Burmese Way to Socialism in the Context of Manipur

Once a grand plan, the Burmese Way to Socialism promised a better life for our neighbours but it died a natural death because it was too ill-conceived; however, even after nearly three decades of its extinction, it offers some perspective into the ongoing armed conflicts in its neighbouring areas, most notably in Manipur


The former Revolutionary Council of Burma made the framework of the Burmese Way to Socialism after establishing the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in 1962. In the introduction of this economic treatise that heralds socialism in ‘Burmese ways’ it is mentioned under ‘Our Beliefs’ that:

The Revolutionary Council of the Union of Burma does not believe that man will be set free from social evils as long as pernicious economic systems exist in which man exploits man and lives on the fat of such appropriation. The Council believes it to be possible only when exploitation of man by man is brought to an end and a socialist economy based on justice is established; only then can all people, irrespective of race or religion, be emancipated from all social evils and set free from anxieties over food, clothing and shelter, and from inability to resist evil, for an empty stomach is not conducive to wholesome morality, as the Burmese saying goes; only then can an affluent stage of social development be reached and all people be happy and healthy in mind and body.
- [Source: Ibiblio – The Public’s Library and Digital Archive]

In a written form, even religious texts are amazing with their idealistic overtones that edge towards an incredible heaven. For Burma, the whole world can see the condition of this country, regardless of its forced seclusion as a consequence of its Way to Socialism. In one of the crises following this treatise, General Ne Win (1910–2002) made a ridiculous plan to issue currency in denominations only divisible by 9—his superstition is also legendary—it backfired resulting in the loss of savings for countless Burmese people and subsequently the outbreak of the 8888 Uprising, so called to denote 8 Aug, 1988, when the second stage of protest began with the participation of more masses cutting across professions, faiths and ethnicities.

Ne Win’s plan was just the last straw. Under the Burmese Way to Socialism things have gone from bad to worse. The military plan had rejected foreign aids, severely restricted the physical movement of the people and so was the freedom of expression. The plan to nationalise the economy bred incompetency, resulting in reduction of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and other economic blunders. As a part of the plan the establishment supported the subjugation of the minority groups; created artificial food scarcity; imprisoned thousands of people who question its existence and legitimacy; and the list goes on. In short, the Burmese road to rampage initiated by the British imperialists was completed by the military junta in the name of socialism.  

The military opened up finally, nearly three decades later, while putting an end to the totalitarian socialism. But it was too late and too little. Even if the country is now counted amongst the emerging economies, by the latest survey in 2012, the rate of unemployment is still a whopping 37%. (Source: 37% Jobless in Myanmar, Study Finds The only hope this country can look forward to is the democratic government that is scheduled to take power in April 2016.

Ideological infiltration at the border

The failed Burmese Way to Socialism is still significant today, particularly in the neighbouring areas of Burma. It died a natural death in 1988 but the relevancy arises from the fact that the non-state actors in Manipur, which are still are under the spell of Karl Marx, Chairman Mao and socialism. They can take a cue from what does not work and what does, apart from showcasing guns and bombs that imply nothing in the eye of the public, who are fed up of this monkey business that the power-hungry people and power-aspirants are playing in the name of the land. All we want is just a little bit of peace and justice.

Amidst all these developments, so in its neighbour, Manipur, rebel organisations are fighting for the right to self-determination on the ideals of socialism. We have seen the concrete evidences of how even a committed plan of socialism can create havoc. We can also see further flaws in this school of thought from the perspective of its ideology. Like the document of the Burmese economic treatise and religious texts, socialism offers quite an ideal system—or a base of critique as shown by Antonio Gramsci, who popularised the idea of cultural hegemony; or as an antithesis to capitalism—but it offers little on application, which is especially true when we consider about a place like Manipur. And on how and why, here’s my two cent.  

When one of the first Manipuri rebel organisations was formed in 1964, their contention was the lack of political consciousness among the masses. So, they started with political mobilisation under the idealism of socialism, which is continued till today, with a little help from other organisations that have separate ideologies but nonetheless with socialist tendencies. This particular organisation, the Union National Liberation Front, which is more popularly known as the UNLF or simply the U, has never gone beyond the rhetoric of India bashing and ancient Meitei civilisation.

Their founding members, quite ironical considering their radicalism, preferred reformation to revolution in the initial days. Today, their lack of imagination is a testimony to the fact that their political undertaking is as useless as the bullets that are wasted in informal shooting training, which in reality are mostly used for warning rich people to cough up a certain amount of money that they order through demand letters. And it does not even matter whether the ringmaster is in Bangladesh or Burma or Bhutan or Bangkok.

We are not Marxists, nor are we guerrillas. We are Zapatistas and we are an army.
An anonymous major of the Eje’rcito Zapatista de Liberacio’n Nacional (EZLN)

Forget about the political consciousness, we can clearly see that when some people take power in their hands to work for the masses, it comes with a certain amount of caveat. This is best explained by the presence of native students’ organisations like the All Manipur Students’ Union (sponsored by the UNLF), the Manipur Students’ Federation (by the People’s Liberation Army) and the Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (by the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup), and so on. As long as there is political correctness, we do not mind even inviting Hindu godman because we need suggestions to transform ourselves terribly.   

Socialism, in this context, is as outdated as the processes of brick-making and assembling guns that we learnt from the Chinese 10,000,000 years ago. As if their modus operandi of just collecting extortion is insufficient, we have been bombarded with the farcical ideals of socialism, thanks to the ideology masters, who are mostly caught between their stupidity or their government jobs and anti-government stance in an ironical ways or caught amidst their listless lives characterised by nothingness but street politics. Socialism is dead in Manipur; though this does not mean the end of revolution—rather we have a plenty of reasons to get going through other approaches.

These local socialists and Marxists have no issue as long as they can interfere in family disputes or get a tender for a contract work through college principals or engineers or whosoever can call the shot. Nobody can blame them because an empty stomach is more important than the Chinese-made hand grenades or automatic rifles. In the same breath, whoever feeds us is now our master and we are mere slaves.

Road to rampage

Nowadays, the concept of class, which is a primary component of the western idea of social revolution, is almost negligible in our politics and we have only ethnicities to fight for—though a part of the existing condition has been created from politico-historical motives rather than from economic objectives. In its essence, socialism sees a revolution from the worker¬–owner conflict but which in our case is that of the ruler and supposedly subjugated people. It is highly likely that there would be other approaches other than socialism that also, so to say, suit our soil. In the words of Lenin, what is to be done? 

We are also a perfect example of how following a system of social ownership can be a curse. Consider the work culture of the Manipuris and our concept of ‘government property’ that is meant to be pillaged. We also believe in minimum work and maximum result. Albeit it is too absurd, the government of the day has started believing in supporting private enterprises and the so-called public–private partnership model. This endorsement is only sensible from the view of the defunct public-sector industries that were established with socialist objectives laid down by the ‘legal’ government.

Propaganda is rife when power competitors are in the public forums—the only difference is that we do not care, again, except for living a life with human dignity. When we are considering this alternative, the power players are seemingly making up with routine press releases, especially in times of Indian national celebration that we see in the forms of general strikes, public curfews and boycotts. All of these delight only the people in each neighbourhood to organise a community feast over a game of rummy and pegs of the cheapest booze; though the more adventurous folks will go to BOC to get one of the finest heroin shots in the world; and if not BOC, the option is Thoubal or Churachandpur.

Talking broadly, socialism can be traced back to the lifetime of Plato but as an idea of social revolution it had a happy beginning in 17th-century Europe as people became disillusioned with capitalism, which was still in its growing period. Then two centuries later came the M/S Karl Marx & Co—another inspiration of revolutionary ideas in our contemporary history. Further it had its peak with the onset of Marxism¬–Leninism that has as well been encouraging revolutions across the world, like in our case too, till today.

At the end of the day, it does not matter where we read about the rhetoric of the non-state actors that we come across now and then, or not. We need neither Marx nor Trotsky. What is more important is the way how we can destroy the existing establishment, particularly as we keep up with the ideals of peace and justice. Otherwise the Burmese Way to Socialism is a proof that socialism is a kind of lie that is no different from India’s claim that it is the largest democracy in the world.

More than the flaws of ideology, what has been missing is the ability to come up with a kind of means and end that the people would want to have. In its broadest sense, revolution never means the replacement of a new government for the old or the creation of a new ruling class. Revolution, in essence, is the transformation of a social order. The powerlessness of resistance even after five decades of fighting unmistakably shows there are some fundamental defects in the process. The sole emphasis on the illegal Merger Agreement, playing victim card, romanticising the motherland, losing oneself in nostalgia and spreading the propaganda of government’s conspiracy to malign the liberation movement—sans any concrete objectives for the masses—hardly convinces the people while the process of Indianisation is solidifying relentlessly. 

In the words of Alexander Berkman:

No revolution has yet tried the true way of liberty. None has had sufficient faith in it. Force and suppression, persecution, revenge and terror have characterised all revolutions in the past and have thereby defeated their original aims. The time has come to try new methods, new ways. The social revolution is to achieve the emancipation of man through liberty, but if we have no faith in the latter, revolution becomes a denial and betrayal of itself. (Source: Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism; read the e-book from the edition published as What Is Anarchsim? on libcom

What is also worrying is the fact that Manipur boasts of all the characteristics that made Burma a milittary junta: a weak civil society that is not only weak but also not civil as it is divided on ethnic lines; non-participation in the liberation movement from imperialism; lack of trust amongst the people; a land of multiple ethnic identities; we have a strong military inclination, much thanks to India; and so on.

This critique has been collated from a standpoint of the imposing yet disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism. It was an epic fail; so were the cases of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union if we need to cite more examples. As the very term of revolution suggest, we need to change and we need a new ideology, most preferably a political philosophy that is highly differentiated from the current language of government and anti-government narratives. If we desire the ideals of socialism perhaps we can start with a Manipuri way to socialism but considering our contemporary history, it is a given that the approach will be more disastrous than the Burmese calamity.



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