Burma (renamed the Union of Myanmar in 1989) was the easternmost part of the British Raj, and achieved independence in 1948. During the period of British rule (1885-1948), Burma was the second wealthiest country in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, awash in labor resources as well as precious stones, oil, and natural gas. It was once the world’s largest exporter of rice; produced 75% of the world’s teak, and had a highly literate population. In 1948, the country was believed to be on the fast track to development. In addition to its economic promise, Burma was a large country, about the size of a western Canadian province; and by its location at the crossroads of East, South, and Southeast Asia, one might assume that an independent Burma became politically active in world, or at least regional, affairs. On both the economic and political counts, Burma disappointed.

A parliamentary government was formed in 1948 under Prime Minister U Nu who served as the Burma’s first prime minister. Throughout the 1950s, U Nu attempted to make Burma a centrally-planned welfare state. He sought to forge a middle way forward that avoided the alleged abuses of capitalism under colonialism without allowing power to fall to the communists. Hints of difficulty appeared in the middle 1950s. Rice exports fell by two thirds and mineral exports by over 96%. Plans were partly financed by printing money, which led to inflation.

In March 1962, the army made Burma a unitary state under a military Revolutionary Council which dissolved all political structures erected over the previous 14 years, and implemented full bore a set of economic reforms in the 1960s merely hinted at by U Nu. These reforms were collectively called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” based on a pamphlet written by the regime in 1963, and were codified into a new constitution in 1974. This first reform phase overlaps almost exactly with our 1960s period, and continues to this day. It exchanged growth, development, and freedom for domestic stability, and changed Burma from one of the most prosperous countries in Asia into one of the world’s poorest. Though peasant debts and rents were abolished, all domestic and foreign business was nationalized, prices rigidly scheduled, all land seized by the government, and all internal trade set as a government monopoly. Furthermore, the regime chose aggressive non-involvement in foreign affairs. It does not, for example, belong to the Commonwealth of Nations or to ASEAN, and left the Bandung community of non-aligned nations in the middle 1970s. It has no contact with the World Bank or major organizations such as the Ford Foundation, and limits visas of foreigners to 24 hours. Indeed the catastrophic “still life” that is today’s Burma came into its current form in the 1960s: its economic growth minimal, its isolation as total as North Korea.

While Burma closed in on itself after 1962, a remarkable Burmese citizen was representing his country on the international stage in a most open and visible way. At the end of 1961, U Thant replaced Dag Hammerskjold as Secretary General of the United Nations after Hammerskjold died in a plane crash in Africa.


From November 1961 to the last day of 1971, this devout Buddhist and diplomat served two terms in the UN during years that read like a glossary of crucial world events of the period. The year he took office, in fact, scores of new countries were toppling into the United Nations as part of a broad decolonization from empires unraveling around the world.

U Thant in 1963

In 1962, Thant acted as a go-between in the Cuban Missile Crisis in Soviet-American relations, and his contacts included Fidel Castro. The year 1962 also he used force in the Congo (Operation Grandslam) to beat back the secessionist threat in the province of Katanga, despite his religiously-professed pacifism. In 1963-64, a UN force deployed to Cyprus to substitute for a British peacekeeping force to separate Greek and Turkish fighters, and Nicosia remains a UN-patrolled divided capital to this day. The Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab World preoccupied Thant and the UN in the Levant in 1967 – particularly in Egypt – and just as Vietnam was achieving such enormous domestic pressure in American politics to cause Lyndon Johnson to stand down from reelection. Overlapping this, Pakistan and India were constant preoccupations over Jammu/Kashmir that generated no fewer than six United Nations Security Council Resolutions in 1965 and 1971 to halt fighting and institute a Line of Control, the latter year the time of the terrible Indo-Pakistani War that birthed Bangladesh in a near genocide.

As an aside, Burma has many ethnic groups that seek autonomy – notably the Shan, the Kachins, and Karens. For our purposes, these three blended together in 1962 into the form we now see, and their collective efforts represent the world’s longest-running civil war. This might be merely a curiosity in Burma’s domestic affairs and a reason to justify the Burmese army’s control to keep the country together. But in the 1960s, Burma became a place of intervention in the Cold War for powers such as China, Thailand, and even Great Britain to support one minority or another to stabilize or destabilize the region. Internationally as well, the Shan State forms one corner of the “Golden Triangle” – one of the richest opium-growing regions in the world – exceeded only by Afghanistan in production.




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