Burma's Collective Amnesia

Our family turned a blind eye to the country’s violence against Indians in the 1930s. But that pattern of persecution and denial continues to play out in Burma—and beyond—today.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma, on a cloudy day
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Jorge Silva / Reuters)

The story my Burmese family told itself went like this: We’d fled the only home we’d known to escape oppression and danger, only to find ourselves in America, strangers in a strange land. But we did it. We made it. And from our vantage across the ocean, we continued to fight for Burma, to support its virtuous freedom fighters with our voices and resources. We were on the other side of an ocean, the right side of history.

These stories were so often repeated, so well worn, that they had very nearly faded into the background, until I noticed a snag—and decided to pull.

“We had an Indian cook who made the most delicious curry,” my grandmother often wistfully recalled when speaking of her life back home in Burma. But she offered—always—this caveat: “And he robbed us blind.”

I could very nearly taste these vindaloos and dals, given my grandmother’s frequent and lusty recollections, but oh, what a cruel price our family had to pay: unspecified ruby bracelets for untold chicken biryanis. It was an impossible choice, but there was only one to make. The cook was dismissed, taking with him all those curries. Replacements were hired, but no one could replicate that harmony over the stove. That Indian cook! Who was he? No one ever mentioned his name, only the dishes he prepared.

From the outset of the Indian-Burmese commingling under British rule, many Burmans, including my grandmother, referred to Indians as kala. The word’s origins may be from the Sanskrit word kula—meaning “caste man”—or kala, for “black man.” Or it may be from the Burmese word ka la—the term for “coming from overseas.” Even after half a century in the United States, my grandmother always referred to Indians as kalas, which we American-born offspring giggled at but didn’t quite understand. As it turns out, she might have been calling them, basically, house negroes.

For context: By the late 1980s and ’90s and the early aughts, my grandmother had officially lived in America for 30, 40, 50 years. She had gay friends dating back to the 1970s—friends for life with whom she drank cocktails after finishing work at the Library of Congress. She spoke glowingly of the young black men who delivered groceries to her small one-bedroom on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, right after she had arrived in the States. As she retold these stories over time, they went from “young black men” to “young African American men.” She fully grasped the implications of the language around identity. She understood the social merits conferred by having gay male friends in the disco era and of engaging with young black men at the twilight of Jim Crow, and went out of her way to promote an enlightened acceptance of sexual and racial minorities. This, as much as her fluency in English and predilection for cosmopolitans, was hard evidence that she had assimilated into the world of educated white liberals, transcending the stereotype of the tribal and reclusive Asian immigrant. In her seeming tolerance for the minorities America marginalized, ironically, she moved closer to a certain American ideal.

And yet, long after she received her American passport, she still called Indian associates, waiters, and friends kalas (mostly behind their backs). This term was usually dispensed with a smile, and because of this, her discreet bigotry had the veneer of delicate charm. The in-laws and cousins and grandchildren excused her, in most cases pleading ignorance. Or we dismissed it as a vestige of home rather than an indication of some deep-seated racial animus. My mother, more acutely aware of the depth of the slur, would shush my grandmother in Burmese after every utterance, while my uncle would scowl and let out a disapproving bark. But it never stopped her, really.

This was a glitch in the matrix of our family mythology, the story we told ourselves of where we’d come from and who we’d been. My grandmother’s irrepressible burst of kala was an anomaly, a loose thread just begging to be pulled.

I started by looking beyond my grandmother’s mesmerizing tales of curries and kleptomaniacal servants. The first thing I discovered was there were a lot of Indians in Burma when my family moved south from Upper Burma to Rangoon in the 1930s. A whole lot more than I realized from my grandmother’s hazy recollections: Rangoon, the county’s capital, had gone in a generation from being Burmese-dominated to a near-majority Indian city.

In 1872, Indians were 16 percent of Rangoon residents.

By 1901, they were 50 percent. Burmans made up only 33 percent of the city.

Indians were propelled by poverty back home, and encouraged to migrate east by immigration policies established by the British Empire that dominated both Burmese and Indians. The policies miraculously managed to infuriate the native-born Burmese population for its lack of protections for them and punish the newly arrived Indians, thanks to a lack of protections. Indians migrated in vast numbers: In 1922, 360,000 of them migrated to Burma. By the 1930s, Indians owned much of the capital city: They rebuilt Rangoon, ran its businesses and banks, and conducted its trade.

This article is adapted from Wagner’s book.

Indian immigrants were also Burma’s laboring class. They harvested crops; they mined silver and lead; they ran ships up and down the Irrawaddy; they moved earth and pulled rickshaws. They tailored suits and made dresses. In 1931, the second most-common occupation held by Indian migrants was domestic service. That year, census records say that 11,242 Indians were employed as house help—and at least one of them worked for our family.

For their role in the engine room of the Burmese economy, the Indian laboring class (unsurprisingly) got little in the way of respect or security. Many were brought over the border by unscrupulous labor contractors known as maistries—sort of proto-coyotes of the 19th century who hauled their cargo over the Bay of Bengal in subhuman conditions.

Most immigrants entered at the very bottom of the food chain: They earned abysmally low wages and lived in hellish setups, crammed into squalid, disease-infested lodging houses that were, according to Mahatma Ghandi in “Young India,” “perennially flooded with rain or tidal waters or with stagnant pools of sullage waste.”

They were shuttled into this dark misery by the scores: A report of the Rangoon municipality noted one home where inspectors “found in one room 23 inmates—the dimension of the room being only 18 × 14 feet.” Opiate and alcohol addiction was surrounded by filth and open fornication: This all formed what was described (not necessarily hyperbolically) as “a tragic total complex of slum life.”

The Indians in Burma, I could see, were like Mexicans in America or the Senegalese in France—marked with the scarlet O of “outsider,” despite the webs of connections between their homelands and their adopted countries.

Even in Burma’s halcyon days, the problems were the same ones often replicated around the globe: the powerful versus the powerless; tensions around immigration and labor and dark skin. How did a society react when forced to grapple with an influx of people from elsewhere, people who happened to be driving the economy of a country but were nonetheless relegated to its lower miseries? Shame and marginalization.

The legacy of the Indians in Burma was further complicated by class distinctions among Indians and, of course, the divide-and-conquer manipulation the British Empire perfected among its colonies. Upper-class Indians were the soldiers of the British during the Anglo-Burmese wars and therefore deemed by the conquered Burmese to be patsies of colonial rule. Up until Burma’s formal separation from India in 1937, Indians often took the high-ranking positions in the British government of Burma, and the country’s army was composed largely of Indian soldiers.

In a 1939 pamphlet on Indo-Burman conflict, a young Communist leader named Thein Pe Myint put it bluntly: “When the British attacked and occupied Lower Burma as well as Upper Burma by unlawful force, their work was done mainly by the Indian Sepoys. For this reason, we Burmese hate them.”

Indian officials lived and drank and dined largely among themselves (or with the British), rather than with their brown brethren, and therefore the relationship of these more privileged Indian immigrants to middle- and upper-class Burmans—my family, for example—was not one of Brown Solidarity, but of intrusion and of oppression.

My family was still living in northern Burma when the Rangoon riots of 1930 began at the docks as a fight between Burmese laborers and Indian dockworkers. Indian workers—pressing for higher wages from their employers—struck on May 8, 1930, and the largely British firms that hired them broke the picket lines with Burmese workers before quickly cutting a deal with the striking Indians by agreeing to four pence extra per head in daily wages. The Indians paid for this paltry raise in blood.

The lately employed Burmese scabs didn’t appreciate being replaced once the strike was over—keep in mind this was the beginning of the Great Depression—and they took to the streets of Rangoon with swords and iron bars and anything else that could inflict maximum pain. For three days, Indian workers and shops were targeted, and because the capital city was an Indian city, not much of Rangoon functioned during what was termed a riot, but was really a terrifying, bloody rampage: no sanitation systems, few public services, and no business activity to speak of.

In the end, there was no full accounting of how many people died, but most estimates place the figure in the nebulous “hundreds” of deaths and “thousands” of injuries. No one was prosecuted or thrown in jail for these three days of terror, or even fined. No compensation was doled out to the families of the slaughtered. Rangoon’s Indians mostly just hid, then shut their mouths and went on about their business. They stayed in the city, a seemingly inextricable part of its fabric, until a formal separation between India and Burma was announced in 1937, and Burma was made a separate, autonomous colony under the British crown.

But this didn’t stop the bloodletting. Burma remained under the British thumb and nationalism was on the upswing. The Indian minority in Burma had few (if any) protections under the law, despite what had happened to them in the decade prior, and their complicated history fighting the Burmese on behalf of the British made them prime targets for a restive, angry citizenry. The burgeoning nationalist movement—led by Burmese Communists—played a not-insignificant role in this.

My grandmother was just finishing her studies at the university in 1938 when the tension came to a head—again. A small booklet, printed in 1931 by a Burmese Muslim preacher named Shwe Pi, was highly critical of the Buddhist priesthood. Almost no one had heard of Shwe Pi or read his pamphlet, but seven years later, as Burmese nationalism was cresting, several nationalist papers picked up old excerpts and printed them for general consumption. Even though Shwe Pi was Burmese, anger at his broadside among Burma’s Buddhist population was directed at the country’s Muslims—many of them Indian.

Nationalist broadsheets like The New Light of Burma and New Burma inflamed the situation by printing editorials targeting the Indian Muslim minority. Leaders of Burma’s Indian population apologized, but that did little to stem the tide of anti-Muslim anger. In 1939, racial and religious hostilities reached a crisis point during a demonstration at the country’s holiest Buddhist shrine: the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Amid the pagoda’s gold-leafed spires and tinkling bells, violent anti-immigrant rhetoric fired up an unruly mob of protesters—who descended the hill and launched an “indiscriminate attack on Indians … on a scale very much larger than that witnessed in 1930 and 1931, including cold-blooded murders, grievous hurts, looting, arson, etc,” according to Nalini Ranjan Chakravarti in The Indian Minority in Burma.

This period of marauding and aggression stretched from July to September 1939 and was described in one of the rare chronicles of this period as “one long horror” for Rangoon’s Indians—one that likely wounded and claimed lives into the thousands. The Burmese account insisted that Indians had instigated the violence by stabbing a Buddhist monk—and later spearing a Burman to death. Thein Pe did, however, concede that “the Burmese being more hot-blooded, reckless and impetuous than the Indians can easily turn the tables against their aggressor.”

It was sickening, the hell-bent nationalism run amok—but also familiar to anyone raised in the 20th-century West. I’d thought, or hoped, that Burma before its fall had been somehow different, exempt from the cruelties of the masses, free from the bloody entitlements of power. It was not. How had no one ever mentioned this to me? Fine, the Indian curry was magnificent, but somehow the violent oppression of Indians in our own backyard never made it onto the family radar. My grandmother graduated from Rangoon University in 1938 with honors in Pali and a minor in Sanskrit—the sacred language of Hinduism that formed the basis of the Indian language and Burmese holy texts. She understood well the fact that one culture had a very great deal in common with the other, especially in the realm of devotion—but in all her recollections about those golden years, she never made mention of this carnage.

It was like amnesia, or maybe even a cultural lacuna: Burma had erased from its collective memory what had happened to these people, or, more specifically, what the country’s most virulent strains had done in the name of bodily purification. So much so that my grandmother—nearly 75 years later—still felt free to refer to the race of the punished as caste men, outsiders, never once mentioning that they had been subject to abuses and assaults too numerous to catalogue. How weird this seemed in retrospect, and how strangely disgusting that she would focus on the loss of rubies and pearls and lamb vindaloo as the Seriously Traumatic Event Involving an Indian that befell her and our family, rather than this insane, terrifying chapter of violence to which she had borne witness.

Much of Burma’s Indian population fled the country following Japanese occupation in World War II; those that remained were expelled in 1962—an unsurprising (though still foul and heartbreaking) decision on the part of the ruling military junta, which was intoxicated with nationalist fervor. There was so much damage in the wake of this expulsion that Rangoon was never the same again.

I began now to see the outlines of a noxious pattern in the accusations and amnesia. In Burma, it had been the targeting and expulsion of Indians—while here in the United States, it was Mexicans and Muslims and Guatemalans and Hondurans and Nigerians and Syrians (they were most certainly darker, whoever they were). It was the very same fracturing, along the very same lines—sad confirmation that animus and violence and expulsion always end up screwing everyone, even the people doing the expelling. (Ask the Burmese of today whether the expulsion of the Indian minority was a good thing for their economy, to say nothing of their reputations.)

This was an important development for me, in and of itself: I could point to this Burmese tragedy as evidence that the xenophobes here and elsewhere were on the wrong side of history, but what was perhaps more personally noteworthy—what all of this research revealed—was that my folks may have been the ones calling for the deportations and blueprints for the wall. At the very least, they were the ones turning a blind eye to the chaos, a blindness that carried over even into our new start in America, where the Indians remained kalas—even half a century later.

And then there was the narrative of repression and exile that my family had been spinning for much of the past few decades. I’d boasted throughout my adolescence about my grandmother’s status as a pro-democracy activist, her zeal for the righteous cause of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her personal fight for democracy in Burma. But that fervent patriotism, it turned out, was also born of a darker strain of ethnic nationalism.

In July 2013, Time magazine ran as its cover story a picture of the monk Ashin Wirathu, under the headline “The Face of Burmese Terror.” Wirathu is headquartered in Mandalay, in central Burma, and the media refer to him as the “Burmese Bin Laden”—he’s the figurehead for a growing violent Buddhist movement that seeks to destroy the presence of Islam inside Burma’s borders. But the language he uses is basically torn from the pages of the Burmese nationalist papers of the 1930s: “We are being raped in every town, we are being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up and bullied in every town,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.”

Never mind that Muslims account for only an estimated 5 percent of Burma’s population. (Buddhists are the overwhelming majority at 90 percent.) Wirathu’s followers have done their best to shrink that percentage through slaughter: One particularly gruesome rampage at a Muslim boarding school killed 32 students and four teachers. The most persecuted among them, the Muslim Rohingyas, have lived for decades as landless, stateless citizens in the southwest Rakhine State—where they languish in squalid camps, and are unable to vote in elections to perhaps choose representatives who might take into consideration their plight and lift them from this deplorable existence.

In 2012, after the rape of a Buddhist woman by an allegedly Muslim assailant, ethnic tensions exploded: The Rohingya became targets, and 140,000 of them ended up in camps for internally displaced persons. By 2016, the Burmese military was embarked on an all-out assault against the Muslim minority: In one particularly brutal incursion, 1,500 Rohingya homes were burned. An estimated 65,000 fled to Bangladesh at the end of the year, forced out by violence, systematic rape, and destruction.

As of last year, the Burmese government was in the throes of what one top UN official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Rohingya villages have been burned, their residents raped, killed, and otherwise hunted. The depravity is not to be overstated: babies thrown into fires, stabbed to death as their mothers watched, women gang-raped and left for dead. Whole families are still being extinguished, live grenades thrown through front doors. As a result, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Burma—desperate to survive.

Some international observers have sought to explain this systematic and sanctioned violence as Burma’s (deeply troubled) effort to stave off Muslim jihad: The Burmese government—and indeed figures like Wirathu—are fighting against the encroachment of Islam in southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka), lands that were formerly Buddhist territories. They are trying to secure ancestral lands, or at the very least act as a bulwark against a rising tide of violent extremism (never mind the twisted irony). But—as I discovered in my running of the bullshit comb through history—wasn’t this Buddhist cleansing mostly a contemporary expression of long-held bigotry against (Indian) Muslims?

Most uncomfortably, I began to rethink my family’s very own brand of Burmese nationalism—which, okay, had nothing to do with rioting and marauding or bloodlust, but was firmly rooted in the same nationalism championed by the heroes of the movement who overthrew the British. My grandmother had long been a vocal advocate for Burmese democracy. She attended monthly protests and organizational meetings, regularly taking minutes for a group of exiled elders who were intent on one day regaining power, once the military had been ousted or had surrendered in a bloodless coup. The actual battlefront may have been on the other side of the world, but she considered herself a soldier nonetheless.

The leader of this de facto movement, the spiritual guide in both Burma and abroad, was (and is) a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi: daughter of the military demi-god Aung San, who led the Burmese in the struggle for independence from the British and for whom there is a national celebration (even now) every year on January 4. As the leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, she was placed under house arrest for much of the 1990s, where she won the Nobel Peace Prize (and was unable to accept it, lest she leave the country and never be allowed back in again). In the intervening years, her husband died and her children grew up motherless, but Aung San Suu Kyi remained unbreakable. She would not leave Burma. She forsook her family, because in this struggle, she understood herself to be more than a woman, a wife, a mother: She represented the hope of freedom for the Burmese people.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy, borne from the independence politics of her father, was the accepted standard in our household. What she did, we did. What she said, we said. But what of her political ideology, her ties to a certain strain of Burmese nationalism that remained celebrated into the current day—even by impossibly villainous military dictators?

Aung San’s negotiations with the British led to the return of Burma to its rightful owners, but his political associates were also key players in that ugly chapter of 1938 in which scores of Indians were targeted and killed. And although he was not a xenophobic murderer, Aung San was a signatory to Thein Pe’s pamphlet, the one that made no secret of the disgust felt by the Burmese toward the Indians. It wasn’t called Burma for the Burmese … but it might as well have been. The Indians were a pox, a metastasizing disease that threatened the whole of Burma. From Thein Pe’s pamphlet:

Betel-quid shops were owned by the Indians.  … Textile shops were owned by the Indians; the big bazaars were owned by the Indians; the wholesale trades were run by the Indians; shoe-repairers were Indians; the hosiery-factories were owned and manned by the Indians; sand-soap was sold also by the Indians; the luxurious perfumed soap was also sold by the Indians; the capitalist money-lenders were Indians; Indians; Indians; Indians—everywhere Indians—nothing but Indians. … The High Court Judges were Indians; the compounder (dispensers) were Indians; the Medical Superintendents were Indians; jail warders were Indians; and the Prison Officers were also Indians. Wherever you go you will find Indians, nothing but Indians.

It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Indians were everywhere!

It made right-wing Super PAC ads look subtle. And it wasn’t just some nefarious political operative with a penchant for sensational YouTube videos who was doing this, it was sanctioned by the leader of Burma’s revolution, the hero who everyone in my family revered, the father of the freedom-fighting woman on whose behalf my grandmother had protested on all those Sundays on the hot pavement outside of the Burmese embassy in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of assassinations (primarily Aung San’s) and power grabs immediately following independence, Burmese nationalism continued its fever-induced mutation. Rabid nationalism expelled the Baghdadi Jews and Parsis and all remaining Indians from Rangoon and Mandalay. It reengaged one of the world’s longest-running civil wars within the ethnic tribes. Businesses, banks, and schools were forced to adapt: International owners, investments, and curricula were all excised. Nationalism basically shut the country down and stole its sunlight. The British were always implicated in Burma’s near century of misfortune, but what about the Burmese who pushed them out?

This dangerous and deadly self-regard did not end when the military junta eventually ceded (at least half of its) power to a democratically elected government, either. Aung San’s daughter, the very same icon my grandmother had championed, was now, decades later, turning a blind eye to the systematic execution and persecution of her fellow countrymen, the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi, now in control of Burma’s government (though constitutionally barred from officially becoming its prime minister), reacted defiantly when faced with news reports that the Rohingya were being targeted en masse and fleeing the country in staggering numbers. “There have been allegations and counter-allegations,” the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate insisted in late September of 2017. “We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.”

She pointed to attacks launched by an armed local group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Burmese police outposts in the region, limited in number and scope, but, in her eyes, “acts of terrorism.” Was this the justification for a military response that displaced nearly half a million people? Was this the same woman who had been held up as a paragon of justice and human rights just a few years prior?

Most disturbing (and for me, at least, most unbelievable), was the reaction to this modern-day violence and upheaval by the Burmese themselves. One CNN report described the response in Rangoon following Aung San Suu Kyi’s questionable commentary that year. Her words “were met with applause and cheers from large crowds [in the city] … who had gathered to watch live on large outdoor screens amid a party atmosphere.”

Daw Suu may have been out of touch with the international community where it concerned the Rohingya, but she was apparently very much still in favor with her fellow Burmese—they agreed with her. Buddhist nationalism was hopelessly intertwined with the religious and ethnic hatred that had plagued Burma when her father was alive (and probably well before that). No one knew any better than they had nearly a century ago.

We, as a family, had always maintained that the violence and insanity in Burma was … violent and insane, which is why my grandmother maintained a steady grip on political news out of Burma, which is why she situated herself at the nexus of the exiled pro-democracy movement, rallying for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Those people!” she would say, in reference to arbiters of her country’s decline, too angry or frustrated to summon an adjective to describe their evil, their incompetence. But weren’t those people us, in some ways?

I had always assumed we were in no way implicated in Burma’s destruction, its internecine killings and brutal subjugations. We had left; therefore, we were exempt from examining whether we, too, might have harbored some of the same exclusionary, misguided ideas about Burman superiority—the delusion that allowed a Nobel Laureate to look the other way when ethnic cleansing was happening in her backyard. That sort of behavior, that strain of poison, had always been understood to be someone else’s and not ours—despite the fact that those behaviors helped shape our very identity.

The profile we had drawn for ourselves was in direct opposition to that of those who’d stayed behind: Burma was repressed, calcifying, broken … but we were not. We read the newspapers and spoke English, but we never stopped to think that these delicious fruits were in some way linked to a very sad harvest, from seeds that we had somehow helped sow. Our family remembered Burma’s golden hour, but not what we had done to precipitate its decline. Instead, we mourned the glorious past and longed for it once again, a luxurious thing to do from the other side of the planet.

But when I’d begun peeking into the spaces between, what I discovered was turmoil. My grandmother’s gentilities belied real problems: deep-seated animus and moral hazards, violence and economic calamity. Not just Burma’s—but our own. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose beatific face decorated mugs and t-shirts and keychains, stuff I’d dutifully smuggled back home to show my friends in the West, had turned out to be a fraud. It was like looking in a treasure box only to find the bones of a skeleton. This was the first time it occurred to me that the stories we had told ourselves—and indeed believed—were just that: stories. The truth, as it turns out, was complex (it always is), but more than that, it was fractured, like a stained-glass window that had shattered into tiny pieces and was nearly impossible to put back together.

Up until this point, our story of success had been a necessary and constant rebuke to the narrative of Burmese collapse. But now, as Americans (as we all were), I could finally look back and realize that, lo and behold, we had failed, too.

This article has been adapted from Alex Wagner’s forthcoming book, Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging.