U Nu

views updated May 29 2018


U NU . U Nu's life (19051995) extends over decades of profound political and social change in Burma (Myanmar). He was a prominent member of the Thirty Comrades during the struggle for independence and played a historic role in the country's transformation from a British colony to an independent nation-state. He served as Prime Minister of democratic Burma between 19481956, 19571958, and 19601962. U Nu was a gifted politician, a deeply religious man, and a remarkable writer.


U Nu's politics and worldview reflected the values of the early nationalist era in which he grew up. His father was a merchant in Wakema, a town in the delta region of Lower Burma where he was active in the local chapters of the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA) and later in the General Council of Buddhist Associations (GCBA). These anti-colonial organizations equated national identity with Burmese language, culture, and Buddhism, and Nu's father would consent only to enrolling his son at a local Anglo-vernacular government school. Unlike many of his political contemporaries, U Nu never studied abroad. He finished high school in Rangoon and graduated from Rangoon University in 1929. For a number of years he taught English, English history, and Burmese in the national school system.

By 1934, U Nu, now married to Daw Mya Yee, returned to the capital to join the civil service, but soon decided to seek a law degree at Rangoon University. U Nu emerged as a leader in the student strike of 1936, together with Aung San and others in the anti-colonial elite who later also gained prominent positions in the post-independence era. Like many of his peers, Nu adopted the anti-colonial title Thakin (Master). He rose to leadership positions in the pre-war nationalist Dobama Asiayone and the post-war Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). In the aftermath of Aung San's murder, U Nu became the first Prime Minister of independent Burma in 1948. On several occasions, he withdrew from public life strategically to meditate and thus force a favorable resolution of political struggles.

Ethnic insurgencies, factionalism over the state's role in religious education, and the constitutional amendment to establish Buddhism as Burma's state religion led to Ne Win's final military takeover in 1962. Like the British in 1942, Ne Win imprisoned Nu from 19621966. In 1973 U Nu traveled to Thailand and then to exile in India. He was pardoned and returned to Burma in 1980 to oversee the new Pali text editions commissioned by the Mahasangha Nayaka Council. Following the popular uprising and the collapse of Ne Win's regime in 1988, U Nu established an interim government in a futile effort to regain political office. Ne Win's successor regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) placed U Nu under house arrest from 1989 until 1992. He passed away on February 14, 1995.

Political Views

A pragmatist about political ideologies and a skilled negotiator, U Nu advocated democracy or the Burmese Way to Socialism as exigencies dictated. His politics indicated a greater nexus to his Buddhist beliefs as he became increasingly religious in his adult life. As early as his twenties, he took vows to affirm his disciplined actions: to abstain from liquor; to be faithful to his wife; to observe temporary celibacy to effect political outcomes; and in 1948, to remain sexually abstinent. He meditated daily for hours, observed a vegetarian diet, and removed himself from his family's affairs. U Nu's ascetic practices and charisma were significant facets of his public persona.

The inception of parliamentary governance in post-independent Burma coincided with millennial expectations of an imminent, powerful Buddhist ruler (cakkavatti) in the Theravāda world where many believed that the second half of the Buddha's dispensation had begun. In popular Burmese culture, U Nu was often seen as that future king or future Buddha. On the advice of Nehru, he promoted a programmatic Buddhist revival (19471958) to further nationalism. The revival was intended to secure world peace and progress, ensure the expansion of the state into tribal areas, bring stability, and institute Buddhism as Burma's state religion. It culminated in the construction of a religious complex, Kaba Aye Pagoda, to house the Buddhist canon (tipitaka ) and the convocation of the Sixth Theravāda Buddhist Synod, Buddha Sasana Sanghayana (19541956) that was modeled after earlier Buddhist councils, especially King Mindon's Fifth Buddhist Council (1871). Kaba Aye was the site of important state rituals, including the veneration of the Buddha's Tooth relic that had been temporarily conveyed from Sri Lanka to Burma. Such diplomatic exchanges celebrated Buddhist identity among some new Asian nations.

U Nu's political career eclipsed when his policies failed to integrate ethnic minorities into the national community. His government further deteriorated under economic pressures despite, or as his critics assert, because of, U Nu's practice of and the state's support for Buddhism. The political crisis escalated when he could not restrain demands by monks to require Buddhist instruction in public schools and to prohibit ethnic minorities from offering equivalent religious instruction. Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962 ended parliamentary democracy and limited the role of Buddhism in the modern state until the 1980s.


Writing and translating literature into Burmese (e.g. Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People ) was U Nu's first passion in college. He soon gained a reputation as a gifted speech writer and orator, both talents that fostered his rise in politics. He authored plays, novels, translations, political speeches, and essays on Buddhism. Although his written work is extensive, some of it has been termed polemic, underscoring an intended message rather than an art form. His novel, Man, the Wolf of Man, emphasized personal themes, while his best known play, The People Win Through, focused on a communist insurrection and political rule by force as unmoral. He authored other plays like Converting the Elder Brother, a drama about political and personal betrayal, and Thurya, an allegorical fable about political corruption under colonialism. In Saturday's Son, an autobiographical novel, he recounted the turbulent events of his life until 1962. His religious writings primarily followed traditionalist forms. In Buddhism: Theory and Practice he detailed the moral and mental stages of meditation.

Throughout his life, U Nu's religiosity encompassed both modernist meditation and cosmological beliefs. In his 1987 inaugural speech for the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University, he affirmed the power local spirit lords (nat ) exert over worldly matters. U Nu was deeply committed to Buddhist practice as moral legitimation for public office and employed religion to promote national culture and nation building. He achieved a prominent place among charismatic statesmen in twentieth century Asia.


Butwell, R. U Nu of Burma. Stanford, Calif., 1963; reprint 1969.

Mendelson, M. E. Sangha and State in Burma, A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership. Edited by J. P. Ferguson. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975.

Nu, U. "Burma Looks Ahead." Translation of selected speeches by the Honorable U Nu, Prime Minister of the Union of Burma, delivered on various occasions from 1951 to August 4, 1952. Ministry of Information, Government of the Union of Burma, 1953.

Nu, U. Saturday's Son. Translated by U Law Yone. New Haven, Conn., 1975.

Nu, U. Buddhism: Theory and Practice. Bangkok, 1983.

Nu, U. "Nats." In Crossroads: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 4:1, Special Burma Studies Issue. Singapore, 1988. This speech was delivered on the occasion of the dedication of the Center for Burma Studies, Northern Illinois University, July 30, 1987.

Sarkisyanz, E. Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution. The Hague, 1965.

Smith, D. E. Religion and Politics in Burma. Princeton, 1965.

Juliane Schober (2005)

U Nu

views updated May 29 2018

U Nu

U Nu (1907-1995) was the first prime minister of independent Burma (now called Myanmar) after freedom was obtained in 1948 from British colonial rule. He was also a leader of the Buddhist revival and a noted writer. After being ousted by the military in 1962, he remained an opposition leader in exile and a proponent of democracy for Myanmar until his death.

Born in the Burmese village of Wakema on May 25, 1907, U Nu was the son of a minor nationalist politician. Educated in Wakema and at Myoma National High School in Rangoon, Nu graduated in 1929 from the University of Rangoon, where one of his friends was U Thant, later secretary general of the United Nations. Nu spent five years as a teacher and journalist before returning to Rangoon University in 1934 to pursue a law degree.

Nu first came to national attention as a leader of the 1936 students' strike, which was the first mass demonstration of Burmese opposition to British colonial rule. For his revolutionary agitation, he was expelled by the British from the university's law school. A writer and translator of considerable talent, Nu in the late 1930s was the major force behind the Red Dragon Book Club, which published and distributed revolutionary literature. In 1942 he was imprisoned by the British.

Reluctant Leader

Released after the Japanese invaded, U Nu served as foreign minister and information minister in the Japanese-installed government of the nationalist leader Ba Maw. But even while serving in the puppet government, U Nu was organizing an anti-Japanese guerilla force. Nu's perceptive account of these years, Burma under the Japanese, was published in the United States in 1954. After the war, Nu, who was a devout Buddhist, attempted to retire to a life of meditation and writing. But when an elected delegate to the constitutional convention died in a drowning accident, Nu was elected in a special by-election in 1947 to succeed him.

Later elected president of the Constituent Assembly, Nu was a secondary figure to Aung San, independent Burma's "founding father." Nu was not even a member of the interim government that was preparing to succeed the British rulers. But on July 19, 1947, Aung San and most of the other top nationalist leaders were savagely slain by a crazed political rival. The last British governor, Sir Hubert Rance, immediately called on Nu to step into Aung San's shoes as premier-designate of independent Burma. With sorrow and reluctance, Nu became independent Burma's first prime minister when colonial rule ended on January 4, 1948. Nu, who negotiated the final terms of Burmese independence, chose to lead his country out of the British Commonwealth entirely.

Architect of Neutrality

For ten years (1948-1958), with a brief break in 1956 to reorganize the government political party, U Nu was Burma's premier and architect of a foreign policy that avoided commitment to either the American or Soviet sides in the Cold War. Widely acclaimed by the Burmese masses for his devotion to Buddhism, Nu held out successfully against a variety of Communist and ethnic minority rebellions. He also tried, with some success, to modernize his country economically and establish a socialist state.

Known outside Burma primarily for his political career, U Nu was the major force behind the nation's post-colonial Buddhist revival. In 1954-1956, he convened the Sixth Great Buddhist Synod, a major international gathering of Buddhists.

Nu was also a prolific writer of fiction, plays, and political commentary. Probably the best of his works were written before World War II: Ganda-layit, based on a 1939 trip to China, and Modern Plays, a perceptive series of political parables. In 1952 he wrote The People Win Through, subsequently produced as a motion picture, as part of the government's effort to neutralize Communist propaganda. The Wages of Sin, staged in 1961, attacked corruption and self-seeking among government officials.

Opposing the Military

In 1958 Nu was toppled from power in a bloodless coup led by Gen. Ne Win, commander in chief of the armed forces. Courageously attacking the new regime, Nu convinced the military to hold elections and return the civilians to office. In February 1960 Nu's party, although harassed by the army, won the most lopsided victory in the country's history.

U Nu was less effective during his second stint as premier, as economic and minority problems worsened. In March 1962, Gen. Ne Win and his army ousted Nu for a second time. From March 1962 to October 1966, Nu was kept in virtual solitary confinement by the very Burmese government he had helped to bring into being. Following his unexplained release by Gen. Ne Win in 1966, Nu slowly returned to public activity. By 1968, Nu was raising funds for the victims of a typhoon.

Deteriorating economic and other circumstances led Ne Win in late 1968 to create a National Unity Advisory Board, and he included U Nu among its 33 members. Nu demanded a return to parliamentary democracy, and by April 1969 he feared he would be again imprisoned or even killed. Feigning illness, he escaped to India.

In August 1969 U Nu set out on a world tour to mobilize international opinion against continued military rule in his country. In London he announced the formation of a new party, the Parliamentary Democracy party, to restore representative government in Burma. A party headquarters and a de facto government-in-exile were established in Bangkok, capital of neighboring Thailand. From there he led the opposition movement until 1973, when he was forced to leave Thailand and move to the United States. In 1988, when a democratic uprising finally ousted Ne Win's regime, U Nu proclaimed himself prime minister of a "parallel government," but the military quickly placed under house arrest Nu and other opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Nu was released in 1992 and spent his last years in seclusion until his death in February 1995.

Further Reading

Nu's Burma under the Japanese (translated in 1954) is an excellent account of his formative political years during World War II; the standard biography is Richard A. Butwell, UNuof Burma (1969); Nu's role as the chief architect of independent Burma's foreign policy is described in William C. Johnstone, Burma's Foreign Policy: A Study in Neutralism (1963). Economic development during Nu's first premiership is treated by Louis J. Walinsky in Economic Development of Burma, 1951-1960 (1962); Donald Eugene Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma (1965), is perceptive on Nu's dual role as politician and religious leader. Also important is F.M. Bunge's Burma: A Country Study (1983). □

Nu, U

views updated May 18 2018

Nu, U (1907–95) Burmese statesman, prime minister (1948–56, 1957–58, 1960–62). Active in the struggle for independence, Nu became Burma's first prime minister. Ousted by the military in 1958, he returned to power in 1960. In 1962 he was again deposed by a military coup led by U Ne Win. After years of exile, he returned to Burma in 1980, but was later placed under house arrest.