HL Deb 21 May 1946 vol 141 cc337-43

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have one regret this afternoon in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I am sorry that my noble friend the Secretary of State for India and Burma is not able to introduce this Bill himself, as I know that the progress of Burma on the road to self-government lies just as near to his heart as the similar advance on the part of India. As your Lordships very generously acknowledged last week, the conduct of negotiations on which the future of India depends makes my noble friend's absence from this House inevitable. As I am sure all of your Lordships will agree, he must clearly stay where he is most needed while these negotiations continue.

This Bill marks a further step in the growth of self-government in Burma. I would like to remind your Lordships that according to a policy laid down by the war-time Coalition Government, and therefore accepted by all major political Parties, Burma was to pass through three stages between the end of the main campaign against the Japanese and the achievement of complete self-rule. The first stage of military administration, under Lord Louis Mountbatten, finished for most of Burma on October 16, 1945, and the responsibility of South-East Asia Command finally ceased on January 1 of this year, when the southern districts of Burma were transferred to the civilian authorities. The Governor was then able to announce the restoration of civil government to the whole of Burma.

The return of the Governor to Rangoon, and the re-establishment of the civil government, marked the second stage in the political recovery of Burma after the long setback it has suffered during the war. But at the present stage preparations must be made, with the utmost speed, for the third and last lap of the journey to self-government. These preparations will enable the present period of direct rule by the Governor to be terminated, as soon as possible, in favour of a responsible Government chosen by a popularly elected Legislature. When a Ministerial Government has been restored in Burma a constitution-making body, as described in the White Paper, will be summoned, so that the Burmese people can devise for themselves a constitution that will make them just as free in the management of their own affairs as any of the great self-governing Dominions.

This Bill is one of the indispensable preliminaries to the transition from the present phase of direct rule by the Governor to the establishment of a Ministerial Government responsible for all its actions and decisions to the Legislature. Parliamentary Government cannot be restored in Burma, however, before a General Election. There can be no General Election until the names of all the voters have been inscribed on the electoral rolls; and these electoral rolls cannot be compiled by the administration until the qualifications which confer the right to vote have been laid down by Statute. The main purpose of the present Bill is to establish a new franchise for Burma, so that the preparation of the electoral rolls can go forward without any unnecessary delay. His Majesty's Government are anxious that a General Election should be held in Burma at the earliest practicable moment, and if our programme, which includes the early passage of this Bill into law, is realized in accordance with the time-table we have in mind, a Legislature will have been elected in Burma, and a Ministry formed, before June of next year.

Now, my Lords, let me say a word or two about the terms of the proposed new franchise for the general constituencies in Burma, and about how they compare with the type of suffrage under the Act which governed the last General Election held before the war. The really striking change in the present proposals is the degree to which they widen the franchise, extending it in a truly democratic fashion to almost every adult member of the population. The Act of 1935 prescribed a modest property qualification for men. In the case of women, there was an additional qualification based on literacy. Clause 2 of this Bill sweeps away these limitations to fullblown democracy, without any distinctions of wealth, by proposing to give universal adult franchise at the age of 21. The numerical effect of this alteration will be almost to treble the total electorate by increasing its size from about 2,500,000 to about 6,750,000. The voting age has been raised by three years, as compared with the 1935 Act, but both the Governor and his Legislative Council have taken the view that a sense of responsibility is not usually reached much earlier—a view which I think most of us would share—and that in practice, owing to the property qualification demanded before the war, few Burmans have in the past cast a vote before attaining their twenty-first birthday. Another illustration of the attitude found in Burma is that the devout Burman who wishes to join the Buddhist order is not allowed to complete his novitiate and be ordained as a monk before he is twenty. This suggests that tradition, as well as the bulk of public opinion, would regard twenty-one as a reasonable age for the full exercise of citizenship.

Another interesting innovation in this measure is the exact equality it would bring about between the two sexes. Your Lordships will remember that Burma is among those advanced countries where women are free to do as men do and are not debarred by social custom from any business or other activity which men put, sue for a living. It is surely right that the equal status of Burmese women in economic and social matters should now be extended to politics, and that there should no longer be an old-fashioned and quite unwarranted discrimination in favour of the male.

There is one important class of persons deliberately excluded from the new franchise, namely Buddhist monks and nuns. I think a word of explanation is due about this, if only to prevent anyone from supposing that we are discriminating against the national religion of Burma. As your Lordships are aware, Buddhism is a religion of renunciation and abnegation of self, which teaches men to change the objects of their desire rather than the political institutions or social conditions under which they live. Buddhist monks are therefore expressly prohibited by the rules of their Order from taking any part in secular disputes. The Sangha Council, which directs the affairs of the Order, has itself declared against the inclusion of monks and nuns in the new suffrage. They are not being deprived by this Bill of any right they have exercised in the past, for their lack of personal property, which is part of their discipline, has excluded them in practice from exercising the old franchise that was in force before the war.

The only other point to which I think I should draw your Lordships' attention (I want to be as brief as possible in view of the exceedingly interesting and important debate to which we are all looking forward) is the changed qualifications pro posed for members of the Senate in Clause 1. The effect of this clause would be to halve the property qualification which is at present the principal qualification required by candidates for any of the seats in the Senate. The poverty of Burma, since the years of Japanese occupation and the subsequent military operations on Burmese soil, has become so general that few individuals would now be eligible as Senators unless the old rules were revised. I should like, in conclusion, to put on record a word or two of thanks to the Governor of Burma, to his Legislative Council and to his officials for the speed—because the time factor is of prime importance—and efficiency with which they have done the preparatory work leading to these recommendations for a new and far more democratic type of franchise in Burma. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, it would not be the wish of the House I am sure that there should be a prolonged debate on this Bill, and it is the less necessary because of the very clear and interesting explanation which has just been given to us by the noble Earl opposite. Anyone who has had an opportunity of going to Burma, even for a short time, must always retain a particular interest in the progress of the Burmese people. The circumstance which the noble Earl mentioned just now—the status of the women in Burma—is one fact which strikes one very much when One passes from the Continent of India to Burma itself. I have always understood, from such information as was afforded, that the women of Burma do in practice exercise a responsibility and width of authority which is not to be found everywhere in the East and which is indeed comparatively modern in such a country as our own.

Apparently, the women of Burma are to be given the franchise on the same terms as men, but the priests and nuns of Burma are to be given no franchise at all. The noble Earl has explained the reason. Incidentally he has afforded us an opportunity, on page 2 of the Bill, lines 3 and 4, to learn two Burmese words which he did not pronounce, and I can only be grateful that they are not presented to us in Burmese characters. Another matter which is of importance, is, as I follow, that the Bill itself is really designed to give the foundation on which the new legislatures would be built up. The existing provision of a property, and I think tax-paying qualification, I can well believe is not suitable, and here you have a new basis in place of the old franchise, without which you really cannot proceed to carry through the scheme of advanced reform which is contemplated for the Burmese people.

The only other observation I would venture to make is that here again we have, in Clause 5, an example (it is not by any means new) of the efforts that are made by the draftsmen in these days to provide us, as far as may be, with intelligible and easily-understood legislation. There is a duty cast on the Clerk of Parliaments here. Upon him will fall the duty of taking the amendments, or some of them, of this Act and re-writing and certifying the effect of them on the main body of the constitutional statutory law of Burma. And there is a direction that His Majesty's printer shall print the Burma Legislature Act in accordance with the copy so certified and that all copies of the principal Act which are printed after the said copy, as these are prepared, shall be in this new form. I think that is a very useful provision. It was employed I recollect in connexion with the Government of India Act, or something very close to it, and I am very glad to see it is being used. It only remains to join the noble Earl in expressing our appreciation of the work that has been done by His Excellency the Governor, his advisers and his officials, in rapidly putting forward this measure.

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a word in support of this Bill. I believe I am the only remaining Member of your Lordships' House who was a member of the Burmese Round Table Conference a good many years ago, and I am inclined to believe (although I am not so sure of this, especially when the noble Viscount has been to so many places) that I am one of the very few members of your Lordships' House who have travelled from one end of Burma to the other in the days when a good deal of it had to be done on a horse. My recollection of the Burmese▀×of whom we saw a good deal here, and a certain amount over there—was that they were really constitutionally-minded people, who were extremely anxious to manage their own affairs. They have also the great advantage that they have one idiom, one dialect, which covers a very great part of the country. I believe that the Bill as it has been drafted will do this country and all the Empire and indeed the world at large, a great deal of good and give an honest impression of what we intend. I wish it Godspeed.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.