Once upon a time there was a Democractically elected PM in Burma

The House on Stilts(TIME)

Monday, Aug. 30, 1954

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.

see more:TIME

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