U Nu: Born on May 25, 1907. Nayoan La Pyay. [Maharthamaya Nay.], 1269, Saturday.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Political Life of U Nu

Thayer Watkins

In 1961 U Nu, then Prime Minister of the Union of Burma, conferred upon Zhou Enlai of the People's Republic of China a title specifically chosen by U Nu. U Nu wanted to honor Zhou Enlai for his role in the settlement of issues concerning the border between China and Burma. The title was:
Supreme Upholder of
the Glory of Great Love
Although this title was conferred upon another it best characterizes what U Nu saw as his role in Burma and world politics.
For someone who in later life was noted for his devout religiousness, even saintliness, U Nu did not get off to an auspicious start. During his teenage years he was an alcoholic who consorted with older alcoholics and was known by the nickname, Saturday-born Street-Arab. He was born on a Saturday and was the first child of his parents. Such children were considered in Burman culture to be quarrelsome and a trial for their parents. His parents took steps to try to thwart his astrological destiny, one of which was to give him the name Nu which in Burmese means gentle or tender.
When Maung Nu started drinking alcoholic beverages at age nine his parents must have thought he was fulfilling his destiny as a Saturday-born first child. Maung Nu resisted all attempts to reform him but at age eighteen he began experiencing profoundly moving perceptions of beauty in life and on his own he stopped drinking and became a devout Buddhist.

Economic Development During the Era of U Nu

The Attempt to Create a Welfare State

The constitution of Burma provided for the creation of socialism. Among other things the State was declared the owner of all land. The State was given the power to nationalize any branch of the economy as long as it was done through legal procedure and with compensation to the owners. Even before independence a Ministry of National Planning was set up and a Two-Year Economic Development Plan formulated. U Nu announced at that time (1948) that he would:
nationalize monopolizing capitalist undertakings and... administer the resulting national undertakings by partnership between the state and the workers.
The Burmese government nationalized the major inland water transportation company, Irrawaddy Flotilla on June 1st, 1948. The Burmese government continued the British initiated control of the purchase and marketing of rice in Burma. In October of 1948 the Burmese legislature passed the Land Nationalization Act and U Nu asserted that collective farming was the ultimate objective of this legislation. Already, before independence, land rents were limited through the Rent Standardization Act of 1947.
The Land Nationalization Act of 1948 allowed the State to take possession of all land that was not being tilled by the owner. This was a popular step because approximately two-thirds of the rice land was owned by non-resident landlords many of whom were Indian money lenders who acquired the land through foreclosure for debts owed by Burmese farmers. The Land Nationalization Act limited the size of land holdings to 50 acres.
In addition to the Land Nationalization Act of 1948 the following legislation concerning agriculture was passed during 1948:
  • The Agricultural Bank Act
  • The Agricultural Laborers' Minimum Wage Act
  • The Tenancy Disposal Act
  • The Agriculturalists Debt Relief Act
In 1952 U Nu promised that someday every family would own a house and an automobile and have an income $175 to $200 per month. In August of 1952 he also convened the Pyidawtha (Happy Land) Conference at which further elements of the proposed welfare state were announced. Also announced were an eight-year plan for industrial development and a five-year plan for agricultural development. The plans really were not well thought out and the government did not have the funds to implement them. Almost forty percent of the funding came from creating money. This of course led to further problems with inflation.
The Eight-Year Plan was a failure both in the sense of having failed to achieve its targets and also in that it diverted resources away from achievable goals. By the mid-1950s Burma's rice exports were still one third less than those of 1938-39. Timber exports were less than one fourth of those of the average of the period 1937 to 1941. Mineral exports were less than four percent of the average of those of that same 1937 1941 period. Eventually the Eight-Year Plan was abandoned and a Four-Year Plan formulated.
The failed attempts at socialism in Burma are rather typical of the experience of underdeveloped countries in the post-World War II era. What was presented as planned economic development was little more than formulation of goals, in effect wish-lists. Often the targets specified in the plans were unattainable, but even in the case of attainable targets there was the problem that implementation of programs was sorely lacking. The leadership wanted to formulate schemes but left the implementation of those schemes in limbo.
One element of the failure is that the leadership wanted to simultaneously recover from the war, consolidate central administrative control, develop economically and, on top of these very difficult tasks, create a welfare state. As U Nu expressed it in 1952 the objective of the Burmese government was:
to exploit the immense natural wealth of the country to benefit the citizens totally and create conditions of contentment and happiness.
On top of the usual problems of an underdeveloped country Burma had the special problems associated with the fact that World War II rolled over it twice. The British destroyed the major oil wells to keep their production out of the hands of the Japanese. The major mines for tungsten, tin, lead and silver had likewise been destroyed. In capturing the country both the Japanese and the British bombed the cities and their facilities extensively.

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