Burma: In Exile

Aung San Suu Kyi has been rightfully recognized as the champion of nonviolence, democracy and free speech, but her celebrity stature has unfortunately overshadowed the revolutionary legacies of Burmese politics. At a time when the unabated political imprisonment of her country itself should deserve far greater attention than one individual, the inordinate adulations surrounding Suu Kyi have played right into the hands of the adversaries of the ideals once set forth by her father, Burma’s cherished leader, U Aung San.

When Aung San Suu Kyi emerged in the political scene following the Four Eights Uprising, she was accepted in Burma solely because she was the daughter of Aung San. “I’m doing this for my father,” she had said in 1988. “I’m quite happy that they see me as my father’s daughter. My only concern is that I prove worthy of him.”

Her emerging worthy is necessary to ensure a progressive future for Burma. Unfortunately, she has instead allowed herself to be used as a poster child for an illusive form of political democracy in a land impoverished in every conceivable way. Her resounding success in bagging international awards belies the realities, and necessities of an enduringly suffering Burma. Even as she is released from her much observed house arrest, her country continues to suffer from its much neglected political exile.

A country lives in political exile when its history is deliberately distorted to suit oppressive ruling class interests. Burma’s history is often told through western imperialistic lens that has extolled those who have surrendered their revolutionary rights. And considering Burma’s heritage of anti-imperialistic struggles, most of what comprises public knowledge today require critical reconsiderations.

Than Tun, Aung San and the foundation of modern-day Burma:

Considered the father of modern-day Union of Burma, Aung San was not a pro-democracy pacifist, but a staunch revolutionary, a military leader, founder of Burmese Army and a radical communist. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) that brought about Burma’s independence through revolutionary struggles.

Anti-British, anti-imperialist, strike organizer, co-founder of People’s Revolutionary Party, Aung San was inspired by, and was working directly under the instructions of radical poet-activist, Stalin Peace Prize recipient Kodaw Hmaing. The only other person who influenced Aung San was his brother-in-law Than Tun, who was also a committed communist. Than Tun was so uncompromising in his radicalism that he had refused to accept any British terms of freedom grants. His stance was squarely opposed to the Burmese Prime Minister of the colonial era, U Saw, who wanted Churchill’s favor in gaining dominion status for Burma for his own political aspirations.

Aung San, Than Tun along with U Nu were the three steadfast communists who demanded unconditional and complete independence for Burma. Aung San famously proclaimed in Delhi that freedom could come to Burma through both violent and non-violent struggles and that he was “hoping for the best but he was prepared for the worst”. After years of freedom struggles on part of Burmese revolutionaries and the “Thirty Comrades”, Aung San had succeeded in procuring a written agreement from Clement Attlee towards that effect.

Although Aung San was the most prolific, he was not necessarily the most acceptable leader for Burma. Power politics of the feudal/colonial era manifested their ugly heads from time to time and it was precisely to keep his country’s interest above his own, that Aung San agreed to preside over a united umbrella of progressive forces called Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League(AFPFL). Naturally mired with differences of strategies, being a broader coalition, AFPFL was soon getting dominated by socialist forces. Than Tun was expelled from AFPFL and U Nu struggled to keep the communists together within the association while Aung San was killed by British forces aided by U Saw.

U Nu, Ne Win and CIA Interventions:

U Nu became the first Prime Minister of independent Burma much to the rejoice of Burmese people and U Saw was executed on charges of assassinating Aung San. However U Nu’s communistic past and future plans alerted the CIA. The newly independent Burma was to become the launching site of battleground for CIA to make inroads into China. Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang) after fleeing from Mao’s communistic victory regrouped themselves in Burma. CIA hoped to kill two birds with one stone. Thousands of troops and airdrops from American C46s and C47s crossed borders into Yunnan province. By the end of 1952, Taiwan claimed to have killed 41,000 communists. U Nu was obviously worried that without Chinese communists helping Burma, his country was going to be further devastated by American interventions. Burma pleaded to the US and to United Nations that the Chinese Nationalists leave Burmese territory immediately. Chiang Kai-shek threatened to expose CIA’s role in covertly supporting anti-communist mobilization efforts if the US gave in to Burma’s demands. On its part, CIA hoped China would attack Burma since the source of anti-communist resurgence was being orchestrated from there, and that the communists would therefore eliminate each other in such a war. Instead, in January 1961, under the leadership of U Nu, Burmese communists supported the Chinese communists to attack the Taiwanese military after they gathered the necessary intelligence. CIA’s first attempt at destabilizing Burma vis-a-vis China dramatically failed. Burma formally renounced American aid, and moved closer to Peking.

Burma’s official support for Mao’s China was not welcomed by either the Western capitalists or the de-Stalinizing revisionists from the left. Mao himself was vocally disapproving of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” and taking cues from the distrusts between China and the USSR, several communist countries faced new challenges. Many “socialists” emerged to topple the Stalinists/Communists. One of the most virulently anticommunist leaders from Burma, Ne Win was endorsed by the western world to seize power in Burma through the military coup of 1962. Ne Win was a British agent in Burma in charge of the anti-communist operations in Pyinmana during anti-colonial freedom struggle. Soon after Aung San was killed and the communists expelled from AFPFL, Ne Win climbed the military ladder and attempted elimination of his rival communist commanders, including Bo Zeya, of the Thirty Comrades, who went underground and formed Revolutionary Burma Army.

With Ne Win by their side, western media declared that this military dictatorship was absolutely fine since “parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma”. Ne Win targeted communists throughout Burma and when Rangoon University student movement protested against Ne Win, he ordered them killed and had the student union building destroyed. From 1962 to 1988, Ne Win continued to rule over Burma and converted the country into the “least developed country” in the world. During these two decades, the communists went underground and U Nu managed to escape Burma. In exile, U Nu declared himself in London as the “legal Prime Minister” of Burma in 1969.

Although it is fashionable today to decry Ne Win as a dictator, for all his reigning period, he was widely accepted as legitimate leader of Burma in the West. When U Nu addressed a press conference in London to declare that he was still the legal Prime Minister of Burma, his pleadings were hardly acknowledged. The Western world continued to recognize Ne Win’s Burma while continuing to not recognize Mao’s China, as a result of which U Nu had to return to Burma to wage his own revolution. It was not until 1987 that U Nu prominently could reappear on the political landscape of Burma with the revolutionary Four Eights Uprising.

Rise and the Fall of 8888 Uprisings:

The spectacular 8888 Uprising was among the greatest of mass movements in recent histories. Thousands of people from all walks of life gathered to fight Ne Win regime and students attacked the military with swords, knives, rocks, poisoned darts. People burned down police stations and tore apart fleeing officers. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Burmese peoples’ movement that had all the makings of a communistic revolution. Around a time when European communism was on the verge of collapse, Burma was responding not with flowers and songs, but with armed resistance reminiscent of the communist freedom struggle against the British.

Only after hundreds of thousands of radical activists were imprisoned all over the country in a revolutionary movement that could have significantly turned the political tides in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi who by mere accident happened to be present in Burma upon a visit to her ailing mother, helped ease the unrest through emotional appeal to the masses. Being the daughter of Aung San, she enjoyed unparalleled access and love of Burmese people. And yet she chose to swiftly calm down the agitators. With western liberal education backing her idealism, she urged upon a long oppressed people of Burma to embrace peace through nonviolence, a luxury most Burmese people simply could not afford.

Aung San Suu Kyi did one more thing which often goes unreported. She – like the Western world – rejected the leadership of U Nu as legitimate. U Nu even approached her to support him in forming an interim government following the 8888 Uprising, but to no avail. U Nu then went on to form his own ‘government’ reappointing Mahn Win Maung as President since Maung was overthrown in the military coup of 1962. Why Aung San Suu Kyi did not lend support to U Nu is not often discussed because of the extremely favorable opinion the western world has of the Nobel laureate so long as she does not steer the direction of Burma’s polity into communistic future. But it is no longer a secret that in the power tussle promises, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) founder Saw Maung had promised to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy after elections. And it was no mere coincidence that Saw Maung repeatedly harassed U Nu with an aim to formally abolish his interim government.

A comeback on part of U Nu would have resulted in resurgence of progressive nationalism in Burma. It would have heralded the return of Aung San’s communistic legacies, of Kodaw Hmaing’s revolutionary visions. Instead what happened in Burma following 8888 Uprising was a sabotage of the revolution through political opportunism and peace doublespeak. A brutal army general Saw Maung who was chief of staff for Sein Lwin after Ne Win handed over his power to Lwin (the ‘butcher of Burma’ responsible for student union massacre of 1962 resulting in 130 student deaths) was trusted by Aung San Suu Kyi, while U Nu, the visionary progressive revolutionary of Burmese people was rejected outrightly. What happened was in the name of anti-military pacifism, Aung San Suu Kyi continued to receive international awards, and democracy kept getting defined by the western world monitors.

Uneasy is the Future:

Even while the greatest Burmese statesman of the day U Nu was forced to live in exile, it was Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest that drew international sympathies. Even as Kyaw Zaw (the commander who defeated the Kuomintang in 1949) of the Thirty Comrades continues to live in exile in China addressing Burmese people to realign themselves with the Communist Party of Burma, the world media focuses solely on the multiparty democracy rhetoric as the alternative.

Merely the celebrity status of a pacifist leader cannot transform a country that has been kept deliberately bereft of the knowledge of its peoples’ history. For Suu Kyi to truly become worthy of her father’s legacies, she needs perhaps to understand why Emma Goldman might not have stretched it too far when she said, “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.” And here is the consequent irony: Burma celebrating electoral democracy while Kyaw Zaw lives in exile and U Nu in anonymity is certainly a victory for the globally recognized Suu Kyi, but a resounding defeat for the anti-imperialist Aung San.

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)


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