Date: Thu, 7 Sep 1995 04:54:27 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <>
From: Rich Winkel <>
Organization: PACH
Subject: Burmanet News September 4, 1995
To: Multiple recipients of list ACTIV-L <>

/** headlines: 113.0 **/
** Topic: Burmanet News September 4, 1995 **
** Written 8:58 AM Sep 5, 1995 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk>

/* Written 6:56 PM Sep 3, 1995 by burmanet in igc:reg.burma */
/* ————— “Burmanet News September 4, 1995” ————— */
From: BurmaNet <burmanet>

Good times, bad times

By Manoj Kumar, The BurmaNet News, Issue #2153, 4 September 1995

Manoj Kumar in Rangoon traces the riches to rags story of Indians caught up in Burma's turbulent this century.

Anyone who knows India will find much that's familiar in downtown Rangoon, from the sidewalk astrologers to the betel-spitting pedestrians (who are still defying the new ban on the practice), to the splendid mosques and colourful temples of Indian origin.

The Indian presence in Burma goes back a long way, and has been particularly striking—and troubled—this century.

Much of the modern Burmese capital was built by Indians who flourished there under British colonial rule. According to census estimates, at any one time there were more than a million Indians living in Burma, mostly in Rangoon where they made up half the population, between 1901 and 1941.

“In those days Hindustani was spoken all over this city,” reminisces Doriswamy, a Tamil businessman who was born and brought up in a village 50 kilometres from Rangoon.

In pre-independence Burma Indians dominated commercial life in Rangoon, with Tamils, Telugus and Chittagonians making up much of the industrial and agricultural working class, the Marwaris controlling trade, Bengalis the professions and Chettors the world of finance. There was even a 100,000-strong community of Indians from the Buxar district in Bihar who occupied the two towns of Ziyawadi and Kyawtoga, 200 kms north of Rangoon, working as farmers.

But it was a domination that many Indians here partly regret, since it worked against them after Burma gained independence. In the run-up to independence Burmese nationalists were determined to curb Indian influence, which they perceived as being an essential part of British colonialism.

The first exodus of Indians came in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s when a series of anti-Muslim riots, followed by the Japanese invasion of Burma, forced several hundred thousand to leave. Many more departed after Burma's declaration of independence when new laws required them to acquire citizenship or register as aliens. The final round of depopulation came in the mid 60s when a nationalization law brought in by General Ne Win's military regime deprived rich Indians of much of their property and made it impossible for them to continue business.

“It was a calamity for which Indians themselves were responsible to a large extent,” claims GS Sharma, one of the few richer Indians to stay on in the country through its more than three decades of isolation from the rest of the world. According to him, cultural arrogance on the part of the Indians toward the local population under British rule, as much as the fact of economic domination, caused many Burmese to resent the Indians.

Sharma remembers with regret how many of the older generation considered themselves to be “culturally superior” to the Burmese and took the local people's simplicity to be “simple-mindedness”. There were numerous Indians, he says, who would willingly get married~with dubious intent to local women they actually looked down upon. Another issue that harmed relations was the Indian habit of repatriating profits from their businesses in Burma back to India without consideration for the welfare of the local economy.

It would be hard to overestimate the contribution by poor Indian migrant labourers to Burma's economy earlier this century and up to the present. Working under harsh conditions, they were in large part responsible for increasing the extent of arable land available in the country, making Burma the world's largest exporter of rice- in the world by the ‘40s. Trade unions formed by Indian labour activists were also precursors of the country's worker's movement which played an important role in the independence struggle.

Though government propaganda still occasionally shows movies with Indian depicted as “blood-sucking money-lenders”, and though some Burmese now look down on Indians, at the level of common people there are few traces of animosity now between the two communities. “The Burmese are among the most hospitable and warm people in the world,” says Doraiswamy who feels that most Indians living in the country wouldn’t dream of returning to India now.

In fact, even after the exodus of Indian migrants in previous years, the number still remaining is estimated to be well .over half a million. While some Indians continue to be traders, the majority are poor, illiterate and engaged in menial urban professions or as agricultural labour.

One of the major problems confronting the Indian population in Burma continues to be the issue of their national identity, with only 56,000 having become naturalized citizens and around 81,000 holding foreign registration certificates. Ignoring earlier notices and deadlines for obtaining citizenship, more than 300,000 people of Indian extraction remain virtually stateless with no identity cards or travel documents.

Though Indians are not very active in local politics, for many the ruling military regime is as oppressive as it is for the indigenous population. Even while speaking in their native Tamil or Hindi [part missing here]

When Amma’ was arrested we prayed every day for her release,” says a poor Tamil woman. “Amma” in this case is a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and dissident leader. Like many ordinary Burmese, for Indian migrants in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi remains a beacon of hope for a better future.

In recent years many Indians have been alienated from the military regime by its practice of arbitrarily taking over property. In its bid to please foreign investors and as part of a tourism promotion drive, military authorities have been evicting building owners and tenants around the city to make way for new hotel and office complexes.

Many Indians who lost their property due to the nationalization law are also unhappy over the way senior officers in the Burmese army have been using such “nationalized” property for private gain.

The regime's relocation of ancient Hindu and Muslim graveyards to make room for parks and gardens has angered Indians even more. Though the policy of shifting graveyards outside city limits affects all religious denominations in Rangoon, Indians are particularly sensitive to what they consider the “desecration” of burial grounds.

“The living are suffering anyway and this regime does not even let the dead rest in peace,” says a Muslim leader.

Sentiments are running high within the Muslim community, for example, over the proposed relocation of their burial ground near the Rangoon railway station. The community has been asked to stop burials in this hallowed ground from October this year and has been offered money to shift the bones of those buried earlier to a site outside the city.

But undaunted by these and other similar tensions a small number of former residents of Rangoon are making their way back to the city.

“This country has an irresistible pull for all those who were fortunate enough to live here at some point in time,” says a Bombay businessman whose grandfather migrated here in the last century. Forced to leave the country in the mid-’60s, he is back now with two of his brothers running a successful import-export trade out of Rangoon.