U Nu was the prime minister of Burma (now the Union of Myanmar) from 1948 to 1958 and from 1960 to 1962 and was an important leader earlier in the struggle for independence from Britain.
U Nu was born in a period during which the British colonization of Burma was coming under increasing pressure from nationalist Burmese and opposition in Britain. U Nu graduated from the University of Rangoon and worked for several years as a schoolteacher. In 1934 he returned to the university to study law and became involved with nationalist politics. He became leader of the student union and was subsequently expelled from the university, along with Aung San. The subsequent student strike was one of the earliest confrontations between the Burmese and the British, which intensified in the following years. U Nu joined the WeBurmans Association (Dobama Asi-ayone), which had been formed in the wake of the 1932 anti-Indian riots and was a center for nationalism. The association was dominated at first by the Rangoon University student union, but under U Nu and others it expanded its activities. It was influenced by a combination of Marxism, democratic socialism, and Irish nationalism. The leaders, including U Nu, took the forename Thakin, or master, to demonstrate that they were not subservient to the British. The forename “U” is an honorific.
When World War II broke out in Asia, British authorities arrested U Nu and others, and they were imprisoned until Burma was invaded and occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese established a puppet government under Ba Maw, and U Nu served in his cabinet for a period. In the years between the end of the war and independence, U Nu assumed the leading position in the nationalist movement following Aung San’s assassination in 1947. Consequently, he headed the AntiFascist People’s Freedom League and became the first prime minister of independent Burma in 1948. Winning two subsequent elections, he remained in office for a decade, with only a brief hiatus in 1956–57.
His time as prime minister was marked by numerous communist insurgencies and independence struggles by ethnic minority peoples, and a decline in the value of rice exports. His government proved unable to improve the lot of the people. He resigned in 1958, and the government was taken over by General Ne Win as a result of widespread social disorder. U Nu returned to power in a brief return to democracy from 1960 to 1962, but the subsequent military coup returned the country to the repressive regime that remained in power into the 21st century.
U Nu was imprisoned by Ne Win and not released until 1969. He made several subsequent attempts to return to power, the first when he attempted to organize resistance to the military government in 1969. He was then forced into exile in India, although he returned to Rangoon to become a Buddhist monk in 1980. He had throughout his life been a devoted Buddhist and had introduced several laws to support the religion. In 1988 it briefly appeared that democracy would return to Burma, but U Nu’s attempt to seize power was crushed and he was put under house arrest. He was freed in 1992 and died in Rangoon three years later.
- Fink, Cristina. Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule. London: Zed Books, 2001;
- Lintner, Bertil. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2000;
- Nu, U. U Nu: Saturday’s Son. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.
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