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Burma: Voice from the Jungle

6 minute read

From a secret border site somewhere north of the Thai village of Mae Sot, a clandestine radio transmitter last week beamed an urgent declaration into the purple mountains of Burma. “Ours is no hasty, ill-considered decision,” said the tape-recorded voice. “For months after my release from jail I pondered the problem. Recourse to arms was personally distasteful to me. But in the end, we decided to fight.”

The voice from Mae Sot had not been heard in Burma for eight long years. It was unmistakably that of U Nu, the ascetic, still popular ex-Premier who was ousted in 1962 by General Ne Win, the Burmese army strongman, and imprisoned in a military “rest camp” near Rangoon for the next four years. For the past 18 months, U Nu has been plotting his comeback. “I cannot tell you exactly at what time and in what month we will celebrate victory,” he said in his broadcast. Less inclined to generalize, his lieutenants flatly predict “final victory” some time in 1971.

Pagodas of Sand. At 63, U Nu is opening yet another round in one of Asia’s longest-running contests for power. The moonfaced, celibate Buddhist monk became the Union of Burma’s first Premier when the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. He was gentle and compassionate, but he was also a sucker for a motley assortment of stargazers; one legendary day, presumably with appropriate astrological advice, he ordered 60,000 pagodas to be constructed—all of sand. The egregious corruption of his regime angered Burma’s small middle class, and when he established Buddhism as the state religion, the non-Buddhist 15% of the population was understandably outraged. By 1958, U Nu’s rather whimsical administration was in such disarray that he voluntarily stepped aside to give Ne Win, his tough army chief, a chance to set things straight. U Nu returned to power in 1960 in a landslide election victory. But in 1962, Ne Win threw him out in a lightning coup, jailed 2,000 dissidents, put the country under martial law and set its potentially rich economy on what he called “the Burmese way to socialism.”

Eight years later, as Ne Win himself once admitted in a rare moment of candor, Burma is “in a mess.” The economy, almost totally nationalized, has virtually ceased to function. Last spring the state-owned distribution system collapsed altogether, and Rangoon shoppers who queue up before dawn are lucky if the shelves are not totally bare a few minutes after the People’s Stores open. Prices have risen fivefold since 1962, but rice exports, once the largest in the world, are down to less than a third of their precoup levels.

In the countryside, Burma has a whole series of wars in progress. Private armies led by hill-tribe warlords wage a running battle for autonomy with the despised lowlanders from Rangoon. Rangoon and Peking recently agreed to exchange ambassadors once again (they were recalled during the Cultural Revolution in 1967); yet the Chinese have been quietly supporting a new group of Communist insurgents who have frequently bloodied Ne Win’s 150,000-man army in clashes in Burma’s sparsely populated northeast. Something less than half of the country (pop. 27 million) is really under Rangoon’s control.

A Budding Castro. U Nu has been trying to get his own campaign going in Burma since mid-1969, when he staged a number of phony fainting spells and got Ne Win to let him seek “medical treatment” abroad. Last November he alighted in Thailand, where he was granted political asylum. He moved into a Florida-style villa in one of Bangkok’s heavily American suburbs and started to style himself as a budding Castro. For many months, as he told TIME Correspondent Stanley Cloud last week, he and his group of aging Burmese exiles lived “from hand to mouth.” Then, some time last summer, funds started coming in from “individual friends,” who are said to include Swiss financiers and Hong Kong Chinese.

Whatever it comes from, the backing has been sufficient to finance a clandestine operation equipped with a $5,000 offset press, radio transmitters, and something like 3,000 recruits who range into Burma from four border training camps. It costs roughly $7 a month to supply each man with food, crisp new U.S. fatigues and M1, M-2 and M-16 rifles. General Bo Let Ya, who organized the Burmese army in the 1940s and now heads U Nu’s “war council,” claims that his commanders draw only $7 a month, plus 25¢ in “pocket money.” Though the Thais have nominally friendly relations with the Ne Win government, Bangkok is fretful over signs of a Chinese-Burmese rapprochement, and many suspect that sympathetic Thai ministers simply wink at U Nu’s activities.

Fits of Rage. U Nu will have to rally considerable support within Burma if he is to have anywhere near the “100% chance of success” that his followers claim. He is in tight with the Buddhist priesthood, and he is still regarded as something of a holy man by the Burmese peasantry. By promising them virtual autonomy in a future United States of Burma, he has managed to get the Karens, the Mons, the Chins, the Shans and other hill minorities to join him in a United National Liberation Front. He can claim at least theoretical support of 20,000 men under arms. The key to the struggle, however, is not U Nu’s army but Ne Win’s. He has taken care to make the Burmese army the one truly privileged class in socialist Burma—too privileged, perhaps, to think seriously of defecting to U Nu, as he hopes.

Ne Win is a suspicious man who used to go to Vienna twice a year for psychiatric treatment; once, on a golf course, he beat an aide senseless with his clubs during a fit of rage. Of late, however, he has been trying to keep cool in the face of a threat that may or may not be as substantial as U Nu’s sand pagodas. His newspapers dismiss U Nu & Co. as “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” and his ministers, when asked about U Nu, reply: “U who?”

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