Irrawaddy water and Ne Win’s gold trees

April 1981, in the middle of a scorching Burmese summer.

Even inside the air-conditioned luxury SUV the heat was almost intolerable for the lanky Great Chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party. Burmese dictator General Ne Win, with his large entourage of ministers and heavily-armed bodyguards  in a very long motorcade, was then touring the newly-built weapon manufacturing plants and heavy industry on the remote west bank of River Irrawaddy.

Being in arid middle Burma, the landscape on both sides of the unsealed dirt road running parallel to the wide river was desolate and barren. They were just outside the small town of Minbu across the river from the city of Magwe. Except for the scrubs of dried brushes here and there the land was almost completely empty.

“What do they grow on this land?” asked the Great Chairman from the back seat after peering out silently for a while at the empty land and the low river through the heavily tinted bullet-proof window.

“Not much, Bo-Gyoke,” the defence minister and army chief General Kyaw Htin turned round and answered from the front passenger seat, “the farmers grow sesame and groundnuts only one season after a decent rain, that’s all they could here, I think!”

“Why don’t they grow rice here?” the Chairman enquired.

“No water, Bo-Gyoke!” General Kyaw Htin meekly replied.

“No water, what the hell you’re talking about? No fucking water here, so what the fuck is flowing in that big fucking river just down there?” the general didn’t dare to answer back and he kept his mouth shut.

“Why can’t you guys do something about it? Those lazy motherfuckers from the Agriculture Ministry should do something, fucking anything?” the Chairman swore at him again, and the equally lanky but totally obedient general mentally noted down to later convey the reprimand to Colonel Ye Gaung, the Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, back in Rangoon at least 500 miles away from there.

I was then working as an Assistant Mechanical Engineer in the Irrigation Department after graduating from Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1980. The strongly-worded order from the Minister to build the pilot river-water-pumping project at Kanni near Minbu came to us through the Chief-Civil-Engineer, the Director-General of Irrigation, who reckoned the project involving any big pump should be the responsibility of the Chief-Mechanical-Engineer (CME) my immediate boss.

It was the first ever river-water-pumping project in Burma, and coming direct from the much-feared Great Chairman, we all jumped into the project immediately. CME and senior engineers roughly drew a conceptual design and quickly worked out the details which were handed down to us junior engineers, mainly me as I was the one working directly for the CME.

Four two-hundred-horse-power electric pumps were to be mounted on a suitably-sized floating barge to be ordered from the Burma Dockyard Corporation and later to be towed to the site and anchored on the river. An electrical sub-station was to be built on the river bank. As there was a massive 160 foot drop from the riverbank to the lowest possible water level in mid-summer, four sets of rigid steel pipes and long flexible tubes were to connect the pumps and the water reservoir to be built on the bank. The network of long channels dug later would eventually convey the river water to the fields of at least one thousand acres, and rice would be grown there: bingo.

As all the electric pumps and the substation were to be purchased from overseas, my main job was to prepare the technical specifications. We estimated that tens of millions of dollars would be needed for the equipment alone. Money then was not a problem at all. Unlike now, Burma was awash with foreign funds from international aid organisations as the country had already been shamefully downgraded to LDC (least developed country) status by the United Nations.

Our ministry had been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars every year to buy heavy equipment and machinery for many dam construction projects, and some of the funds from the World Bank officially known as IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) were conveniently diverted to the new project.

Preparing the technical spec was quite easy as what we had to do was ask the local Burmese agents of prospective foreign suppliers to provide the brochures of their equipment. In most cases they simply showed up at our office and provided whatever we needed once the news of the project were known in their circles.

From the brochures we drew a broad general spec for the equipment we preferred and attached it to a standard tender document and released it back to them. Once the quotations were received the CME decided which supplier to purchase from. Corruption was rife in our department and also there were so many levels of middle men between us and the manufacturers it always cost almost double the prevailing market price for any piece of equipment and machinery imported into Socialist Burma.

Finally, after almost two years, all the machinery were purchased and installed at a great expense at the site. The 22KV high tension line from a nearby gas turbine power generator was extended to our Japanese-made substation and reduced down to 400V and connected direct to the three-phased German O&K pump motors already mounted on the large barge, made in Burma at the Sin-ma-like Dockyard in Rangoon, towed to the site and now anchored on the river. The main water reservoir and a network of raised-earthen-channels were already constructed by the local civil engineering division, and the first ever river water pumping station in Burma was ready to be commissioned.

I didn’t realise I was to be involved in the commissioning till I was called into the CME’s office and told to get my arse to Minbu because I was the only one who knew the whole project and its machinery. The only way to get there then was by car, and it took almost two days to Magwe and then on a car ferry to Minbu across the more than two-mile wide Irrawaddy. When I got to Kanni site I found out things were not as smooth as expected. Steel pipes were not all welded yet and the old electrical foreman and his team from our Rangoon Workshops were still wiring the motors.

I had to work with the team of fitters and welders there almost 12 hours a day for more than three weeks welding and connecting the pipes, and finally ran into serious trouble with the old electrical foreman. From the motor manuals I discovered that his wirings were wrong and the motors would run in reverse, but the old man was stubborn and wouldn’t redo his wirings. I was his son’s age and a freshly graduated mechanical engineer. How could I know what was the right or wrong connections for the giant electric motors? Luckily the CME had arrived and stood by me, and finally the error was fixed.

The day came for the first test run, and our CE and CME, the chief engineer from the Electric Power Corporation, the local military divisional commander, local party chief, and many other local dignitaries were there to witness the auspicious occasion. They were on the barge first when I started the high-powered pumps. The huge pumps were unexpectedly running dry and the vibrations were so severe that everyone on the barge all disappeared back onto the dry bank, and watched me and one of the designated operators on the now severely shaking barge from a safe distance.

I had to stop the pumps and then suddenly a thought struck and I remembered to prime the pumps one by one. I bravely or stupidly climbed onto and straddled the 30” diameter outlet pipe of the furthest pump, opened the priming port, asked the operator to start the motor, and poured bucket loads of water from the river into the port while the pump was shaking like hell and giving me a painful bum massage.

I kept on pouring the water and finally the vibrations stopped and water from the river was continuously drawn. It took only about ten or fifteen minutes for the water from that pump to reach the high bank above and the crowd gathering there cheered loudly once they saw the massive water column coming out of the large pipe. I primed the rest in the same way and within an hour all four pumps were running and water was pouring out of the pipes into the head-reservoir and then into the main channel. The water flow was so strong it broke the channel and I was forced to stop the pumps as the pumped water was flowing back down to the river.

My job was done and next day I came back to Rangoon and prepared the final costing on the equipment and reported to CME. I was later told that, in total, close to 80 million US$ were spent on that pet project of General Ne Win.  It also included the large expense of building a sealed asphalt road from Minbu to the site. But the minister and the CE were very happy and even told my boss to prepare for many more similar projects. But the promised projects didn’t materialise and finally a horror story, or a rather funny story, was soon spreading like wild fire among us junior engineers.

Our minister had kindly invited the Great Chairman to visit the pumping station and his grace had finally appeared at the pump site with his usual entourage of ministers and heavily-armed bodyguards in a very long motorcade again in December 1983. The following was reputedly the exact conversation between him and our minister on the now wet river bank that day.

“So what are the peasants growing now with the water from the river?” asked the dictator.

“In addition to the usual sesame and groundnuts for one season annually, they are able to grow cotton now, Bo-Gyoke,” replied respectfully the minister.

“How many acres?” asked the dictator.

“About a thousand acres now. Up to 2000 in next two years, Bo-Gyoke,” replied the minister.

“What was the total cost of the project again?” asked the dictator.

“Total in US dollars, 80 million, Bo-Gyoke,” replied the minister rather hesitantly.

“You know, with that sort of money, what they should grow here?” remarked the now-suddenly-annoyed dictator, but knowing him very well the minister didn’t dare to open his mouth.

Shwe-Bins (Gold Trees), fucking Shwe-Bins, fucking idiots! 80 million bucks for 2000 fucking acres of fucking cotton! Fuckwits!” that was his last words there on that day, and he turned back, climbed into his SUV, and never returned there again for the rest of his long life.

Everything about all future river water pumping projects was then immediately mothballed. Only a minimal maintenance budget was allocated for that pumping station still running and we all forgot about it as IBRD was, by that stage, financing our department heavily again for their ground water pumping projects all over middle Burma. Fortunately, I received a generous scholarship from abroad and I left Burma in April 1984.

Sometimes I even dreamt of that project on the Irrawaddy. The mighty river has such an effect on every Burmese. I couldn’t forget her. Especially whenever I heard the song “Irrawaddy” by Khin One. The river definitely did affect Mr. Kipling. “On the Road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play,” his famous poem says it all.

Then one month late last year I was greatly surprised by the series of front page news from the Burmese Government’s mouth piece Myanmar-Ahlin newspaper. Being seriously homesick I try to read Burmese newspapers on the net almost everyday. The generals were then daily attending the opening ceremonies of similar river water pumping stations all over the country. According to the news, there are now more than 300 pumping stations along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. All built in the last twenty years with their own money: without a single aid dollar from the West.

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I don’t think they have even altered the old design. All the photos look similar. Similar barges. Similar configurations of pipes and pumps. The only visible change was the diesel engines instead of the electric motors in the regions where the electricity supply was inaccessible. The army has even built a factory making these diesel engines with Chinese assistance. Burmese bureaucracy even has a new government department to build and run all these pumping stations: MWRUD (Myanmar Water Resources Utilization Department). I was amazed. Why the about turn? It didn’t take long to find the answer. The Burmese had accidentally found Ne Win’s Shwe-Bins (Gold Trees) to go with their rather expensive, or possibly environment-damaging, river-water pumping stations.

The accidental godsend was not the river water itself. It was the silt suspended in it. The tons of silt the murky Irrawaddy has been carrying down along her thousand miles since time began, since the Indian sub-plate crashed into the Asian plate and formed the Himalayas and the massive river systems all over India and Asia many, many millions of years ago. The same tons of silt that has been forming the still southward-expanding fertile Delta that famously made Burma the rice bowl of the British Empire where once the sun never set.

The same annoying tons of fine silt that choked the inlet strainers of our big pumps and almost damaged the impellers inside were carried over the bank and deposited evenly on the irrigated land, and over the years the once almost useless, porous sandy soil was gradually transformed into precious fertile land good enough for the rice paddy, the golden crop of the world today.

With an average 5000 acres of three-season rice-growing land developed by one river water pumping station, the Burmese generals are laughing now and proudly boasting about their more than 1.5 million new acres of fertile paddy land from those projects alone since they took control of Burma in the bloody 1988 coup.

Ne Win would have smiled at his former underlings from his grave if he heard the good news himself. But unfortunately he has no grave as the universally-hated dictator’s body was burnt like the mongrel dog he was. And where were the ashes thrown away? Nobody knows!

About Hla Oo, Guest Contributor