Burmese democrats seem confident that their day is coming, but the Rangoon junta is busy establishing military and economic alliances. Meanwhile, returned Indian exiles are back in business.
If you want to see Calcutta as it was in the 1950s, visit Rangoon. With its crumbling Victorian buildings and leafy boulevards, Rangoon feels like a backwater, and in many ways it is. Burma’s post-colonial history has not evolved as has happened elsewhere in the South Asian subcontinent; the architecture and politics are frozen in time.
Burmese democracy was barely 14 years old when it died in 1962. That year, Prime Minister U Nu, friend and confidante of assassinated freedom fighter Aung San, was toppled by General Ne Win in a coup. Ne Win plunged Burma into isolation and stagnation: one of the richest and most-promising regions of the British empire at independence, virtually disappeared from the political and economic map. Ne Win’s “Burmese way to socialism” brought the country to its knees.
Opposition to Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party climaxed in August 8, 1988 (the date 8-8-88 has significance among die-hard numerologists in the Burmese junta). The generals defused the crisis by shuffling the deck: Ne Win slid out of view, while lurking behind the throne, as a kingmaker.
SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the junta has called itself since the 1988 student uprising, conducted elections in 1990. The National League for Democracy led by Aung Sang’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. But the junta refused to relinquish power, and let Aung San Suu Kyi languish under house arrest for five years, until setting her free in August this year.
The release of the Nobel Peace Prize winner was a deft public relations move, on the part of SLORC, which is wooing East Asian investors in a big way. Burmese generals today, like to point out that their role model is the Indonesian formula of military involvement in politics. And they tell disapproving Westerners who harp on human rights: If it is okay for Indonesia, why isn’t it all right for Burma?
In any event, the economic future today looks less bleak than it did five years ago, or even last year. The country is eagerly awaiting membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which it already has observer status, and it has thrown open its doors to trade and investments from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Shops are beginning to fill up with imported goods, and sleek glass-and-concrete buildings are starting to alter the city’s musty charm. Moreover, with Suu Kyi’s release, there is at least, a glimmer of hope for restoration of long-lost freedoms.
But, while hope glimmers on the horizon, the continuing rule by fossilised political figures means that things remain uncertain – enough to provide full employment to the country’s palm readers, numerologists and astrologers. And uncertain enough to make a magazine that specialises in astrology and black magic, the most widely read (with weekly sales of 50,000) in the nation. It is not only ordinary people in Burma who are superstitious. Ne Win himself believes in numbers and nine is his favourite. After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Ne Win chose 18 September as the date to reconstitute the junta: the logic was that this was the ninth month and one plus eight was nine… Most state functions still begin at 09:09 a.m. sharp.
Then, there was the incident involving the ‘miraculous’ appearance of an idol of the goddess ‘Pollamma’ in a military base in Rangoon, a few years ago. Soldiers, who dug out the idol and sent it off to a local South Indian temple, were said to have vomited blood and then died. There seems to be nothing in Burmese military training on how to deal with vengeful Indian goddesses.
Burma’s cultural substrate has a strong Hindu influence, and many of the deities worshipped by the Burmese originate in the Hindu pantheon, including Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Belief in these deities dates back a thousand years, when much of the country was controlled by the Talaings, a tribe with close cultural links to the Hindu Khmer kingdoms. Like the Thais, today most Burmese are Theravada Buddhists, but continue to worship a large number of lesser Hindu deities.
Burma’s cultural and religious heritage reflects the powerful influence of the Subcontinent that lies to the west, which came in two waves – first the Hindu wave, then the Buddhist. But if, in the distant past, the Burmese attitude toward the culture of India was one of respect and reverence, the attitude of the Burmese people towards Indians has often been that of outright hostility.
During the Anglo-Burma wars of the mid-19th century, the British used Sikhs and Gurkhas to help subdue the Burmese, so that their neighbours to the west were cast, not as friends, but as enemies. Later, early migrations of Indian ‘coolies’ during the British days helped to forge a stereotype of the Indian as dirty and uncouth. In the early years of this century, it was the South Indian Chettiars who were particularly loathed.
When the international price of rice collapsed in the 1930s, the Chettiars controlled more than half of all arable land in the country. In the 1930s, when roughly a million Indians had settled in the country, anti-Indian pogroms broke out, and, as a result, many Indians returned to their homeland. At the beginning of the next decade, many more – an estimated 400,000 – fled ahead of the Japanese invasion, a quarter of them perishing during their trek to India.
Before the outbreak of the war, South Asians formed the majority of Rangoon’s population. A. Duriaswamy, a Tamil business man who was born and brought up in a village just outside of Rangoon, recalls, “In those days, Hindustani was spoken all over the city.” There was even a village of 100,000 farmers from Bihar who had settled down in Ziyawad, 200 km north of Rangoon, he adds.
When the military junta came to power in 1962, it began to systematically nationalise all wealthy businesses, a measure that was intended to drive the Indians out of the country. Those who fled left their property in the care of relatives and friends who stayed on.
As his plane came in to land at Rangoon a year ago, gliding over the familiar river-front settlements and the golden pagoda, S.P. Goenka remembers the hard lump that grew in his throat. His ancestors first came to Burma in 1862 and fled to India two decades ago. He was among the many Indians whose businesses were nationalised in the 1960s, and who were now returning to make a new start. Even though very few of those who returned have managed to recover their property, they are not complaining – Burma is today, the land of opportunity. There is new money to be made, even if, old money has been lost.
“We are not here to reclaim our property but to start our business afresh,” says Madhusudhan Kansara, whose family also fled to India in the 1960s. Kansara says anti-Indian feelings have dissipated and many government officials privately admit that the nationalisation policy was a mistake.
S.S. Sharma of the trading company Yamona International maintains that Indians themselves are partly, to be blamed for the animosity of the Burmese. Early migrants were rich traders with feudal backgrounds who lived off the Burmese, but treated the locals as untouchables. Indian businessmen repatriated most of their profits, and rarely ploughed their profits back into the local economy.
The Goenkas’ interest in Burma was rekindled because of SLORC’s openness to outside investors. One of the Goenka brothers has now obtained Burmese citizenship, enabling the family to buy property and enter businesses forbidden to foreign citizens.
“As of now, there are not more than 20 business families that have returned, but the numbers are growing rapidly,” says Sharma, who was one of the few Indians who never left Burma. He believes the country has the potential of being Southeast Asia’s richest.
The junta’s get-tough policy back in the 1960s not only hit Indian economic interests; it also affected South Asian cultural life. Urdu has a special significance in Rangoon, because the city was the final resting place of India’s last Moghul emperor and poet, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The blind emperor, who lived in abject poverty inside the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi, was punished for his role in supporting the 1857 military rebellion against the British. First banished to Kidderpore near Calcutta, the emperor was finally brought to Rangoon, where he died in 1862.
Says Nana Bawa, general secretary of the Bazm-e-Gulshan-e-Urdu in Rangoon: “Sometimes when we read the poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar in his last days, we cannot distinguish whether the subject was colonial oppression in India, or the situation of ordinary Burmese People.”
Urdu publications have been shut down along with other private media, even though there are thousands of Burmese who still speak and write Urdu. Every year, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s anniversary is marked at his tomb, which has become a meeting place for Burmese of South Asian descent, over the past century. Bahadur Shah’s famous Urdu couplet resonates for those who remember the days of hostility:
Do gaz zamin bhi
aaj na mili ku-e-yaar mein.
(I didn’t even get two yards of earth in my beloved homeland, to be buried in.)
The latest is that Rangoon city authorities plan to take over the tomb site, which is located in prime real estate. Bahadur Shah would be moved, once again.
President Suu Kyi
On a geopolitical plane, the Burmese junta has cosied up to the Chinese, in whom they find an ideological ally, in confronting Western criticism of human rights and democracy. New road and air links between northern Burma and China have connected the two economies. The Chinese have supplied some U$ 1.2 billion worth of arms to the junta to fight ethnic insurgents, and Rangoon is said to have given the Chinese navy access to strategic listening posts in the Bay of Bengal, near the Andamans.
India, on the other hand, came out openly in support of the democracy movement and of Aung San Suu Kyi, selecting her as the recipient of the Nehru Peace Award in 1995. But New Delhi’s pro-democracy stance took an about turn with a secretive trip to Rangoon two years ago, by then Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit. On a state visit to Rangoon earlier this year, Indian Commerce Minister P. Chidambaram even cancelled a scheduled wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of U Nu, who had been a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru’s, for fear of angering SLORC. To pro-democracy activists, the incident confirmed New Delhi’s willingness to abandon both its old friends and its principles, for short-term gain. They say it is only a matter of time before Suu Kyi leads a democratic Burma, at which point India’s betrayal will come to haunt it.
Despite Suu Kyi’s release and her confidence in ultimate triumph, Burmese dissidents in exile in India and Thailand, have watched in dismay as SLORC gains increased international acceptability, and as Asian neighbours revise their views and suggest that the junta can be reformed. Though Suu Kyi has sounded conciliatory in her calls for dialogue with the junta, she says: “People have to accept we are nowhere near democracy yet. I have been released, that’s all… the situation has not changed.”
Like Suu Kyi, who was a student in New Delhi while her mother was posted there as ambassador, hundreds of young Burmese dissidents are studying in India. They are unwilling to be identified, since the military back home has visited their families and know exactly where they are. But the students are bitter over how things have turned out.
“We left our country to end the domination of the military… we cannot go along with that level of reconciliation. We cannot forget how ruthless the military leaders were. There has to be a trial of top generals, the military has to go back to the barracks. These are (the) matters on which we cannot compromise,” says one student activist (requesting anonymity) who has lived in New Delhi for more than five years.
Back home, Suu Kyi’s cautious moves after her release reflect the dichotomy within the dissident movement – between those who want to forge a political alliance and the others, who demand a complete withdrawal of the military from politics.
According to the older generation of political activists, such as NLD candidate Tin Swe, the student exiles and dissidents in India, Thailand, and elsewhere will have to accept reality and follow Suu Kyi’s call for dialogue and national reconciliation.
Tin Swe was reelected as general secretary of the NLD in October, but the junta-run Election Commission has declined to recognise it. She is now a minister in the Burmese government-in-exile. In New Delhi, Tin Swe told Himal: “From the beginning we wanted to fight SLORC. But now, our political wisdom indicates that in Burma’s politics, armed struggle is no more.”
U Nu’s daughter Than Than Nu, also in New Delhi, says, Suu Kyi is determined to carry on the dialogue she started with General Than Shwe and intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt, because she believes reconciliation rather than recrimination is the best way to resolve the political stalemate.
The settlement of Nepali-speakers in Burma was, firstly, an extension of the British colonial policy of opening up the Indian Northeast with peasantry from the central Himalaya. It was also a result of the homesteading by families of Gurkha soldiers. By the early 1940s, there were a sizeable number of farmers and business families in Burma of Nepali origin, and interestingly, a large number of gwalas, or milk suppliers.
The silent exodus of Nepalis from Burma occurred in two waves, during World War II as they fled the Japanese advance, and in the 1960s following Ne Win’s bhumiputra policies. There was no count kept of the numbers, but the ‘Burmeli’ arrived back in time to settle in Nepal’s tarai lands that were being freed of malaria.
Unlike, the case with Lhotshampa of Bhutan, who constitute the next big refugee influx into Nepal, there was no United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to aid and protect the Burmeli. They had to make do the best they could, and many of them did very well in a Nepal that was just opening up to the outside world. Having been exposed to modern colonial times in Burma, and many of them having had business experience, many Burmelis started successful careers in Nepal. For their small number, they have been prominent in government service, in the Nepali police, and as entrepreneurs.
While a significant number of Burmese Nepalis have also migrated to neighbouring Thailand, enough remain behind to benefit from Burmese democracy, when it arrives.