Monday, Aug. 30, 1954

The House on Stilts

(See Cover)

In Burma, men wear skirts. They wrap the skirts, which are called longyis, around the hips and gather them at the waist in one simple, unknotted hitch. The longyi has its advantages: one can bathe in it without undressing (by wrapping a dry longyi over the wet one and dropping the wet one in the bath), which is convenient since in Burma the poor usually bathe at public wells or faucets; one can also unhitch the longyi in Burma's uncomfortable humidity, spreading the cloth with an easy, billowing motion, letting in a refreshing draft of air without exposure. Longyis, like much else in Burma, may seem strange to Western eyes, but they are peculiarly suited to Burma.

Then there are the shirts, which in Burma are attachable-collar shirts—but without the collar. Men of station wear the collarband buttoned at the neck; lesser figures, especially in government offices, wear it open. The air of collarless informality is misleading; the Burmese are meticulous. It is considered improper for a Westerner to visit a Burmese in shorts or a tropical shirt; the Burmese, colonial subjects of Britain until 1948, are sensitive about Westerners who appear to take them for granted. Yet the proper Burmese are remarkably free with their language: Burmese women will astonish Westerners with vivid, physical references to males they do not like; Prime Minister U Nu, a Buddhist layman of unusual piety, will casually refer to Communists as "Kwe-Ma-Tha," meaning "dog-bitch-sons."

Spirits & Stars. In Burma, land of Buddhist calm, no one is ever far from a remote and terrible world, a world of spirits and stars, a world of violence. It is only 69 years since Burma's last King, Thibaw, ordered 500 of his subjects and 100 foreigners to be buried alive at the gates of his palace, believing that their spirits would protect his soul. Only the timely arrival of the British Empire troops prevented the mass executions.

In modern Rangoon (pop. 700,000).

Burma's stately, rectilinear capital, the visitor may still come by night upon lanterns or candles at dangerous street intersections; they are placed there by superstitious Burmese to attract by night the spirits of those killed in street accidents.

In Rangoon too, the well-bred gentleman at dinner has probably consulted an astrologer over the timing of his current business deal, or of the next union with his wife, should an heir be desired. Burma's bustling Socialist government employs a "Board of Astrologers" which similarly advises the nation upon the timing of significant events. The respected Daw Mya Yi (Madame Loving Emerald) recently set the date of her daughter's wedding after consultations with her personal astrologer; her husband, Prime Minister U Nu, did not object.

Burma, this faraway land of strange customs, has suddenly become newly important to Americans, a few thousand of whom have fought there, most of whom know it only remotely through a haze of symbols—Terry and the Pirates, The Road to Mandalay, Errol Flynn striding triumphant down the Burma Road. By the light of the flames that roared up over Indo-China, the dark and distant land of Burma has become visible. Can Burma defend its 1,000-mile Red China frontier by itself? Can Burma be saved? Will it get help—or accept it?

Freedom & Chaos. Burma is a land that has not known peace for twelve years. The Japanese and the British twice fought over it during World War II. Burma won its independence and plunged into chaos, headlong and unready. Since then, the Burmese have been fighting disciplined Communist armies and a motley crew of guerrillas and bandits. But recently there have been hopeful changes. In the cold war's continental context, they are small changes; yet relative to the crumble and despair of Southeast Asia, they are significant, even sweeping:

¶ Burma has just about defeated its Communist insurrection—with no sizable help from the West.

¶ Burma is launching an ambitious program of land reform, infant industrialization and social welfare—once more, with no sizable help from the West.

¶ Burma is inspiring perhaps the most remarkable Buddhist revival in centuries, that is becoming in itself the focus of a new and powerful antiCommunism.

Burma, in short, is pulling itself out of its chaos. In its small-power context, it is working its own counterrevolution, employing a trinity of arms, ideology and religion that might prove to be a workable Asian alternative to Communism.

The man responsible for this show of hope in the land of spirits and stars is Burma's Prime Minister. U Nu.

Talent & Inspiration. U Nu, a little-known yet extraordinary man of 47, is coming into the headlines with his country. He is coming with reluctance and grave misgivings. "I am a dreamer, a writer," he says. "Framing rules and so on makes my head ache." U Nu once confessed to himself that he might some day become the Bernard Shaw of Burma, for he had "the talent and the inspiration." Instead, U Nu became Free Burma's first Prime Minister, and has remained so—despite four attempts to resign—for the past 6^ years. U Nu is a devout Buddhist who once hesitated to kill a cobra for fear of transgressing the Buddhist precept: "Thou shalt not kill ... All living creatures are subject to their destiny." U Nu, man of peace, has had to direct a pentagonal civil war. U Nu is a man of infinite modesty and quietness; he likes to drive out, on afternoons when he can get free, to a "meditation house" built on stilts, a tall man's height from the ground. U Nu must now meditate upon the fate of Indo-China, and he does not shrink from its implication: "Most of the countries of Southeast Asia are like this house," U Nu tells his visitors. "As the wind blows, they go to and fro like this."UNu flaps his hands.

"The Wolf of Man." U Nu is a man of rough and unfamiliar plainness. His head is round, his mouth seems rather large for his face, and his brown eyes fix visitors with peculiar intentness. His manner is sedate; his piety is apparent, and sincere. He betrays no concern that a Rangoon magazine is currently serializing a novel called Man the Wolf of Man (written in 1943) with a remarkable autobiographical preface by its author, U Nu.

"In his native town," Author U Nu wrote of himself in the third person, "the nickname of Tate Sanetha, Saturday-born street Arab, was well known to everybody . . .* By the age of twelve he was a heavy drinker. Often as a sequel to his drinking bouts, his stupefied little body might be seen carried home on someone's shoulder. His father, deeply ashamed and hopeless of reclaiming him, could only banish him to live as he would in a paddy godown outside the town. The boy brewed his own liquor there."

This way of life continued until "something deep down inside him suddenly changed ... A cool moonlight night, a verdant prospect, pretty women, sweet music began to move him profoundly. Whenever he was moved by beauty, he wanted to be alone with his joy." The picture of a Burmese society girl, ripped from a newspaper, was U Nu's talisman, inspiring him "to do good deeds, champion the weak, subdue the oppressors."

At the University of Rangoon, where he graduated in philosophy, U Nu wrote sonnets, "mostly to lampoon rival football teams," and read avidly—Shaw, Shakespeare, Havelock Ellis, Karl Marx. Then he became a schoolteacher, wrote some plays with Freudian themes, and directed his sonnets at Mya Yi, the school board chairman's daughter, with whom he later eloped. Under the spell of a learned Rangoon editor named U Ba Cho, the young playwright got interested in both Buddhism and his country's fight for independence. The zealotry of his politics and religion astonished his friends.

How to Win Friends. The fight for freedom was a young man's fight: Burma's middle class and middle-aged were standing aside, and the University of Rangoon's young radicals could go far. U Nu re-entered the university as a graduate law student. One year later he was leading the celebrated Students' Strike of 1936, burning the Union Jack before Rangoon's colonial Law Courts. U Nu joined the intensely nationalist "We Burmans" Society, whose members defiantly called each other "Thakin" (or "master"), the word the British expected subservient Burmese to call the white man. U Nu became Thakin Nu. One of his schoolmates and fellow rebels was Thakin Than Tun, who now commands the Communist army in Burma; another Thakin runs the rival Trotskyite or Red Flag Communist army. U Nu drank deeply of Marx, but he mixed his drinks. During these turbulent 19305, he translated into Burmese another book that had influenced him: Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

When World War II came, Burma's young Thakins offered to help the British if they would guarantee Burma's independence. The British coldly declined, so the Thakins supported the Japanese. The British later threw U Nu and his friends into jail for sedition.

In 1942 the Japanese invaded Burma, and the people, believing that the Japanese had come to liberate them, crowded out to greet the soldiers. "When the Japanese bombers came," said U Nu, "the people would not take cover. They tore their shirts, sang, danced, clapped their hands, shouted and turned somersaults as if they did not care a curse what happened." One day U Nu came upon a procession, led by monks, bearing gifts of rice, bananas and melons to the Japanese soldiers. Several hours later, U Nu met the same procession, limping home and disillusioned. "We expected the Japanese commander to be thankful," one of the marchers explained, "but all he did was to take his hand from his trousers pocket and give us a hard slap in the face." Thereupon, U Nu and the marchers, as Burmese often do in moments of desperation, spontaneously burst out laughing.

The laughter did not last; the desperation did. In time, the Japanese gave Burma its first nominal all-Burmese government, with U Nu as Foreign Minister, but he wore, as he put it, a "Made-in-Japan stamp" on his forehead. In 1944 the disillusioned Burmese rose up against the Japanese as 250,000 Allied troops poured in through the jungles.

The Cabinet Is Dead. After liberation, Burma's course towards freedom ran swiftly in two confluent streams: the Thakins whipped up anti-British strikes against the returning colonial diehards; in London, the British nation was undergoing its historic change of heart. In 1946 Britain offered Burma self-government "either within or without the British Commonwealth." Burma's stars at last seemed favorable: 31-year-old General Aung San, commander of the Burmese Defense army, agreed to lead the Cabinet; 39-year-old U Nu, anxious to return to his writing, became Speaker of Burma's brand-new Constituent Assembly.

Yet behind Burma's stars lurked violence: on July 19, 1947, three assassins strolled casually into Rangoon's Secretariat, burst into the council chamber and sprayed the ministers with Sten-gun bullets ; General Aung San and six of his colleagues were killed, and nowhere in all Burma, it seemed, could experienced men be found to replace them. Unwillingly, a would-be playwright laid aside his pen. "I am glad to inform you," the British governor told the saddened land, "that Thakin Nu has agreed to form a new council."

"This Is Our Land!" At 4:20 a.m., Jan. 4, 1948 (the hour considered auspicious by the astrologers), Burma's six-starred flag arose in total independence from the British Empire. Only two other nations had so quit the Empire before: Eire and the 13 American Colonies. The British governor drove off through the crowded streets to H.M.S. Birmingham, and that night in Rangoon, the nation rejoiced ; musicians beat ancient drums with sticks made from lions' bones, and surging, golden-skinned Burmese chanted their national anthem:

Until the end of time This is our land!

But once more, it seemed, Burma's stars were unfavorable. In the new republic's first year of freedom, no fewer than 40% of Burma's elected M.P.s and their supporters came out in armed revolt against Prime Minister U Nu. Trade, commerce and government revenues slumped; the civil service fell away, demoralized. In police HQ, Pegu Province, a weary superintendent checked his dossier: "Of 21 stations in my district, I hold only six. The other 15 are held by five kinds of insurgents." In faraway London, Winston Churchill, then in opposition, rumbled:

"Burma is descending into a state of anarchy, tempered by Communism."

The chain reaction of disaster:

¶ Red Flag Trotskyites, 6.000 strong, rebelled first, in protest against even negotiating for independence with Prime Minister Attlee. Their leader: Thakin Soe, 48, onetime clerk in the Burma Oil Co. and jailmate of Prime Minister U Nu.

¶ White Flag Communists, 13,000, ordered into rebellion March 1948, in Moscow's first postwar campaign to undermine Southeast Asia.

¶ Burmese Army Deserters, 8,000 professionals, rebelled in July 1948, protesting U Nu's decision to fight the Communists, who had been the army's old comrades in the struggle for independence

¶ Karen National Defense Organization, 12,000 militants among Burma's 2,000,000 predominantly Christian Karen people, rebelled in August 1948, demanding a separate Karen state on the Thailand border.

¶ Chinese Nationalists, remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's beaten army, driven into Burma from Red China in 1949.

"The outbreaks were dealt with as best we could," said U Nu. "Only after some time did we realize our mistakes." He first tried to win the Communists back into "leftist unity" by appeasement; he referred to them as "ignoramuses" in their deviation from the true Marxism, and drafted a 15-point plan calling for the propagation of "Marxist doctrine" (a plan he now very much regrets). The Communist answer was characteristic: they gathered their forces, and struck when they were ready. "Give us three years," cried Communist Than Tun in 1948, "and Burma will be ours!" Prime Minister Nu, the Buddhist who would not kill the cobra, had a battle on his hands.

War & Sympathy. U Nu regrouped Burma's shaky 12,000-man combat force, its three-fighter air force, and stopped the Communists seven miles from Rangoon. In the spring of 1949, U Nu flew north in his flowing longyi and organized the recapture of Mandalay. In 1950 and 1951, Burma's army gained the decisive Irrawaddy Plain. In 1952 the Burmese edged the Chinese Nationalists behind the deep-cut Salween gorges. For a man of peace, U Nu had accomplished a reasonable military job.

U Nu was determined from the start, however, that Burma's civil war must become something more than a conventional deployment of military force. He could not see it all yet. but in his mind lay the vague shape of a counterrevolution, many-sided, thorough.

U Nu turned first to diplomacy. He eased the Karen rebellion by appointing Karen leaders to his Cabinet, by promising the Karens an autonomous state within the Union of Burma. He eased the Chinese Nationalist crisis through the U.N.; the U.S. recently flew out more than half of the Nationalists to Formosa, and the rest are considered leaderless and confinable. U Nu persistently offered the Communists their lives and a course in democracy if they would turn in their arms and surrender; 4,000 did.

Benevolent State. As the influence of his youthful government moved out towards Burma's wild green frontiers, U Nu put in more work on his counterrevolution.

U Nu is a Socialist who sometimes talks like a Marxist (his closest ideological neighbors seem to be the Yugoslav Reds). U Nu's constitution proclaims that the state is the ultimate owner of all land; in collective-minded Burma, no one will eventually own more than 50 acres, a two-bullock plot. U Nu's principal associates, Defense Minister U Ba Swe and Industries Minister U Kyaw Nyein. both talk as if Burma must be led towards total nationalization of industry, total cooperative ownership and working of the land.

This program of Socialization, with its concomitant welfare state (the Burmese call it Pyidawtha, or "Good Benevolent Welfare"), is already so popular that Burma appears to be heading towards a one-party Socialist state. There is neither basis nor demand for a conservative opposition, for "capitalism" is considered synonymous with "colonialism" and is therefore damned. U Ba Swe. the Socialist Party boss, freely recognizes the total predominance of Socialism, "but what is one to do?" Prime Minister U Nu is hard put to reassure skeptical Westerners: "If there is only one party, it is because the people prefer that party . . . There is no danger as long as that one party believes in democracy."

"Cult of the Gun." U Nu will argue Marxism with Communists over a pot of plain tea, but he will not let them undermine free Burma with a gun. As Prime Minister, he goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his people understand this, the difference he considers vital. "For 2,000 years." he cried, "we in Burma had the tradition that he who can kill a King becomes a King . . . The conflict is not between government and rebels, but a conflict between . . . the rights of the people and the cult of the gun." He tells his people: "Beware of Pied Pipers."

To help make his definition stick. U Nu challenged the Communists to free elections; they declined. He put his old playwriting "talent and inspiration" to work, dashed off an eight-scene morality play called The People Win Through, in which villainous Communists shoot the hero at the end. In this play (required reading in Burma's secondary schools), U Nu lets his characters speak his message. A Civil Servant complains: "Communists mustn't breathe through their own noses . . . They know perfectly well that white is white, but their bosses tell them that white is black: black it is for them . . ." A Guer rilla explains: "I'm fighting the Communists ... to prevent the people from being led about on a nose rope like castrated cattle." And A Refugee returns to report: "The Communists have given us a New Order . . . Break wind and you're hauled off to the people's court . . ."

"Thadu, Thadu, Thadu." The unique factor of Burma's counterrevolution—and the one that owes most to U Nu—is its Buddhist revival. "Karl Marx had very limited knowledge." says U Nu, "which is not equivalent to one-tenth of a particle of dust beneath the feet of Lord Buddha."

For more than 2,000 years, Buddhism has tended to unify Burma's different peoples; every Burmese village has its monastery, almost every hill its crowning pagoda, gold-leaf or whitewashed in the sun. "We will suffuse the whole world with loving thoughts," teaches Buddha the Guide, and the voices of authoritarians, like Mao Tse-tung, ring strangely in the Burmese consciousness. "We want to take the enemy's eyes and ears and seal them." cries Mao Tse-tung. "We want to throw them into utter confusion, driving them mad."

U Nu, son of a merchant who sold religious articles, brought sacred Buddhist relics back from Ceylon and sent them on a 20-city tour of Burma; he built a great Peace Pagoda seven miles from Rangoon, then spent $6,000,000 on two dozen more buildings, including a man-made cave, to accommodate the Sixth World Buddhist Council. He ordered department heads to dismiss civil servants 30 minutes ahead of time if they wished to meditate; he put his own Cabinet to work beside the laborers on pagoda construction. He remitted prison sentences of convicts who passed exams in Buddhism.*

U Nu gets up each morning at 4 o'clock to meditate for a couple of hours. For a while he became a total vegetarian, but the effect of his denials grew so marked—his eyes almost failed him last year—that doctors persuaded him to take "a little fish." In 1950, then 43 and the father of five children, U Nu chose to enter the state of Bramachariya, or sexual abstinence, which is considered "extraordinary" in that Buddhism does not require such abstinence of its lay supporters. One day in Parliament, U Nu introduced a bill for the promotion of religion. Unanimously the M.P.s passed it; in unison they intoned. "Thadu, Thadu, Thadu," which amounted to a vote of confidence in U Nu's religious leadership. Thadu is the Burmese word for both "Amen" and "Well done."

Small-Power Success. Burma is still a land of violence, compounded now by some of the inevitable parasites of Socialism: graft, bureaucratic confusion, the arrogance of petty officials. Yet by its own measurable standards and in its own context, Burma is doing well. U Nu has dropped the prewar title, "Thakin." considering that the Burmese are now masters in their house (U means roughly "Respected Sir," or "Uncle").

Burma's army, now grown to 60,000 men, appears to have the civil war in hand: the Trotskyites are through; the Communists, down to half-strength, have scattered into bands not 400 strong, and their leader. Than Tun, is in flight; 22,000 rebels in all have surrendered. U Nu's Benevolent State is so popular that enterprising Burmese salesmen name good things after it (a cool, refreshing glass of "Benevolent" milk) and Rangoon buses proclaim their "Benevolent" destination. U Nu is starting slowly to redistribute 10 million acres of land, and he is paying the landlords dusty but democratic compensation—one year's rent. Another Burmese item of note: a contract has been let for a steel rolling mill. The future looks so bright to them from Rangoon that the country's young Socialists tell Westerners they are more worried about the sagging world price of rice—Burma's principal source of revenue—than about the civil war. But in the context of a small power like Burma, U Nu's achievements can be delusive. Red China has been occupied elsewhere.

Through the 11th and 12th centuries, Burma's great empire at Pagan shone glamorously in its own context; in the 13th century, Tartary's Kublai Khan casually ordered it snuffed out. As casually as Kublai Khan, Red China's Liu Shao-chi recently marked counterrevolutionary Burma for conquest by renewed infiltration. Red China is already pulling Burma's Communist remnants back toward its border, to a "Yenan" redoubt where they can be reinforced and rearmed. Chou En-lai is pressing U Nu to sign a non-aggression pact that will help sanctify Red China's "Asia for the Asians" doc trine. Chou has invited U Nu to visit Peking, and last week U Nu accepted—without saying when he could be free.

Big Power Concern. In the Pentagon's "big picture," Burma is an area of denial, something to be kept from the Communists if possible, but far from the fundamental strategic centers of power, e.g., the Urals, Manchuria; the Pentagon does not want to get bogged down there. The State Department would like to wheedle U Nu into an anti-Communist bloc-but U Nu shies instinctively from blocs. Like India's Nehru, he believes that blocs encourage war. Last year, U Nu cut off U.S. Point Four aid in token of his "non-alignment." During the Geneva Conference, U Nu learned further grounds for caution: 12 million neighboring Vietnamese were handed over to Communism; U.S. oratory did not save them. "It is criminal, unforgivable," complained Burma's U Kyaw Nyein, "that the super-power upon whom so much depends should be the amateur . . . the Soviet Union the professional."

U Nu, long considered a docile member of the Nehru neutralist bloc, has recently developed an independence of his own. Though scrupulously determined not to be aligned, he once proclaimed: "Burma and America are in the same boat . . . We fight the same eVils." And he recently gave this confident advice: "Western blood need not be shed countering aggression in this area. Just make the countries of Southeast Asia strong." But if Southeast Asia's rickety house on stilts should continue to lose its supports, and Burma is endangered, what then? Answers U Nu, a man of Buddhist peace: "We would fight."

*Nu is a Saturday name, meaning "soft" or "gentle." The name of a Burmese child usually begins with one of the letters deemed auspicious for the day upon which he was born (e.g., K or G for Monday, T, D or N for Saturday). There are rarely family names, if at all. The Burmese also believe that a child's personality is often determined by his birthday, or by his demeanor at birth. "A man born on Monday will be jealous; on Tuesday, honest; on Wednesday, short-tempered but soon calm; on Thursday, mild; on Friday, talkative; on Saturday, hot-tempered and quarrelsome; on Sunday, parsimonious." *U Xu and 90% of the Burmese are Theravada Buddhists, accepting Buddhism as a way of life, not as a theocratic doctrine: they have no church, no God in the Western sense. U Nu is tolerant and approving of other "true" religions, e.g., Christianity. He insisted upon paying the expenses of Roman Catholic priests on a recent pilgrimage to Rome; his troops gave the Anglican Bishop of Rangoon, the Right Rev. George West, a safe-conduct across the lines into the rebel Karen districts so that he could administer Communion to the villagers.