Brewing Storm

An excerpt from the book Brewing Storm 1939-1941.

6 October 1939
Lone Spur, Mogok

A riot started in the town yesterday between Burmans and Indians over the slapping of a Burmese child by a mad Indian. The fellow has always been regarded as crazy, and his brother, whose cows used to plague my garden, is quite mad. However, any excuse serves, and it seems that the Burmese decided to revive the scrap after dark, and did so.

The alarm sounded while we were dining with Blake. It seems that mobs, chiefly of young hooligans, attacked the house of four unpopular Indians. One Indian was killed, and considerable damage done to property; but the most tragic episode was the death, from fright, of old Ram Bhejamall whose house was broken into by the crowd who tried to fire it.

No one could sympathize much with Ram Bhejamall in his life, since he was merely a rapacious money lender who, as a consequence of Burmese thriftlessness, had got half the town into his clutches. But the circumstances of his death, an old, sick, tottering man, scared to death, rouses a certain feeling of pity even amongst the Burmans.

(Note: While the Japanese were advancing on Mandalay in 1942, Ram Bhejamall’s son, Narsing Das, sought my advice as to what he should do. I told him that he had better get out to India somehow and stay there; which he did.)

I imagine that this will be the end of the present riot; but Mogok is not in a happy condition. The war has killed the ruby mining. Some two or three hundred mining licenses have been surrendered this month, and there are said to be a certain number of people without food. Trouble is bound to arise, and the local administration is perfectly useless and helpless, and has indeed surrendered to several troops of youths who have been drilling for months with the expressed intention of rising as soon as there should be a war in Europe.

Now the war in Europe has come, but in such an unexpectedly favourable manner for us that, with worldwide sympathy for England, the occasion for rebellion in Burma is not very propitious, despite the fact that there is also a lot of subversive Japanese propaganda going on in the country.

It is because our position in Europe is not too bad that the drilled companies of youths who are controlled and instructed from Rangoon, and who in Mogok number some three hundred lads, have so far been pretty well behaved. In yesterday’s riot they held aloof. They pretend to be a fire brigade, but they practice military evolutions, and one company of them drills every evening below Lone Spur so that I have watched them; and there is no fire drill about it at all. For some time they have been policing the town to prevent theft, but that is only a means of assuming control.

It is good to see Burmese for once doing something for themselves, but the fact remains that the civil authorities are afraid of them, and have surrendered the duties of their own police to potential insurgents; and it is not surprising that the authorities are brushed aside whenever occasion offers. The Deputy Commissioner (a Burman) happens to be here at the moment, but is a weak creature. The chief local Police Officer is a bad character, who always goes off on tour if trouble is expected.

The D.S.P. (Deputy Superintendent of Police) Phipps has refused to come here for some months because this local officer is retained against his adverse report on the grounds that he is a relative of the wife of a Minister. So there we are! And there are no precautions being taken at all against the approaching storm.

As already noted, we had a meeting the other day to consider the growing poverty, and I got up and told the assembled Indian and Burman elders that unless they got together and insisted on a local Defence Scheme, some of them would probably be killed. The warning was received with polite indifference, though Blake endorsed what I said.

Well, old Ram Bhejamall is dead anyhow, and in the absence of any Defence Scheme we continued our dinner at the time he was being done to death.

8 October 1939
Lone Spur, Mogok

Last night, it seems, about fifty men from surrounding villages came in with offers to help in the destruction of Indians, but were persuaded that their assistance was not required for the good work. The order issued to the Police is that they may fire three shots at rioters if occasion arises. It would be impossible to imagine a more asinine order, but it is in line with most of our procedures for quelling disturbances, and which was properly ridiculed recently in the Riots Enquiry Report.

Luckily the people of Mogok are not armed, though Ba Kye (my manservant) tells me they have strong catapults for throwing heavy lumps of iron which he says, would kill a man, or at least knock him out. He says the Indians in the present case will buy protection by heavily bribing the Police.

Conditions in Burma are now really awful. Weakness, bribery and corruption of all sorts is the normal, and since increased enlistment of Burmans into the Services, it can hardly be said that a government functions at all. However, the mobs themselves are just as ineffective; but during the recent riot they did take the precaution to put the streets into darkness, shouting to everyone to put out the lights.

Of course there have been no arrests since rioters can bribe the Police as well as anyone else. In Burma the Policeman’s life is indeed a happy one.

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