56. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Kennedy0


  • The Burma Problem

In his memorandum dated April 23,1 Mr. Bundy expressed your concern over the situation in Burma and your wish to know whether there is anything we can do about it which we are not already doing.

Mr. Bundy also asked if there is any way in which we might get closer to Ne Win and influence him against pursuing “so pro-Chinese a course.”

The attached background paper reflects the Department’s opinion that Ne Win is following a course that is not particularly pro-Chinese by Burmese standards. Although his policies are not very helpful I see little to be done that we are not already doing, to influence the situation directly.

In view of the psychological bent of the Burmese we are limited to indirect means to influence the direction of Burmese policies and improve relations with the Ne Win regime.

Last year we invited Ne Win to visit the United States as a Presidential guest but he was unable to come. We will be watching for development of conditions in Burma which may make it appropriate to reextend this invitation. We are also keeping alert for opportunities to bring Ne Win in contact in Rangoon with important US officials and other Americans when this can be done without our appearing to be making special efforts to woo him. For example, we understand that Chester Bowles will be in the area in July and hope he will be able to visit Rangoon.

In our indirect efforts, we are seeking to enlist the help of non-Communist Asian nations. For example, we have tried to encourage Thailand to work with Burma to eliminate potential difficulties over Chinese Irregular troops still in the area. Also, we are suggesting that Souvanna and the Indian Government help promote Burmese understanding of the Laos problem.

George W. Ball2
[Page 119]




  • The Burma Problem

The following observations lead to the conclusion, expressed in the covering memorandum, that the Ne Win regime is not, in fact, particularly pro-Chinese, and that we are doing everything we can to improve relations between Ne Win and ourselves.

Neutralism—Burma’s neutralism is deeply ingrained. It is derived from the anti-colonial tradition, reinforced by a lack of self-confidence in Burma’s ability to deal with the outside world. The Burmese would like to go about their business with as little foreign involvement as possible.

Attitude Toward Communist ChinaNe Win’s attitude toward Communist China is about the same as that of previous Burmese Governments. It is based upon an overriding sense of vulnerability to Chinese power and reflects the conclusion of most Burmese that the only defense is to avoid provocation and to cultivate Peking’s good will.

However, this does not mean subservience to Chinese influence. Burma continues to show a degree of independence, especially where China-Burma relations are not directly involved. For example, Burma under Ne Win has not subscribed to the Chinese position on the Sino–Indian border dispute or on the Laos crisis.

In domestic policies, also, Ne Win is going his own way. The influence of Marxism-Leninism is evident in his domestic program, which he calls “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, but it does not seem to be inspired particularly by Communist China. Moreover, Ne Win continues to fight Communist insurgents and to deny aboveground Communist groups any participation in his Government.

Ideological Danger—There is a danger, of course, that the Ne Win Government’s socialist ideology may cause it to look more to Communist countries, including Communist China, for advice, assistance and inspiration at the expense of the West. Offsetting this is Ne Win’s aversion to foreign influence and fear of Chinese domination, and also Burmese public opinion.

Xenophobia—Xenophobia is an important ingredient in Burmese foreign policy and is an important source of our difficulties in Burma. It was a major reason for Ne Win’s decision to eliminate the Ford and Asia Foundations and to curtail the Fulbright Program. This is an attitude deeply rooted in Burmese national psychology. It is directed at all foreign countries, though it has been displayed most dramatically in relations [Page 120] with the United States. This is partly because the United States “presence” in Burma has been bigger and, therefore, from the xenophobic point of view, more objectionable than that of other countries. Also, in dealing with the United States, Ne Win is not restrained by the fear that inhibits him in dealing with Communist China.

Internal Stability—A potential threat to Burmese neutrality has always been posed by recurring political instability in the country, and this danger exists today. Ne Win’s domestic policies have aroused considerable opposition which, if unchecked, could produce serious unrest. Out of this could come an opportunity for the Communists to seize power. However, our hope is that opposition forces of moderation will develop in an orderly manner and, ultimately, either force the Ne Win Government into more moderate channels or displace it without a civil war which the Communists could exploit.

What the United States Can Do—Although important United States interests are not directly threatened just now, we continue to view Burma with concern and to seek means of improving our relations with it. Unfortunately, possibilities for influencing the situation are limited. Because of Ne Win’s hypersensitive attitude toward United States influence, the present does not appear to be propitious for attempting any new direct approaches to him. Also, we must take into account the growing domestic opposition to Ne Win’s policies and avoid actions aimed at getting closer to him which might have the side effect of discouraging opposition elements who favor principles more congenial to the United States than does Ne Win.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL BURMA. Secret. Drafted by Dexter and cleared by Koren.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 55.
  3. Printed from a copy that indicates Ball signed the original.