Friday, Jul. 17, 1964

Asians v. Asians

In the 17 years since the end of the British Raj, the Indian subcontinent has repeatedly echoed to the thunder of populations on the move. More than 17 million Hindus and Moslems fled across the borders of India and Pakistan in the wake of partition and religious strife in 1947. Since last January, 900,000 more have poured over the frontiers to escape a new wave of religious persecution. Last week still another mass migration was underway as thousands of India's newest dispossessed flocked home from neighboring Burma.

Road to Socialism. There are more than 500,000 Indians in Burma, and a staggering 200,000 of them are expected to leave before the current flood ends. Next week the first of 60 shiploads of Indians will begin docking at the southern ports of Madras and Visakhapatnam. Half a dozen refugee flights from Rangoon are already arriving at Calcutta's Dum Dum airport each day, and the waiting rooms are piled high with the pitiful possessions of the uprooted—lumpy bundles of bedding, cheap suitcases, bright plastic pails stuffed with children's toys and kitchen utensils.

Behind the exodus is the fact that Strongman Premier Ne Win, driving pell-mell along his "Burmese road to Socialism," has nationalized all small businesses, banks and warehouses, denied trading licenses to aliens, and prohibited non-Burmese from taking government jobs. Ne Win's edicts struck particularly hard at the Indians, who have become the nation's sharpest shopkeepers, but have been reluctant to take out Burmese citizenship.

As a result, many Indian merchants are now serving as $1-a-day clerks in the shops they once owned, and find themselves constantly being reprimanded by Burmese overseers. Their former employees are even worse off. Some 100,000 poorer Indians, who had worked for Indian storekeepers before nationalization, not only found themselves out of jobs but also out on the street as well, for most of them had lived above the shops in which they worked.

Nothing of Value. Having made it clear that Indians were less than welcome, Ne Win next made it impossible for them to take anything of value when they left. Large-denomination banknotes were abruptly declared invalid, and even after that, adults were allowed to take only 75 rupees ($15.75) out of the country with them. Though Indian women traditionally convert their cash into gold jewelry and even decorate their children with bangles and bracelets, the Burmese stripped departing Indians of all their jewelry. Many Hindu women were forced to give up the gold and black mangal sutra necklaces that they wear as a symbol of marriage.

A few departing refugees were able to slip some money out of Burma before Ne Win plugged all the loopholes.

But Indian officials are bitter, nonetheless, privately describe Ne Win's nationalization measures as a shabby trick to strip the Indian community of its property with no compensation at all. Nor is Burma's treatment of its Indian minority an isolated case. In Ceylon, where nearly 700,000 Indian plantation workers and tradesmen live as "stateless persons," the regime has launched a "Ceylonization of trade" campaign. And what that might very well mean is yet another mass exodus of Indians.