Nationalization: A Grave Blunder


Khin Maung Myint

The 1963 Nationalization move was a real blunder. I should know it, as I had been actively involved in that process. That year the leaders of the, then,Socialist Government, decided to nationalize the businesses. Their concept was: Capitalism and Socialism could never coexist. At first, it was the large industries, businesses and companies that were nationalized, irrespective of their owners’ nationality. Later, for reasons I couldn’t know, small businesses, including even retail shops belonging to FRC (Foreign Registration Certificate) holders were also nationalized.
During the first phase, on 1 June1963, the major industries: including the export and import trades, rice, banking, mining, textiles and rubber, which were labeled as the capitalist tools were nationalized. According to some records, a total of around 15,000 private enterprises were nationalized. I wasn’t involved in that process, but it was the second phase that I came to bepart of that scheme.
Early one night in August of that year, the staffs of our establishment were gathered in an assembly hall for briefing. We were waiting anxiously for our superior’s arrival. When he arrived he explained at length, the necessity to nationalize the businesses as we were on the path to establishing a Socialist State. No Socialist State could thrive while the businesses were in the hands of the Capitalists, that was what we were told. After his speech, we were convinced we were going on a mission for the good of the country and the people. Everyone was upbeat and raring to leave for our assigned destinations. I had to take charge of a team of twelve, who would act as in-charges of the shops we were to nationalize.
Our team’s destination was the Twante township. We left at mid-night from the Thanhlyin side with a double decker ship and arrived Twante at a few minutes before 3a.m. We were met at the jetty by the Chairman of the Township Security and Administrative Committee and party. From the jetty we were taken to a State High School, where we were briefed by the Chairman. According to the list prepared by the township authorities, there were ten shops in Twante and one in Kyaikhtaw, a few miles by river, to the west. I assigned my men, one each, as in-charge of the ten teams, that would take over the shops in the Twante proper. The township authorities attached one volunteer firefighterto each team. By then, the time was 4a.m, still two hours to the appointed hour, so I gave detailed instructions to my men as to how to go about their job in taking over the shops.
Half an hour before the appointed time, which was 6a.m, the ten teams set out, guided by the volunteer firefighters attached to them, to their assigned shops. After an hour, the Chairman and I, along with some township officials, made a inspection round to check the shops taken over.
At the first shop, I was dismayed by what I saw. It was a shanty building, which served as a home and a small grocery store incorporated in it. The commodities stocked there were nothing, compared to an average grocery store at a market in Yangon. The owner was a foreign national and the wife was a Bamar citizen with four kids. The next shop was no better and some shops were even worse, except for one shop, which was a retail and wholesale grocery, that catered the requirements of the whole township. There were two shops, which sell odds and ends, called the Kyulaya shops in the old days.
After inspecting the shops in Twante, I left with the two remaining members of my team to Kyaikhtaw sub-township. We traveledon a police motor launch accompanied by a team of police escorts, as those areas were frequented by the insurgents. The Assistant Township Officer of the General Administrative Department, stationed there, met us and took us to the only grocery shop that was to be taken over. The shop belonged to an old foreign national whose wife was a Bamar citizen. It was also a shop-house like those in Twante.
That evening I was back in Twante. After dinner, I met with my men and checked the cash ledgers to find out the incomes for the day. Apart from the wholesale shop, the incomes from the other shops were almost negligible, for the owners to be categorized as capitalists. That fact was confirmed the next day, when I went on an inspection round. At the first shop, where the owner was a foreigner in his forties, with a Bamar wife and four kids. I was surprised to see him shouldering two buckets filled with water and selling them in his neighbourhood. I learned, on enquiring him,that he had never done that before. However, as he had six mouths to feed and had no more income, he had to earn money in whatever way he could. He also said that he wouldn’t be able to afford to send his children to school anymore. First, I thought he was exaggerating, but later I realized he was telling the truth. There were many like him, but I will skip the details.
The worst was at Kyaikhtaw. Whenever I went there to check my men, I met with unpleasantness. The old lady of the shop always cried until she fainted. My men had to revive her, as her husband was too old to take care of her. When she regained consciousness, she gave me a tongue lashing. At one time she said we were worse than the dacoits, because the latter would leave them something if they hugged their legs and pleaded. However, she said, we left them nothing. I sympathized with her but I was in no position to do anything, although by then, I wasn’t convinced we were doing the right thing. So, I just ignored her harsh words and tried to calm her down by saying soothing words.
The worst was still to come. It was more touching and I was ashamed of myself. It happened on my third trip to Kyaikhtaw. That time, I noticed a young girl about sixteen at that house, whom I had never seen on the previous trips. This time the old lady didn’t cry but she confronted me as soon as I arrived and accused me as being no better than the Chettias, the South Indian loan sharks of the past. She said, she knew we would eventually confiscate their house and added that nothing would matter to her anymore when that should happen. She pointed tothe young girl and told me, she was her only daughter who had to leave school in Yangon, where she was studying in the Matric class, as they couldn’t afford her expenses anymore. She told me to take her daughter away too, like the Chettias did.
Though her words were insulting, I wasn’t angry with her. Instead I told her, we did not have any instruction to confiscate the house. I assured her that it would never happen, just to appease her, though I didn’t know for sure what would come next.
Due to nationalizing, all the industries, the export and import businesses ceased. Even the small retailers and all essential household commodities disappeared from the markets. Everything from food stuffs: such as rice, cooking oil, chillies, sugar, milk tins to clothing materials, umbrellas, even matches and candles became very scarce and were rationed or had to draw ballots if there were not enough to go around. The fuels for the vehicles and for cooking were also rationed and were never enough. Thus hoardings and smugglings of essential commodities and black marketing emerged and became the livelihoods for many, until recently.
In conclusion, I would like to say that the nationalization was a grave blunder, carried out hastily without properly analyzing the situations and considering the consequences. Our country, once considered to be among the prosperous nations in the region, plummeted to the status of the Least Developed Country (LDC) in the world. I am not dwelling in the past by writing thus. However, my intention is to let the new generations and most of my generation who might not have any idea what really took place during the nationalization schemes that totally collapsed our economy. What I had mentioned here was just the tip of an iceberg; the adverse effects were far more profound and widespread. We had learned a bitter lesson, which we should never forget.

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