Daw Kyan (1918-2019)

Myanmar Historian Daw Kyan, Drawing on the occasion of her 100th birthday

Thin Thin Aye

Burmese version of this biography

1. Introduction

Daw Kyan is a scholar well known in Myanmar who has devoted much of her time to research and record the country’s history. For a long time, she was regarded as the most senior among the historians of the country. She has been written books and articles in history since the 1960s. Her pen name is Ma Kyan, but sometimes she used her real name Daw Kyan. As a historian, the contents of her writings are historically accurate and effective. She was compiling and co-editing many books on a variety of subjects such as the Myanmar Encyclopedia Year books and the English–Myanmar Dictionary. She was a member of steering committee for the doctorate programme at the History department in Yangon University from 2002 to 2005. She was also a member of the Myanmar Literary Awards Selection Committee and U Ohn Pe Literary Awards Selection Committee1, the most important of their kind in Myanmar. One can say that she helped laying the foundations for understanding the history of Myanmar for many of her students – even if she has not become famous outside of Myanmar. Daw Kyan passed away at the age of 102 years

2. Biography

Daw Kyan was born on July 1st, 1918 in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State. Her father was U Kyaw Tun, Health Official of Thandwe in the service of the British colonial administration. Her mother was Daw Ngwe Hnint. When she was nine years old, her father died. She therefore spent her childhood life with her mother and her siblings, two younger brothers and one sister. Her siblings were all good students, who – like herself – based their lives on a good education built their life with education. All her siblings passed away before her.

Ma Kyan as graduare

Daw Kyan passed the High School Final Examination in 1935 and worked as a Junior Assistant Teacher at the Government High School in Thandwe and later as an Upper Division Clerk in Thandwe later and Sittawe Post Offices in Rakhine State. Because she was the eldest child and her father passed away when she was nine years old., she felt that it was her duty to support her young sibilings. Only after all of her sibilings passed the matriculation and one young brother had got a job in Rangoon, she gave up her work continued her education at Rangoon University at the age ofs 32 in 1951. She assumed that she was old by than. After graduating studies. she received the M.A in history in 1959. While being still an M.A. candidate, Daw Kyan joined as a part time tutor in the Department of English Language and Literature of Yangon University for two years. In 1956, she was appointed as a Research Officer in the Burma (now: Myanmar) Historical Commission.

In 1957, Daw Kyan went to a School of Oriental and African Studies in London University to collect the Myanmar historical documents on administration, politics, economics, social activities, commerce and trade, revenue, police and education as well as census reports of 1872, 1881, 1891 and the records of the Home Affairs Department and Gazetteers of Myanmar. After finishing her M.A. in 1959, she went again to London to find (identify), select and microfilm documents on the situation of Burma under British colonial rule. She brought rare documents of the British Government until the 1900s and rare Myanmar Parabaiks2 and ancient Myanmar historical records on palm leaf as well as the collections of Major Henry Burney and Colonel E.B. Sladen.3

In London

The Bulletin of the Burma (Myanmar) Historical Commission was published as a research journal similar to the much earlier Journal of Burma Research Society. The initial intention was to publish the Bulletin twice a year. In June 1960, volume one (part one) of the Bulletin was published and volume one (part two) came out in December of the same year. Daw Kyan was selected as a new member of the reformed Bulletin Committee.4 The following year, in 1963, Daw Kyan was promoted to a Senior Research Officer. She continued writing research papers and she presented them at seminars held by the Burma Research Society (BRS) at Kanthar Sane Lei, the Ghandi Hall and Sarpay Beikman Building.

Doing fieldwork

Daw Kyan made a study tour of major cities in Australia under a Cultural Award Scheme in 1977. She retired at the age of 60 in 1978 but continued serving as an advisor for about four years in the Historical Research Department till 1984. From 1986 to 1991. She was further invited by the Ministry of Industry (1) to work as a consultant. During that time and her work as a consultant to the ministry it was that she completed the six volumes of the History of Myanmar Industrial Enterprises.

She joined the Myanmar Language Commission under the Ministry of Education as a full time member in 1991. She worked at the Commission until her death. She became a representative of National Convention to draft the New Constitution of Myanmar in 1993.

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she was honored with a big reception given at the Sarpay Beikman (“Palace of Literature”) Building in Yangon. A report broadcasted on Myanmar Information Television (MITV) was posted on you tube by her nephew (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KqF1P6_KjY).

Daw Kyan with senior historians Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt (left), Dr. Toe Hla (standing), and Dr. Kyaw Win (right) at the ceremony of Centennial Daw Kyan)

3. Awards and Achievements

Daw Kyan contributed a lot of historical books and journals and achieved numerous literary awards in her literary life. She received five National Literary Awards, Pakokku U Ohn Pe Lifetime Literary Award5 in 2004, Medal (First Class) for Excellent Performance in the Field of Art in 2006, Tun Foundation Literary Award (2006), Outstanding Women Award (2003, 2005, 2007) and was honoured with the “Sithu” title by the President in 2012.

Her book “The Conditions of Burma (1885-1886)” was awarded the National Literary Award in 1976 while she was serving as Senior Research Officer in the Burma Historical Research Commission. It was one of her research works on early Colonial Period. She did detailed research on the situations under the dynasty of Konbaung. Some missing facts as well as the new findings are presented in the book by citing rare palm-leaf sources and parabaik manuscripts. It is very distinctive that the situation of the State is presented from various aspects of military, economic and social points of view. Daw Kyan and Dr. Yi Yi6 together with a group of six people copied the inscriptions found on almost 6000 copper bricks of the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1976. The workload took about six months. Those copper bricks were dated back to 1869 and had been donated by the public for the renovation of the Shwedagon Pagoda before King Mindon tiered a new umbrella (tiered and ornamental finial of a pagoda) to the country’s most revered Buddhist edifice in 1871. The donors came from all social groups, but where mostly from Lower Myanmar which was named British Burma back then. Based on these findings, a monograph was prepared by Daw Kyan and Dr. Daw Yi Yi. As a result, they presented their research papers at seminars held by the Burma Research Society (BRS) at Kanthar Sane Lei, the Ghandi Hall and Sarpay Beikman Building in 1977 – shortly before the society was dissolved by the government. After revising and editing the research papers and finishing all necessary preliminaries, their script was sent to the press to be published as research works on the Shwedagon Pagoda No. 2.

“The Quest of History and Other Papers” was awarded the National Literary Award in 2002. This book consist of 50 historical articles which had been published in the research journals and magazines. Myanmar history during the Konbaung Period, Colonial Period and Japanese Period are mentioned in this book.

“Administration of Chief Commissioner (1886-1897)” was awarded the National Literary Award in 2003. It deals with the British administration in Burma in Upper Myanmar after the Third Anglo-Burmese War. For the pacification of British Burma, the British government created the post of Chief Commissioner as the head of their administration from 1885 to 1897.7

“Village Administration Early Colonial Period (1886-1897)” was awarded the National Literary Award in 2005. This book highlights the deterioration of the village administration system for the practicing to press the Burmese traditional and village culture. And she also illustrated the official writing style and terminology in the colonial period.

“Revenue in Konbaung Period” was awarded the National Literary Award in 2009. In this book she described revenue system under Burma’s monarchical government during the Konbaung period (1752-1885). The people were responsible to pay the revenue duty to the government. The government allocated the budget from this revenue for the interest of state and social well-being for the people. Before the reign of Mindon Min there was no proper system of taxation. But during the Mindon Min, he introduced the Thathameda Tax. Each group of ten houses was required to give Rs. 100 as Thathameda tax annually. But each house did not have to pay the same amount. The rich payed more and the amount to be given by each home was decided by village headmen or ten house leaders. Daw Kyan identified the terminology of revenue in successive periods in this book.

Daw Kyan did not do much research on the former kingdom of Arakan, just about the history of Thandwe township where she was born. She was critical of some Rakhine vies on the history of the former kingdom and was criticised for that by some Rakhine people, she told.

4 Assessment

Besides her many achievements in describing and documenting Myanmar history, Daw Kyan was an impressing and strong personality. She surrendered her personal interests to those of her family. When she started her academic career at the age of 32, she thought that she was too old to marry. She however adopted the daughter of one of her brother and helped her to obtain a good education as well. The is now in medical doctor working in the United States.

In her life as a researcher, she followed the steps of Prof. Than Tun (1923-2015) whom she admired. In her later years, she displayed her great sense of duty by using her expertise in Pali, Myanmar and English literature, and in history to gives helpful comments for her fellow Myanmar historians as well as to foreign scholars. Even in her old day around the 100th birthday, she had no bias to anyone and she worked truthfully and is still highly respected for this.

With Lilian Handin (Northern Illinois University) and the author

5. Sources

Ma Kyan, “Terminology of British Administration” ( In Myanmar Language) , Historical Research Journal, Vol. II, Yangon, Historical Research Department, 1959

———— “The Economic Condition of British Burma at the time of Thibaw’s dethronement” (In Myanmar Language), Tekkatho Pyinnya Padethar Sar Saung, Vol. III, Yangon, 1968

———— “How the British Divided and Ruled National Races” (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Burma Socialist Programme Party, 1971

————. Condition of Myanmar (1885-86) (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Sarpay Beikman Press, 1978

———— The End of Feudalism in Myanmar (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Sarpaybeikman Press, 1981

———— The Quest of History and other Papers (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Myanmar Yadana Sarpay , 2002

———— Chief Commissioner Administration 1886-1897 (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Myanmar, Yadanar Sarpay, 2003

———— The Last Strength of Konbaung Period (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Sarpay Lawka Press, 2004

————. Village Administration during the Colonial Period (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Yonkyichet Sarpay, 2005

———— Selected Writings of Daw Kyan (In Myanmar and English Language) Yangon, Universities Press, Myanmar Historical Commission, 2005

———— Westerners who had Relations with Myanmar History (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Aungtagun Press, 2005

———— Village Administration of the Early Colonial Period (1886-1898) (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Myanmar Yadana Press, 2005

———— Myanmar Soldiers during Konbaung Period (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Sarpay Lawka Press, 2006

————- History of Our Burma (Myanmar) Historical Commission (1955- 1984)” (In Myanmar Language), Journal of Myanmar Historical Commission,( 1955-2005) for Diamond Jubilee, Yangon, Myanmar Historical Commission, 2006

———, Yi Yi, Dr Copper Bricks from the Shwedagon Pagoda (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Department of Historical Research , 2007

———— Revenue in Konbaung Period (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Myanmar Book Centre, 2009

———— Centenary History Devi Sayamagyi Daw Kyan (In Myanmar Language), Yangon, Seikkuu Cho Cho Press, 2018


1 The prize was established in 1992 by the businessman Pakokku U Ohn Pe. He initially provided K7.6 million to be used for prizes.

2 Parabeiks, written a special durable sort of paper that could be folded, were used as the main medium for writing and drawing in early modern Myanmar.

3 Ma Kyan, ‚ History of Burma (Myanmar) Historical Commission (1955- 1984)”, Journal of Myanmar Historical Commission,( 1955-2005) for Diamond Jubilee, Yangon, Myanmar Historical Commission, 2006, p. 205.

4 After the political changes happening in 1962, the name of the Burma Historical Commission changed to the Burma Historical Department and the publication of the Bulletin stopped. Much later, in 1986, Burma Historical Department and the Research Section of History Department of Yangon University were merged. It became the Universities’ Historical Research Centre (UHRC) in 1991. In 2007, UHRC was renamed the Department of Historical Research.

5The prize is named after a Pakokku businessman who established it in 1992.

6 Dr Yi Yi (1929-1984), Senior Research Officer of the Myanmar Historical Commission and winner of the National Literary Award in 1975, who devoted her short span of life on Myanmar history, especially on the later part of the Konbaung era.

7 In her work she had describe the British administration, judicial and revenue system und the Chief Commissioner in Myanmar, which was a system created by the British after the occupation of Upper Myanmar subsequent to the Third Anglo-Myanmar War.

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