(a) An amnesty for Burmese who have collaborated with the Japs during the occupation. (b) A statement by the British Government of a definite date at which Burma shall attain Dominion status. The period, if possible, to be less than six years. The Burmese people to summon a Constituent Assembly in the meantime. (c) No interim of ‘direct rule’. (d) The Burmese people to have a greater share in the economic development of their own country. (e) The British Government to make an immediate unequivocal statement of its intentions towards Burma.
The striking thing about these demands is how moderate they are. No political party with any tinge of nationalism, or any hope of getting a mass following, could possibly ask for less. But why do these people pitch their claims so low? Well, I think one can guess at two reasons. To begin with, the experience of Japanese occupation has probably made Dominion status seem a more tempting goal than it seemed three years ago. But—much more important—if they demand so little it is probably because they expect to be offered even less. And I should guess that they expect right. Indeed, of the very modest suggestions listed above, only the first is likely to be carried out.
The Government has never made any clear statement about the future of Burma, but there have been persistent rumours that when the Japs are driven out there is to be a return to ‘direct rule’, which is a polite name for military dictatorship. And what is happening, politically, in Burma at this moment? We simply don’t know: nowhere have I seen in any newspaper one word about the way in which the reconquered territories are being administered. To grasp the significance of this one has to look at the map of Burma. A year ago Burma proper was in Japanese hands and the Allies were fighting in wild territories thinly populated by rather primitive tribes who have never been much interfered with and are traditionally pro-British. Now they are penetrating into the heart of Burma, and some fairly important towns, centres of administration, have fallen into their hands. Several million Burmese must be once again under the British flag. Yet we are told nothing whatever about the form of administration that is being set up. Is it surprising if every thinking Burmese fears the worst?
It is vitally important to interest the British public in this matter, if possible. Our eyes fixed on Europe, we forget that at the other end of the world there is a whole string of countries awaiting liberation and in nearly every case hoping for something better than a mere change of conquerors. Burma will probably be the first British territory to be reconquered, and it will be a test case: a more important test than Greece or Belgium, not only because more people are involved, but because it will be almost wholly a British responsibility. It will be a fearful disaster if through apathy and ignorance we let Churchill, Amery and Co. put across some reactionary settlement which will lose us the friendship of the Burmese people for good.
For a year or two after the Japanese have gone, Burma will be in a receptive mood and more pro-British than it has been for a dozen years past. Then is the moment to make a generous gesture. I don’t know whether Dominion status is the best possible solution. But if the politically conscious section of the Burmese ask for Dominion status, it would be monstrous to let the Tories refuse it in a hopeless effort to bring back the past. And there must be a date attached to it, a not too distant date. Whether these people remain inside the British Commonwealth or outside it, what matters in the long run is that we should have their friendship—and we can have it if we do not play them false at the moment of crisis. When the moment comes for Burma’s future to be settled, thinking Burmese will not turn their eyes towards Churchill. They will be looking at us, the Labour movement, to see whether our talk about democracy, self-determination, racial equality and what-not has any truth in it. I do not know whether it will be in our power to force a decent settlement upon the Government; but I do know that we shall harm ourselves irreparably if we do not make at least as much row about it as we did in the case of Greece.
I have just seen in a book the statement that the grey seals, the kind that are found round the coasts of Britain, number only ten thousand. Presumably there are so few of them because they have been killed off, like many another over-trustful animal. Seals are quite tame, and appear to be very inquisitive. They will follow a boat for miles, and sometimes they will even follow you when you are walking round the shore. There is no good reason for killing them. Their coats are no use for fur, and except for eating a certain amount of fish they do no harm.
They breed mostly on uninhabited islands. Let us hope that some of the islands remain uninhabited, so that these unfortunate brutes may escape being exterminated entirely. However, we are not quite such persistent slaughterers of rare animals as we used to be. Two species of birds, the bittern and the spoonbill, extinct for many years, have recently succeeded in re-establishing themselves in Britain. They have even been encouraged to breed in some places. Thirty years ago, any bittern that dared to show its beak in this country would have been shot and stuffed immediately.