Ba Htay (1906-2000)

Aung Kyaw Min and Hans Bernd-Zöllner

Introduction

U Ba Htay was one of many Burmese civil servants who did their work under a number of different governments and thus were part of the administration that formed the backbone of the country. He was however special in a number of ways. First, he was among the few Burmese who earned the title I.C.S. designating the members of the Indian Civil Service, the elite of British trained administrators of the Indian Empire. Second, in 1988, 25 years after his retirement from public service, he was chosen to head the Election Commission by the last government under the Burmese Socialist Programme Party. He held this critical post until his death. Finally, he wrote his biography on the request of his colleagues in the Commission without however telling details about his last appointment. Ba Htay’s long life stands for the continuity in Burmese/Myanmar history existing over the many breaks happening in course of the 20th century and might therefore shed some light on an often overlooked aspect of this period of time.

Biography

Ba Htay was born on March 7, 1906 as the eldest of three sons of a well-to-do constructor in Sagaing who owned a sawmill and was well connected to business partners in many parts of the country. The boy started schooling at a vernacular school in 1912 but quickly moved to a Government school one year later. When in seventh grade, he participated in the school strike of 1920 that spread from Rangoon to all parts of the country. He did not quite understand the meaning of the strike and just followed the mainstream. The events however caused him to move to a National School that had been established as a result of the strike movement and became an ardent nationalist who regarded the students returning to the government school as traitors. At that time, he resented the colonial government as cruel. He remembers that students honoured one of the leading nationalists of that time on his way to a location near Sagaing where he was to be detained before the visit of the Prince of Wales end of 1921. The government was afraid that protest organised by nationalist leaders would disturb the visit of the high guest.

The young student however realised the importance of learning English as the international language „if we were to stay abreast with other countries“ as he worded it in his autobiography. He therefore read many English books and was asked to recite English poems at festivals of the National School. When the school run into financial troubles and had to be reduced just to a middle school, Ba Htay worked as a teacher there for some time. He thus had to interrupt his own educational career. Later, he had do give up his intention to only attend only National Schools and finally passed his examination in 1925 at a school in Monywa established by the Methodist Church of Upper Burma. The Muslim headmaster had accepted him to take the exam because of his outstanding command of English.

Ba Htay continued his studies at Rangoon University. He was put up at the Pyay Hall on the newly built campus an attended his intermediary courses in arts and sciences that took place in the town centre. For his B.A., he chose the Philosophy Honours course because of his interest in the discipline of logic together with just one other student named Ohn who later became a close confident of and ambassador to Great Britain and the Soviet Union after the war. For his last year, he moved to Judson College managed by the Baptist churches because the department of philosophy at the state college had ceased to exit due to the lack of teachers of the subject. After passing the exam, he continued to study for the M.A. in philosophy and aimed at teaching the subject later. The professor at Judson College who had appointed him as a tutor however recommended him to become a member of the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS). Ba Htay changed his mind, took and passed the examination that was held just for the third time since 1929 for Burmese applicants.

Ba Htay in London

In August 1931 he travelled to England for a two-years probationer’s stay. Here he was introduced to dress English-style and to play tennis. After two years of study at London University he signed a contract with the Secretary of State for India and thus became a member of the prestigious ICS. The civil service was divided in a number of administrative departments and provided for a number of steps on the career ladder. From 1933 to 1938, Ba Htay  worked as a Sub-Divisional Commissioner, one year shorter than the usual length. This happened in various parts of Burma under the supervision of British officers of different character. He then worked for some years in Rangoon as a secretary for Bernard S. Swithinbank, a senior member of the ICS who served as the Commissioner of Pegu from 1933 to 1942 until the British withdrawal from Burma. Together, the two of them worked in a number of commissions one of them dealing with bribery and corruption.

Ba Htay developed a friendly relationship with his superior and Swithinbank acted as registrar of his marriage with the daughter of a rich merchant in July 1940. Three months later, he was given the post in the Settlement Department responsible for checking the conditions of farmland, harvests and thus providing basis for tax payment. The job required to establish good relations with the people. He worked at the time in Tharawaddy District and witnessed the flight of many Indians after the Japanese troops approached Burma. On March 8, 1942, he left for Sagaing accompanied by his wife, his little son, a nanny, a cook and the driver in a Chevrolet he had bought in 1939. Most of the time of the Japanese occupation, he spent in his home town Sagaing together with his family.

After the return of the British, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Sagaing, the highest administrative post in the district and held this post until 1947. One of this duties was to introduce a young British civil servant to his job. After a short interval, Ba Htay was appointed Commissioner for Settlement and Land Record, a duty that was close to what he had done before the war but now in a higher position. He was responsible for the collection of data concerning the use of land in the whole of Burma. Two months later, Burma became independent and he witnessed the ceremony of changing the flags before the Burmese parliament in the compound of the Secretariat, the seat of  government. On this day, he ceased to be an ICS and became a member of the Burma Civil Service in the same position as before. During this time, he was the only Burmese member of a commission investigating land revenue rates that were fair both to the government and to the farmers together with J.S. Furnivall who had come to Burma as a member of the ICS in 1904 and was now serving as an advisor to U Nu’s government.

Four years after independence, Ba Htay was promoted to a post that constituted a core element of the new policy. He became Secretary in the Ministry of Land Nationalisation, a ministry that had been created in 1948 together with the Land Nationalisation Act. Both measures aimed at changing the land policies under colonial rule that had resulted to a great extent of landlordism. Ba Htay was responsible to oversee the implementation of the reform. In July 1954, he was appointed Financial Commissioner responsible for Land and Rural Development, a post he held until 1960. One of his tasks was to head a 41-member commission of Burmese and foreign experts to revise the policies related to land use and agriculture. Due to his high position in government service, Ba Htay became a member of Burmese delegation that visited other countries all over the world.

His own activities in promoting international contacts was his involvement in the Boy Scout movement. It is not known when Ba Htay became involved in it.  Ba Htay was elected as the first Chairman of the Regional Scout Committee for a two-year term in 1958. Two years later, the Burmese branch hosted the second Far East Regional Scout Conference.

In July 1958, after the split of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) and the need to hold new elections to solve the crisis, he was chosen as head of the commission supervising the elections. He was regarded to being acceptable to both parties, he learned. His term however ended in November after the Caretaker Government under General Ne Win had been installed by parliament and taken over the task of organising the elections that happened to take place in April 1960.

In 1960, Ba Htay was appointed to become Chairman of the Burmah Oil Company (BOC) that had become a joint venture between the British company and the Burmese state in 1954. This happened at a time when the search for new wells had started. Ba Htay negotiated the agreement with the company that resulted in the raising of the stake of shares held by the Burmese government to 51%. The deal was signed in October 1960, but became effective only on January 1, 1963 after the military coup. The project of bringing the BOC under Burmese control been a pet project of General Ne Win and was obviously supported by the first Burmese chairman of the prestigious company.

On June 3, 1963, Ba Htay retired from government service at the age of 57 after 30 years of public service.  For the next 25 years, according to his autobiography he „had ample time to ponder supramundane matters, to study the Buddha-dhamma and to contemplate the dhamma.“ (Ba Htay 2002, p. 223). As a result of his studies, he published two books in 1993 and 1997, the latter that were distributed free of charge in line with the Buddhist tradition of dāna (giving).

In September 1988, Ba Htay was „unexpectedly entrusted with a heavy responsibility. This was nothing less than the Chairmanship of the Multi-Party Democratic General Elections Committee“. (Ba Htay 2002, p. 218) He was appointed by the last government under the constitution of 1974 headed by U Maung Maung. After the military had taken over power on September 18, the State Law and Restoration Council (SLORC) continued organising the elections and confirmed Ba Htay’s and the commission’s appointment. The newspapers reported about meetings with representatives of parties, among them  a meeting taking attended by leaders of the opposition Aung Gyi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Tin Oo and some monks. Ba Htay was quoted as having said: „Though the Commission was formed by the Pyithu Hluttaw in accordance with the law, it was a non-partisan body and that the Commission would hold free and fair multi-party democracy general elections.“[1] Later meetings between party representatives and the commission were reported.

U Ba Htay and Sr.-Gen. Saw Maung

Not much is known about the work of the commission and Ba Htay’s role in it in the process of party de-registration after 1990. It can be supposed that he and his commission tried to conduct the elections in a neutral way, but could of course not change the decisions made by the main political actors. Ba Htay held the post until his death on October 14, 2000. He  was cremated two days later. During his last years, he concentrated on meditation and writing books about Buddhism. His wife died on December 21, 2010.

Aims and Achievements

After reading U Ba Htay’s autobiography, the authors have identified five topics under which his view on his own life can be summarised.

Service to the Country

U Ba Htay’s professional career can be highlighted with the phrase “Service to the country”. In his introduction he wrote that he wanted to reflect about the life of a loyal civil servant and his work for the country. He used that term very often in his autobiography referring to the many post he held during his life. This meaning of that term can be illustrated by a quotation on the reasons given by him by his British superior and friend Mr. Swithinbank on his transfer to the Settlement department in 1940s.

He told me that one day, Burma would surely gain independence and that up to this period no I.C.S had served as a Settlement Officer. Only a Settlement Officer would be cognisant of matters concerning cultivated land; understand the life of farmers and the livelihood of villagers. He wanted me to be skilled and knowledgeable in these matters so that I would be able to serve to the benefit of my independent nation.

(Ba Htay 2002, p.106)

Mr. Swithinbank, unlike most of the British officers, put the sense of independent nation to U Ba Htay. It seemingly raised the awareness of serving the country as civil servant to U Ba Htay regardless of the form of government. U Ba Htay learned the role of the civil servants according to his talk with Mr. Swithinbank was most of all important for the people of the country be it under British rule it is as well as or in independence Burma. However, when the Japanese Invasion came, and U Ba Htay realised that one day Burma would part with Japan and then it seemed that he obviously decided not to work under Japanese control but to wait for the time to serve for the liberated country’s real independence. In his autobiography he wrote that after about a meeting an officer of the Burma Independence Army in his native town Sagaing: „We guessed that there was disagreement and difference of opinion between the Burmese and the Japanese, and I got the impression that we would have to part our ways with the Japanese or go against them at some period in the future“ (Ba Htay 2002, p. 122).

This might be because of the nationalist sense which was rooted in his mind during the 1920 student strike. This sense influenced him since the attending middle school student life. Such influence could be is reflected when we wrote in his description about the time of the Independence ceremony of Burma that he witnessed on January 4, 1948.

The tunes of our National Anthem, although softly played were still echoing in our hearts. The lyrics had a deep meaning and essence. May we cherish our country forever, and may we fulfil our duties to the nation.

(Ba Htay 2002, p.153)

After independence, most of the I.C.S officers were willing to serve for the country as B.C.S officers and U Ba Htay was one of them. With Independence, the tenure of all the I.C.S officers in Burma came to a close. Almost all the I.C.S officers remaining in the country wanted to continue their work in the service of their country, and so from 4.1.1948, they were inducted into the Burma Civil Service. (Ba Htay 2002, p. 154)

In 1960, he was appointed chairman of the prestigious Burmah Oil Company (B.O.C). After the majority of the shares had been taken over by the Burmese government. Even if it was now head of a company, he still in a way acted as a civil servant to the country. One can note that the strike of workers in 1938 that was important for Burma’s independence movement, started at the oilfields of the British controlled B.O.C. at the oilfields in Yenangyaung and Chauk as well as the refinery in Syriam (Thanlyin).

When he was appointed as the Chairman of the 1990 election commission in 1988 by the last government under the Burma Socialist Programme Party, U Ba Htay used this phrase “heavy responsibility” to highlight his last service to the country. The way he used the phrase word heavy responsibility, he might have known that this job would be challenging and need to take much more responsibilities as this election could be the historical remark of the country. He might have known that the antagonism between the military and the opposition could put him into so many conflicts and challenges. Since he defined his professional life as “service to the country” in the introduction, he might have accepted  the heavy duty he had to take at a time of a serious political crisis that might help to overcome the crisis and thus benefit the people. responsibility. This could be the reason why he accepted that responsibility although he already reached the third period of his life after retirement. So far U Ba Htay had served for the country for thirty years and he was also willing to serve for the country when it was the time to continue doing it despite his age. served for the country again. Although the role of the election commission was clearly mentioned in his autobiography, one thing was obvious: the life of the civil servant who willing to serve for the country until the third period of his life. The way he showed that his supreme  loyalty to the people of his country did not end with his retirement but was deeply rooted in his understanding of nationalism. His nationalism did not prevent him from propagating a kind of civil service that hat originated in England shortly after Ba Htay had been born, the Boy Scout Movement. He does not tell when he became involved in it, but in the late 1950s he became the representative of the Burma Branch of the organisation that was based on three promises the second of it worded: „I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.“

Bringing the law and the trust of the people together

At the end of recounting his experiences as a Sub-Divisional Magistrate in Rangoon in the years 1938 and 1939, Ba Htay quotes a saying of the people: „U Ba Htay is an I.C.S. who bravely follows the rule of law.“ He adds that he had „regained the trust of the people“: (p. 75) Before these statements, he gives some accounts of judicial cases he was involved in as one of the few Burmese members of the Service to pass judgements. He then explains how his reputation gained at that time established continued after independence and contributed to the decision of the leader of the split AFPFL after 1958 to lead the Election Commission.

His handling in the case of Maung Maung in 1938 had helped him to gained him this reputation. (pp.71-75) It was a minor case of embezzlement of donations towards a school, but politically sensitive because the head of Burmese ministry, Ba Maw, wanted the case to be dropped. He consulted his Burmese and British superiors. They warned him about the risk of offending the actual Burmese leader who pursued a distinct anti-British policy. The British commissioner encouraged him to maintain the independence of the judiciary. Finally, Ba Htay passed a rather Solomonic judgement by sentencing the defendant to a purely symbolic time in jail.

Another example shows that his understanding of justice was based on a differentiation of looking at the law. As a witness, he was involved in a case in which a Chinese man had killed a woman, According to Ba Htay’s assessment, the man might have been mad. After a detailed description of the execution, he summarises his afterthoughts:

How gruesome it was! To kill a man because it was the Law was a reasoning I could not accept. After all, all laws are made by men. I think, Capital Punishment was based on the ancient Hammurabi  Code of „An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth“. Why was this capital punishment retained? It was to deter murder and killing. But did this concept really achieve its purpose? We cannot know for sure as it has not been researched. A carefully deliberated answer would be no. The motivation to kill someone arouses out of a burning anger and a person would be so blinded with rage and possessed by the devil that the rational thought of killing and in turn be killed by the Law would never enter his mind. I think that capital punishment should be abolished and adopt life imprisonment.

(Ba Htay 2002, pp. 70-71)

This can be termed a rational as well as humanistic argumentation that is based on a special way of reasoning based on psychology and logic. In other words, he differentiates between two kinds of the law, one man-made changing in the course of time and another based on general reasoning to identify was might be just in a general sense. The latter understanding was applied by him in handling the former.

His reputation led him to become the election commissioner during the split of AFPFL but was quite happy to find a reason not to perform the task.  The difference to 1988 might have been that the task in 1958 would have brought him in conflict with the two fighting factions of the AFPFL. At that time, the League could claim to represent almost all the people of Burma.  It could therefore be very difficult to be neutral – and finally he was relieved that a high ranking civilian in Ne Win’s Caretaker Government found a „technical“ reason why it was inappropriate for Ba Htay to take over the post.

With regard to the above quotation, one may say that U Ba Htay was regarded as „brave“ because his ruling in the embezzlement case was not motivated by the consideration of how his ruling would affect his reputation and career. On the other side, he cleverly sought the backing of his superiors in the administration.  He thus earned the trust of the public and fulfilled his role as a civil servant to care for the implementation of laws made by the government in a way that the people could accept. It can be concluded that the attitude expressed in his reflection on his dealing with judicial cases guided him in performing other administrative functions as well. This orientation of being independent minded helped him to serve in and under very different political conditions during the colonial and post-colonial periods of Burma’s history and might be regarded as a main cause for his successful career to a top post in the Burmese administration.

Success and Its Reason

Without doubt, Ba Htay was eager to be successful and proud about his achievements in many aspects of his life career. He worked hard to achieve success from his early schooldays on and one may say that even his long way to marry the right person that lasted seven years was guided by rather rational considerations about the „qualifications“ that the candidate must meet (p. 84). He was the eldest son of a well-to-do family and the business enterprises of his father „achieved a moderate success“ (Ba Htay 2002, p. 1). Young Ba Htay obviously was a gifted student who liked to learn and was „competitive“. Both factors might have contributed that he studied hard and „stood first in English and Mathematics“. (Ba Htay 2002, p. 2)

His schooling career was rather uneven because two criteria had to be met, the school should be inspired by the nationalist spirit springing up after the student’s strike of 1920. The quality of instruction however was important as well. A conflict arising when he wanted to get his 19th grade examination at Mandalay National High School because he found the school „unsatisfactory“ at the first glance and left on the day of enrolling. He passed the exam at a Christian school in Monywa. The importance attributed to this achievement is demonstrated by the emphasis put on his meeting the headmaster of the school, a Mr. Ismael, who accepted him. He labelled this meeting the first turning point in his life and later informs the reader that he was deeply saddened when he learnt about the death of this „very good teacher“ (Ba Htay 2002, pp. 13-14).

The second „turning point“ he refers to be the decision to apply for the examination to enter the I.C.S. career on the recommendation of one of his teachers at Rangoon University. When he heard that he had passed the test he „experienced an indescribable happiness“. It is the only reference of a kind of emotional reaction on his side in the whole autobiography. Being an I.C.S officer during that time was such a very rare chance. Those who become those I.C.S officer could be considered as the upper class of the Burmese society of that time as the title „Heavenborn Service“ attached to them shos. Ba Htay does neither use this title in his autobiography nor displays any sign of haven felt to be elevated to a position „above the people“. His happiness most likely reflected the pride of his parents, and his own achievement of succeeding in passing the examination.

His mother expressed the same feelings, his father however soberly remarked that he had expected the result. That made Ba Htay „feel a bit awkward“. This feeling might indicate that his happiness was a sign that he felt pride and honour and wanted liked to have received to receive the proper acknowledgement for his achievement. Such praise happened when he was feted by Sagaing schoolmasters and his friends before his departure to England (p. 35). In one appendix, there is an indirect hint that points to a statistical fact that highlights his career as an I.C.S. (p. 230). He was one of the first Burmese members of the Service that were not appointed but had to qualify by passing an examination. His career was further special because Ba Htay had been trained not just at the state university but at the Baptist Judson College as well. Like in his early years, the quality of education came first for him. 

With regard to the efficiency of the work assigned to Ba Htay, he does not mention his own share on what was accomplished. He just reports what happened and gives background information about the parameters of the work done. His reserved presentation of his role is illustrated by his description of one of the crucial innovations of the first post-independence government, the implementation of the Land Nationalisation Act (pp. 170-171). He informs the contents of the plan and tells that it was „quite successful“, but stated that the final goal of land reallocation to the farmers and thus reversing the British policy of separating ownership and tilling the land was not reached as envisaged. He added that this was a long perm goal and in 1960 a new commission had been appointed to carry on the task. It can finally be noted about this point that Ba Htay is satisfied that all his children „are well established“ at the time of writing „with their own families and their own occupations, and that all their spouses also graduated.“ He adds that he has not to worry „any more for them“ and can „prepare for the hereafter (samsara journey) […] which we hope would be one with the least attachment to the mundane.“ (p. 222) The worldly success he – with the assistance of his wife – achieved is thus just a preparation for the „ultimate success“ of leaving the cycle of samsara one day.

Logic and Dhamma Life

U Ba Htay spent his third period of life after retirement as a Dhamma Practitioner and wrote books about Buddhism. In Burmese society most of the people divide their lifeline into three parts. During the first part of their life, they accumulate knowledge and education, during the second part of their life they accumulate money and wealth, and during the third part of their life they accumulate Dhamma and aim for Nirvana.  When he was a college student his aim was to become logic teacher. But his passion of becoming logic teacher was not fulfilled in his professional career. As he was destined to take the ICS exam and his desire of being a logic teacher did not happen although he worked as part-time logic tutor during his Master student life. This passion seemingly led U Ba Htay to become Buddha Dhamma practitioner in the third period of his life.

The Buddha had repeatedly pointed out to us the intensity of suffering in the Round of Rebirths or Existence. He also showed us the way to gain liberation from the Round of Samsara-dukkha.

(Ba Htay 2002, p.222)

This is how he wrote in his autobiography about the impermanent nature according to the Buddhism. It seems that his philosophy and logic studies enhanced his view on Buddhism. Looking at the two words “Samsara-dukkha” and the “liberation”, it is obvious his philosophical background especially his interest in logic escalated his view on Buddhism as a Dhamma practitioner. During his college year, oriental history was one of his favourite subjects. Even during his I.C.S propitiatory period oriental history was his favourite subject.. He also elaborated his view on oriental history on his books. When his passion of becoming logic teacher and oriental history as being his favourite combined, U Ba Htay’s Buddha-Dhamma practitioner life drove his way of writing Buddha-Dhamma books with the notes he learnt about Buddhism. The two books he wrote during his dhamma practitioner life are Meditation on the Impermanent, Painful and Non-Self Nature of the Khandhas and The Buddha’s Teaching on liberation. The truths inherent in these Buddhist principled might correspond with the changing and often unpredictable events happening in history.

Friends and Family

Ko Sein Yi, Ko Ba Thaung, Ko Ba Nyein, Ko Su, Ko Mg Mg, Ko Po Thein, Ko Chit Chit, Ko Tin Maung, Ko Ba Lay and other Sagaing schoolmates honored me and staged farewell parties with dinners and anyein shows. I shall never forget these good friends.

(Ba Htay 2002, p.35)

This is what U Ba Htay wrote in his biography about how he felt about his friends when he passed the I.C.S exam. In his autobiography, U Ba Htay wrote paid attention about his family and his acquaintances. In Burmese society such kind of relationship plays an important role. To have good friends Mittata (pali) Mate Sway (in Burmese) is profoundly important in Burmese society. In pali Kalyana Mittata means good friends or noble friends. That passage in his biography seems how he saw it is important to have good friends. Another important thing in the Burmese society is to be a responsible husband and a responsible father. U Ba Htay in his autobiography also added this thing.

By Responsive or reciprocal Love, I mean the love returned by the children towards their parents. Parental love is boundless. Parents love their children and nurture them with tender loving care. If they grow up to be successful and prosperous, parents would rejoice in their achievement with equal pride. 

(Ba Htay 2002, p.226)
Family photo 1962

This seemingly U Ba Htay also dedicated his life as a responsible husband and a father. On the last part of his autobiography, the reflection of metta (loving kindness), one of the most important Buddhist virtues,  could be seen in the “Father’s Message” and “The last chapter written by his daughter”.

Dad showed his family not only how to live but how to die. He was always reminding the family on the Truth that Lord Buddha taught. Even knowing this felt the loss.

(Ba Htay 2002, p.234)

This was how his daughter wrote in his autobiography.  The reflection of the metta of the responsive father and husband could be seen in this writing of his daughter. U Ba Htay was not only a loyal civil servant but also a responsive husband and father.  This is the perfect manifestation of how U Ba Htay served I.C.S officers served the country as a civil servant and to the family.

Assessments

Aung Kyaw Min

The life and biography of U Ba Htay could be judged into two things: the first thing the reflection of the political events during that time and the life of a loyal civil servant. The early life of U Ba Htay especially during his high school student life might had been influenced by the political movements occurred during that time. His sense of nationalism seems to be embedded by the student strike happened in 1920. And then he joined the national high school, but he had to move back to the government high school unfortunately. The struggle of the national schools put him into a juncture that he had to move to the government school. This could not be judged he had to abandon his nationalist sense which he acquired from the 1920 students’ strike. This event in his autobiography used as turning point of his life. This later proved that he made a right choice as he could get the entry to the college and later, he found his passion in philosophy and oriental history and more importantly he got a chance to take part in ICS exam. These seemingly could be the very rare opportunities that Burmese people could achieve during that time.

Another part to point out his life would be the life of the civil servant. The term civil servant would be difficult to define or point out in the Burma of today. U Ba Htay in his autobiography illustrated what was the meaning of the good civil servant and how was the life of a civil servant. U Ba Htay in his autobiography also depicted that ICS officers of that time were the important mechanisms of the government of these days.

U Ba Htay, although he was well-known for working as a chairperson of the election commission of 1990 election, his high school student life and civil servant life were more interesting things and a good reflection of the events of that time. Even Though his work as an election commissioner could not show a significant impact, it was no doubt that he served the country as a loyal civil servant.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

In light of the events following Myanmar’s general elections of November 8, 2020 that culminated in the coup of February 1 and the public uprising against Tatmadaw rule, U Ba Htay’s biography can shed some light on the current developments in Myanmar. The controversy between  the NLD and the Tatmadaw over the work of the Election Commission supervising the elections was quoted as the trigger by the military leadership of its action to nullify the election results. In a different way, the elections of May 1990 organised by a commission chaired by U Ba Htay did not result in convening parliament. Contrary to the elections initiated by the last BSPP government and held under the supervision of SLORC however, the commission and its chairman were not blamed for working incorrectly. This might be regarded as a difference between the „old days“ described by the author in his autobiography to give the reader the opportunity to compare with the present.

As major difference between then and now a rather dramatic change in the position of the country’s civil service can be noted highlighted by the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that began shortly after February 1 to bring down the military junta. The civil service has been politicised, one may say, whereas U Ba Htay was able to serve the people of Burma without being drawn into political controversies. In my eyes, the episode of his „narrow escape“ of chairing the election commission after the AFPFL split of 1958 illustrates his attitude of remaining outside politics in performing his duties.

Among the many remarkable feature of his impressive life story, I would like to highlight his ability to integrate the British mode way of administering a modern country in the nationalist feelings that he had adopted in his early years as a student. He always was able to keep a distance from the political authorities and used the skills he had acquired through his training as a member of the ICS to contribute to the benefits of the ordinary people. Such an attitude might had helped Burma to survive the difficult periods of the first years after independence. Things changed with the „socialist revolution“ starting in March 1962 at a time when U Ba Htay retired. It seems to me that the bureaucracy became „ideologicalised“ and this tendency continued after 1988 with the fight between the promoters of democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw’s version of this political concept. Anyway, U Ba Htay’s life can be regarded as an impressive document of the „Burmese way of life“ beyond the vicissitudes of the country’s political history. It was obviously rooted in a firm belief in the truth of the Buddha’s teaching that could be brought in line with western logic and administrative techniques meant to benefit the people and not the rulers.


[1]     Burma Press Summary 9/1988; available at https://www.burmalibrary.org/en/burma-press-summary-volii-no-9-september-1988  (accessed 24.4.2021).

Sources

  • Ba Htay (2002) Autobiography of U Ba Htay. Thiripanchi, Sithu, Thraysithu (Memoirs of a Myanmar I.C.S.) Presented by Daw Mya Tin M.A. Yangon: TODAY Printing Co.
  • Ohn (2001) Memories of a Myanmar ICS, Yangon, Universities Historical Research Center.
  • Corley, T.A.B 1988 A History of the Burmah Oil Company. Volume II: 1924-66. London, Heinmann: pp.254-282

Due to the severe crisis in Myanmar after the military coup of 1. February 2021, it was not possible to conduct interviews in Myanmar to get some more information about assessments of U Ba Htay’s life.

      

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