Burmese opposition to British colonial rule emerged prior to World War II, but it was not until the Japanese occupation during the war that the drive for independence gained momentum. The Japanese co-opted Burmese nationalists such as Aung San, U Nu, and Ne Win. Some Burmese leaders, particularly Marxists, favored an antifascist alliance with the British. But Aung San—the most influential nationalist in the country—believed that cooperation with the Japanese would best serve Burmese interests. He and other top leaders, the so-called Thirty Comrades, cooperated with the Japanese after securing promises that independence would be granted.
As Tokyo's war fortunes waned, however, in 1944 Aung San turned against Japan and formed the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) in support of the Allies. Almost immediately, plans for self-government were adopted when the British retook Burma in May 1945. Whereas in most places the British immediately restored their colonial rule, the strength and diversity of nationalist Burmese sentiment discouraged them from doing so in Burma. The July 1947 assassination of Aung San and conflict within Burmese political circles threatened to derail the transition from colony to nation, but on 4 January 1948 the Union of Burma gained its independence.
Aung San had hoped that Burma would become a republic with a pluralistic society, fully incorporating its diverse array of ethnic minorities. His successor and Burma's first prime minister, U Nu, envisioned a different course, however, trying to synthesize Buddhism with socialism, which alienated many non-Burmese minorities. Further complicating matters, Burmese communists began their own insurrection within a few months of independence. By the mid-1950s Burma faced a multiparty civil war and was rapidly losing cohesion as a nation-state. Amid economic stagnation and growing ethnic insurgencies, in September 1958 General Ne Win and two other senior military officers seized power.
The so-called Bogyoke (General's) government accomplished two important goals. First, it resolved a significant border dispute with China, thereby improving relations with Beijing. Second, the government convinced some ethnic insurgents to quit their war with Rangoon. Still, it was clearly a military government, quick to eliminate dissent and punish opponents. Due to building pressure from the public, the generals finally agreed to hold elections in February 1960, resulting in a landslide victory for U Nu.
Despite the presumed legitimacy of the elections, the generals continued to plot. U Nu immediately revisited policies aimed at establishing majority rule in parliament and making Burma a Buddhist state, moves that again alienated ethnic minorities. By 1961, with the Shan and Kachin forming armies, Burma faced the specter of a civil war even worse than the first. On 2 March 1962 the generals launched another coup, overthrowing U Nu and restoring military rule.
Facing a cascade of economic and political problems, most Burmese accepted Ne Win's rationalization that democracy had failed. Moreover, many believed that ethnic minorities were the chief cause of their country's decline and tacitly endorsed a military solution. As one of the Thirty Comrades and a father of independence, Ne Win commanded great respect. This was especially felt within the army, which he set about rebuilding and expanding. In so doing, he appeased the only segment of Burmese society capable of opposing him.
Ne Win's Revolutionary Council governed the country by decree. The regime was anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and decidedly undemocratic. Ne Win's policies were fashioned from the so-called Burmese Way to socialism, a bizarre mix of militant nationalism, native religious practices, and a personalized brand of dictatorship predicated on control of the armed forces. Through the strength of the military, Ne Win eliminated much of his opposition. Opposition political parties were forcibly disbanded, leaving only his Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). To deflect public attention from intractable economic problems, Ne Win cultivated an aggressive xenophobia. Foreign businesses and their assets were seized. Anti-Chinese sentiment was particularly strong, frequently developing into purges.
Ne Win also sealed Burma off from the international community, which unquestionably aggravated its economic decline. Equally debilitating were the Revolutionary Council's largely unsuccessful wars with insurgents that lasted for almost thirty years. By the 1980s Burma had become one of the poorest and most despotic and isolated countries in the world.
Sporadic protests by intellectuals, students, workers, and Buddhist monks against Ne Win's rule did flare up from time to time. There were even occasional plots against him from within the armed forces. In fact, U Nu helped form an opposition movement that fought alongside ethnic insurgents such as the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Organization, the New Mon State Party, and the Shan State Army—each boasting armies of several thousand members. In addition, the Communist Party of Burma continued its war against Rangoon with help from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Meanwhile, new groups such as the Muslim Rohingya in Arakan and the Pa'o and Palaung in Shan began fighting for their independence from other ethnic minorities. The result was near chaos along Burma's frontiers.
In 1988 mass demonstrations against Ne Win were launched in Rangoon by the National League for Democracy (NLD). Ne Win resigned in September 1988 but retained influence behind the scenes. The new government, called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), was dominated by the Burmese Army. One of its first acts was to change the name of the country from the English "Burma" to the Burmese "Myanmar," hoping to instill nationalistic pride in its people. The SLORC also opened the country to limited foreign investment in hopes of alleviating some of its economic problems. With this, there was brief hope that Burma was changing for the better.
But the SLORC's leadership soon revealed itself to be just as brutal and despotic as its predecessor. Antigovernment protests were ruthlessly suppressed, with many opposition leaders jailed. Several hundred protesters were killed in September 1988 alone. Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic daughter of Aung San and the leader of the NLD, was put under house arrest in July 1989. Surprisingly confident that it would win, the new government yielded to international pressures and agreed to national elections in May 1990. The NLD swept the polls, but the army refused to yield power, and opposition was again crushed. The Burmese Army, renamed the State Peace and Development Council, continues to dominate the country with little sign of change.
Lintner, Bertil. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 1999.; Naw, Angelene. Aung San and the Struggle for Burmese Independence. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2001.; Pederson, Morton B., Emily Rudland, and Ronald J. May. Burma-Myanmar: Strong Regime, Weak State? Adelaide, Australia: Crawford House, 2000.; Steinberg, David I. Burma: The State of Myanmar. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001.