Rice Riots to Race Riots

Chinatown in Rangoon (2003).
When Burma was in a serious turmoil in 1967 I was only eleven years old. But I still vividly remember the day I witnessed the brutal atrocities committed by the Burmese mob against the innocent Chinese in Rangoon.

Then was the time when all that massive disruption and mismanagement of the economy by the military and Ne Win’s large scale nationalization were severely affecting the trade and movement of essential goods throughout the whole country. According to the only radio, Voice of Burma, and all the newspapers now nationalized and run by the army the selfish farmers had refused to sell their crops to the government and the greedy foreigners, an implied name for the Chinese traders who controlled the wholesale trade of rice and other commodities in major cities were hoarding the huge quantity of rice in their warehouses.

The situation was so bad that by the beginning of year 1967, Burma, formerly the rice-bowl of the vast British Empire where once sun never set and the biggest rice exporter in the world had finally run out of rice even for her own people. Many in Rangoon were starving and the poor people were now looting the warehouses and shops all over the town. Even in our army boarding school we had to eat only rice porridges boiled from the low quality broken rice as the supply chain of rice was almost completely shut down.

To make the problems much worse one other major crisis was also happening in parallel to the critical rice shortage. The Cultural Revolution, started in the early 1966 in Communist China, had now reached Rangoon. The red faction of local Chinese were making trouble in the previously privately-owned Chinese Schools but now nationalized and run by the government’s Basic Education Department. Already disturbingly agitated many thousands of young Chinese students were the easy recruits for the Communist plotters and by the middle of 1967 these students started forcefully taking over their own schools as the young Red Guards in China did.

The army led government saw the golden opportunity to get out of the worsening rice crisis and started inflaming vigorously the latent hatred of the foreigners by the populace into a full-scale race conflict. For days and days the newspapers’ front pages carried the disturbing photos of Chinese students waving frantically the Chairman Mao’s little Red Books and many inside pages were also filled with endless tragic stories of Burmese teachers taken as the hostages inside the besieged schools.

The backbreaking story finally came when they were accused of raping the female teachers and killing one male teacher in the biggest Chinese School in Rangoon. Female schoolteachers were almost sacred figures in our society and the misled public responded with the most brutal violence against the innocent and most vulnerable Chinese population in the cities.

Poor and unemployed people from the surrounding townships entered the city en mass and started looting and destroying the Chinese properties. The mob began with the shops in the traders’ quarters and markets, then continued into the crowded residential quarters that made up Rangoon’s vast Chinatown. They burned down many timber houses and killed many hundreds of Chinese who refused to flee to the countryside and leave their properties undefended.

To supposedly quell the horrible riots most army units stationed in the cantonment area were sent into the city and all the schools including ours were closed indefinitely. Back to my father’s house, army sent me riding in a rubber wheeled Bren-Carrier which was part of a convoy of tanks and heavy army trucks heading to Chinatown. These army units were supposed to guard the Chinatown against the rampaging mob, but they didn’t do their jobs too seriously as I would discover later in that afternoon.

                                                        **********************

I was dropped off in early afternoon at our shop-house near the intersection of Dalhousie Road and Mogul Street in the middle of the Indian Town which was relatively quiet compared to the burning Chinatown just a few city blocks away. My father and mother were not really happy to see me at the front door as they knew it would be hard to keep me behind the closed doors for too long. Most of the shop-houses including ours had the Union flags flying in the front as to let the rioting mob know them as Burmese houses. I had never seen so many flags flying even on the Independence Day.

After putting away my bags I sat down on the front steps and watched many people rushing past by. Seemed like almost everyone was heading towards Chinatown and I eventually joined the marching crowd as soon as my sick father went into his room and took a nap. I was just curious and wanted to see what was really going on in our neighbourhood.

Rangoon Map.
Old Sule Pagoda as the centre, downtown Rangoon was laid out by the British as a long rectangular strip with five main roads namely; Montgomerry, Frazer, Dalhousie, Merchants, and Strand Roads running parallel from East to West with the short and narrow cross streets, named in English numerals, connecting them from South to North. After leaving our street I turned into Dalhousie Road and saw the huge crowd massing ahead at the intersection of Signal Pagoda Road which marked the beginning of Chinatown.

The biggest Sunni mosque in Burma was at the corner of Mogul Street and Dalhousie Road. In normal days the old mosque was always noisily crowded both inside and outside with many Muslim Indians as they had to pray at least five times a day. But today the huge mosque stood there conspicuously silent and appeared lockdown as if it didn’t want to attract the attention of the rioting mob nearby. Even the normally busy loudspeakers mounted on its tall towers to call aloud the daily prayers were silent.

Traditionally, the huge mosque and its people were the usual targets of previous race riots as the Buddhist Burmese violently hated the Muslim Indians, not the Buddhist Chinese. But times were different now as people were starving and the relatively rich Chinese were the new scapegoats for the dire consequences of collapsing Socialist economy.

I was shocked by the horribly awful sight once I reached the wide intersection of Signal Pagoda Road and Dalhousie Road and saw what lay ahead. The dense plumes of grey smoke from the burning timber houses and many smouldering pieces of discarded furniture scattered all over the big wide road were billowing over many parts of vast Chinatown. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes and flip-flops discarded in haste by the people fleeing the rioting mob were scattered all over the wide road, replaying again and again the eerily horrible scene of mass madness.

                                                        **********************

Old Bengali Mosque in Rangoon (1920).
Armed soldiers blocked the intersection with high barbed-wire-barricades stopping the crowd from entering into the Chinatown. But I could clearly see the mob running amok farther down the road at the other side of the barricades. First I thought they might be there well before the soldiers arrived. Only later I realized that some adventurous people were sneaking through the small gaps between the barricades even under the watchful eyes of the soldiers. Some soldiers were also visibly encouraging people to go through under their bayonet-drawn .303 rifles while their lone officer stood nearby, smoking with obvious disinterest to what was happening. These Burmese soldiers definitely had a clear order not to stop the rioting Burmese mob.

With wild excitement I squeezed through a small gap and excitingly ran along with the crowd towards where the mob was. The rioting men were mostly heavily drunk, half-naked, and many of them were armed with either swords or long spears or both. A few were waving the burning torches in frenzy while looking for something or someone to burn. Some men were waving the Union flags as if they were legitimately committing all the atrocities like fulfilling their nationalistic patriotic duties. Some even wrapped their bodies with the bloodied flags as a badge.

“What are you doing here, young boy? This ain’t a football game. Dangerous here, they are killing people here. Go, go back home, go!” an older man shouted at me after noticing a young boy by his side. Feeling threatened I tried to stay back behind not to attract his attention again.

But I still followed them from behind as they moved on farther down the road deep into the burning Chinatown. Many small groups of men were wildly looting and torching any house still standing and looked untouched.

“Come, come into the street. The bloody Chinese are still here!” someone from the crowd ransacking a corner shop in the side street ahead yelled out and the mob I was with rushed into the small narrow street tightly lined with mostly three-storey timber shop-houses.

Almost all of them were looted and also gutted by still smouldering or blazing fires. The partly smoke-filled street reminded me of the grisly scenes from the painted murals of hell traditionally hung up on the long corridor walls of many Buddhist temples. Disgustingly bloated bodies from the previous slaughters still lay rotting by the sides of the street and the repugnant stench hit me as soon as I entered the street. Men already in the narrow street wore triangular pieces of rag as facemasks to cover their noses and mouths. A small crowd already at the middle of the short street was getting bigger and bigger as many men were now pouring from both ends.

                                                        **********************

Rangoon Bustling Chinatown (2000).
Once reached the middle of the street I discovered the centre of the wild crowd’s attention. It was a three-storey tall concrete building between the charred remains of two burnt-down timber houses. Unlike other shop-houses the upper floors of the building had steep concrete stairs direct from the street. Apparently the Chinese family trapped in the top floor apartment was holding fort by blocking the steep stairs and shooting down at the attacking mob through the gaps in their wrought iron accordion door.

Then I saw armed men coming out of the narrow stairway carrying down an injured man. Two men dropped the half-naked wounded man onto the platform and tried to dress his bleeding head wound with their dirty and bloodied shirts.

“Bastard has a hand gun and he just kept on shooting at us. The top stair is packed with dead bodies of our men. But I think he runs out of bullets now. They will get him soon. They are breaking down the door now,” excitingly said the disgustingly ugly man with blood dripping from the side of his head. He was right. For the bloodthirsty mob upstairs it didn’t take too long to break down the door and grab the lone Chinese man with an out-of-bullet revolver.

I was right in front of the building, among the wildly excited crowd looking up to the top floor veranda, when a group of men came out onto the veranda, carrying a bloodied limp body above their heads. Everyone on the ground was instantly aware of the men’s intention to throw down the body and the wild crowd immediately cleared the area directly below the veranda. The body came down and hit the bitumen with a huge thud and blood spattered the sealed tar road. The dead man, who had bravely defended his family till his extremely violent death, was a young Chinese man with a muscular but now badly mutilated and impact broken body.

The wounded man sitting down on the sidewalk stood up, walked towards the badly broken body, and started sawing the bloodied head slowly with his short dagger. One other topless man with a big long sword joined him with great gusto and they severed the head together in no time. They then grabbed a six-foot-long spear from a man watching nearby, stuck the severed head with jagged edged neck on the pointed tip of the blade, and lifted it up well above their heads.

                                                        **********************

By then I was really feeling sick of witnessing all the atrocities. To get away from the mad crowd I turned around and tried to run out of the narrow street filled with many rotten corpses. But I turned back curiously when I heard many loud yells from the agitated crowd. I was enormously shocked by witnessing the cause of their shouting and yelling. Now standing near the edge of the roof of the same tall building was a young Chinese woman holding a tiny baby in one arm and waving fanatically the Chinese red flag in other hand. They might be the rest of the family that young Chinese man was trying desperately to defend. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the feeling of a deep sadness as their fate was now hopelessly doomed in the mad hands of an extremely violent mob.

“Get the bitch! Kill her! Kill her!” yelled abusively the wounded man still holding the long spear with the severed head at its tip. Crowd joined in with many loud abusive calls and the murderous men standing on the veranda below the roof started climbing up onto the roof by the drainpipes. Rather than letting them grab her, she wrapped the red flag around her body and the baby together, then rushed to the edge and threw herself over. I was far behind the crowd and couldn’t see her hit the ground.  But I saw the mob rushed onto the spot and later another long spear was raised up with little baby’s naked body impaled through its middle on the pointed tip.

I thought I saw the still-alive baby boy’s tiny limbs moved in the air as it floated aloft on the spear tip well above the sea of black-haired heads. Grossly overwhelmed by the violent sickness in the stomach I ran back towards the main road. As soon as I reached the main road and away from the frantic killing mob I stopped and violently emptied whatever I had eaten that day into the drainage gutter. That night I had the ugly repeats of that horrible scene in my nightmares again and again.

But in next few days the riotous chaos quickly vanished as the army took stern measures against the out-of-control mob. Martial law was declared, the from-dusk-till -dawn curfew was imposed, and soldiers started shooting the looters dead in Chinatown. Striking Chinese schools were forcefully re-taken and the government-sponsored-civilian-siege around the massive Chinese Embassy in Rangoon was quietly lifted. Even in our neighbourhood, well away from the troubled Chinatown, patrolling soldiers shot anyone seen outside during the curfew hours without asking any question.

The rumours spreading all over the town like wildfire explained the obvious reason for the government’s about-turn. Huge Chinese Army was amassing along the 800 miles long eastern border and threatening to cross into Burma if the race riots continued unabated. Unfortunately for me my school was reopened in few weeks time as the disturbances slowed down considerably and I was back in the boarding school.

************************************


(On 6 January 1966 General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Socialist Government stupidly prohibited the civilian populace from transporting, storing, distributing, and trading of 460 basic commodities including the staples such as rice, peanut-oil, and salt. The horrifying result was the 1967 Chinese Race Riots where hundreds and hundreds of local Chinese were slaughtered by the Burmese mob as people in the urban centers starved and took it out on the relatively-wealthier Chinese.)