64. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Harriman)0


  • Recent Developments in Burma.

At Mr. Sullivan’s suggestion, we have prepared the following summary and interpretation of significant developments in Burma which took place during your recent absence in Latin America:1

The Situation—On November 14, Ne Win broke off peace talks with the White Flag Communists and their allies which had been in progress since late summer. In the following few days the Government arrested large numbers of opposition leaders (plus a few newspaper men and others) mainly from pre-Communist parties in the National United Front (NUF). About 700 have been apprehended in this latest wave of arrests.

The peace talks broke down over the terms of a cease-fire. The Government became convinced that the Communists were not, as Ne Win had hoped earlier, willing to subordinate their own political ambitions and cooperate with him under the banner of his “Burmese Way to Socialism”. The arrests of the pro-Communist NUF leaders apparently resulted from the NUF’s recent efforts to mobilize public pressure on the government to accept Communist terms.

It looks as though the breach with the Communists is final. Since August 14, the Communist negotiators have returned to their jungle headquarters under safe conduct; the government has launched a loud anti-Communist propaganda campaign; and there are reports of preparations to resume fighting. There has been no information on the whereabouts of the White Flag leaders who came back from Communist China last August.

Significance:Ne Win’s position and political stability in Burma may have been damaged by these events. The Ne Win regime was not popular before and opposition has been growing. Fed by the increasing discontent, the Communist insurgency might, when resumed, be a more serious threat than it was before. Also, the above-ground Communist [Page 142] organizations still have a capability for mischief, despite the recent arrests, and Ne Win seems to have no answer but more repression. Somewhat offsetting this enhanced threat of internal disorder is the probability that Ne Win, by returning to his traditional anti-Communist position, has quieted apprehensions in the Army and reduced the possibility of major defections in that quarter.

Assuming that internal chaos is not around the corner, the recent developments seem in other respects to be favorable to the United States. The danger that Ne Win could be hoodwinked into accepting a partnership with the Communists has receded. There is also less danger than before that NUF and Communist sympathizers will be able to infiltrate Ne Win’s new Burma Socialist Program Party and key positions in the government. In Burma’s foreign relations, there also may be benefits for us. Communist China had a stake in the talks as a result of having publicly cooperated in return of the White Flag leaders from China. Moscow, too, was somewhat involved since it had sought to counter China’s position with the White Flags by working through the NUF. Thus, the subversive strategies of both countries have been delivered a serious set-back. Ultimately this could cause Ne Win to reassess the value of United States friendship.

Our conclusions regarding United States policy are the same as those of the Embassy.2 There seems to be a possibility for at least modest improvement in the atmosphere of U.S. relations with the RGUB. However, this could be blighted if we should do anything now which the RGUB would regard as attempting to take advantage of this shift in domestic policy away from the Communists.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 BURMA. Confidential. Drafted by Dexter and cleared by Hannah.
  2. Harriman was the Chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Inter-American Economic and Social Council Ministerial Meetings held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 11–18.
  3. The Embassy’s assessment was transmitted in telegram 348 from Rangoon, November 26. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 BURMA)