I found an old diary that’s reminded me of many experiences in Burma. Among the notes, I found pointers to three enduring stories not yet retold in these journals.
Burma Story: Two
On the last day of May, a Saturday in 1992, we discovered that there was fuel missing from our generators. We had two 220 kVa generators installed in a a couple of modified shipping containers. They were acoustically silenced with the latest rock-wool technologies. Our neighbours were spared the 24/7 thrum of the power supply needed to run a large computer facility in a leafy suburban neighbourhood. Our large diesel fuel tank was mounted beside the concrete platform that supported the genes and access to everything was secured with a padlock.
The padlock was in place on the tank but there was lot of diesel fuel missing, Before I could say or do anything, one of our staff told the police that our gardener took it. I’d learn later that the main crime committed by our gardener was to originate from a different ethic group than most of our local support staff.
For once, the Rangoon police were efficient. They travelled to the gardener’s home and arrested him. I never saw any police so I never learned who framed him, who provided the home address nor why.
Sunday arrived and I was incensed. He had been jailed, kept overnight pending trial. I got hold of our local lawyer and his ‘advise’ was to pay to have the gardener released. I broke the rules and refused to pay. Worse, I was so angry that I went to the jail where he was held.
Our gardener was a hard working young man who kept our office garden trimmed and clean. He raised brightly coloured flowers around hedges that on occasion would be flattened by the manoeuvrings of some of the very heavy trucks that necessarily came onto our compound. He’d sort stuff out and one day, we replaced his scythe with a lawnmower. In retrospect, that was his downfall. Mechanised, he could do his daily chores in a quarter of the time and took to having siestas, wedged in the boughs of our biggest tree. I liked that we had a lookout, but others thought he was lazy.
So someone framed him.
The guards in the jail were horrific but they let me in. I knew that the feeding arrangements were medieval. Basically, the inmates were required to be fed by their families and were advised to have their names tattooed on the palms of their hands. This is so that family can tell which hand to feed from the many hands that stretch out from behind the steel bars at meal times.
The gardener, lacking family awareness let alone a tattoo, was hungry and thirsty but I hadn’t known to bring him food either. He was held in a cell by himself but that was for show. They’d moved him for my visit. He was crying because his shoes were stolen. I was crying because of the bruises on his arms, the black eye, the cuts on his face and the blood on his legs. They’d told him that the beatings would stop once he confessed. He said that the guards used the other prisoners as proxies to torture him.
We got him out the next day when the charges were dropped. There was no coincidence in that release. It came about because I needed to organise a fuel delivery since we were low several days earlier than expected. The genset normally burned about burned a tank a month at the rate of about 4 gallons an hour and suddenly, there on my PC screen, I saw the answer to the crime. It was displayed in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet, used to predict future orders, enumerated a near 17% increase in fuel consumption. It was already monsoon season, the whole facility was on maximum air-conditioning for over a month. Nothing else had changed the load on the generators. So the thief had taken an amount that equated to 18% of a full tank. That number rang bells in my head that were amplified as I considered the lack of physical evidence about the theft. The padlock was intact, no pipes were disconnected, there were no spills, no tyre tracks and no one had seen anything.
It must have been the government that stole the diesel. We ordered in imperial gallons and we paid for imperial measure. This was Burma and the sole source of fuel was the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Some faceless MOGE administrator had sent a fuel truck dispensing American gallons and my administrator signed off on the delivery based on the gauges on the delivery truck. The ratio between imperial and American measure is about 9/11 or the inverse is 1.22. Case solved?
It made sense and we informed the police that the theft never happened. It was just a misunderstanding. There were of course consequences. I asked to be driven to the gardener’s home that afternoon but he’d packed his family and bags and headed back to his home state, apparently afraid for his life. We never saw him again.
While the delivery error was never acknowledged, my administrator ensured that we were switched back to imperial deliveries and we changed our gauge checking. The price stayed 20% higher but you can’t win every battle. Some of my colleagues suspected that the water contamination in the next delivery was a spiteful admission of guilt.
The police came to see us regularly afterwards. My local administrator insisted that he’d not paid to have the gardener released. Who knows the truth. A few years later, I heard it said that he was one of the biggest dispensers of cartons of Marlboro cigarettes in Rangoon airport. So I suspect that we’d been signed up to a policeman’s benevolent fund of some form.
But I never found out. The operation was shut down a few months later when more and more companies realised that Burma in 1992 was not what they expected in the run-up to the 1990 elections.