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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Monday, September 24, 2018


The city Yangon : A land of mystery

It was occupied by the British over a period of 62 years

Share on Facebook March 16, 2014, Reporter : Professor Abdul Mannan, Reader : 676

Burma (Myanmar) gained independence from the British on January 4, 1948 news

Rangoon, currently known as Yangon has always remained a mystery land for our generation. The city and Burma (Myanmar) itself would be a land of riches and immense potentialities where the people of British Indian origin would go to change their lot and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century onward till the occupation of the country in 1942 by Japan. People of Bengal would have a special tie with Burma because of its close proximity and most of the characters of Sarat Chandra Chottopadya’s novels would go to Burma, mostly to Akyab or Rangoon in search of fortune. Sarat Chandra himself worked in Rangoon for many years for the British government. Burma was the Dubai or Middle East in those days for the Indians. Burma gained independence from the British on January 4, 1948. It was occupied by the British over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated into its Indian Empire. It was treated like an Indian administered province till 1937 and later till its independence as a self-governing colony.

After the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the advancing Japanese army which made the invasion of Burma imminent. Through Burma they could step into India, the Jewel of the British crown. The British along with their Indian subjects were the common enemies of the Burmese and the Japanese. The Indians dominated the Burmese economy and the administration and the Japanese vowed to weed out the last Imperial British from Asia to be replaced by one of their own. After the fall of Singapore the march through Malaya to Burma was easy as the British did not have a very strong presence in Malaya.

Rangoon was an easy take assisted by the Burma Independence Army (BIA), formed to free Burma from the British colonial powers. The Japanese had other plans. They set up a puppet government under MaMaw of the BIA and prepared to dig in. The first thing on the agenda was to throw out all the British Indian subjects from Burma. If they stayed back in Burma the British would come back they thought. Rioting started in many cities, especially in Rangoon and Akyab, thus triggering a great exodus of not only of Indians but also the Chinese, many of whom came to Burma to seek their fortune. My father like many Indians of his time ran small business in Rangoon and Akyab. My father, then an young man in his late teens, not yet married, worked hard and saved enough to come back home to Chittagong to get married. Then the exodus began. People were desperate to save their lives and not the property. About 650,000 Indians walked back to India from Rangoon and Akyab and also from other cities leaving everything behind. Thousands perished on their way back home due to starvation and other causes, though the British were prepared for such an exodus, many historians think it was no enough. Writing about this mass exodus U.W. Munday in the Sydney Moring Herald wrote on July 22, 1942 ‘the Indians came over the so-called “black” route, which is much longer, but much easier than other routes. There was no limit on the numbers on the “black” routes. More than 200,000 travelled over it from February to June. Many rode free in carts and motor vehicles. Another factor in its use by the Indians was that it passed at one point through a fertile valley, where rice and water were available for the refugees. The “white” routes were along a river or many miles over the hills. The first was limited by the number of boats available, and only 60 or 80 could be carried over it every three days. The second was limited by the number of elephants, and its capacity was 60 a day.

Official supervision of the evacuation in Burma ended on May 15, but later between 15,000 and 30,000 unexpected refugees streamed into India. These were in a pitiful condition, and 20 percent of those under official control died of exhaustion, malnutrition, dysentery, cholera, or malaria on the 20-day journey from the frontier. My father had to take the ‘white route’ as I gathered from the experiences he used to share with us in our school days.

Munday wrote “Villages along the way became the tombs of those who crawled into huts to die, and hundreds of bodies littered the jungle and mountain tracks. The Burmans looted their few possessions; then they came to the great mountain range 6,000 to 10,000 feet high along the frontier, which rose interminably in front of them. Then many of them just laid down and died,” an official told me. “More perished as they staggered on up into the mists, rains, and freezing nights. It was a miracle that 30,000 got across and, appalling as the mortality was, that 80 percent. It was also a remarkable tribute to the small number of doctors available that there was no epidemic of smallpox, cholera, or typhus, and mortality among the refugees until May 15 was practically negligible.” Munday filed the report from Chittagong.

Once the Bangladesh Biman flight touched down in the slick new Yangon airport I roll back my memories and attempt to relieve the memories of my father about the city he loved to talk so much and the tales of his success. The immigration people are friendly but seemed amateur and the poor knowledge of English made things difficult for them. Myanmar was giving the world a signal that they are opening up after a military rule of about half a century (direct rule of 40 years). But the signal could be misleading I concluded after spending a week in Yangon and Mandalay and talking to the common people.

Myanmar is a perfect example of what the military could do to ruin a country with so much of potentialities of development and prosperity. However some of my travel companions had a different opinion. They were dazzled by the clean and wide roads and sprawling shopping centers. When the military took over Burma was economically the most advanced country in South East Asia. Today it is one of the poorest countries of Asia. Its infrastructure is crumbling, corruption remains endemic, and human resources are underdeveloped and has inadequate access to capital. Even by Bangladesh standard it will need at least two decade to be at par. Again my companions disagree, they do not have the time to dig into the facts but would like to remain happy with what they see, the façade.

Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups of which eleven are armed to the teeth to gain independence or federal status for themselves. To have a ‘proper’ identity in Myanmar one has to be a Buddhist and a Burman (the originals). 68 percent of the population is Burman the rest belong to other ethnic groups, including the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chinese and the Indian. 89 percent of the people practice Buddhism, second believers being the Christians and Muslims, 4 percent each. There are some Hindus as well. Anyone other than the Buddhist is considered as a second class citizen and only 10 percent of the Muslims living in Yangon have ID cards. Muslims are debarred from coming to Yangon from other states and at birth they will have to be recorded with a Buddhist name. The Rohingyas in the Arakan state, across the Naf river, do not exist in the records of Myanmar and they are commonly known as Bengali refugees from Bangladesh, though they have been living there for more than four hundred years. Arakan is shut off from the rest of Burma by a hill range, and were located far away from all of the Indian capitals. In fact historians termed Arakan as a ‘continuation of the Chittagong plain.’ In fact Arakan could very well have been part of the then East Pakistan when Redcliff was drawing the map of India and Pakistan. But he wrongly thought river Naf would proved a convenient natural international boundary and ceded Arakan to Burma, notwithstanding the fact that Chittagong was part of the Arakanese Kingdom for more than hundred years. Today the Muslims living in the Arakan state are one of the most persecuted people on earth and unfortunately gone unnoticed by the world outside, including the United Nations.

Many erroneously thing that the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi would be one who would take the responsibility of reforming Myanmar and help it to walk to a real democracy. But the current military dominated government has other plans. Under the current military-drafted constitutional charter, Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from becoming the President of Myanmar, through an election expected to be held in 2015. The draft says in clear terms that someone whose child or spouse is a foreign citizen cannot be a president. The president must also have military experience. This means Suu Kyi cannot contest the polls to be a national leader, as her two sons are British citizens and she does not have military experience. The constitution also doesn’t allow citizens who have been jailed to run in the election. This rules out all former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, from becoming president.

While talking to many people during my stay in Yangon, I asked them ‘Do you think there will be an election in 2015?’ The answer was always mixed, like ‘yes’ and ‘maybe.’ However everyone agreed that under no circumstances the junta will do anything that will weaken their position. They told me that the generals must secure their wealth and life. They plundered the country’s natural resources for over four decades. When Myanmar opened up to the outside world, in one year more than hundred thousand Japanese cars were imported into Myanmar. From where the money comes in this impoverished country I asked. Of course it is the ill gotten wealth of the generals and their cohorts that were stashed away outside. My companions have other idea. They think it is an indicator of development of Myanmar.

To me Suu Kyi is a reluctant revolutionary. When the student-led uprising for return to democracy took place in the August of 1988 they needed a leader. Who else could be a better choice than Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, founder of the modern Burmese army and who negotiated Burma’s independence from the British Empire in 1947; later to be assassinated by his rivals in the same year? In the forefront of the uprising were one Muslim and two Buddhists. They went to Suu Kyi and requested her to lead the movement, to be turned away, saying that she needed to go back to London to be with her family. The movement front liners never gave up and finally Suu Kyi agreed and subsequently landed up being in prison and under house arrest for an extended period of time. During her custody she won the Nobel peace prize, but refrained from telling anything about restoring peace in Arakan or in other states of Myanmar. She looks towards the state power, which eventually will remain elusive it seems as of now.

Sometimes history repeats itself. The army could simply take political power again before the election in 2015. In 1960, after two years of leading a caretaker government, army Chief General Ne Win allowed an election and gave power back to an elected administration. But when ethnic minorities demanded federal states and separation of political power, the military claimed the nation was at risk of disintegration and staged a coup in March of 1962. Now, under Thein Sein, a former general who became ‘civilian’ president, the same demands for a federal union and a separation of power have emerged, stronger than ever. This time, not only ethnic minorities, but also the majority of Burmans appears to share the demand for a federal union and real democratic change. Whether that will happen soon is a million dollar question.

If my dad was living today, I would have said to him ‘Sorry papa, the Burma or the Rangoon you left some seventy years back has disappeared. It has been replaced by semi-repressive government which is poised to become more repressive in future unless the world turns its eyes towards it.’ The average people of Myanmar seemed very simple. They deserve better than what they have had for last half a century. Let a real democracy be given a chance.

Corrigendum: My last week’s Straight Talk inadvertently was titled ‘BIMSTEC should turn into a club’ instead of ‘BIMSTEC should not turn into a club.’ The mistake is regretted. 

The writer, Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Currently he teaches at ULAB, Dhaka.  [Republished courtesy of]


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