Today in 1948, the British colony of Burma (now officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) became an independent republic. In honor of this, we present two excerpts from the book Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know by David I. Steinberg, a specialist on Burma/Myanmar, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and U.S. policy in Asia. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
How did independence come about?
London essentially determined Burmese independence, although the cry for an independent Burma by the Burmese was long, loud, and clear. Following World War II, there were thousands of Burmese with arms who might have made retention of British control very tenuous. Winston Churchill said he was not about to see the dissolution of the British Empire, but the Labour Party won the postwar elections. India was bound to become independent, and Burma would certainly follow. England was exhausted by the war; holding onto their colonies in the face of rising nationalism seemed impossible. Inevitable independence, then, should be gracefully granted. What kind of independence, and whether independent Burma would be divided between Burma Proper and a separate minority area was unclear. Some in England wanted to try Aung San as a traitor because he backed the Japanese before and during most of the war, and others regarded him as a criminal for killing a headman; he, however, negotiated independence. This resulted in the Aung San-Atlee Agreement of January 27, 1947, calling for independence within one year. Through his leadership of the second Panglong Conference (the first was in 1946) and the agreement of February 12, 1947, which brought together minority groups and Burmans, he was able to convince the British that the minority areas should not be separated from Burma Proper. Some Karen leaders felt betrayed, as some unofficial British may have promised the Karen an independent state for their support during the war. The Karens were only observers at the conference.
The Burmese military has written that they alone fought for and brought about independence. This seems to be an exaggeration, although they joined with the Allies and fought against the Japanese in March 1945 toward the end of the war. The nationalist movement had been important during the colonial era, the Japanese occupation destroyed British credibility, and India was to be independent. All of these events contributed to the pressures for freedom. Eventual independence was certainly inevitable, a product of London and Rangoon. The exact timing, however, of 4:20 A.M., January 4, 1948, was based on Burmese astrological calculations as to the most auspicious day and moment.
Why should we be interested in Burma/Myanmar?
As valid as our immediate concerns about Myanmar may be, a far broader range of issues should prompt our interest in that unfortunate land. We have been more concerned about political repression’s impact on human rights that human rights issues arising from endemic poverty, yet the latter is equally important. Myanmar is currently one of the poorest states in the world. Humanitarian assistance is needed not just to alleviate poverty or assist cyclone victims but to deal with the entire decaying social infrastructure: heath, education, agriculture, and nutritional services, especially for infants and the very young. High infant mortality rates and malnutrition deny a future for a burgeoning population of over 50 million diverse peoples who a half-century ago were predicted by many to become the wealthiest and most developed in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar’s tragic present is not confined within the borders but spills over its frontiers and littoral to neighboring states that have attracted the downtrodden: refugees, the minority poor, dissidents, and others who feel they no longer can face political, economic, or conflict conditions at home. Some bring with them diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Some are exploited for economic or sexual reasons. Some become involved in international criminal activities, such as the narcotics trade, and many sell their labor for jobs that neighboring populations consider demeaning. The Myanmar administration seems to be unwilling to address or perhaps incompetent to solve these issues. Adjacent states, especially Thailand and Bangladesh, are consequently under stress in dealing with these problems and peoples. Regional concerns thus mount.
Myanmar is also geographically strategic. Sandwiched between the great and growing cultural, economic, and military powers of China and India, and contiguous with U.S. ally Thailand, Burma/Myanmar’s numerous indigenous minorities spill over into these and other countries. Former Prime Minister U Nu once said, “We are hemmed in like a tender gourd among the cactus.” Historically, Myanmar’s internal Chinese and Indian (those from the subcontinent) minorities have been economically powerful, creating tensions and antagonisms with the majority Burmans. Burma’s neighbors have both sought to influence it and to gain access to its natural resources. As a consequence, Myanmar has become an important element of regional power rivalry, the nexus on the Bay of Bengal. China has penetrated deeply into it, which in turn has prompted India to shift policies. Myanmar also remains a major concern to Thailand and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – the ten countries of the region). The country is a central actor in the region, and both its resources and support are coveted by neighboring nations even as its policies are condemned from a distance. As one eminent Southeast Asian said of Myanmar relations, those states around Myanmar have “the burden of proximity,” whereas those farther afield have the “luxury of distance.”[...] Burma’s border regions, which have been porous and ethnically arbitrarily determined since the colonial era, have weakened the central state’s authority and compounded its problem of legitimacy. Mark Twain is famously supposed to have said that if history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes. The Bangladesh border arbitrarily splits a Muslim population, and Burmese military actions have forced two massive migrations in the past thirty years. Northeast Indian Naga rebels, as well as those from a variety of other ethnic groups in that poor region have sought refuge in Myanmar; eliminating this threat was a factor in changed India-Myanmar relations. Historical memories in any case are long, and sometimes bitter. [...]