Satisfied with the effect he had achieved, the general and his junta then embarked upon an economic policy that was to have severe consequences for the country, its people and the foreigners who had elected to settle down in Burma. The general announced to the country that he was introducing economic reforms for the betterment of the country. The national economic programme espoused by the regime as ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism’ was ostensibly to distribute the wealth of the nation amongst its citizens. In reality, it meant dispossessing foreigners of their property and businesses with immediate effect.
‘The Burmese Way to Confiscation’ saw former landlords and proprietors of businesses subdued and humbled for a change on the streets of Rangoon, which most thought was justifiable punishment. Landlords and moneylenders who were unmerciful with their victims were discreetly begging and borrowing now.
‘Damned good! The fellows deserve it, Murray,’ remarked Stanley while discussing the subject with his neighbour one evening, returning from work.
‘Mostly your chaps, Stanley,’ said Murray with a grin.
‘It would appear so, Murray,’ conceded Stanley. ‘But I’m sure the Indians are not the only ones; they have their own, you know,’
The lieutenant who had taken in Stanley and his men during the war as prisoners had remained in post-war Burma like some of his countrymen, and had settled down, marrying a Burmese lady and spawning the last generation of Anglo-Burmese. Murray now worked as a journalist for a local English newspaper called The Burma Star.
‘It’s a good thing that you’re not a businessman now,’ commented Murray. ‘The loss would have been more mournful.’
‘Quite right, Murray,’ replied Stanley grudgingly, recollecting that the total personal wealth he could have ever claimed as his own had become ashes in his memory now.
But Stanley was indebted to the lieutenant, for it was him who had helped Stanley set up a canteen for the soldiers until the evacuation with the approval of Colonel MacIntyre, retired since in the United Kingdom. The great irony of his life, Stanley reflected. It was the British who imprisoned him, and then helped him after the war to start a business; and when the business had suffered a disaster, it was the Japanese again who had given him a job until he found better opportunities with an American company, for which he was now working.
‘It was bound to happen,’ Murray commented.
‘What?’ asked Stanley, recovering from the wistful knowledge that fate had denied him success in becoming the prosperous businessman that he had wanted to be.
‘The disparity in wealth is too visible,’ Murray said.
‘Oh that! Yes, Murray. Most of the country’s commerce is either in the hands of the Chinese or our chaps,’ agreed Stanley.
‘Yes,’ observed Murray. ‘Few Burmese have any say in the economy of the country.’
‘I realized that and I do sympathize with them,’ Stanley said.
‘But not any more from what I see,’ said Murray. ‘It appears to me that the Burmese are going to have the only say now.’
‘Oh! The general’s doing okay, Murray,’ Stanley responded. ‘It’s only natural that he restores a balance of some sort.’
Stanley himself had detested the greed of his countrymen who had little regard for the honour of the Burmese, and he saw the general’s policies as a natural consequence. He had no sympathy for the moneylenders, the land-grabbers and the building owners, whether they were countrymen of his or not. There had to be the question of honour and fairness in life which he cherished, and he was not about to surrender his beliefs despite the looming threat of his own survival in the political atmosphere that was getting more and more unpredictable.
‘I’m afraid I won’t be here long enough to find out,’ informed Murray. ‘The family and I have decided to move far away, to Australia, in a month’s time.’
‘Why not the UK?’ enquired Stanley.
‘I believe I’ll have better opportunities in Australia, Stanley,’ replied Murray. ‘Britain’s pretty beat up at the moment, you know; what with practically giving away the empire and all that!’
‘Ha! Ha!’ laughed Stanley at Murray’s wisecrack.
The war had left them with a sense of humour and they enjoyed sharing it between them. It also reflected the strength of their relationship.
‘Oh no, Murray, what about the wealth of the colonies you chaps have drained from them?’ Stanley rebutted.
‘Ha! Ha!’ It was Murray’s turn to laugh. ‘You don’t expect to get the railways, the telegraph, the postal services and a whole administrative service for free, do you now?’
‘And I suppose you’d say we got it cheap?’ chided Stanley in rebuff.
‘Yes, believe me, Stanley,’ Murray said, seemingly serious. ‘Yes, you have, unless you folks want to carry on with bullock carts. We’d charge you the sky for every motor car or locomotive you import from us, you know;’
‘Very imperialistic, isn’t it? Or is it capitalism? Anyway, quite soon you are going to see a whole lot of us in Britain, returning the favour,’ Stanley said.
‘It’s strange, isn’t it? We give you the independence to leave you alone so that you can enjoy it, and what do you do? You land in England and take away our jobs, not allowing us to enjoy our memories of having been your masters,’ Murray remarked with a wide grin.
‘That’s the way of the world,’ answered Stanley. ‘It’s karmic, you know.’
‘Ah! You keep saying that. Karma! I’m inclined to believe in the here and now .. .in what you sow and reap in one lifetime. Not in something a few births away which I won’t recognize. Anyway, what about you, Stanley?’ asked Murray, returning to the topic of the general’s junta. ‘Plan to stay on here?’
‘Yes,’ replied Stanley confidently. ‘I’m sure things will level down once the general’s through with the balancing act.’
‘In that case, you’d better do something about your citizenship,’ advised Murray. ‘I don’t think it’s going to stop here. There’s an ill wind blowing, as the saying goes, but take it from me as a newspaper man, it’ll get worse.’
‘Oh, it won’t be that bad, Murray,’ Stanley answered. ‘It’s principally just the matter of trade and labour that has to be resolved and after that, I’m sure things will be just fine. I’m married to a national after all.’
‘Sure. But she’s a Karen. You would be quite stupid to ignore it,’ cautioned Murray.
Stanley was certain that once the economic balance was restored in the country, life would return to normalcy again. He was wrong. In the following months, he was to see how wrong he was, and began to feel disturbed by the zealous extent to which the general’s policies were implemented.
A Suburb of Rangoon
Mohamed Ibrahim was a second-generation Indian in Burma. Belonging to a community called the Kha Khas, his ancestors came from a southern state in India commonly known as Malabar. Surprisingly for a Kha Kha, he spoke Burmese fluently and, but for his skin, was as Burmese as the locals. He went to a local school with the Burmese and wore his lungi as the Burmese did. He read the news in Burmese and wrote his accounts in Burmese. His nativity in India was as remote to him now as it was to many of his kind who had settled in the country and practiced a business in which the community excelled. They ran utility and provision stores all around Rangoon and its suburbs, and provided a service that the native Burmese were yet to perfect. Credit without interest.
The store he owned was his pride and, like his father who started the business, he was known to be fair in his dealings. His dream was to find someone capable of looking after the business, which would allow him an opportunity for a holiday and passage to India, where he would seek a wife and bring her back with him to this land of abundance. Little did he suspect that morning when he woke up that his dreams would end prematurely, and that in a few months’ time he would be on-board a refugee ship on a one-way journey to his ancestral home.
That morning, Mohamed Ibrahim saw his provision store sealed and numerically marked. I t had a new board in place of the old one, and was now identified as ‘People’s Stores No. 178’. He panicked and couldn’t understand what had happened. He had heard a rumour that the government had plans to abolish private enterprise in the land, and he had presumed it meant the big private sector. His was a small business; far too small for the government to take an interest in. He went about the neighbourhood to determine the facts.
Book: The Lacquered Curtain of Burma; Author: Eugene
Lawrence; Publisher: Olive Turtle, Niyogi Books; Pages: 223; Price: Rs 495