Foreign Relations

   After Burma became an independent state in January 1948, the government of Prime Minister U Nu adopted a foreign policy based on the principles of neutralism and nonalignment, a trend that became more pronounced as the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, and the Burmese prime minister joined other Asian and African leaders at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Participants at the conference sought a "third way" between the type of communist revolution promoted by Russia (the Soviet Union) and the People's Republic of China and the "Free World" capitalism of the former imperial powers and the United States. U Nu had especially close ties to another prominent nonaligned leader, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, but also promoted friendly relations with anticommunist Thailand. One of Burma's earliest diplomatic crises involved Kuomintang (Guomindang) troops from China, who, with U.S. backing, attempted to establish anticommunist bases in Shan State in the 1950s. Although this caused serious problems in relations with Washington, Burma accepted foreign aid from Western countries, Japan (in the form of war reparations), and the Soviet Union.
   When parliamentary government was ended by General Ne Win in March 1962, the commitment to "positive neutrality" and nonalignment continued, but Ne Win added another theme: isolationism. Foreign firms were nationalized; trade with foreign countries declined steeply (except through the black market) because of the socialist commitment to economic autarky; South Asian (Indian and Pakistani) businesspeople were forced out of the country; cultural ties, including academic exchanges, with foreign countries were cut; and tourists were prohibited from entering the country until 1970, when a week-long visa was granted to generate foreign exchange. The Anti-Chinese Riots of June 1967 led to a diplomatic crisis with Beijing. The following year, the Chinese supported the establishment of a powerful Communist Party of Burma (CPB) base along the China-Shan State border that offered stiff resistance to central government troops until the CPB broke up in early 1989. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Ne Win's personal style of diplomacy seemed to gravitate toward the West, as his regime accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid from West Germany, Great Britain, and above all Japan, which had close ties to the United States. There was some resumption of cultural and other exchanges, although the Ne Win government remained basically very suspicious of foreigners.
   The power seizure by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in September 1988 changed Burma's foreign relations in fundamental ways: a new military-owned, state capitalist economy supplanted socialism, and the SLORC actively sought foreign private investment; relations with China grew close, particularly after the collapse of the CPB; and because of the new military regime's violations of human rights, relations with the United States and the European Union deteriorated sharply, with Western governments imposing limited economic and other sanctions. Many observers believe that the post-1988 regime has effectively abandoned neutrality because of its close ties with China, whose support in the military, economic, and diplomatic spheres has allowed it to turn a deaf ear to criticism from the West. Burma's achievement of membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997 marked a major break with the isolationism of the pre-1988 era, and relations have also improved with South Asian neighbors India and Bangladesh. In sum, the leaders of the State Peace and Development Council (as the SLORC was renamed in 1997) have exhibited considerable pragmatism and flexibility in their relations with other Asian states, in sharp contrast to the political hard line taken inside the country against domestic opposition.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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