economic sector.

Would the lives of the various peoples of Burma have improved without Ne Win?  The bureaucracy could not deal effectively with even a moderate socialist economy, and one might argue that left to their own devices, there might have been marginal improvement in agricultural production, but the state still played a major controlling force through its credit and marketing roles.

It seems likely that Burma’s foreign policy would have remained neutral and balanced, perhaps without the extremes of anti-U.S. attitudes that Ne Win on occasion illustrated. Burma seems likely to have eschewed either Eastern or Western “camps.”

Concepts of Power and Authority

More abstractly, and perhaps more germane to the present, how much was Ne Win simply reflective of the personalized, centralized concepts of power and authority that characterized Burmese monarchical history. Or did he bring a special brand of authority (and authoritarianism) to his position?  And how much was it a product not of himself, but the way in which his followers treated him and, by their subservience, essentially authorizing his use of personal power? The issue is not simply one of historical speculation, for Senior General Than Shwe (r. 1992-2010) was treated in much the same way as Ne Win.  We have yet to see how much pluralistic, representative governance in the current era will affect concepts of personalized power both in the leadership, and those around any leader of Myanmar. This is an issue of some moment.

To this writer, General Ne Win was the most towering presence in Burma/Myanmar since independence.  He was also the most destructive political and economic force Burma faced since 1948. But in spite of inaugurating a disastrous single-party totalitarian socialist system on an eastern European model, in spite of almost whimsical and misguided shifts in policy and preferences, sometimes reportedly based on astrological and numerological calculations, and in spite of degrading what should have been the richest country in Southeast Asia, he seems to have held the country together—albeit at gunpoint.  It is more than optimistic to call that even an ephemeral success, for his fall from grace produced a period of abuses by the very military he honed and promoted and that rivaled his own detrimental proclivities. The vice in which he held together the state prompted more violent calls for its release, as in the failed peoples’ revolution of 1988. One gun can easily replace another, which is of course what happened. But governments that are held together at gunpoint often end in disruption when the gun becomes unloaded.

One could argue that if we were to consider the aftermath of the potential death of General Ne Win in 1961, might we also want to consider the alternatives to the assassination of General Aung San in July 1947—before Burmese independence. What might have occurred had he become the first prime minister of the newly independent state? The aura and reverence in which he is now held precludes automatically attaching those emotions to his pre-independence role.  He had advocated an unspecified form of federalism at the Panglong Conference of 12 February 1947, and had some form been instituted, many lives might have been saved.  But he had also believed that Burma needed a single-party state. He has become a mythic figure in modern Burmese history; his heritage is important but speculation on what might have been his potential role remains unclear.


How will history treat Ne Win?  Probably not too well, not only for what he did, and what he neglected (the wellbeing of his own peoples), but because he epitomized the problem of the personalization of power. Yet today, one fears not “what if…” but that this personalization has only become further ingrained in Burmese governance.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University, and the author of numerous works on Burma.