The Modern Nation, The Ne Win Regime
new citizenship law, original races, Myanmar people, army coup, U Thant
During the 1960s and 1970s Ne Win attempted to build an effective totalitarian government, establish legitimacy with the Myanmar people, and maintain autonomy on the world scene. The military Revolutionary Council, which was established after the 1962 coup, abolished independent political parties; independent newspapers were also banned, being replaced by a single paper, The Working People’s Daily. The military leaders formed the Burmese Socialist Program Party and nationalized the economy through a plan called the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Students protesting in the early months of the revolutionary government were shot with machine guns and the Yangon University Student Union building, where the Thakin movement had been launched decades before, was dynamited. During the radical first dozen years foreign contacts were curbed. Tourist visas were limited to 24 hours, foreign newspaper reporters were barred, and most foreign assistance was terminated. The economy declined as the consumer goods distribution system became mired in chaos (leading to a booming black market) and agricultural production fell. A combination of urban food shortages and the spillover from China’s Cultural Revolution ignited strikes and anti-Chinese riots, compelling a rethinking of economic policy. Following modest liberalization of trade, a raising of the official price paid peasants for their rice, and the acceptance of international aid for fertilizer and other technical improvements, the economy recovered marginally.
A new constitution was put into effect in 1974, transferring power by referendum and single-party election from the military Revolutionary Council to a People’s Assembly, commanded by Ne Win and other former military leaders. Student strikes still erupted at intervals, as when U Thant, a political figure of the constitutional democracy period and former UN secretary general, died and was returned to Myanmar for burial in 1974.
Ethnic insurrections, which broke out in the Kachin and Shan states after the army coup, continued to deny major areas to government control, including Myanmar’s part of the Golden Triangle (a major supplier of the world opium market). The Karen insurrection moved to the Thai border where it benefited from the black market trade. The Burma Communist Party insurrection migrated from the central Pegu Yoma region to the northeast border with China, where it retained official support from China. When that support was withdrawn in the late 1980s, the aging Myanmar leadership became dependent upon ethnic minority foot soldiers, who mutinied in order to be able to run their own opium business and eventually worked out a cease-fire with the central government. In 1981 Ne Win relinquished the presidency to San Yu, a retired general, but continued as chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party.
A new citizenship law was gradually implemented during the 1980s designating as “associate citizens” people whose ancestors were not of the “original races” of Myanmar. Its principal target was the Sino-Burman and Indo-Burman community. These groups were permitted to vote but could not be elected nor could they hold appointed office above a certain level in the government.
After a quarter of a century, the Ne Win regime seemed to reach stagnation. The insurrections had been successfully pushed to the periphery and no hostile neighbor actively threatened the independence of the nation, but the economy was declining again. This led the government to apply to the UN for “least developed nation” status and to begin market liberalization in hopes of reviving the domestic economy. In the autumn of 1987 a surprising devaluation of the currency eliminated any savings most people had, resulting in antigovernment riots. The following spring a series of critical public letters to Ne Win from a former military comrade, Brigadier Aung Gyi, and escalating student protests triggered violent repression. As a result of antigovernment riots in March and June 1988, Ne Win officially retired from politics and suggested that a multiparty system might be better for the nation.
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