Wednesday, May 20, 2020

White Bridge Massacre: Rangoon's Inya Lake (1988)

On March 16, 1988 the protesting students fanned out across wide Prome road, almost 4000 of them in total marching together behind a student union flag bearing a peacock. They had set out from Rangoon University on March 16 for Regional College 2 in Hlaing township, where they were planning to combine with other students to protest against General Ne Win's hated socialist government.

As they headed north along Prome Road, the demonstrators slowly passed the White Bridge, which leads from the road up to the bank of Inya Lake. And then the soldiers arrived. Vehicles laden with machine guns blocked the road in front of the marchers, while hated riot police also moved in from behind.

With the lake on the right and the high walls of an affluent Kamaryut township neighbourhood on the left, the protesters were sitting ducks. The police showed no mercy, driving up to the protesters in trucks and attacking them viciously.

When the orgy of violence ended, an unknown number of students had been killed. Many more would die under police torture, but it was the large pools of blood on the ground near the White Bridge that became lodged in popular memory; the incident quickly became known as the tadar-phyu-ayay-akhin, or White Bridge unrest.

The crackdown failed to deter the demonstrations against the socialist regime, with more protesters turning out in even larger numbers on March 18. Outrage over the White Bridge incident prompted the government to establish an investigation commission, but this did not divulge how many students were killed, conceding only that 49 students had suffocated inside a prison van on March 16. No action has ever been taken over the killing of the students on Pyay Road.

Last month, they marked the 26th anniversary of the tadar-phyu unrest. Around 100 former and current students of Yangon University assembled on the bank of Inya lake on March 16 to recognise the sacrifices made by students more than two-and-a-half decades ago.

In the official account of the "1988 disturbances," there is also no mention of fatalities on March 16. The government did, however, agree to an investigation of a subsequent event that occurred on the night of March 18, in which forty-nine young people suffocated to death in an densely-packed police van destined for Insein Jail.

The finding of the inquest -- "that those prisoners had died as a result of tear gas they had inhaled earlier in the day and also of suffocation in the over-loaded lock-up" -- was only made public on July 19 "for fear," off fuelling further violence.

The order to attack the protesting students came from then Home Minister Colonel  Sein Lwin, who would become president four months later. He was dubbed the “Butcher of Rangoon” for his brutal suppression of successive student-led demonstrations in what was the nation’s capital at the time.

YANGON—For countries emerging from lengthy periods of totalitarian rule, one measure of good democratic health is the extent to which government is willing to acknowledge historic wrongs. The more public and visible the gesture, the thinking goes, the faster the country and its citizens can come to terms with the dark legacies of violence and oppression.

This can be as simple and understated as a bronze plaque at the scene of a tragedy or as giant and expensive as an official museum. The notion of the state taking public ownership of its own shameful misdeeds is based on a civic ethic of truth and reconciliation, a form of accountability designed to encourage healing among the citizenry, make sure the event is never forgotten, and signal that the state has learned from its mistakes.

For countries with histories of genocide, it’s almost impossible not to own up. Germany and Cambodia are two of the most obvious examples. In the former, Holocaust memorials are everywhere; in the latter, Killing Fields exhibitions expose a state death machine in all its horror.

For a country like Myanmar, however, the notion of memorializing historic wrongs is somewhat more complicated. To begin with, the people in charge have never hesitated to point out wrongs committed by the British colonial occupiers and the Japanese invaders during World War II. But when it comes to the sins of independent Burma, especially since the military coup of 1962, that’s a different story.

To offer one example: how would one attempt to acknowledge the terrorizing of ethnic groups in the border areas since the coup? Not even the current government is about to own up to the army’s culture of entitlement when it comes to rape and murder, child labour, torture, forced evacuations, etcetera—especially when such evils still occur today.

Then there are the other, well-documented human rights abuses against pro-democracy activists, Burman majority or otherwise. The likelihood of today’s quasi-civilian government expressing regret for the many atrocities of the Ne Win, SLORC, and SPDC military dictatorships is slim and nil. The army’s continuing pervasive influence over all areas of public life (to say nothing of its psychological intrusions on private life) makes that impossible while many of the perpetrators are still alive.

It was only three years ago, after all, that Senior General Than Shwe gave up his dictator’s seat to allow elections. It is widely believed that one condition for the transition to democracy was a guarantee from regime opponents that there would be no reprisals, no truth and reconciliation, no UN commissions of inquiry into all the ugliness.

Public monuments to the Tatmadaw’s atrocities would flout such a deal by shaming some of the same people who traded in their military uniforms for business suits and are now sitting in the parliament.

Then there’s the problem of logistics. Another reason you won’t see any memorials to national tragedy here, especially in Yangon, is the simple fact that there have been too many of these atrocities to count. This city has so many ghosts, so many scenes of epic violence or injustice worthy of acknowledgement, that one would not know where to begin placing plaques.

It would take a research grant to uncover and account for every historic wrong. But I can tell you about a few of these places, each one haunting in its own way, that I think are worthy of mention. If you walk anywhere downtown, you will pass through areas where thousands died in 1988 and many more were killed During the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

One spot on Sule Pagoda Road, just outside Trader’s Hotel (which recently suffered a bomb attack by rogue elements of the Karen National Union trying to derail national ceasefire talks) is especially poignant for journalists: it’s where Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot dead at point blank range while covering the monk protests. Kenji’s death shocked many because foreigners were so rarely targeted.

COLDBLOODED--More than 100 are believed to have been killed during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, but photos of Kenji Nagai's execution by an SPDC soldier brought home the regime's brutality to the world.

A couple of places in the neighbourhood where I live deserve a plaque or a statue. A high school not far from my apartment was where several schoolgirls were knocked down and killed in 2007, apparently by accident: they just happened to be crossing the street moments before army trucks came racing through the area to contain some other situation.

And at the office where I work, the back window of the sixth floor looks out onto Kyaikkasan Playground. In 1974 this rundown, poorly trimmed grass field was the proud location of a horse racing course—and the scene of the infamous U Thant Uprising.

Late that year, when the revered former UN secretary-general died and his body was flown home, dictator Ne Win refused to build a mausoleum and tomb or hold a state funeral. On December 5, 1974, the army decided to hold a brief coffin viewing at the racecourse just before U Thant’s burial. Students were outraged and decided to steal the coffin.

Breaking through the barriers, they launched a relentless assault on security forces guarding the coffin, bayoneting some of them to death with detached fence poles before wrestling the coffin away and marching it off to the Rangoon University campus.

Today, Kyaikkasan is a fitness facility for students. The original racecourse fencing has all come down, and there appear to be only a few traces of the old track (a wooden scoreboard frame?) remaining. Gazing down on the green from my office, I shudder at the mayhem that occurred on that lawn, a riot that triggered events leading to a slaughter of the students a week later.

None of these places moves one quite so profoundly, however, as a short strip of land on the west bank of Inya Lake, scene of the infamous “White Bridge” massacre of spring 1988. After all I had read about what had happened there, it was disorienting to visit the spot in 2013 and find that the bridge students had run across no longer existed and that the street dividing the lake property from the barrier walls in front of private homes had been renamed “Pyay Road” from “Prome Road.”

After all those years of totalitarian rule, the army had gotten pretty good at suppressing information and inhibiting memory: the best way to trip up researchers is to change the names of townships and streets. In the case of the now vanished White Bridge (nicknamed the Red Bridge, for all the bloodshed there), it’s no wonder the government would want people to forget what had happened.

On March 16, 1988, a group of students from Rangoon Arts and Sciences University organized a march to the Rangoon Institute of Technology to express solidarity with RIT students after one of their own had been killed by police three days earlier.

When the march arrived at this narrow stretch of road next to Inya Lake, the army had blocked it off at one end (Northern End). Minutes later, the Lon Htein riot police came in from the rear, trapping the students. There was nowhere to flee to but the lake. Girls were dragged away and gang raped before being clubbed to death. Others died in the lake.

Surveying the grounds today, one can see how terrifying that episode must have been; one can imagine running up the 10-metre embankment on its 25-degree angle wearing flip-flops, hoping to make it to the lake before being clubbed on the back of the head. Those who reached the lake weren’t a lot more fortunate than those who didn’t: police simply followed them up the hill and into the water.

Many students were caught as they tried to swim away and were then either flogged to death with truncheons or drowned by having their heads pushed under water. Several dozen others who escaped the beatings were arrested and packed into police vans like sardines. Among them, forty-nine died of suffocation while their van sat parked inside Insein Prison under the mid-day sun.

Twenty-five years later, the scene of that gruesome event is a sleepy urban oasis populated mainly by young lovers enjoying a little romance. On the Sunday afternoon I visited, a cluster of white sailboats circled each other at mid-lake, like moths above a campfire.

On the shoreline pathway that neatly divides Inya Lake from the hillside, one or two joggers interrupted the casual rhythm of a lazy weekend afternoon. Food vendors quietly went about their business as young couples on the breakwater sat huddled under their umbrellas.

Most of these people were not even born in 1988, but were now about the same age as the students who had died here. Did they know what had happened on this very spot, a quarter of a century ago, to kids just like them? Maybe. Their parents might have told them. But then again, maybe not. In a country with so many ghosts, it’s a lot easier—and better for one’s sanity—just to “move on” without having to confront those ghosts head on, again and again.

Author on the western-bank of Inya Lake in Rangoon (2013).
Confession Of A Medical Examiner From RGH (1988)

I was not a criminal, but in March 1988, I was punished with one day jail sentence with hard labor at notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon. I didn't even tell my family or close friends about my time in prison. I was then working as a young medical examiner in the Crime Examiner Department of Rangoon General Hospital (RGH).

On one Sunday in that March at about 7 am, an unmarked police van arrived at my house. Inside were all the doctors from the department. One doctor came down and asked me to get inside the van and I had no choice but to follow him without changing cloths on me. An unknown official-looking man with threateningly-tense impression on his face was occupying the front seat beside the driver.

Before I got inside the doctor who got me just whispered to me not to say a single word and I just nodded. After picking me up the van drove on and picked up the professor who was our department head from his government-provided house in the campus of Rangoon University (RASU).

Unlike me and some other doctors our old professor seemed to know the situation well in advance and calmly joined us. Altogether inside the van were the professor, his deputy, other three medical examiners, and me. All six crime doctors from the RGH. They all were permanent medical examiners of the department but I was only an assistant doctor on duty at the RGH.

Our main duties were performing autopsies on the homicide victims and attending all the criminal courts of Rangoon Administrative Division as expert witnesses and answering the questions from both prosecution and defence lawyers.

And eventually the van reached the main gate of notorious Insein Prison. I was concerned first, then I noticed the professor and his deputy were quite calm so I stopped worrying. As our van entered the Prison both gates on front and back were shut, the van stopped, and the man at the front seat got out and signed the register at the guard house. Only then our van was allowed to proceed.

Finally after passing through three doors we reached a large clearing the van stopped and we were asked to get off and follow a prison warden. After 15 minutes walk we ended up at a large godown (warehouse). The godown doors were tightly shut and when the warden opened the doors the familiar putrid smell of rotten corpses suddenly struck our noses.

Inside were so many corpses, pile of many corpse, and suddenly we were all shocked. Without refrigeration or even without air-conditioning most corpses were already starting to rot. The warden disgusted and left us doctors alone in the godown. Only then the Assistant Professor told us that according to the strict orders from the higher-up only us the doctors were to perform autopsies no one else.

Back in the RGH morgue we doctors just supervised and witnessed the autopsies as the lower staff who were Indians who traditionally performed skillfully the cuttings and dissectings as their generational occupation since the British colonial times. But now we were being forced and even our professors had to do the autopsies personally.

Our old professor took off his shirt, tied back his longyi under his crotch, dragged first corpse onto a desk nearby, and started sawing open the skull. Two of us in each group, one doctor sawed open the skull while other one put identity mark on the body, estimated the age, identified the clothes, and recorded the tattoos if the corpse has some, standard autopsy  procedure of dissecting and recording the body exteriors.

As we all knew by then that we could go home only when we finished all autopsies, we all were super-active and quickly did our jobs even without a breakfast. The worst and most tiring job was sawing the skull off to open since we had no power-saws and only hand-saws to cut. Luckily me being not a permanent autopsy surgeon the rest didn't let me saw the skulls.

We worked so hard till we had a break for the prison lunch of brown-bread and sweet tea. We then continued on with our forced autopsies. The corpses were from age-7 to 70, but most were lower middle ages like university students.

Many had head injuries caused by blunt instruments but those head injuries were not the cause of deaths. The cause of death for all of them, 49 altogether, was horrible suffocation (asphyxia) in an extremely confined space like an enclosed prison truck.

By five in the evening we finished the autopsies and when reported to the police colonel in-charge he told us to inject Formalin to preserve the corpses. By then our professor was really angry after the whole day of hard work and yelled at the Police Colonel that we had no chance to bring syringes and Formalin along.

So the Police Colonel sent our van back to fetch the Indian staff and Formalin and syringes from the RGH. While waiting for the van to come back we were allowed to take showers by the prison water tank. They also fed us jail-rice and split-pea curry as dinner there.

After the dinner we were forced to sign the secrecy agreements and the Police Colonel also warned that if we disclose what we did that day to anyone there would be serious repercussions. Only then we were sent back home.

Now it seems a long time ago as our old professor had passed away, some doctors had migrated to foreign countries, and the rest had already retired. But I still remember that horrible incident clearly in my fraying mind.

British-built Insein Prison in Rangoon.
British-built Rangoon General Hospital in Burma.