by Larry Smith
Goin' down Burma Road...ain' ga lick nobody.
For most Bahamians Burma Road refers to the 1942 riots over pay for the men who worked on the wartime air bases in Nassau. Two rioters were killed by British troops, more than 40 people injured and over a hundred arrested, but those unprecedented events also led to long overdue reforms.
The name 'Burma Road' had currency because of what went on at the same time on the other side of the world. In Southeast Asia work was underway on the real Burma Road so that the Allies could move troops and supplies into China to fight the Japanese.
Construction of that Burma Road began in December 1942. Cutting through mountainous territory in the north of Burma, it was considered a remarkable engineering achievement. The Bahamian equivalent was in the vicinity of Blake Road, which runs from Caves Point to the former pine barren that became Windsor Field - and later our international airport.
Explosives were used to cut through the limestone hills behind the caves to provide fill for the new airfield. But there are more significant parallels between what is going on in Burma today, and what took place in the Bahamas 65 years ago.
Burma (or Myanmar) is one of the world's most closed and backward societies. The former Buddhist kingdom was conquered by the British in the late 19th century and taken over by the Japanese in the Second World War. They were supported by anti-British Burmese nationalists led by General Aung San.
When Aung San realised the Japanese had no intention of conferring independence, he switched allegiance to the British and was able to negotiate Burma's freedom with Clement Atlee's new socialist government in 1947. But shortly before independence, he and his cabinet were assassinated.
Only 32 at the time, Aung San became a national hero. A right-wing former prime minister in the pre-war colonial government was executed for the killings, but it was later rumoured that disaffected elements of Winston Churchill's wartime government had hatched the plot because they saw Aung San as a traitor.
Back in the day, British colonial authorities had a similar view of Randol Fawkes, the fiery Bahamian nationalist and labour leader who died in 2000. He was the most popular black politician of his time, and in 1958 he was charged with sedition for making a speech at Windsor Park. Later acquitted, he continued his union activities and helped tip the parliamentary balance in favour of the PLP after the 1967 general election.
Burma Road has been described as the first sign of a popular movement in the Bahamas. And in his 1988 memoir (The Faith that Moved the Mountain), Fawkes attributes the birth of the labour movement to the 1942 riots: "As long as Fort Fincastle rests on that immovable rock in our capital city," he wrote, "parents shall tell their children, and their children shall tell their own of the saga of Burma Road."
In those days it was illegal for workers to "combine" against their employer. But when the airfield project began mopping up some of Nassau's unemployment, two proto unions came together to form the Bahamas Federation of Labour, which Fawkes later led. As a teenager he recalled the events of June 1, 1942:
"When we reached the corner of Marlborough and Cumberland streets we heard a large shout. On looking toward the hilltop we saw hundreds of ragged black workers moving downhill towards us..Some walked swiftly, blowing whistles. Others walked in a zig zag fashion. Some carried sticks. Others carried machetes as they sung out aloud....As the news of the demonstration re-echoed through the villages, streams of workers poured into the cul-de-sac of Bay and George Streets."
After Aung San's death, Burma was plunged into chaos until a fellow nationalist restored order in 1951. But a few years later the military took over, and built a rigid one-party state. Government control was extended over every aspect of Burmese life: intellectuals were jailed, the economy collapsed, and the country entered a state of self-imposed isolation.
By 1987 Burma was conferred 'least-developed' status by the United Nations and international aid agencies. Economic mismanagement, poverty and currency devaluation helped spark pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, when as many as 10,000 people were killed, thousands more arrested and many tortured. While Burma abounds with natural resources such as oil, gas, timber and precious metals, the average income per head is less than $400 a year. The junta siphons off the rest.
A new set of generals took over during the 1988 crackdown and agreed to elections. Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (who is now 60), became the leader of the pro-democracy movement. A noted prisoner of conscience and advocate of nonviolent resistance, she has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought as well as the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the military dictatorship.
Elections were held in 1990 with Aung San Suu Kyi's party winning over 80 per cent of the seats in a resounding rejection of military rule. But the junta simply declared the election void and repression only intensified. Suu Kyi earned the right to be prime minister, but her detention by the military junta prevented her from assuming that role.
In one of her most famous speeches she said: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."
There was no real leader of the Bahamian Burma Road protests. By most accounts it was a spontaneous venting by a couple of thousand workers and their supporters in the face of a puny military force of 135 British troops (assigned to protect the Duke of Windsor) and some 300 police and militia. Thankfully, there was little violence, and the rioters did not attack onlookers. The military used weapons only when it could not be avoided (in the context of the times).
Over two days, black Bahamians moved up and down white Bay Street - and through Grant's Town - smashing windows and looting stores. According to Colin Hughes (in his 1981 book Race and Politics in the Bahamas), the riots were "a momentary outburst of raw energy" that "provided martyrs and a heroic moment" to Bahamian blacks "once a political movement had finally started."
The fledgling Bahamas Federation of Labour chose Dr Claudius R. Walker to meet with the Duke of Windsor on behalf of the workers following the riots: "The underlying causes for this social unrest are manifold," he told the ex-king of England. "We are in the majority but we have minority problems. We are poorly housed, poorly fed and poorly educated. Truth to tell, we are the wretched of the earth."
A week or so later the Project workers received a 25 per cent increase in pay plus free lunches. And a few weeks after that a House of Assembly committee led by Stafford Sands recommended compensation for the (mostly white) merchants whose stores had been damaged.
According to Dr Doris Johnson (in her 1972 book The Quiet Revolution), among those that the committee interviewed were many who "in a few years were to become the nucleus of the opposition party which brought about the defeat of the Bay Street crowd."
Meanwhile, the Duke appointed a commission of inquiry composed of a non-resident Englishman and two white Bahamians. At the end of November 1942, the commission called for wide-ranging social and political reforms, including modern labour laws and trade unions, more local government for the Out Islands, reducing the life of parliament from seven to five years, raising taxes to make the wealthy contribute more to the cost of running of the country, and introducing a one man, one vote ballot.
All of these recommendations were eventually implemented. And in 1962 the first Friday in June was celebrated as labour day - a public holiday - by some 20,000 Bahamians, with Randol Fawkes as the main leader.
In Burma, the latest pro-democracy uprising has been dubbed the saffron revolution (referring to the robes worn by Buddhist monks who led the initial protests). In late September tens of thousands were marching in the streets. There is no press freedom in Burma and the government quickly began turning off the Internet and telephone links with the outside world.
According to one pro-democracy blog, "While the generals in power and their families are literally dripping in gold and diamonds, the people of Burma are impoverished, deprived of basic human rights, cut off from the rest of the world, and increasingly under threat of violence."
World leaders said they have "very grave concerns" about "hundreds, possibly thousands" of monks, nuns and others who have not been seen since the latest bloody crackdown. And Western powers have circulated a draft Security Council resolution which condemns Burma's "violent repression ... of peaceful demonstrations".
Although everything is relative, the Bahamian people were able to achieve political democracy and national independence with little violence and suffering. Burma is far away, but is there any doubt that we should support its people in their long-running struggle for peace and democracy?