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Political Change in Burma: Transition from Democracy to Military Dictatorship (1948-62)

A historic agreement to form the Union of Burma was reached in Panglong in 1947 between representatives of various groups from the "frontier areas" - the Chins, Kachins, the Shans - and also ethnic Burmans from "Burma proper". The decade following independence from the British in 1948 was marred by insurgency problems and political conflicts that constantly threatened the peace and stability of the fledgling democracy. While ethnic minorities demanded autonomy/federalism, the communist insurgents demanded a replacement of parliamentary democracy. The military, reluctant to concede federal demands, eventually took power in a coup in 1962.


Political Change in Burma: Transition from Democracy to Military Dictatorship (1948-62)

Nehginpao Kipgen

A historic agreement to form the Union of Burma was reached in Panglong in 1947 between representatives of various groups from the “frontier areas” – the Chins, Kachins, the Shans – and also ethnic Burmans from “Burma proper”. The decade following independence from the British in 1948 was marred by insurgency problems and political conflicts that constantly threatened the peace and stability of the fledgling democracy. While ethnic minorities demanded autonomy/federalism, the communist insurgents demanded a replacement of parliamentary democracy. The military, reluctant to concede federal demands, eventually took power in a coup in 1962.

Nehginpao Kipgen ( is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northern Illinois University, Illinois, United States.

urma, also known as Myanmar, gained independence from the British on 4 January 1948 (Human Rights Documentation Unit 2003: 8). A year before independence, leaders of different ethnic groups (the Chins, the Kachins, the Shans, and the Burmans) converged at Panglong (a town in former Shan states) to form the Union of Burma (Fink 2001: 23). The country’s ethnic composition is one of the most complex mixes in the world, with over 100 languages and dialects. It is administratively divided into states and divisions: ethnic Burmans predominantly inhabit the divisions and the states are homes to ethnic minorities – Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Mon, and Shan (Smith 1999: 30). Since before independence, Burma has witnessed ethno-political conflicts, which still exists today. After a decade of parliamentary democracy, the military staged a coup d’état on 2 March 1962 (Fink 2001: 29). Over 60 years have passed since independence, but the simmering t ension between ethnic mino rities and the ethnic Burman-led central government continues.

The article examines ethnic diversity, the role groups played in the making of the Union of Burma, and in the subsequent events leading up to the military coup in 1962. While recognising the existence of other smaller sub-ethnic groups, this article focuses on the relations between the eight major groups – Arakan ( Rakhine), Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Mon, Shan, and the nature of the civilian government and its relations with the military. The article examines the inherent role of e thnicity in political transition from democracy to military d ictatorship (Fink 2001: 23). It argues that ethnic minorities’ d emand for autonomy/federalism was the primary cause for the military coup.

The present-day statistics in Burma are contentious because no reliable census information has been made available since independence. Smith (1999: 30) argues that the government deliberately manipulated the population figure to downplay the number of ethnic minorities. For example, according to the 1931 Census, the total population of Karen and its related subgroups such as Pao and Karenni (Kayah) was recorded to be 13,67,673. The figure of ethnic Burman families, including Rakhine, was put at 65% of the total population, the Karen just over 9%, the Shan at 7%, the Chin and Mon some 2% each, the Kachin, Palaung-Wa and Chinese at just over 1% each, and the Indian (many have left the country since then) at around 7%. During the second world war, the Japanese conducted their own survey and put the Karen population at 4.5 million. Minorities believed that the population figures were deeply flawed and misrepresented.

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Many neutral observers estimated the Karen population to be somewhere around 3 to 4 million plus another 2,00,000 living across the border in Thailand. Contrastingly, the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), led by ethnic Burmans, did not estimate them at 2 million, while leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) put them at around 7 million. Leaders of ethnic minorities estimated the Shan and Mon population at around 4 million each, the Buddhist Arakanese at 2.5 million, the Muslim Arakanese (also known as Rohingyas) at 1 to 2 million (many of whom are living in exile), the Chin at 2 to 3 million, the Kachin at 1.5 million and Palaung-Wa at 1 to 2 million (Smith 1999: 30). Studying ethnic composition is essential for understanding Burmese political problems. Conflicting figures of population by different groups are an indication of how ethnicity has played a significant role in Burmese politics.

In ethnically diverse societies, some ethnic minorities intermingle with other groups, while some minorities may choose to live separately. When demands for secession erupt within the intermingled populations, the secessionists will seek to establish control over a certain territory (Brown 1997: 7). To understand the circumstances leading up to the military coup in 1962, it is important to study how the Union of Burma was formed, the role played by different ethnic groups, and the nature of politics after independence. This author breaks down the historical events during the intervening years from the country’s independence to the 1962 military coup under five subheadings: (1) the Panglong confe rence and independence, (2) insurgency and demand for autonomy/federalism, (3) civilian administration, (4) military institution, and (5) military coup.

Panglong Conference and Independence

In March 1946, a meeting was convened at Panglong to discuss the possible formation of a unified Burma. Representatives from colonial British, Burma Proper (ethnic Burmans) and Frontier Areas (ethnic minorities) attended the meeting, which became a precursor to the 1947 Panglong agreement. Although the representatives were there to discuss possible formation of a union, the frontier leaders were suspicious about the motives of the Burman leaders. In an attempt to persuade the frontier leaders to join the Union of Burma, ethnic Burman leaders proposed the idea of granting autonomy, which means that the Burmans would not interfere, among others, with the customs and religious practices of the Frontier Areas. Despite the proposition, leaders of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan refused to take part in forming the Union of Burma, and instead discussed the idea of establishing a “Frontier Areas Federation” (Sadan 2008: 388).

The year 1947 was a crucial one for ethnic minorities because they were to decide on their future, that is, whether to join the Union of Burma or not. Some frontier leaders were ready to trust the Burman leaders, but some were still reluctant to do so, fearing that they may lose their identity, culture, and freedom to the majority. Most frontier leaders had a lingering fear about possible domination by the Burmans. Despite suspicion and anxiety, some frontier leaders (the Chins, the Kachins, and the Shans) decided to participate at Panglong conference. When these frontier leaders were invited to write the constitution of

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the Union of Burma, they were still uncertain about their future (Silverstein 1998: 21).

The ethnic Burman leadership was fully aware that without the cooperation of the frontier areas, there would not be a unified Burma. In order to prove their sincerity about the future of the frontier peoples, the Burman leadership had to persuade both the leadership of the frontier areas and the British administration. There were doubts in the minds of the frontier leaders and the British as to whether or not the Burmans would treat all e thnic nationalities equally in the post-independence era. To clarify the lingering concerns, Aung San, a Burman leader, made a historic statement that reads, “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat”. This was an assurance that every ethnic group within the Union of Burma would receive equal treatment. Such reassuring remarks from a prominent Burman leader persuaded representatives from the Chin hills, the Kachin hills, and the Shan states to cooperate with the interim Burmese government. Subsequently, 22 representatives from the Frontier Areas (three from the Chin hills, six from the Kachin hills, 13 from the Shan states) and Burma proper represented by Aung San signed the Panglong agreement on 12 February 1947. Four Karens attended the conference as observers. The agreement to form the Union of Burma was a significant achievement and a great success for the lobbying team of the Burman leadership. However, this historic agreement was not meant to end the traditional self-rule of the frontier peoples (Smith 1999: 79).

The expectation at the Panglong conference was that the Chins, the Kachins, and the Shans would attain freedom sooner by cooperating with the interim Burmese government (Universities Historical Research Centre and Innwa Publishing House 1999: 270). However, the spirit of 1947 Panglong agreement is yet to be fulfilled. The demand for autonomy/federalism is an ongoing struggle for minority groups even after 60 years of independence. To continue their movements, ethnic minorities use different forms of campaigns: armed struggles or through non-violent means by lobbying the international community. They establish several advocacy networks to communicate among themselves and with the international community. These organisations include, among others, the Kuki International Forum, the Chin Human Rights Organisation, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, the Karen Human Rights Group, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, the Shan Women’s Action Network, and the Ethnic Nationalities Council.

Insurgency and Demand for Autonomy/Federalism

Many of the surviving wars today are ethnic conflicts and have a history of persistent battles that have been simmering for decades (Sadowski 1998: 13). U Nu became the first prime minister of independent Burma in 1948 under a volatile political environment. Insurgency problems came along with the country’s independence. The central government was unable to fully integrate the different ethnic minorities, many of whom did not like to join the Union of Burma in the first place. Even the minorities who signed the P anglong agreement were suspicious about the sincerity of ethnic Burmans. The minorities demanded a federal government in which each natio nality would enjoy autonomy (Scherrer 1997: 11).


The rise of different insurgency problems was a constant headache for the civilian government. Insurgent organisations such as the Burma Communist Party (White Flag Communists), Communist Party of Burma (Red Flag Communists), White Band People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO), Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), Mon National Defence Organisation (MNDO), and Mujahids fought against the central government. These insurgents made two different demands: the communist groups fought for the absolute replacement of the democratic government, while ethnic minorities demanded autonomy/federalism. The weakness of the civilian government was indicated by the fact that insurgents controlled most of the countryside by the spring of 1949. Even parts of the capital Rangoon were under the control of insurgents (Liang 1990: 19). The Karen insurgency movement was so influential that the Karen troops in the government army began to desert in January-February 1949 (Ball 1998: 130).

In 1949, the Karen rebels had attacked different places in succession. The civilian government, including the central and local ones, was weak. Based on his personal experience, Singh (1993: 89) narrates an incident of the Karen insurgent group’s attacks:

Karen rebels had invaded from the south on 17 February, the day I had left for the hills. After occupying Pyinmana, they had seized Yamethin by evening. Warned of their approach, the entire government bureaucracy at Yamethin had packed its bags and run headlong for Mandalay, taking very little with it. There was either no government in Yamethin or it had been taken over by the rebels. This was the gist of the story related to me.

For over a decade, Burma was under parliamentary democracy amidst insurgency problems and weak civilian administration. The ethnic tension between the Burmans and the Karens was high. The communist insurgents took control of two army battalions, which happened within three months of independence. Other ethnic minority groups also took up arms against the central government. The insurgencies of different groups nearly brought down the Rangoon government (Human Rights Documentation Unit 2000: 8). Ethnic minority insurgents mounted pressure for federalism, which was their fundamental demand. The Karen National Defence Organisation/Karen National Liberation Army monitored radio communications between the army and the police (Ball 1998: 125). Ethnic minority insurgencies were fuelled by Prime Minister U Nu’s announcement in 1960 to recognise Buddhism as the state official religion. The insurgency problem was also exacerbated by the Burman nationalists’ attempt to establish a unitary state (Rajah 1998: 135).

Burma became independent on 4 January 1948, but deep d ivisions and distrust did not disappear. Although the union government was founded on democratic values, there was no consensus on how the country should move forward. Even before the fledgling democracy could adopt the 1947 constitution, there were groups of people who advocated adopting the socialist r egime of eastern Europe, while some others wanted to adopt the model of the Chinese communist state. The constitution guaranteed r eligious pluralism, but there were people who tried to establish a religion-based state, by making Buddhism the

o fficial religion. Insurrections were witnessed; the communists’ i nsurgency goal was to overthrow the democratic government while ethnic minorities fought for independence from the union (Silverstein 1998: 22).

The birth of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) in the 1930s later became another challenge for the civilian government. Like the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), there was a major internal division within the BCP, which led to a party split in 1946 over the issue of resisting the occupying British. One f action called “Red Flag” led by Thakin Soe was against the idea of Aung San’s negotiation with the British leadership. The other faction called “White Flag” led by Thakin Than Tun also split from the AFPFL shortly after independence in 1948. The White Flag communist armed group was estimated to have about 25,000 members. The communist insurgents and their allies captured a substantial portion of central Burma in 1949, but they were gradually pushed back by the government troops during the next decade to their bases in Arakan and Pegu Yoma (Smith Jr 1984: 2).

Most ethnic minority groups were demanding autonomy, and, therefore, took up arms soon after the country’s independence (Ball 1998: 49). In a diverse society such as Burma where ethni city plays an inherent role in politics, taking up arms is one form of expressing political demands. Depending on the context and the nature of the government, an armed struggle may sometimes lead to dialogue and peaceful political settlement. It may also entail the government to neutralise or eliminate an armed movement by using force. In the case of Burma, the central government apparently pursued the latter strategy, that is, to neutralise or eliminate the minorities’ armed organisations. The minorities perceived that the ethnic Burman-led central government was forcibly integrating them into a political system against their will. The indifferent attitude on the part of the central government towards minorities’ demand for federalism deepened the divisions between them.

Although the country was embroiled in insurgency problems, the situation of the press was considered one of the freest in Asia in the 1950s, with more than 30 papers, including six in Chinese language, three in English, and several others in Indian languages. Although some newspapers were in favour of particular political parties, many others maintained an independent approach. The Burma Journalists’ Association was united in protesting against an attempt to impose stringent press restrictions in August 1954. There were several confrontations over the c overage of insurgent movements. Press freedom was for the first time curtailed during the caretaker military government under General Ne Win. Consequently, newspapers such as the Botahtaung, Kyemon and Rangoon Daily were banned and their editors were arrested and imprisoned on charges ranging from sympathising the communist insurgent movement and or anti-military reporting (Smith 1991: 18).

Civilian Administration

During the first decade of independence, the civilian government led by U Nu made sincere efforts to implement the Panglong agreement and the 1947 constitution. Initially, the U Nu government did not (or interfered very little) in the internal affairs of local governments. For example, each year during Independence Day and Union Day celebrations, representatives from the states

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were transported to the capital Rangoon at the expense of the central government. Different ethnic groups dressed in their t raditional attire performed cultural dances on those important occasions. The union government leaders occasionally visited the states and participated in locally organised functions. When u nion leaders were sojourning in the states, they wore local dresses and followed their customs.

Moreover, local governments were given certain control of their educational systems. They were allowed to teach in their local languages or dialects up to the fourth grade in schools. The freedom to teach and use their own languages gave the younger students the opportunity to simultaneously learn their own culture and that of the majority-Burman culture. This was an indication that the Union of Burma had a diverse culture and yet maintained unity. However, this unity in diversity was threatened by a presidential proclamation of the transfer of the Shan state’s power to the army from 1952 to 1954 (Silverstein 1959: 101).

The unity in diversity was further devastated by unequal treatments meted out to ethnic minorities on the issue of the state, as well as by the introduction of nationalised policies. The Karens, who formed the majority group in the Frontier Areas and the largest minority in Burma proper, were unhappy with the size of the state demarcated for them. The Burmans were reluctant to give up the territories they jointly occupied with the Karens. The Karens protested that the size of the state allotted to them was enough only for a fraction of their population. The greater threat to unity in diversity emerged when the policy of mandatory use of the Burmese language in educational institutions and government offices were regulated. Subsequently, all students were required to learn the Burmese language (along with English) in middle schools, high schools, and universities. Burmese was the only language permitted inside parliament for bringing up any agenda for formal discussion. The costume of ethnic Burmans used in Rangoon and Mandalay were informally adopted as the pattern for the national dress. “Temporary residents or visitors wearing the traditional clothing of their birthplace, on days other than holidays, are viewed as rustics”. A serious threat to unity in diversity developed when Buddhism was made the state official religion (Silverstein 1959: 102-03).

Response of Non-Burman Groups

All these gradual but deliberate changes were difficult for the non-Burman ethnic groups to accept for a number of reasons. First, these changes were against the spirit of the Panglong agreement, which promised autonomy for each ethnic group. Second, the non-Burman groups considered the changes as a mischievous Burmanisation policy (to impose ethnic Burman culture and religion on minorities) of the majority. Third, by adopting these new policies, the non-Burman groups were concerned that they would lose their culture, language, and tradition. Fourth, since not all the non-Burman groups were Buddhists, they construed that making Buddhism a state religion was against religious freedom, and, therefore, threatened the survival of their own religion.

Some form of elections were held in 1947, 1951, 1956, and 1960. The first three elections were won by the AFPFL as a single unified

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party. The AFPFL was formerly a resistance organisation spearheading the fight for Burma’s independence from the British, and was led by general Aung San. With the assassination of Aung San on 19 July 1947, the leadership was taken over by U Nu. The split of the AFPFL into two factions in 1958 paved the way for the 1960 general election that was decisively won by U Nu’s “Clean” or Pyidaungsu (Union) faction. The other AFPFL group was called “Stable” faction and was backed by the military (Calla han 1998: 51).

Statistics in Table 1 provide the results of the 1956 election. The AFPFL entered the fray as a single party. In both houses of parliament, the AFPFL won a landslide, with a total of 162 seats in the chamber of deputies (lower house) and 85 seats in the chamber of nationalities (upper house).

Table 1: Burma General Election I956 (Results for Both Houses as on 3 June 1957)

Distribution of Seats by Party Seats Won
Chamber of Deputies
AFPFL (Kachin 1, Chin 5, Karen 6, Kayah 2 and Burma 148) 162
National United Front 43
United Hill People's Congress I4
All Shan States Organisation 4
Shan States Peasants Organisation 2
Union National Pa-O Organisation 1
Arakan National United Organisation 6
Peoples Economic and Cultural Development Organisation 4
Kachin National Congress 2
Burma National Bloc 1
Shan (independent) 4
Chin (independent) 1
Karen (independent) 2
Arakan (independent) 1
Burma Proper (independent) 1
Postponed 2
Chamber of Nationalities
AFPFL (Kachin 4, Karen 15, Kayah 2, Chin 6, and Burma 58) 85
Shan Sawbwas 25
Kachin National Congress 4
Peoples Economic and Cultural Development Organisation 2
Pawng Nawny Democratic Front (Kachin Youth Organisation) 1
Kachin (independent) 1
Karen (independent) 2
Chin (independent) 1
Postponed 4

Source: Fairbairn(1957: 301-02).

With the break-up of the AFPFL into two factions, the 1960 general election was held under the caretaker military government. About 72% of Rangoon residents voted for the Clean faction, and 22% voted for the Stable faction. The Clean faction and its allies secured 168 seats in parliament, while the Stable faction and its allies won 45 seats. Table 2 (p 52) also shows the distribution of seats in the chamber of deputies after the election.

Despite a landslide victory, the U Nu led government was not able to win the loyalty of ethnic minorities. The government could not guarantee equal distribution of national resources to ethnic minorities and the Burmans (Callahan 1998: 59). Such a lack of political maturity often leads to divisions between the government and the general public. In such circumstances, some see the


action of the government incompetent, while others i nterpret it as social injustice. When the same political institution operates differently within diverse ethnic groups of a country, it can lead to social unrest and political instability (Lambert 1967: 111-13).

Table 2: Distribution of Seats after 1960 Elections

‘Clean’ AFPFL and Allies

‘Clean’ AFPFL 158

Shan States United Hill People's Organisation 6

Peoples Educational and Cultural Development Organisation (Kachin) 2

Chin National Organisation 1

Kayah National United League 1


‘Stable' AFPFL and Allies

‘Stable’ AFPFL 41

Kachin National Congress 3

Kayah Democratic League 1


Arakanese National United Organisation 6

Other parties and independents 16

To be decided (elections still to be held or official returns not announced) 15

Source: Butwell and Mehden (1960: 151).

The elected legislators from ethnic minority territories were also divided among the ruling government and the opposition (Table 3).

Prime Minister U Nu

Table 3: Ethnic Groups of Legislators

Ethnic Groups Government Opposition Uncertain played an important role
Karens 1 6 0 in the landslide victory of
Kachins 4 3 0 his Clean faction. Altho-
Chins 3 3 0 ugh he was not very pop-
Kayahs 1 0 1 ular among the intellec-
Shans 6 0 14 tuals and the military, he
ArakaneseTotal 3 18 113 8 23 earned the respect of

many among the general

Source: Bigelow (1960: 73).

public because of his religious beliefs and the ordinary citizen-characters he possessed. In a predominant Buddhist society, his announcement of Buddhism as the state religion before the election gave him an advantage over his rival candidates. Among other practices, U Nu served as a Buddhist monk for six weeks, offered alms to the monks, sought the advice of important Buddhist leaders, and organised the Buddhist Synod (1954-56). Such large-scale Buddhists gatherings were believed to have been convened only by important monarchs. His main political rivals (Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein) from the Stable faction tried to emulate him by emphasising religious values, but their sudden change of gestures failed to persuade the general public (Butwell and Mehden 1960: 153).

Not long after the election victory of U Nu’s Clean faction, which was renamed as the Union Party, internal conflicts developed over the issue of membership on the executive committee. Leaders of the Union Party’s constituent organisations such as the All Burma Peasant Organisation, Federation of Trade Organisation, and Union Labour Organisation were barred from holding positions in the executive committee. The simmering tension among the party leaders resulted in the formation of “Thakins” and “U-Bos”. The Thakins were leaders of the constituent organisations and the U-Bos were those who supported U Nu’s policy on party-based individual membership.

In December 1960, U Nu announced that he would step down from the party leadership but would remain as prime minister. There was an indication that the Union Party was heading to a pattern in which the AFPFL split a couple of years earlier. Moreover, U Nu was apparently not supportive of continuing the National Defence College that was established during the Ne Win caretaker military government. U Nu was also against the creation of a central intelligence organisation. Both these programmes were supported by the military. A year earlier, the prime minister removed the police from army control and authorised the institution (the police) to conduct its own training (Trager 1963: 312-13).

Ricci and Fitch (1990: 56) argue that for a government to function responsibly, it is essential to have a system that can effectively connect leaders with the general public. The bureaucratic structure needs to clearly define the proper communication channel within the leadership by creating certain norms and regulations. Prior experience or expertise helps people who are in decisionmaking positions. Experiences can provide the skills necessary for public leaders to perform their duties efficiently. In order to have a government that is accountable to the public, the leadership needs to be able to listen to the general public and incorporate the feedback into policies and in delivering public services. It can also be argued that experiences do not matter if leaders pursue failed policies, or when a few powerful individuals dictate policies. In authoritarian regimes such as Burma and North Korea, experiences or expertise do not really matter when it comes to policy decision-making because all major policies are decided by military dictators. The entire bureaucratic structure is directly or indirectly controlled by the military.

During the years of parliamentary democracy, the government could not establish sufficient connection with the general public, especially with ethnic minorities. The problem was found not only in the border areas, but also in regions where communication services and transport systems were available. There were limited skilled administrators, tools and resources for U Nu to run his government effectively. The civilian government was, in many instances, unable to exercise much influence beyond Rangoon. The insurgents threatened even Rangoon. The Rangoon government was unable to sufficiently provide for the needs of the citizens. A gap between citizens and the leadership made civilian government unstable (Callahan 1998: 59). When the weak civilian government was crippled by insurgent problems, the volatile situation of the country further deteriorated.

Military Institution

The military played an important role in the history of Burmese politics. Among others, the military had to suppress insurgent activities. It took the military years to develop its institution. A year before independence, Aung San expressed his dissatisfaction on the condition of the military, which reads:

Look at the national defence, our military is just enough for suppression of internal unrest. For national defence [against external threat], it is not sufficient. Army [infantry] is not enough. There are no armour[ed] battalions. [The] Navy is just for show. In reality, there is no way to defend this country. [The] Air force is just in the formative

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stage. In [the] air force, for this country, there should be at least 500 combat aircrafts [sic] for [the] first line of defence. That is not sufficient. While these 500 aircrafts [sic] are in frontline combat action, each aircraft should have three or four aircrafts [sic] in [the] rear for [sic] reserve. At least another 500 combat aircrafts [sic] is [sic] needed. Overall, this country needs at least one million soldiers at the time war begins. It is better to have an army of [a] million soldiers. Right now, we have just 20,000 soldiers (Myoe 2009: 193).

When Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, the Tatmadaw (armed forces) was weak and faced numerous challenges. The military had to confront the rising insurgent problems of communists and ethnic minority groups. Another important task of the military was to maintain law and order. Over the years from independence to the military coup in 1962, the number of infantry battalions considerably increased.

Despite an increase in the number of infantry battalions and efforts to improve the Tatmadaw, the institution still lacked important facilities. For example, until 1953, there was neither a military directorate nor a training policy in place. Many military officers were sent to overseas for training in countries such as the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan. Although those officers could join junior officer course trainings, they were unable to s ecure admissions in staff colleges or artillery schools. Commenting on the situation of the military during the Tatmadaw conference on 24 August 1953, Ne Win, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said:

…the most serious weakness of the General Staff Office is the training area. Because of the weakness in training programmes, operational drawbacks become more and more common in battles. Difficulties in training programmes are lack of time and shortage of training materials – both manuals and equipment…Because of the lack of skills in battlecraft and operation of weapons, fire power does not match enemy casualties. The war office has been trying hard to get materials for training. As we do not think the existing training facilities and schools are sufficient or of international standard, we plan to establish a combat forces school and a military academy in the near future. The training programmes of these schools will determine the future course of the Tatmadaw. In order to run these training schools on our own, we have sent out trainees not only to England, India and Pakistan, as happened in the past, but also to the United States, Australia and Yugoslavia (Myoe 2009: 136).

The commander-in-chief noted that the military was on its way to improving skills and capabilities. Ne Win first pointed out the weakness of the military instituion and then encouraged the armed forces by announcing new initiatives such as building combat force school and military academy, and sending more trainees to more countries who upon return will run the military institution more efficiently.

Military Coup

Before delving into the events leading up to the 1962 military coup, it is important to understand who general (Bogyoke) Ne Win was and how he managed to garner the support of his military subordinates to carry out the coup. Steinberg (1990: 9) writes Ne Win’s influence in Burmese politics as under:

Ne Win has been in the limelight since the early 1940s, when he was trained by the Japanese for anti-British activities as one of the

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“30 comrades” along with Aung San – the father of Burmese independence, who was assassinated in 1947 and whose memory is perpetuated through portraits in every government office and on some of the currency, and through carefully selected reprints of his writings. Ne Win’s close association with Aung San and the latter’s continuing legacy have been themes of government propaganda since 1962; Ne Win has been portrayed as having been handed the mantle of leadership from Bogyoke Aung San, which gave him popular legitimacy.

In the years following independence, the civilian government underwent a tumultuous period. Due to a split within the ruling AFPFL into the Clean (led by U Nu and Thakin Tin) and Stable (led by Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein) factions in 1958, Prime Minister U Nu invited Ne Win, head of the army, to form a caretaker government and hold a new election. Ne Win’s caretaker government lasted for 16 months and U Nu returned to power after winning the 1960 election in a landslide. With his comeback to power, the prime minister realised that a strong and stable union government cannot be established without addressing the problems of ethnic minorities. In an attempt to amicably resolve the minorities’ grievances, the prime minister planned to convene a meeting. Before U Nu could announce his recommendation for peace initiatives, Ne Win seized power on 2 March 1962 (Human Rights Documentation Unit 2000: 8).

Maung (1989: 40) discussed another reason for the military coup. According to him, Ne Win felt that the Union of Burma had not only become a factionalised and ultranationalist state, but also veered away from the path of socialism, which the late Aung San had always stood for throughout the independence struggle. As “a patriotic soldier”, Ne Win thought it was his duty to take over the responsibility of government. Although the 1962 military coup has generally been described as a bloodless coup, a 17year old son of the country’s first president Sao Shwe Thaike who belonged to the Shan ethnic group was killed. Prime Minister U Nu, his entire cabinet, and leading members of the opposition were taken into custody. Maha Devi, the grieving widow of Sao Shwe Thaike, and her family left Rangoon for Shan state to lead the Shan revolutionary movement against the military dictatorship. Following the coup, Ne Win dissolved parliament and banned all political parties and related activities. That was the end of parliamentary democracy and the beginning of military dictatorship in Burma, under the leadership of ethnic Burmans.

Suppressing ethnic unrest and preventing the country from disintegration were given as the justification for the military coup (Rajah 1998: 135). The military’s justification for the coup makes one to think that Ne Win was a Burman nationalist (if not ultranationalist) whose intention was to establish a unitary state, which was diametrically opposed to ethnic minorities’ demand for autonomy/federalism. The Burman nationalists viewed autonomy/federalism as tantamount to disintegration of the Union of Burma. Insurgency problems gave the military an e xcuse to say that the civilian government was incapable of provi ding stability to the country.

Ne Win’s perception was similar to general Jose Maria Tornel’s frustration with Mexican politicians. Tornel was of the view that Mexican politicians were weak and incapable of maintaining peace and stability since the country’s independence. Tornel believed that a robust central government or dictatorship was the


only way to maintain law and order (Fowler 1996: 20-21). From the justification general Ne Win and his cohorts made, that is, suppressing ethnic unrest and preventing the country from disintegration, it was evident that military dictatorship was perceived by them to be the best means to maintain law and order in the volatile country.

During the caretaker military government from September 1958 to February 1960, Ne Win managed to earn the trust of many by appointing a number of civilians in his cabinet and by holding a general election in 1960. This gesture gave the impression that he was not only a good soldier, but had the quality for effective administrator as well. During his brief government, Ne Win also implemented two major decisions. An agreement was reached for the Shan Sawbwas and Karenni (Kayah) Saophalongs to abandon their feudal rights on 21 April 1959, and a boundary agreement was signed with China in January 1960. The boundary agreement gave away some parts of the Wa n ational area in Shan states. The people of Shan states, especially the Sawbwas, were unhappy with Rangoon government for giving away parts of their territory to China. The discontented Shan Sawbwas then intensified their demand for federalism, which was rejected by Ne Win government. The Shan Sawbwas then threatened to secede from the Union of Burma, as stated in the 1947 constitution, that is, the Shans have the right to secede from the Union of Burma after 10 years of independence (Maung 1989: 37-38).

Not all the states enjoyed the same constitutional rights. Although the 1947 constitution provided that every state has the right of secession unless otherwise expressly stated, the Kachin and the Karen states were denied the right. The Shan and Karenni (Kayah) states were required to wait for 10 years until 4 January 1958. The right of secession did not apply to the Chin Special Division since it was not a full-fledged state yet (Silverstein 1997: 59).

Prior to the military coup, the Burmans accused the Shans of plotting to split the Union of Burma with the help of “imperialists and capitalists”. The Burmans interpreted federalism as tantamount to secessionism. On the other hand, the federalists (ethnic minorities) labelled the Burmans as “chauvinists and colonists” who attempt to build a unitary government against the spirit of Panglong agreement. After the Union Day (the day Panglong agreement was signed) celebrations on 12 February 1962, ethnic minorities (Kachin Duwas, Shan Sawbwas, Kaya (Karenni) Saophalongs and leaders of the Karen, the Mon, the Arakan and the Chin) gathered in Rangoon to finalise the constitution of the proposed federal Union of Burma. The timing was convenient for the military to carry out the coup while the federalists were busy discussing the federal Union constitution in one location (Maung 1989: 39).

Onwumechili (1998: 40) argues that military coups are not necessarily selfless services, but are used as a means to acquire power by leaders who are not sure about winning if they would run for elections. These leaders often use “incompetence” as an excuse for justifying their actions. Once in power, like any other leaders, they seek international legitimacy and support. Once the military is in power, it is difficult to replace them with a civilian government, as long as there is a cohesive structure within the military hierarchy.

Following the military coup, a new government called the Revolutionary Council with Ne Win as its chairman was formed. Under the military leadership, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was formed in July 1962. Several policy changes were made. For example, banks were nationalised and the military government demonetised 50-kyat and 100-kyat currency notes (Fink 2001: 29-32). The failure of parliamentary democracy was linked to its inability to resolve the problems of ethnic minorities. Deep suspicion between ethnic minorities and ethnic Burmans was simmering (Silverstein 1997: 31).


Deliberations and meetings finally brought together leaders of different ethnic groups (the Chins, the Kachins, the Shans, and the Burmans) at the Panglong conference, which culminated in the signing of a historic agreement that became the hallmark of the Union of Burma. Unfortunately, the attainment of independence did not end the country’s problems. Instead, it became the genesis of a series of conflicts, which continue today. One important reason why leaders of ethnic minorities agreed to sign the Panglong agreement was regarding the question of autonomy. The signatories agreed on full autonomy to the internal administration of the Frontier Areas, an agreement that has not materialised after many decades of independence. Successive military governments have tried to suppress the minorities’ movement with the use of coercion and intimidation, but the struggle continues (Kipgen 2010: 172).

Some may argue that factors such as communists’ insurgency or the U Nu-led weak civilian government led to the military coup. This author, however, argues that although other factors may have contributed to the circumstances, the ethnic minorities’ demand for political autonomy/federalism was the primary reason for the military’s intervention. This argument is supported by the fact that the minorities’ demand for autonomy/federalism is still an ongoing struggle, while the communists’ insurgency movement ended many years ago. Communism was the movement led by ethnic Burmans. The military coup was carried out when U Nu planned to meet the federalists for discussion. Leaders of ethnic minorities were working on finalising the constitution for a federal Burma when the coup took place.

During the process of negotiation for independence in England, no representatives from the Frontier Areas were included in the Burmese delegation. Many ethnic minorities doubted the motive of ethnic Burmans, and, therefore, did not sign the Panglong agreement. Autonomy (some synonymously use the term selfdetermination) was the primary objective why the leaders of the Chins, the Kachins and the Shans agreed to cooperate with the interim Burmese government to form the Union of Burma. The Burman nationalists, particularly the military leaders, saw the minorities’ demand for political autonomy/federalism as an attempt to disintegrate the Union. The 1947 constitution in fact had a clause on secession rights for ethnic minorities. Greater responsibility and representation of their own affairs was something the

may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

minorities demanded from the Rangoon government. The contin-Despite the apparent internal grievances within the low rankued ethnic minorities’ armed struggle is considered to be amongst ing officers of the Burmese military junta, there is an established the longest movements in the world. cohesive institution. This cohesiveness is mainly due to an en-

In his article Guilmartin (1997: 23-24) identifies “technology, trenched repressive leadership with stringent regulations that tactics, cohesion, and logistics” as essential tools for a successful makes it difficult for disgruntled officers to openly voice their dismilitary operation. A cohesive institution binds the military per-contents. Moreover, in the absence of alternative robust institusonnel together for a common cause, which they probably would tions, such as civil societies or elected democratic establishments, not do individually. Even in the face of violence or threats of the cohesiveness of military institution has been difficult to pendeaths, loyalty to the institution precedes personal preferences. etrate. The Burmese military hierarchy has been a closely This cohesiveness of the military makes individuals responsible guarded institution. The military usurped power illegitimately, partners of a strong institution. By maintaining unity, the mili-but has been seeking legitimacy, support and cooperation from tary can prevent imminent threats of factionalism. the international community.


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Universities Historical Research Centre and Innwa Publishing House (1999): The 1947 Constitution and the Nationalities, Vol 1 (Yangon, Myanmar: University Press).


may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

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