Leaving Burma Behind

Burma became independent in 1948. Ben Morris asks if Britain could have done more for this unhappy country.

Burma (Myanmar) is a country on its knees. Its people, among the poorest in the world, live out an Orwellian nightmare. Child soldiers march as slave workers dig. The SPDC regime is politically isolated and obsessively insular, its paranoid and corrupt military leadership dependent on clique for office, intent on maintaining internal control of a country torn apart by ethnic conflict. Only Chinese patronage allows the junta to stagger brutally on.

On the face of it, in 1945 Burma was wealthy and eager to strike out for independence. While postwar India has survived assassination, dynasty and ethnic slaughter, Burma’s history has been a catastrophe. Why was Burma different? What did the British leave behind when Sir Hubert Rance, the last Governor, sailed out of Rangoon on January 4th, 1948?

Aung San was the leading nationalist to emerge from the war in Burma. In January 1946 he became head of the Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a united nationalist front that brought together a range of communist and other leftist groups. It had its own militia, the People’s Volunteer Organization (PVO), and the mass organization to force change. No date had been fixed for ending direct rule when Britain resumed power the previous October, and a Cabinet White Paper of February 1946 proposed that Britain should ‘play it by ear’. The returning Governor, Reginald Dorman-Smith, presumed to restore the prewar status quo, but his inability to work with Aung San led to his recall by Clement Attlee, who was under pressure from the United States and the British press to move Burmese independence along.

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