MYANMAR: Honouring the oil strikers, for first time in 75 years

Monday 27 January 2014

Date: 19 January 2014

Type: News

Source:Myanmar Times

Keywords: workers strike, Myanmar history

A peal of bells tinkled on the Shwedagone Pagoda platform as it was engulfed in a loud patriotic song: “Nagani, the Red Dragon”. The spirited music floated up from an open rest house, now a place of historic interest. It was 1939, and oilfield workers from the midland region, farmers, whole communities and members of Dobama Aseayone (We Burmans Association) had marched 400 miles (640 km) to Yangon to hold a conference at the pagoda.

Their demands were modest. One of them was higher wages for oilfield workers. At that time, British officials earned K15 per day, while a worker received K1. The strikers wanted to receive a monthly salary and asked for the same pay scale as officials.

On January 11, 2014, seven-and-a-half decades after the strike, about 70 descendants and 80 guests gathered en masse at Shwedagon Pagoda, on the upper platform, to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee in memory of their parents who showed patriotic duty at great personal risk. Three ageing members of Dobama Aseayone also attended the jubilee with the remaining members of their families. It was the first time they had ever held a memorial.

“All endeavours to celebrate a memorial had been silenced for 75 years,” said U Aung Naing, 49, son of Thakhin Hla Kywe, a member of Dobama Aseayone.

Sparked by labourers at Burma Oil Company (BOC), the strike swept the nation into a campaign against colonialist oppression. It became a revolution, which appalled the British government and planted the seeds of nationalism in people’s minds, inspiring the independence movement. It was one of the two largest revolts in the country’s history. The only one that compares is 1988, which broke out 50 years later.

During the revolution, the members added the title “Thakhin” (Master) in front of their names, to signify that they were free men. During colonial rule, expansionists regarded themselves as masters and treated the citizens as slaves. They retain the titles to this day.

“The citizens owe them a debt of gratitude for their services to the country and its people as liberators from the oppression of British rule,” U Aung Naing said.

“Our memory still lives of them though no anniversary was held over 75 years to make us remember,” said Daw Nilar, 52, daughter of Thakhin Aung Pe, another participant in the strike.

“The jubilee is the first time the families of deceased members have ever met,” U Aung Naing said, noting that the memorial was meant only to honour them, with no political purpose.

Only seven members of Dobama Aseayone remain alive, and only four members could attend the jubilee. All are over 90 years old. One of them, Thakhin San Mya, reminisced about the time when he joined the strike.

“I was an 18-year-old student when the strike broke out,” the 93-year-old said.

His parents were workers at BOC and his empathy for the workers’ conditions drove him to join Dobama Aseayone and become one of the leaders of the strike. The workers laboured 10-hour days in the oil wells, received meagre wages and never received adequate healthcare for the long exposure to harmful vapours. Their families lived in narrow barracks and workers weren’t entitled to proper leaves.

It was in 1938 in Chauk township, Magwe Region, where BOC workers started to stage a strike, since British authorities at BOC had neglected their requests for change. The strike spread to other oilfields in Yay Nan Chat, Lan Ywar and Yay Nan Chaung.

“I left school to follow the other members. When we arrived at Lan Ywar, we held a Workers’ Day on May 1,” Thakhin San Mya said.

His parents were threatened that he would be fired if he continued to take part in the Workers’ Day celebration.

“My parents asked me not to keep on,” he said. “The authorities called me, too, and said they would give me a job at BOC if I stopped participating in the celebration, but I went on.”

Thakhin San Mya left home out of fear that his parents would also get fired if he was found with them.

“I continued to battle hard. We marched from Chauk to Yangon after an 11-month strike in Magwe Region,” he said.

Ultimately, Thakhin San Mya was arrested for his involvement in the strike and he spent three years in Myin Chan prison in Mandalay Region. Years after he was freed from the prison, he became the chairperson of the Farmers Union and worked there for several years.

“When I devoted myself entirely to political service, I couldn’t earn any money and I was penniless,” said Thakhin San Mya, who is now living with his niece’s family in Thaketa township.

The strike ended in 1939, but workers’ grievances weren’t appeased.

Much later, in 1987, the government issued a K45 note bearing the portrait of Thakhin Pho Hla Gyi, an oilfield worker who led the march. The public used the bills for a short time, but then they were quietly taken out of circulation and fell into disuse.

This year, in addition to the jubilee at Shwedagon, another memorial was held at M3 Food Center. On display were portraits of those involved in the strike and newspaper clippings that had been published at the time.

“We can celebrate an 80-year and a 90 -year anniversary, but it is uncertain that we will see those who participated in the strike again, because they are very old,” said writer Zin Yaw, son-in-law of Thakhin Aung Pe.

The curtain fell quickly on the prolonged and unsuccessful strike, and the grievances of half-starved workers went unheard. Yet beyond the strike feelings of patriotism and justice continued. Over 20 members from Dobama Aseayone became part of the Thirty Comrades – the beginning of the Burma Independence Army that won freedom from the British.###

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