101. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Your Meetings with General Ne Win, Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of the Union of Burma

General Ne Win has been invited to the United States as a gesture of support for his efforts to maintain Burmaʼs non-alignment and independence and a reaffirmation of our willingness to accept true neutrality in a Southeast Asian State. The visit is also intended to dispel suspicions which Ne Win has long held that the United States is hostile to his government and help improve the atmosphere of our relations with Burma.

General Ne Win has visited the United States five times before, but never as head of government or chief of state. His last visit, in 1960 as Chief of Staff of the Burmese Armed Forces, left him and Madame Ne Win with a feeling of resentment over their treatment about which they are still sensitive.2

Since taking power in a military coup in 1963, General Ne Win has concentrated all power in his own hands. Internally, he has taken a strongly nationalistic approach, aimed at eliminating foreign influence and pulling Burma up by its own bootstraps. However, drastic nationalization of the economy, under a program of “Burmese socialism”, has resulted in serious mismanagement and economic disorder, and chronic problems of insurgency, concentrated in the ethnic minority areas, have continued.

In foreign relations, Ne Win has maintained a strict neutrality avoiding involvement or comment on issues not directly related to Burmese interests. Acutely conscious of Burmaʼs long and exposed border with Communist China, he has continued to regard the maintenance of good relations with Communist China as essential to prevent Burma from becoming another battlefield like Vietnam. At the same time he has indicated awareness of the importance of an American presence in Southeast Asia in permitting Burma to preserve its neutrality.

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There are no bilateral issues that need to be raised in this visit. Your meetings with Ne Win will, therefore, be more in the nature of an exchange of views on subjects of mutual interest. Ne Win may not initially be very forthcoming, and I suggest that you make a point of seeking out his opinions early in the conversation.

Recommended Topics to Raise:

Vietnam: The Burmese Government maintains a carefully neutral attitude on Vietnam, and has resisted Communist pressure to condemn our position there. Ne Win has an appreciation of the significance of the Vietnam struggle for Burma, although the dictates of avoiding provocation to Communist China will not permit him to say so publicly. I recommend that you have a full discussion with him of our position and aims in Vietnam and Southeast Asia as a whole.

Southeast Asian Regional Development: Burma has not taken part in regional development activities because of concern for its neutral status and belief that its limited resources should be confined to Burma. I suggest that you express your belief in the contribution regional development can make to improving the lives of all peoples in Southeast Asia and point out the encouraging progress made to date. I recommend that you do not press Ne Win specifically on participation, which he would be likely to resent.

Communist China: Although most Burmese see China as a long-term threat, their relations with Communist China to date have worked satisfactorily for them. I suggest that you explain our policy briefly and solicit General Ne Winʼs views. Since Ne Win has made a number of trips to Communist China, you may wish to ask him for his estimate of the recent developments in China as well as his views on the basic attitudes and motivations of the Chinese Communist leadership.

Topics General Ne Win May Raise:

Burmaʼs Non-aligned Policy: Ne Win has indicated sensitivity that the reasons for Burmaʼs non-alignment are not fully understood and he may wish to explain the rationale for his policy. I recommend you reassure General Ne Win of our understanding and respect for his non-alignment and his efforts to maintain Burmaʼs independence. You might also add we respect Burmaʼs right to choose its own way and have no wish to interfere in Burmaʼs internal affairs.

I am enclosing a copy of Ambassador Byroadeʼs cable3 discussing the visit, which I recommend that you read if you have not already done so.

Dean Rusk
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Attachment

VISIT OF GENERAL NE WIN OF THE UNION OF BURMA

Washington, September 8–10, 1966

Ambassador Byroadeʼs Cable of August 18 on

Meetings With General Ne Win

For the President and Secretary of State

As the visit of Ne Win of Burma will be unusual in a number of ways, I hope the President and Secretary can read this message prior to receiving him.

There are no current bilateral problems between the United States and Burma which need attention at the Head of State level: no agreement of any type will be sought; no assistance of any substance will be requested or accepted. The only document involved should be a communique4 acceptable to both but too mild to cause enthusiasm in either camp. This can probably be worked into final form before the meeting even starts.

This naturally raises the question as to what this visit is all about. Unless we goof badly, Ne Win will accomplish his primary purpose (see paragraph 1 below) simply by visiting America and being received by our President. Our primary purpose is to leave him with certain impressions and to dispel others. We will have to do it almost entirely by the manner in which we receive him, what we choose to talk about, and how we say it. The following constitutes the best guidance I can provide.

1.
Ne Winʼs primary purpose in visiting America is simply to prove his continuing neutrality. His recent visits to Peking and Moscow, and the burdensome number of visits he has had from Communist states of late, make him want to redress the appearance of balance that he is determined to retain in his policy of non-alignment. From our point of view we should welcome the opportunity to help him achieve this aim, and to demonstrate that we can accept genuine neutrality in a Southeast Asian state.
2.
A close associate of Ne Win recently told me that this visit could be very successful if only our President and Secretary could find means to let Ne Win know that they realize that a policy of neutrality is not an easy one for him to pursue situated where he is geographically, and with [Page 243]a 1200 mile common border with China, in todayʼs Southeast Asia. He thought an awareness of this, and an appreciation of it on our part, was of overriding importance. I believe this assessment correct.
3.

I believe the most important thing the President could do would be to talk frankly to Ne Win about his own great personal convictions regarding the struggle in Vietnam. There need be no fear of an argument from him if we express our position frankly but not in such a manner as to imply that we expect public approval from him. He does not want us to lose in Vietnam, but he worries that escalation may involve Burma. He desperately wants to stay out of this conflict because he is painfully aware of the great destruction past wars have wrought upon Burma. We, on our part, have an equal desire that Burma be able to stay out of the conflict in Southeast Asia. This is the single most important parallel interest between the United States and Burma today, and this point should be made. I believe Ne Win is beginning to realize this, but he should have no doubts in his mind after the talks are over.

You should of course seek his views on Vietnam, he probably wonʼt feel he can advise us, but he should be made to feel that we look upon him as an Asia whose frank views we would value at any time.

I believe the President should also devote some time to his own conviction that, over and above a successful conclusion of the struggle in Vietnam, there should be increasing attention to the well-being and standard of living of all the independent nations in Southeast Asia.

4.

The most important impression we want to leave in Ne Winʼs mind is that he need have no fear of us. I believe his fears of us are considerably less than even a year ago, and I doubt seriously he would even consider coming to America if this were not so. In the past he has worried about possible U.S. support (or U.S.-backed Thai support) to various insurgent groups in Burma, because he knows that most of these ethnic hill groups have sought support from us (without exception turned down) that some are predominantly Christian, that some fought with us during Would War II, and that they are by nature individualists who want no part of the “Burmese Way to Socialism”. (In all fairness to Ne Win and his government I must state that I do not believe the insurgents would, for a long time at least, like any Rangoon government that attempted to extend its influence into their areas.) He has also feared that we might so dislike the radical socialist economy he has tried to force on Burma that we would some day try to overthrow him. He has also, and partly for the above reasons, been obsessed in the past with fear of CIA.

The passage of time and our low-key policies have alleviated these worries. He should not dwell on his insurgency problems, although it would be natural to ask him about the difficulties it has caused him in building a better Burma. If the opportunity arises naturally, I think you should tell him quite plainly that we consider that the nature of Burmaʼs [Page 244]internal organization and economy to be none of our business. This would sound more convincing if we added that we have very definite views as to what type of economy was best for people, but that we were not about to press these views on him.

5.
Ne Win rather likes to talk about China and his views should be sought. He has had more first hand experience with Chinaʼs leaders than almost anyone else we can talk to these days, and he holds his own with them quite well. He may not give much because he doesnʼt believe Washington can keep secrets from the press, and he cannot afford to have his frank views on China leaked, but he may talk if the meetings are small. It would be interesting if he did. I mentioned to him once our hopes for the next generation in China. He said “You Americans shouldnʼt put too much hope in that.” We were unfortunately interrupted at that point.
6.

I do not believe Ne Win will ask for any economic assistance from the United States while in Washington. They may have in mind some future requests, but if they do I believe they will broach the matter quietly later here in Rangoon. I feel certain that he wants to avoid any accusation of having come to America for assistance. If the subject of aid arises, he is capable of giving a quite refreshing viewpoint as to how nations must learn to stand on their own feet. We could quite honestly applaud this attitude of self-reliance.

We might even go so far as to say we recognize and appreciate that Burma, which has accepted relatively small amounts of foreign aid, has not engaged in the practice of whipsawing both sides in the cold war for ever-increasing amounts of money.

The subject of past aid might arise, particularly with the Secretary. The Burmese have a rather irritating desire to convince us that our aid procedures are far too complicated, involve too many technicians, etc. U Ohn Khin, on the delegation, repeatedly wants to explain why they cancelled out our large road project in 1964 just before it finally got started, feeling that Washington may not understand and be unhappy with Burma as a result. (We were, in fact, not unhappy at all to end once and for all discussion of this unfortunate project which was initiated in 1959.) I will try to prevent this type of discussion but if it does occur I suggest you listen patiently and assure them their views will be given careful thought.

7.

I do not believe Ne Win will raise the subject, nor should we, of past or future U.S. military assistance, [2 lines of source text not declassified]. You should know that we have had a small and inconspicuous military assistance program here since 1958. When Ne Win refused our offer of a grant program in 1958, primarily because of his concern over Chinese reaction, we agreed to a cut-rate sales program repayable in local currency. Ne Win likes to assume that he can truthfully say that he continues to purchase military equipment from several sources (we are the primary [Page 245]one) and that his arrangement with the U.S. is no more than a normal Sears Roebuck type purchase operation with no political connotations. It is in our interest to let him continue to think along in these lines. He was furious at U Thant recently for mentioning publicly that Burma received U.S. equipment.

Our previous arrangements will soon expire. I want to see us continue this program, under somewhat different rules, as Burmese requirements are modest and it gives us our most intimate contact with the personnel who are running todayʼs Burma, and those who will be important in the future. I am submitting recommendations in this regard, but do not want to see this the subject of Heads of State discussion anymore than I think Ne Win does. [1–1/2 lines of source text not declassified]

This is a complex and sensitive subject. If he raises it, which I doubt, I could brief both of you more fully in his presence, and in a manner in which I do not believe he would take exception.

8.
We should not bring up old irritants of the past, particularly the KMT question. I do not think Ne Win will raise it, but if he does, you should both know that I have been open and honest with him on this subject. I did not deny a degree of U.S. support for the refugee Chinese Nationalist forces in Burma to act as a buffer against Communist China in 1951, but I tried to correct his exaggerated opinion of its extent and duration. Also by putting it into broader context, including the Korean situation at that time, I attempted to convince him that this was not aimed any way at Burma. He has never mentioned the subject to me since. In this regard it might be wise for the Secretary to read report of my talk with Ne Win on this subject sent to Bundy [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] on 30 June 1964. (Attached to briefing paper on Chinese Nationalist irregulars)5
9.
Burma is one of the few countries in the world that does not, publicly or privately, keep telling the U.S. how to manage its foreign affairs. Soon after he was invited on this visit, Ne Win reportedly said “Maybe the Americans are finally beginning to appreciate a guy who can keep his mouth shut.” (This was done in a context which suggested he was thinking of Sukarno, Sihanouk, etc.) Perhaps (by indirection) a way can be found which lets Ne Win know we do in fact appreciate this.
10.

You probably should express a normal interest as to how the development of Burma is coming along but let it drop rather quickly. Ne Win is ashamed of the state of his economy which he admits “is a mess”. I believe he knows now that some movement towards the right, by loosening the extent of government controls, is virtually a necessity. A reversal now is not an easy matter for him, and in this process there must never be any sign of U.S. prompting which he could ill afford.

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Ne Win is not a doctrinaire socialist and he would probably be embarrassed if someone were to ask him to give an ideological explanation of the Burmese Way to Socialism. He certainly is, however, a dedicated nationalist. He took power in a Burma that had used the forum of parliamentary democracy as an opportunity for endless political squabbling and corruption. Free enterprise to him means the ownership of the economy by unassimilable foreign groups: British, Indian and Pakistani, and Chinese, with the Burmese looking in from the outside. I believe his basic motive in seizing power in Burma was to make sure that the majority of the people, who are Burmese, had their chance to determine the future of their country. He is paying the price for dispossessing the former in-groups, who were after all the bulk of this countryʼs trained managers, and in the process fastened his countrymen onto a system that is steadily reducing them to the subsistency level. What we have in Burma has some of the elements of a tragedy.

11.
Burma tries to keep her problems with her neighbors manageable and appreciation could be expressed that she has no area problems that threaten the region. Donʼt go overboard about the Thais as he doesnʼt trust them over the long haul. He knows they look down on Burmese, and wonders how they can be wily enough to have never had a war on their soil while Burma always gets beaten up good and proper.
12.
Mention our encouragement over regional efforts in the area and hope that Burma will some day find these useful and profitable. Donʼt press, as he does not want outsiders to know the true condition of his economy. Besides all border area are sensitive and only partly under his control. Regional projects at the moment mean nothing to him as he thinks he has enough problems internally. He may also feel that, under present circumstances, joining regional activities would compromise Burmese neutrality.
13.
Do not mention, even inadvertently, U Nu or others that he has interned (as you may be urged to do by domestic critics of Burmese affairs). We still have some way to go to convince Ne Win that we are not trying to meddle in his affairs. While it would be well if he could be convinced that his own security probably would be enhanced with moderation and release of his enemies rather than in continued repression, this is not a subject he would consider appropriate for a first meeting between Heads of State.
14.
Try to keep the meetings small. I realize this is difficult, but the smaller the meeting the better the talks will be.
15.
Let Ne Win talk. This unusual injunction is given because he is not a self-starter in official conversations, although he warms up if given a chance. This has been on my mind since the visit of the Mansfield group here, and the Foreign Ministerʼs remarks to me afterward. The size of that group, and their desire not to sit through embarrassing silences [Page 247]caused them to bridge all gaps of conversation. Wait him out once in a while and he will do well. This is important, because he will have a better feeling after the talks are over if he feels he carried his part.
16.
We should give every impression of being completely frank and honest with this man in all subjects discussed. There will be no danger whatsoever of any leak from him or his staff, to the press.
17.
When alone with him, show a friendly concern for his person. The President could inquire about his health, say he had heard with concern of his trip to London for medical reasons. Offer him at any time our very best medical services, the most immediate delivery of any useful new drug or medicine, etc.
18.
I have promised him that we will not take advantage of his presence to criticize publicly third parties. This was a relief to him and if we can live up to this promise in our toasts, etc., he will be grateful. This is a good opportunity to convince him of the difference between us and communist leaders, who invariably embarrass him by public statement casting blame on the U.S. In this regard I have asked for advance copies of your intended remarks. He would approach Washington in a far less tense mood if I could furnish these to him somewhat prior to his arrival. (His staff strongly urged me to see if remarks and toasts could be dropped at the Secretaryʼs luncheon. I told them only that I would do what I could to keep it short.)
19.

Please insure that all involved in this visit know of a desire at your level that things go smoothly on this visit. I will leave it to your staffs to tell you how unbelievably badly Ne Winʼs visit to the U.S. was mishandled in 1960.

The above advice on how to approach Ne Win does not reflect in any way my humanitarian concern for the people of Burma under certain current aspects of Ne Winʼs “Burmese Way to Socialism”. Rather it reflects my assessment as to what is good for the U.S. with the present state of affairs today in Southeast Asia. It is based upon my belief that Ne Win, with all his shortcomings, remains our best bet in Burma today. The majority of his Burmese critics do not want him replaced. They are furthermore glad he is going to the U.S. as they see in this a sign of a future more to their liking. My advice is also based upon the conviction that we want above all a stable, independent Burma which can manage to stay out of the Southeast Asia conflict, and whose relations with us continue, in a slow and undramatic way, to improve up to the point of a neutrality leaning slightly—but not too much—on our side.

I hope you both can find time to read the bios we have sent the Department on both the General and Madame Ne Win.

Byroade
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Burma, Ne Win Visit, 9/8–10/66. Secret.
  2. A paper prepared by Ewing on September 6 details these four incidents: U.S. customs officials searched Ne Winʼs and his wifeʼs baggage; doctors at Minnesota University Hospital were questioned about his health; he was kept waiting for an appointment at the Pentagon; and Mrs. Ne Win overheard an insulting reference to herself allegedly made by Mrs. Eisenhower while she was in a private waiting room at Walter Reed Hospital. (Ibid.)
  3. The Department of State copy of this telegram, 217 from Rangoon, August 18, is in Department of State, Central Files, POL 7 BURMA.
  4. The communiqué, September 9, is printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1966, pp. 643–644. There were difficulties on the wording on Vietnam. They are outlined in a memorandum from Rostow to the President, September 8. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Burma, Ne Win Visit, 9/8–10/66)
  5. Neither found attached.