The Legacy of the Ogre

In Myanmar under the British Empire, a wave of strikes in the country's oil fields led to a mass socialist movement that led the country towards independence.

The history of Myanmar in the twentieth century is often simplified as a transition from British colonial rule to military dictatorship, with just a sliver of parliamentary democracy buffering the two regimes. Yet Burmese politics was, and is, much more complex than this, with a rich history of socialist and communist politics. In the context of global depression and a growing movement for self government, leftwing politics in the 1930s set the tone for the first years of independent Burma. Many of the lessons learnt from that experience have not been remembered. 

In 1938 (1300 in the Burmese calendar), the oil fields of British Burma were ablaze with the spirit of workers revolution. 10,000 oil workers went on strike demanding better conditions from the Burmah Oil Company (BOC), a British-led outfit that was established in 1886, a year after Britain had dismantled the sovereignty of the Burmese monarchy. The oil workers were sick of working long days under the constant threat of summary dismissal and the brutal repression of labour and their families by police. They also wanted workers to be represented in the administration, and to take posts of responsibility in worker schools, and in rice distribution. The withdrawal of several holiday days, including the last day of the new year celebration, was one of the final straws that led to the strike which would become known as the 1300 revolution. 

Thakin Po Hla Gyi, who owing to his firebrand militancy was also known as the ‘Ogre’, became one of the most notable leaders of the strike. In November of that year he and others marched 400 miles from Chauk, in Northern Burma’s Magway division to the capital, Rangoon. It was there, under the golden bell of the Shwedagon Paya, the country’s most famous Buddhist pagoda, that Po Hla Gyi raised money for the striking workers by selling copies of Strike War. This agitational book penned by the Ogre remains a classic of Burmese socialist writing, and was recently translated into English by scholar Stephen Campbell. As he writes in his introduction, Po Hla Gyi was a ‘true working class hero of Burma’s independence struggle.’

In the pages of Strike War Po Hla Gyi writes with compassionate clarity about the injustices that face the oil workers. If a tool broke then the worker would have to pay the company for a new one, often at a price four times its value. Doctors were employed by the company to declare senior workers on higher salaries or those nearing a pension unfit to work. Turning his gaze to the teak industry, he notes that practice of damming the waterways in which timber was sent down was creating stagnant pools where malarial mosquitoes were breeding. But Strike War was much more than a description of corrupt industry. In a sweeping motion, Po Hla Gyi locates the ‘capitalist oil companies sucking our fat and blood’, as just one sphere in which British capitalism and imperialism was disrupting and impoverishing the Burmese. 

Burmese workers’ leader Thakin Po Hla Gyi

The global depression hit the rice industry hard, sending the countryside into poverty. In the early 1930s, the folk hero Saya San had led armies of peasants into battle against the British, promising a restoration of the Burmese monarchy and promising invulnerability to his followers through a system of Buddhist magic. The Ogre’s argument was grounded in materialism. The language of Strike Wars oscillates between straightforward Marxist economics and vivid metaphor. After calculating that BOC workers only share in 1/16th of the value and thus work only ‘half an hour for themselves’ in an eight hour day, we are told that ‘the capitalists inhale using the workers’ nostrils’. With a keen sense of his potential audience, rural analogies populate the text. 

The fractured working class in Burma was perhaps at its most contentious with regards to Indian-Burmese relations. The British Empire facilitated the arrival of thousands of Indian migrant workers from west of the Bay of Bengal. Rangoon had become what the British colonial JS Furnivall called the ‘plural society’ – but this was not so much a cosmopolitan melting pot as a strictly segregated racial hierarchy of labour, in which the Burmese found themselves at the lowest rung. As the global depression reached Rangoon, Indian and Burmese stevedores clashed at the dockyards, leading to a riot and the death of hundreds. Throughout the 1930s anti-Indian sentiment grew, and in the summer of 1938, a Burmese mob marched on the downtown area and launched a week of looting and violence against the Indian population. Po Hla Gyi recognised that the enmity between Indians and Burmese was misdirected. Rather than fighting for the ‘scraps of meat on the bones discarded by imperialists’ they would do better to realise their mutual position in the economic hierarchy.  

Po Hla Gyi and many of his contemporary socialists were members of the Dobama Asiayone, an anti-colonial organisation that was more modernist in character than the mysticism of the Saya San rebellion. Its name (‘We Burma Association’) and cause was directly inspired by Ireland’s Sinn Fein. Members took on the title Thakin (Lord) in brash defiance of colonial norms. The DBA became one of the most radical anti-colonial movements of the 30s. While it was in some respects an ethno-nationalist group and indeed, was formed in the immediate aftermath of the 1930 anti-Indian riot, the materialist philosophies of the Marxist Thakins helped to temper and redirect the ethnic hostility towards the larger systems of inequity.

While heavily influenced by the Soviets, prominent Marxist Thakins such as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Thakin Soe would write about socialism using the Buddhist language and signifiers of Burmese society. In his 1935 book, Thakin Tika, Kodaw Hmaing described the ultimate goal of the left was to achieve a ‘lawka neikban’, an worldly (or secular) nirvana. Thakin Soe, a key translator for the Nagani book club, which translated foreign works on socialism and communism into Burmese, would also utilise Buddhist language in his own masterwork, Soshalitwada (Socialism), drawing parallels between dialectical materialism and the Buddhist concept of samkhara. Soe saw that communism was not a cyclical track of return back to the precapitalist age of bounty and selflessness, but that time was a spiral, and the new age of the mythical padetha tree would be a qualitative step forward owing to technological prowess. 

Thakin Po Hla Gyi monuments in Chauk, Magway Region. (Credit: Stephen Campbell)

In 1930s, left-wing intellectuals and activists were involved in what Burmese scholar Geoffrey Aung calls postcolonial futurism. But why did those dreams never fully manifest in the independent state? By the time of independence in 1948, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) had become the leading force in Burmese politics and was home to many of the old DBA members and socialists of all stripes. Because colonial-era capitalism had been dominated by foreign merchants, there was little attachment to it among Burma’s anti-colonial intellectuals. Yet this new left was bitterly divided. The Communists had already been expelled from the AFPFL in 1946, and began a guerrilla campaign in the countryside. In Rangoon, socialists were divided as to whether to industrialise or commit to agriculture. This division helped set the stage for U Nu, a more moderate social reformer who pursued a policy of non-alignment, to become the first independent Prime Minster of independent Burma. Nu, a writer by trade who had originally seen himself as the Gorky to Soe’s Lenin, put forward the developmentalist Pyidawtha with the ostensible goal of providing every citizen with a brick house, a car and 800kyat salary. The Pyidawtha plan failed to succeed for a myriad of reasons, among them, the declining global price of rice. This would be fateful.

In the early 1960s General Ne Win, himself a former Thakin, launched a successful military coup and began the era of the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’.  A proper analysis of this era is beyond our scope here, but in short Ne Win’s socialist autarky was an economic failure and the continued undermining of minority ethnic groups perpetuated the civil wars that persist to this day. The political legacy was that the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) installed themselves at the centre of power and by the 90s, Myanmar’s nominal socialism had been replaced by the crony capitalism of a new military regime. In the current era, the dual civilian-military parliament, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy seems to be pursuing a vaguely neoliberal approach to development and welfare, with technocratic aspirations assisted by both Chinese and Western interests. Nevertheless there is still potent energy from within Myanmar’s multitude. Student unions have long been a source of revolutionary energy, and in 2014, huge nationwide protests broke out against the government’s new education law, which was seen as centralising at a time when autonomy was needed. By 2015, they had marched on the parliament, demanding and winning a seat  at the discussion table. 

In 1938, when the striking oil workers reached Rangoon, it had been students who had joined them in solidarity and one of them, Bo Aung Kyaw was martyred in the ensuring crackdown. Ultimately, the 1300 revolution was not successful, and many of the demands of the strikers were not met. Nevertheless, 1300 lives on in the popular memory. In 1987 Po Hla Gyi was illustrated on the 45 kyat banknote and a Facebook group dedicated to the strike has ten thousand members, at least one of whom has a full back tattoo illustrating a panorama of the strike. In 2013, a statue of Po Hla Gyi was erected in Chauk and has become a focal point of May Day celebrations, with oil workers dressed in boilersuits carrying Burmese flags with the star replaced by a hammer and sickle. The spirit of the Ogre lives on.