Burma in the 1950s was strikingly similar to the Tarai plains of Nepal: glistening paddy fields, lush jungles, and a heritage that had elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism.
No wonder Burma’s Nepalis found the place so much like home when they first migrated there during British days, and continued to stay even after the end of World War II, farming and trading.
Dhankala Pandey was married at age 12 to Reshmalal in Nepal, and migrated to Pungchang of Burma in 1952. They started a new life in a new land, building an 8-hectare farm with 300 cows, 50 water buffaloes and employed seven farmhands.
“I used to milk 80 cows every morning all on my own,” recalls Chudamani Pant, 80, a Nepali dairy farmer in Burma who carried two containers overflowing with milk to deliver in surrounding villages.
“At that time, they used to have a saying in Burma: Bengalis in the courts, and Nepalis in the fields,” says Pant, who remembers Burma as a melting pot of local groups as well as immigrants from the Subcontinent.
But not all Nepalis in Burma were farmers, some went into the lucrative gem business and others became senior civil servants. Himlal Sharma himself was a school teacher for 23 years, Sher Bahadur Lama was a government lawyer, Antar Singh was the dean in Mandalay University till 1960.
However, in 1962 Burma was plunged into chaos after the coup d’état by Gen Ne Win which overthrew Prime Minister U Nu. Ne Win began a mass expulsion of Indians and Nepalis who had been living in Burma for generations and nationalised their property and businesses.
About 200,000 Nepalis fled Burma, either returning to Nepal, fleeing to Thailand, or settled in Bengal and Assam. There are about 300,000 ethnic Nepalis still in Burma. The Nepali and Indian eviction has now been followed by the expulsion in recent years of 1 million Rohingya Muslims, some of whom have landed up in Nepal.
Under the Orwellian-sounding ‘Burmese Path to Socialism’, Ne Win ruled with an iron hand, and this affected the status of the Nepali community, as described by Burma-born Leila Ram Pandey in his book Jiwan ra Byaktitwa.
Himlal Sharma recalls handing over 1.4 million kyats ($2,000 at the time) to the government after the military demonetised all notes above 20 kyats. Nepalis lost all their savings, tried to protect the little they had left, or fled Burma.
“What they called socialism meant we had to submit all our earnings to the government and in exchange received barely sufficient food to survive,” Reshmalal Pandey recalls. “We farmed, but they took what we grew.”
There were days when they would survive on boiled peas, and times when they would sneak rice in milk cans, praying that officials would not catch them.
Remaining in Burma was bad enough, but leaving the country was equally tortuous. Bhim Adhikari says the military would confiscate everything above 11 grams of gold jewelry, cash more than Rs400 and let them leave with only two sets of clothes.