Places in History

The Building That Exploited Myanmar’s Oil Wealth

By Wei Yan Aung 2 June 2020

It was Burmah Oil Company (BOC) that monopolized Myanmar (then Burma)’s oil industry in the colonial period. Based on the corner of Merchant Street and 32nd Street in Yangon (then Rangoon), the building today houses the National Library of Myanmar.

Built in 1908 by the architect and contractor Robinson and Mundy, the building was originally the headquarters of the Scottish trading firm Fleming and Co which exported textiles and imported a variety of European merchandize, including shoes, paint and beverages.

The BOC took over the four-story building from Fleming and Co. It started operations in 1886, one year after the country’s last monarch, King Thibaw, was dethroned and exiled in India. The firm piped crude oil from Upper Myanmar to Thanlyin oil refinery across the Yangon River.

It produced petroleum, gasoline and candles and distributed internationally and domestically, reaching the most remote areas of the country.

The company also sold petrol, kerosene lamps and candles and its headquarters were alive with wholesalers and retailers, petroleum inspectors, representatives of foreign oil companies, tanker operators and globetrotting oil workers from the United States, UK, India and elsewhere.

One street away from the BOC’s headquarters, the Steel Brothers and Co Ltd, which monopolized the country’s rice industry in the colonial period, opened its headquarters on what is now Bo Sun Pat Street.

The simply designed BOC office played an important role in modernizing the colonialized society which had no access to electricity or the international fuel markets. The country’s oil only made up for 1 percent of total global production, but 20 percent of the British Empire’s overall output.

National crude oil production rose to 1 million tons annually by the 1930s, with 80 percent of that total coming from BOC. The company also established BOC College to train engineers, technicians and workers for its operations.

BOC enjoyed its most profitable years during the 1920s when it was listed among the top 10 British manufacturing firms. Crude oil was the second-largest source of foreign currency income ahead of World War II, according to Myanmar Encyclopedia.

Indigenous oil workers earned a tiny fraction of the salaries of British officials at the BOC and endured miserable, crowded living conditions.

In a bid for better conditions, thousands of oil workers marched about 650 kilometers from Chauk in today’s Magway Region to Yangon despite a violent crackdown by the colonial government. They were joined by thousands of other workers, farmers and people from all strata of society in what would become the first movement for independence.

The movement in 1938 was significant as a national uprising against colonial rule and became known as the Revolution of 1300, named after Myanmar’s calendar.

The British general manager of the BOC, Harold Roper, was kept busy having to report to the board of directors in London about the strike, negotiate with the colonial government and answer media questions. On March 15, 1939, oil workers managed to block all entrances to the BOC’s head office by lying down on the pavements around the building. Hours later, the police forcibly dispersed the protesters and detained 123 of them.

When World War II broke out, the BOC – which exploited the country’s oil resources under the umbrella of the colonial government – abandoned its head office, burning documents and maps.

The abandoned building survived the war but the interior was a shambles with no furniture or equipment. As oil fields and equipment were destroyed by the retreating British, the country’s supplies of kerosene and candles ran out.

After independence, BOC shared the building with the Ideal Nursing Home, also known as the Sanpya Clinic. In 1963, the BOC was sold to the Revolutionary Council government, ending 55 years of foreign ownership.

The building then housed the office of the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) for the next 40 years. It was left vacant when the MOGE moved to Naypyitaw in 2005 and 2006. Most of the roof was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the building was renovated by the Construction Ministry in 2010.

After the National League for Democracy won the 2015 general election and U Htin Kyaw, the son of influential intellectual Min Thu Wun, became the president, he allowed the building to house the National Library.

While some colonial-era buildings house hotels, restaurants and shopping centers, the 112-year-old former BOC office has become a public building.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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