Independence On 4 Jan 1948 at 0420 - an auspicious hour determined by Burmese astrologers - the Union Jack was lowered to the strains of Auld Lang Syne and U Nu, one of the early leaders of the student movement, became the first Prime Minister of independent Burma. It fell to U Nu to attempt to forge a national identity, build political institutions and rebuild the war-shattered economy. But Burma plunged immediately into chaos. Within 3 months, the Communists were in open revolt. The People's Volunteer Organization, a key component of the AFPFL split in 2, with the majority siding with the Communists. Muslim separatists rebelled in Arakan and the Karen National Union (KNU), upset at the prospect of Burman domination, refused to be a part of independent Burma and unilaterally declared their own independence on 5 May 1948. A large number of Karen had converted to Christianity during the 19th century and sided with the British before and during the war. Other ethnic groups also revolted: within the first year U Nu's government faced 9 separatist insurrections.
Gradually the government regained military control - aided by the fact that the rebels were busy fighting each other as well as the government. By 1951, U Nu was finally in control of the situation. He set about building a socialist state, nationalizing former British companies and expanding the health service and education. Elections were held in 1951 and 1956; both were won by U Nu's faction of the AFPFL. But in 1958 the party formally split and to avoid open revolt, U Nu invited his defence minister and army chief-of-staff, General Ne Win, to form a military caretaker government until elections could be held. When elections were finally held in 1960, U Nu won an overwhelming victory again - despite the split in the AFPFL. But rebel insurrections confounded his plans for a second time: by 1961 minority revolts by the Shans and Kachins were in full swing. Tensions were exacerbated when U Nu pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament making Buddhism the state religion, which alienated the Christian hill tribes, like the Karen, still further.
On 2 Mar 1962 the military engineered a surgically efficient-and almost bloodless - coup
d'etat, under the leadership of Ne Win. Government ministers and ethnic minority leaders were arrested: they had all been in Rangoon attending a conference aimed at resolving the insurrections. The constitution was swept aside and a 17-man Revolutionary Council (hand-picked by Ne Win) began to rule by decree, ending Burma's 14-year experiment with parliamentary democracy. The ideology of the military government - called the 'new order' - was set out in a communiqué entitled The Burmese Way to Socialism, published the month after the coup. The other seminal document of the regime was published in 1964: The correlation of Man and his environment, which was an eccentric mix of Marxism-Leninism and Theravada Buddhism. State control was gradually extended over most aspects of Burmese life: industries were nationalized and the economy collapsed. The country entered a state of self-imposed isolation and the military government - which maintained rigid internal control - faced insurrection after insurrection from
hill tribes and Communists.
To mobilize popular support the Revolutionary Council formed the military Burma Socialist
Programmed Party (BSPP or Lanzin).
Five months after the government was installed, students protested against the military dictatorship. The next day the student union building was blown up by the army. Ne Win imprisoned all opposition politicians. U Nu was released in 1968 and demanded a return to democracy; he then travelled around the world, denouncing the Ne Win government before accepting asylum in Thailand where he formed the National United Liberation Front (NULF). The NULF rebels launched a series of raids across the Thai border - but in 1972 U Nu resigned from politics altogether. This came as a great relief to the government as the former Prime Minister had provided a focus for countless opposition groups.
In 1971 the Revolutionary Council announced plans to draw up a new constitution aimed at transferring power to civilian politicians. The following year Ne Win and 20 of his senior commanders in the military 61ite resigned their army posts and declared themselves the civilian Government of the Union of Burma.
The Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma came into existence on 3 Jan 1974,
following the promulgation of a new constitution. Burma became a unitary state with effective power in the hands of the Burman majority at the centre and lip service was paid to minority rights. Political power was vested in the BSPP which was the only recognized party in the country; as its chairman, Ne Win became the head of the Council of State and the new President of Burma. Discontent with the state of the economy triggered a coup attempt in Jul 1976, led by junior military officers. Everyone who did not turn state evidence was shot and General Tun U, the chief-of-staff was sentenced to 7 years' hard labour for failing to forewarn Ne Win. Because of growing political unrest, the BSPP was reorganized and tens of thousands of party members were expelled for being out of touch'; more than half the central committee was forced to resign. Over the course of the next year, the vacant places were gradually filled again by retired military officers.
Despite continued dissatisfaction and ongoing insurgencies (about 40% of the country was outside government control), Ne Win managed to bring the Buddhist sangha (order of monks) under his control, giving Ne Win the confidence to declare anamnesty which allowed dissidents like U Nu to return to Burma in 1980. Ne Win resigned as president in 1981 but remained chairman of the BSPP and retained his grip on the leadership. By the mid-1980s his once self-sufficient country was on the verge of bankruptcy and in 1987 was conferred 'least-developed nation' status by the UN and international aid agencies. Economic mismanagement, poverty and the devaluation of the kyat helped spark the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988.