On This Day

The Day Myanmar’s Capital Erupted Into Race Riots

By Wei Yan Aung 26 May 2020

YANGON—On this day in 1930, a clash over dockworker jobs broke out between Indian and Myanmar laborers in Yangon (then Rangoon). The violence lasted several days, escalating into large-scale anti-Indian riots across the country and resulting in the deaths of over 120 people, most of them Indian. The incident was the first of two major outbreaks of rioting between the Indian and Myanmar communities in that decade.

In early May 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, the British firm operating Yangon’s port employed Myanmar workers in an attempt to break a strike organized by its Indian workers who were demanding a pay rise. Later, the company reached an agreement to raise the Indian dockworkers’ wages, and dismissed the Myanmar workers. Violence ensued when the Indian workers returned to take up their jobs.

News of the Myanmar workers being beaten by the Indian dockers spread across Yangon, fueling anti-Indian sentiment. The capital, which was in a state of ruin due to an earthquake three weeks earlier that killed more than 50 people, was further rocked by the brutal violence between the two communities.

According to B.R. Pearn’s “A History of Rangoon”, “many deaths occurred during the rioting; the official report placed the number of fatalities at 120, but in some quarters this was regarded as an underestimate.”

Though many politically aware people suspected the British government of instigating the riots to distract Myanmar and Indian people from their economic woes, the violence soon spread to towns big and small across the country.

In Yangon, where the Indians were in the majority at the time, the Myanmar rioters were led by Buddhist monks and bus drivers. Police and British troops thus raided monasteries, seizing swords and sticks.

Indian people accused local newspaper Thuriya (The Sun) of instigating the riots, and threw stones at the newspaper’s office, sparking another round of violence.

The riots in Yangon lasted for several days, only ending when Indian and Myanmar political leaders, government officials, community elders and senior Buddhist monks intervened. A riot settlement committee formed by the British governor decided that Burmese and Indian laborers should share the jobs at the Yangon Port.

The anti-Indian riot led to the emergence of Doh Bamar Asiayone (the We Burmans Organization), which promoted nationalism and anti-colonialism. The Asiayone was joined by Yangon University student leaders including Ko Nu (who would later become Prime Minister U Nu) and Ko Aung San (later independence hero General Aung San).

A second round of anti-Indian rioting broke out in 1939.

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