By Yay Thuye
It has been almost thirty four years since that tragic incident took place. However, in my mind, it was as though it happened only yesterday and every event that took place was still vividly imprinted in my memory. That morning, October 9, 1983 was like that of any other normal October morning. With the monsoons receding, it was a bright and sunny day. That day we had an important assignment to carry out. His Excellency Mr. Chun Doo-huan, the President of the Republic Of Korea or South Korea, will be laying wreaths at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum as a gesture of honoring our national hero, General Aung San, and other martyrs who were assassinated along with him.
I was the Commandant of the No.1 Naval Provost Unit and was responsible for provost duties at that place whenever a foreign head of state or dignitary visited there. I was well familiar with the nature of the duty at that place and had never encountered any hitch in the past, so I was quite relaxed and confident that morning as I drove the car to meet with the Army, Navy and Air Force MPs who would be working with me.
About 0800 hour, I had already finished briefing and detailing my men for various duties that each of them had to perform. After making a round to check whether my men were in their right positions, I took up my usual position under the portico of the Mausoleum. Apart from us, only the mine clearing party of the Myanmar Engineering Corps and some staffs of the Yangon Command Head-Quarters were in the compound at that time, as it was still early. Moments later responsible persons from various departments started to arrive.
Everything was as usual, until the South Korean security personnels arrived. I had never seen such a large number of security personnels accompanying a foreign dignitary before. As soon as they arrived, a mine clearing party started poking around the lawns and the flowerpots lining the building. Some were even lifting and checking under the red carpet where there were bulges. One of them climbed up an overhead water tank, close to the building, to check inside. One went even further to ask me to remove a large insect resting on a beam at the entrance to the hall, through which the President must pass.
By then all the usual persons from different departments were in position. At the portico, while a Deputy Director of our Foreign Affairs Department and I were conversing, a South Korean dressed in civilian suit approached us and introduced himself as a Brigadier General (BG) of the Presidential Guards. He asked who will open their President’s car door. When I replied, that was my duty, he said, they had an agreement with our top brasses to allow their men to do that job throughout the whole visit. I told him, if that was so, they can open the door on the side of their President, but insisted I must open the door on the side of our Foreign Minister, who will be accompanying their President in the same car. So everything settled and the Korean BG satisfied, thanked me and left.
Then as the time of the arrival of the guests drew near, I made a quick check on my men and gave each of them last minute instructions. The moment I got back to my post, I saw the first of the three motorcades, came winding up the road that lead to the mausoleum. According to the prior information, it must be the one coming from the Inya Lake Hotel bringing low-level cabinet members. Soon, the second motorcade, coming from the Military Guest House conveying high ranking South Korean military and cabinet members, piloted by three police motor cycles, with the South Korean Ambassador to Myanmar’s car in the lead, arrived.
While I was showing a Korean security man where the President’s car would stop and where he should take position, I noticed the Korean guests assembling in the confined space at the rear of Bogyoke’s tomb. The naval guard-of-honor platoon hurriedly fall in, with the platoon commander a naval lieutenant (senior grade), giving orders to get his men ready for the arrival of the President.
As I had finished instructing the Korean, I was about to take up position on the opposite side facing him, when I saw a plain-clothed Myanmar intelligence personnel, who was just outside the portico, suddenly dived to the ground. His action mystified me, but was more confused on hearing a loud boom. However, within a split second I realized what had happened. As I was standing with my back to the building, I had not seen the explosion, which the man who dived to the ground must have seen. Only when the force of the blast sent me staggering forward followed by the sound of the loud explosion, I realized what had happened. In just a matter of a split second, I regained focus, reoriented and the first thing I did was to check my watch. The time was nearly 10:25 hours. Instinctively, I looked back over my shoulder towards the direction of the explosion, which was at the center of the building, and saw the debris still falling and was shrouded in thick smoke and small patches of fire burning among the wreckage.
My first impulse was to rush to the center of the building where the explosion occurred and give assistance to the wounded. There, I saw two naval lieutenant commanders ( Lt. Cdr.), who were to act as aide de camps (ADC) to the President on his arrival, were already among the wreckage pulling out the wounded. As the security was also important during such chaotic situations, I surveyed the surrounding and on seeing no one taking charge of the situation, I called out to my Petty Officer (PO), to post some of our MPs at the two gates of the compound and not to let any unauthorized persons entering or leaving.
At the epicenter of the explosion, I saw a gruesome sight. The whole mid-section of the rectangular shaped building had totally collapsed and almost all the roofing tiles had been shattered. There were people trapped under massive wooden beams and struts, with blood and soot covering their faces and bare skins exposed through the shredded clothings. Some were moaning and writhing with pain, but some were motionless.
Suddenly, I remembered our Cultural Minister, who earlier was sitting on the other side of the main building while waiting for the arrival of the President. I was worried for his safety, so I hurriedly went looking for him. I was greatly relieved when he appeared around the corner of the main building, but as he was walking with a limp, I approached him and asked whether he needed assistance. He replied that his injury was just superficial and told me to carry on with my work.
There was no ambulance on standby and there were no stretchers either, so I had to improvise a way to carry the wounded. I had seen some plain tin sheets lying about amongst the debris. I instructed my PO to collect some and use them as stretchers. That solved the problem somewhat because before that, the wounded could not stand the pain when being lifted due to fractured bones. Still there was the problem of transporting them to the military hospital, which was only over a kilometer away. As the situation necessitated, I took the initiative and sent the wounded with the Mercedes sedans they came in, with the three police motor cycles that arrived earlier, taking turns to escort each car as soon as it was loaded with one wounded person. We managed to send all the wounded to the hospital within minutes of the incident.
When everything was under control and going smoothly, I returned to the scene. By then, the surviving victims had already been rescued and a team of army men were retrieving the dead bodies. There I met an army major who was in-charge of our mine clearing team. He showed me some electronic components, which he assumed were to be parts of a remote-controlled firing circuit and said it was a remote controlled explosion (a fact, which the two naval officers, one an electronics expert and the other, a demolition expert had told me earlier). He told me they retrieved one unexploded cluster bomb from the wreckage. He also showed me a cracked canister with some liquid inside and patches of small flames scattered here and there, which were the results of the spilled inflammable liquid. He said it was a napalm bomb.
According to his assumption, there were three bombs, two cluster bombs and one napalm bomb planted, but luckily only one cluster bomb exploded. He added, if the napalm bomb of that size should have exploded it could be very devastating, as it would incinerate everyone inside a radius of hundred yards. Hearing that sent chills down my spine, on realizing how close I was to death, as I was only about twenty yards from the explosion. However, the sense of humor of one naval Lt. Cdr, relaxed me. He said we must thank the rats for saving us and showed me the tooth marks on the plastic coatings of some wires in the electronic circuits, which were bitten off by them.
Then I saw the Minister for Home Affairs’ car arriving at the scene. As there was no one to meet him, I hurried to the front of the building to meet him. He asked me how it happened and I told him that a remote-controlled bomb detonated when the guests started to take up positions. He asked me how I could be so sure that it was a remote-controlled bomb. When I explained to him what I had learned from the two naval officers and the army major, who was in-charge of the mine clearing team, he was convinced. At that moment, the Deputy Commander of the Yangon Command Headquarters arrived and reported to the Minister, so I excused myself and went about my duty.
The Ninth of October, 2017 will the thirty-fourth anniversary of that tragic incident. I want to honor those who perished, and those who were wounded on that fateful day thirty four years ago. Thus I dedicate this account of that incident to those persons. According to the media reports, there were 21 deaths, 17 South Koreans and 4 Myanmar nationals, and 46 injured. I also wish to give credit to the two naval officers, whose rapid response to the emergency situations saved many lives. The credit should also go to the Army, Navy and Air Force MPs, who carried out their duties with professional efficiency and others who assisted in the rescues.