In 1958, barely a decade after independence from the British Empire, the Burmese political system collapsed. At the heart was an irrevocable split within the Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), a popular leftist coalition that had governed the country for over ten years but was now feeling the strain of ideological differences and personal rivalries. The split was hostile and barbed words quickly escalated into brawls, so much so that the Sayadaws of the Rangoon monasteries, on behalf of a fearful populace, had to initiate a treaty of non-violence for the party elite to sign.
Bamaw Tin Aung was born in 1920 and by the time he was in high school had already read Marx and was a leader in the anti-colonial student strikes of the late 1930s. A prolific journalist and novelist, he wrote over seventy books in his lifetime, including Ma Ma Gyi, Ng’aw, and Einstein and His Dhamma as well as editing journals such as Lin Yone (Eagle). A dissident socialist in an authoritarian socialist state, Tin Aung spent much of his working life in prison as his political writings frequently fell foul of the government, whether it was civilian or military. This writing, from 1958, comes soon after a five year stint, and he would soon be back behind bars the same year. As he spent much of his time in prison writing (and participating in prisoner strikes), Tin Aung’s fans would joke that his arrests meant more books for them to read. Though he was a Marxist from a young age Bamaw Tin Aung was a thorn in the side of the nominally socialist governments of Burma and his writing rejected the great man thesis of history, choosing instead to focus on history from below and to reject the need for centralised development of power. Thus we find Bamaw Tin Aung in the tradition of working class historians such as E.P. Thompson and theorists such as Mario Tronti.
Blood and Earth does not hide its argument; it reveals it gradually. It is neither a diatribe nor a technical argument, but a common sense lesson on the idiocy of violence, the wasteful ostentation of centrist politics, and the need for workers to lead themselves. Originally published in Shumawa magazine, it is written for a general audience and is an understated piece, its fire smouldering from beneath the diary entry of a sad Yangon day.
New Multitude, 2020
Blood and Earth
In the middle of 1958, there was a major political upheaval in this country. This event was so infamous that it needs little mention. The details, and the degree to which the political life and state of the nation has changed need not be mentioned. The nation has endured severe consequences which are still felt today and is now hunched over in suffering.
Upheavals within the political party that took power led to a political chain of events and repercussions within various national and provincial institutions. This caused factions and schisms within a hitherto harmonious society that included women’s groups who would wear the same uniform and demonstrate with one voice, students, young people, businesspeople, civil servants, and labour unions. This also caused factions within ethnic groups. We can see this as a heart-breaking situation that should be assigned to history.
The following sections will detail the impact and losses to the country caused by the initial upheaval and subsequent conflicts for any researchers who would like to investigate the history of Myanmar. Nevertheless, the suffering caused by the event is so universal that it is likely to be implicitly understood by everyone.
As there were a myriad of tragic events within respective national and provincial institutions due to this political disruption and its adverse effects, I would like to share my personal excruciating experience as a citizen of the Union. The story that I want to tell is simply some unbelievable events that happened within a working-class community that I am most familiar with.
Throughout the history of Myanmar’s labour movements, there were riots in which labourers within working-class communities were asked to colour each other’s faces with charcoal as one would do to a pair of roosters to make them fight and kill each other so that the ruling party could retain and gain more power. In particular, there are records of deliberately incited riots between Chinese and Myanma and Indian and Myanma working-class communities throughout the history of British colonialism in Myanmar. British colonial rulers allowed labourers of the same background to blacken their faces and kill each other as if it were every man for himself; as the saying goes, ‘as long as Nga Tay survives, that is all that matters’. There were a lot of casualties and injuries in the riots with no benefits whatsoever except to serve the continuation of the British colonial administration.
The above-mentioned political upheaval resulted in the division of one powerful party into two opposition factions, and labour riots in Yangon and throughout a whole nation, where labourers enthusiastically fought and killed each other as if they were mortal enemies. Among those riots, I would like to recount a story about a riot by dock workers at Yangon seaport.
It is true that dock workers from Yangon’s docks were involved in the terrifying riots. Some daily newspapers reported to an extent that they were of the same background but killed each other in groups using anything they could get their hands on as weapons. Nonetheless, newspapers were also obliged to report some other important news, so these labour riots were not fully reported in the newspaper columns. Furthermore, the papers were mandated to only report from the viewpoint of city safety and stability, so the news was incomplete. Having said that, I do not mean to put the blame on the daily newspapers to whom we are grateful to have as our eyes and ears on a daily basis. Editors of the newspapers had to keep abreast of events and facts while considering the restrictive publishing laws.
I returned to my house in Sanchaung at around 6 pm after arranging to re-publish the “Lin Yone” newspaper which had been halted in the first week of September. As soon as I arrived home, my mother was ready to give me two invitations. Both were funeral invitations. It is not a pleasant feeling to arrive home and be faced with two funeral invitations after a tiring day. Although it was a named invitation, it was not a typed one. The invitation just simply seemed to have been quickly scribbled on the paper with ink.
As one always needs to be cautious with funeral invitations, I read the invitations while asking my wife to hold on as she was encouraging me to take a shower and eat dinner. On both invitations, I saw the invited person’s names as “Comrade Lin Yone”, and I intuitively knew that both funerals were labourers’ funerals. Despite the differences between labour unions and labour associations in Myanmar, all the labour organizations and labour comrades knew me more as “Lin Yone” rather than as the writer “Bamaw Tin Aung”. This stems from the “Lin Yone” newspaper and journal which always published bold articles regarding labour-related matters. Thus that was the name they knew me by.
After skimming the invitations, I learnt that both funerals were going to be held tomorrow at the same place and time, around 1 pm at Kyan Taw cemetery. One of the funerals processions was going to start from Htee Tan ward, where one of the unions was located, and the other from Kyee Myin Daing Kanna road where the other union was located. I became very intrigued in the funerals and I read both invitation letters again in a thorough manner. After reading them for the second time, I gradually came to understand the importance of those labour funerals.
I came to understand that one of the deceased was connected to a politically powerful labour union and the other was connected to a wealthy but politically uninfluential labour union. I think it would be wonderful if these two labour unions collaborated to make labourers’ livelihoods better instead of engaging in competitive funeral processions.
After my shower I ate dinner, and was in deep thought that the year’s wave of political upheaval had adversely affected the labour communities who hitherto were leading peaceful lives, and it had reached the point where the labourers were sending each other to their graves. As I had no wish to witness competitive funeral processions on the next day, I decided that I should at least show my face to pay respects to the deceased in advance of the processions, so I departed from home straight after eating.
When I arrived at the union funeral at Kyee Myin Daing Kanna road, I saw that the funeral was no different from a wealthy person’s funeral and all visitors were being well fed. Looking at the decorations and ceremonial extent of that funeral, my memory swiftly flashed black to a labour funeral from three months ago where the deceased was wrapped in a bamboo mat with a bamboo stick inside.
The slogan: “Don’t touch our labourers and if you dare, sparks will fly” had been hung up on a banner. Although I had no desire to criticize the slogan, I wanted to strongly condemn the use of “our” as it is a very narrow-minded word.
Though I had been to a lot of labour funerals, within which I had to even buy my own cigarettes, I had never experienced eating free cake and drinking coffee which I did at that funeral. While I was eating, three or four acquaintances of mine who were leaders from that union approached my table. One of the men, who wanted to remain anonymous, complained quietly to my ears that our labourers would come to an end if our country continued like this.
I could only nod at him while I was bitterly listening to what he said. He seemed to have drawn that conclusion from his current painful life experiences.
Another of the leaders then continued, “I have never seen anything in my life worse than people from the same walk of life being asked to kill each other.”
As a reminder I said, “this matter mainly depends on you guys….”
Later, another of the men grumbled and said, “these two groups set an appointment to fight each other in Botahtaung township yesterday too. Both had a lot of injuries”.
I then reminded them again and said, “if you understand this situation, you had better discretely explain it to your subordinates”.
Another man said, “that is hard! It is not easy to convince them because our senior leadership has already caused blood to be spilled…” Before he could finish the sentence, another interrupted and said “our labourers are easily deceived if the senior leaders incite them”.
After this I mentioned, “no matter who is getting their blood up and fuelling this, I think that you as leaders should at least let them know and control the situation as much as you can”. A little while later, I looked at my watch and stood up to go to the other funeral.
The third man who had not yet spoken then spat his words out. “When the labourers from the same walk of life were reluctantly assembling to fight each other, outsider gangsters were asked to start the violence”.
As I took the organisation’s car from the funeral, my thoughts were in seven sequences of strings about all the factionalism within various labour parties, which had led to the mushrooming of new labour unions and organisations during the independence revolution of the working-class community in Myanmar. I was fatigued thinking about it all.
When I heard a reminder, “you can get off at Holme Street”, my deep thoughts were suddenly interrupted and I prepared to alight.
The funeral at the Htee Tan labour union was also crowded and it was not much different from the one in Kyee Myin Daing. Again, it appeared to be a wealthy man’s funeral for a stranger.
Before these labourers were killed, they were tortured and exploited in many ways like water buffaloes and cows. I wondered what the purpose of making their funerals magnificent was? How could this be meaningful?
I could only see one meaning, one conclusion and nothing else. It is just an abysmally wicked plot from villainous political activists who are wrongfully exploiting and sacrificing poor labourers’ lives for their own gains.
Like the Kyee Myin Daing funeral, the Htee Tan funeral also fed the visitors with a myriad of luxurious sweet and sour deserts. The place was teeming with many people.
Their funeral banner said “one shall repay terrorism”.
A labour leader put some Milo drink and biscuits on the table and sat down near me.
“Though the newspapers have ceased, we are still looking forward to the journal republication. When could it be possibly republished?” he asked me, Comrade Lin Yone. I told him that we were still working on it.
When I was about to leave, the labour leader walked me to the Holme Street bus station. On the way, he told me about the situation and relationships within the labour community that he was leading and said, “it is exceedingly difficult. Labourers from both sides see each other as great enemies. When their eyes meet, they look like they will eat and chew each other”.
I voiced my opinion and said, “It is not fair that these political villains ask your labourers to kill each other just for the party. But since you cannot convince the villains, intelligent leaders like you are obliged to control your juniors.”
“We are trying to control the situation as much as we can, but the senior leaders themselves are excessively spoiling the labourers and providing them with alcohol, so it is not easy.”
“Then, why don’t you frankly tell the labourers that these senior leaders are not showing the right way?”
“Comrade, if I do so, they will make us disappear first”.
He had said everything he had to say and I could not think of anything to add, so I just let out a sigh.
Just before I got on the bus, he managed to tell me about something about the deceased dock worker, whose name was Aye Maung.
“I haven’t heard any voice so far offering to help our late comrade Aye Maung Gyi’s wife Ma Kyi and her two children. Well… I don’t think they will get any help”.
When I got home, I could not read the unfinished newspapers and journals for that day and could only think about those two funerals I had come back from few hours ago.
Yangon dock workers Tun Tin and Aye Maung Gyi were from the same walk of life but died from beating each other. What did they or the labourer community gain from this?
The only result for both was that their widows and poor children were left helpless. For the labourer community, only the labourers’ blood had fallen onto the earth.
Bamaw Tin Aung