- Hnin Wint Nyunt Hman
On the 4th of January 2018, Myanmar celebrated its 70th anniversary of independence from colonial rule and its membership in the community of sovereign nations.
Upon reflection, we recall and honour the independence struggles of other Afro-Asian nations and their subsequent endeavours in national development – endeavours in which Myanmar had provided valuable assistance as a friend and a responsible member of the global community.
Our commitment to Afro-Asian independence and prosperity was demonstrated at the multilateral level by our country, at the individual level by our citizens serving in international agencies, and at the bilateral level by supporting our fellow Afro-Asian nations in their fight for independence.
When Myanmar was admitted to the United Nations in April 1948, it promptly set to work on the task of promoting decolonization in Asia and Africa. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Myanmar adopted an ideologically neutral foreign policy. However, there was nothing neutral about it when it came to the colonies’ fight for independence. We espoused the principle, expressed by our delegate U Hla Aung to the UN Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories, that “good government is no substitute for self-government”.
To that end, Myanmar boldly took the lead in submitting resolutions on Tunisian and Moroccan independence at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Myanmar was in the vanguard with other Afro-Asian nations in requesting that the UNGA agenda include discussions on the issue of independence for the colonies and UN Trust Territories – colonies supervised by the UN Trusteeship Council, which was entrusted with colonial territories demanding self-government or independence. It was also an active member of the Committee on South-West Africa for an independent Namibia. Most widely known, perhaps, was its fight for Algerian independence at the UN. Myanmar’s Permanent Representative at the time, U Thant, was Chairman of the Afro-Asian Standing Committee on Algerian Independence. U Thant’s efforts won him accolades from his colleagues at the UN and were instrumental in winning overwhelming support for his election as the first non-European UN Secretary General, a moment of pride for all Afro-Asian peoples.
Newly independent Myanmar then fought fiercely for the cause of independence for the colonized, its delegation publicly stating that “we consider it a great duty to fight for freedom, for our freedom as well as for the freedom of all those peoples who are less fortunate than we are”.
Myanmar matched words with action, and in 1955, made its first bid for admission to the Trusteeship Council, then one of the Principal Organs of the UN and with general jurisdiction over the individual UN member nations administering the Trust Territories. It lost the first round to Syria and Guatemala but was admitted upon its second attempt, serving as a member from 1955 to 1961 and as Chair of the Council in its last year. Once on the Council, Myanmar’s position was loud and clear – to attain as rapidly as possible for the Trust Territories, “self-government or independence and nothing less”.
To that effect, Myanmar prioritized education and economic development in the administration of Trust Territories, to empower them for self-government through the surest and quickest route possible. As a further act of political empowerment, it encouraged presentation of petitions by Trust inhabitants directly to the Trusteeship Council, with or without the approval of administering colonialist countries, and promoted participation of the Trust Territories as associate members of the Council.
Myanmar’s endeavours accelerated decolonization in Africa and Asia, changing the fates of colonized peoples across the world. Tunisia and Morocco celebrated their independence in 1956, followed by the Malaya Federation (in 1957), Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Cyprus, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, and Togo (in 1960), and Sierra Leone (in 1961).
Our political leaders believed that independence alone was insufficient – peace also had to be kept. In April 1955, together with India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Myanmar organized the first Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. This Conference, founded on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence established among Myanmar and its two neighbours China and India, and a meeting of nations committed to neutrality in the Cold War, was a crucial step towards the Non-Aligned Movement. The first “non-aligned” movement on a global scale, this Bandung Conference with its creed to oppose “colonialism in all its forms” and to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation, was instrumental in helping neutral nations to stay neutral at the height of the Cold War between the Eastern and Western blocs.
Likewise, Myanmar acknowledged that peace needed to be reinforced through economic development. As such, it consistently voted affirmatively at the UN on expansion of the technical assistance program for developing nations. Incidentally, Myanmar was not merely at the receiving end of international aid. Though as the world’s biggest exporter of rice its economy was troubled by a fall in global rice prices after the Korean War, Myanmar’s pledged financial contributions to the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA) through 1955 amounted to over USD 60,000 – a modest sum for a rich nation, but a substantial one for a poor, underdeveloped one, and an indisputable demonstration of its commitment to international development.
As early as 1951, Myanmar joined Cuba to sponsor a resolution calling for the channelling of development funds through an International Development Authority. Unsuccessful but undeterred, Myanmar joined several other Afro-Asian countries sponsoring proposals for the establishment of the International Finance Corporation and the Special UN Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED) or the Special Fund, which later merged with the EPTA to form the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1965, under Myanmar UN Secretary General U Thant.
Before U Thant was elected Secretary General, he had been an active and strong champion, as Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the UN, of the cause of Afro-Asian nations’ independence and development. In addition to fighting for Algerian independence, he also chaired the Reconciliation Commission for the Congo in 1960-61 and the Committee on Establishment of a UN Capital Development Fund.
U Thant’s work for world peace and development constitutes a long list. As UN Secretary General, his successful mediation in the Cuban Missile Crisis prevented tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union from escalating into a possible third world war. It was an act of such great service to humanity, that President John F. Kennedy claimed, “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.” During his tenure, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the UN Industrial and Development Organization all came into being, shaping the UN into the foremost provider of development assistance that it is today – a firm commitment by a citizen of Myanmar to the cause of world peace and equal development for all nations.
In the bilateral context Myanmar assisted, in no small measure, countries in the region struggling to free themselves from the yoke of colonial rule. It is remarkable that Myanmar first exercised its foreign policy influence to strengthen bilateral relations with countries in the region even before it gained independence.
Our Indonesian friends may recall that Myanmar while still under the post-war transitional colonial administration, urged the Indian government to hold a conference to promote Indonesian independence. On 23 March – 2 April 1947, the Asian Relations Conference was thus held in New Delhi. Myanmar boldly condemned Dutch military aggression in Indonesia, clearly demonstrating its support for independence in Indonesia. We offered more than just verbal support. When the Indonesian fight for independence against Dutch colonialists faced a shortage of arms, Myanmar sent five DC-3 type planes, a large part of our fledging air force.
We also remember that incident in early 1948, when RI-001 Seulawah (a DC-3 Dakota commercial plane) was stranded in Kolkata, unable to return to its homeland due to a second Dutch invasion, and was given a place to land at Mingalardon Airport in Yangon. As the Myanmar government then required more planes and the Indonesian government was in need of more funds for their independence struggle, an arrangement was made for us to lease the plane, to the mutual benefit of our two countries.
With RI-001 Seulawah’s first flight in January 1949, from Yangon to Kolkata, began what is known worldwide today as Garuda Indonesia, a state-owned airline of Indonesia. The revenue from the lease of RI-001 helped Indonesia to purchase two more planes, RI-007 and RI-009, instrumental in finally defeating the Dutch colonialists. RI-001 also transported weapons and munitions, communication devices, medicine, and other essential military equipment to Aceh during the fight for independence. Upon independence, Indonesia gifted RI-007 to Myanmar as a token of gratitude.
This aircraft was used in the Myanmar air force and is now displayed at the Myanmar Defence Museum. President Sukarno called Myanmar “a comrade in struggling and fulfilling true independence”.
The Myanmar government also supported the struggle for Vietnamese independence with arms and munitions, and facilitated the establishment of then North Vietnam’s Propaganda and Information Agency in Yangon in 1948. This later became a consulate in 1954, the same year that our then Prime Minister U Nu visited Vietnam. Former Vietnamese Minister of Health Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach had been present at our very first Independence Day celebration on 4 January 1948. Within weeks, on 19 January 1948, a delegation of Myanmar youth travelled by air, train, and foot through Thailand and Laos to North Vietnam for a three-month period. On their return home to Yangon, the young people promoted the cause of Vietnamese independence among the public, forming a working committee to collect donations for funds, and to procure weapons, military equipment, and medicine.
Two attempts were made to transport these to North Vietnam. The first attempt was successful. A consignment including medicine, communication devices, tents, and over two hundred weapons and other military equipment traversed hostile territory through parts of Shan State, then across the Mekong river to Laos past French colonial troops, and then to the territory where North Vietnamese soldiers could collect the cargo. A second attempt was met with armed resistance in hostile territory, so the mission had to be aborted. To this day, our friendship with Vietnam has remained firm.
Myanmar was one of the first Asian countries to recognize the state of Israel, in December 1949. Our former Prime Minister U Nu was the first ever foreign dignitary and cabinet member to pay an official visit to Israel, in June 1955.
The timing was crucial, the visit momentous, as Israel was seeking international recognition and friends within the international community. This recognition and friendship from an active neutralist member of the UN and a founding member of the Afro-Asian Conference helped signal to the rest of the world – not just to the West, but also to the East – that Israel was indeed an independent, sovereign nation.
Seven decades after independence, Myanmar continues its endeavour towards nationwide peace and development. Our commitment to Afro-Asian peace and prosperity survived the assassination of our best and brightest on the eve of independence, the economic struggle we endured, our preoccupation with internal armed conflict and a foreign incursion, and the precarious position we held as a non-aligned nation between the Cold War’s push and pull of the East and the West.
Our fight for independence is over. But our fight for nationwide peace and development has yet to be won. The struggle for independence from colonial rule is finished. But we are faced with a different set of struggles and challenges.
It is important for all of us to remember, that as Afro-Asian nations which have been subjected to colonial rule, we each carry our own burdens of the legacy of colonialism, many of our peoples still caught in conflict. We push forward, at times painfully so, in our democracy building while our respective populations remain trapped in varying degrees of poverty. We fight to hold the fort against that tide of extremism in all its forms, while endeavouring to respect and uphold democratic values. We seek respect and equal treatment in the international system, while exercising our rights as sovereign states to choose our own national destinies, as many others before us has been permitted to do.
Acknowledging our common struggles past and present, on this 70th anniversary of our independence, we recall the memory of our shared colonial past with our neighbours and friends, to remember the ties that bind us – that as we were committed to each other then, we should be now. Our shared history reminds us all, and warrants constant recollection for posterity, that peace and development in our region has been and always will be, a collective endeavour.
(Hnin Wint Nyunt Hman is a researcher at the Myanmar-Institute of Strategic and International Studies. The views and opinions presented here are that of the author who bears all responsibility for any omission or error of facts).