Saw Phar Dae (born 1945) – Portrait of a KNU Fighter

Georg Winterberger

Introduction

Saw Phar Dae is the focus of this contribution not because he is a famous or especially important figure. He was a KNU fighter in the 1970s to 1990s. The KNU (Karen National Union) is one of the – if not „the“ – political organization(s) of the Karen,1 the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar. Demographic figures range widely (from 2.5 to 7 million). They live in different regions of Lower Myanmar and consist of more than twenty subgroups. Native speakers can be divided into Sa’gaw and Pwo speakers, the former living in the Ayeyarwady delta, the latter in the eastern parts of Myanmar close to the Thai border. The majority are Buddhists.2 However, the Karen are often seen as mainly Christian since their political orientation was (and still is, to a certain extent) strongly influenced by the KNU, which is led by a Christian elite (Gravers 2014: 175).

Saw Phar Dae is not famous or important as a political leader; neither was he an outstanding fighter, but one of a group around one of the sub-leaders of the Karen. But my interest was awakened by this ordinariness of his career. I wanted to offer a portrait that may shed some light on not well-known persons — on the majority. I hope it might provide insight and an understanding of everyday people in portraying an unexceptional career, like the one of Saw Phar Dae. Without people like him, nobody would be interested in writing a biography about so-called „important“ people.

I heard of him the first time from one of my key informants in my long time of field research in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, Myanmar (Winterberger 2017: 10-12). Saw Phar Dae is this person’s uncle. Initially he was not relevant for me, because my research focus lay neither in the Karen region nor in biographies of KNU fighters. But I reactivated my connections when it came to this biography project. My contact was supportive and he was interested himself in the stories of his uncle. To determine if his uncle was willing to share his story, he brought him to Mawlamyine. This was not that easy, because Saw Phar Dae had not visited the town for 43 years. He was told by his nephew that there was a commemorative ceremony for his late mother – as a pretext. When Saw Phar Dae arrived in Mawlamyine without any ceremony taking place, he wanted to leave the city right away. He returned to his beloved village two days later. This invitation had been a test for my key informant: Would his uncle come to Mawlamyine for the interview with me? Now it was clear that he would not.

Even though I didn’t meet Saw Phar Dae at that time, this was actually good for me and my project. I got the chance to interview him in his everyday life and daily routine in his village. However, the journey to Htee Phar Htaw village was strenuous and difficult. My contact led me by motorbike to the area which is still controlled by the KNU. We had to bypass Anankwin village with its (inofficial) border between the area controlled by the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) and the KNU area, in order to avoid any checkpoint. The route was still muddy from the rainy season, yet in good condition compared to the “road” we had to take to reach Htee Phar Htaw village after entering the KNU-controlled area. Nevertheless, I was thankful to my guide and informant for leading me to all the villages which were important places in Saw Phar Dae’s life – like Win Kha Na and Thanbaya. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to get to know the family of Dawle, the former KNU sub-leader and friend of Saw Phar Dae.

I decided to use the method of the oral history interview, because it allowed me to give Saw Phar Dae the role of the subject of his own history. Oral history can tell us more about the past and democratises the study of history (Perks and Thomson 1998: 360), since the persons in focus are able themselves to articulate and to contribute to their history, too. On the other hand, we have to be aware of the fact that memory is not a static resource. The oral historian has to deal with a subjective version of history, which in addition is embedded in the present notions, feelings, and situation of the interviewee (Perks and Thomson 1998: 270).

When I met Saw Phar Dae, I already knew some of his background from his nephew. I started with everyday conversation and let some time pass to let him become comfortable with the situation of being asked many questions about his life. This is seldom done in the society Saw Phar Dae is living in, as my guide told me. He himself did not know much of his uncle’s life history up to the time of my interview. He was helping me as a translator. The interview was carried out in Karen language with immediate translation into English. I tried to give Saw Phar Dae a lot of space in the interview – as suggested by oral historians (Morrissey 1998; Slim and Thompson 1998). I wanted him to follow his own train of thought in order to find out more about his view of the history of the Karen. Subsequently I put it in a more or less chronological order. Before I present Saw Phar Dae’s personal history, an overview of the Karen in Myanmar and their history is given as background to Saw Phar Dae’s life.

The Karen

The civil war between the Karen and the military of Myanmar is often titled as The longest struggle or as The world’s longest civil war (Gravers 2014: 173). The roots of this conflict can be traced back to colonial times. The civil war between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burmese army broke out in January 1949, just one year after Burma attained its independence from Britain. There was never a kind of Karen State in the modern sense of the word, but in the course of the colonial period a strong sense of Karen identity emerged. For that, two overlapping antagonistic factors can be identified that strongly shaped the personal life of Saw Phae Dae as well: the political tensions between the Burmese and the Karen, and the religious divide betweehe Buddhist and Christian Karen. American Baptist missionaries started their successful missionary work some years after the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), after the first and still very famous missionary Adoniram Judson had come to Burma in 1813. His attempts to convert Burmese Buddhists were not effective in terms of the number of converts. Missionary work among the animist Karen was providing them with a written language through translation of the Bible. The missionaries introduced the sense of being an ethnic group. In 1881, the Karen National Association (KNA) was formed by Christian Karen with the help of missionaries. In the Burmese rebellions following the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, which resulted in the end of the Burmese monarchy and the integration of the whole of Burma into the British empire, Christian Karen were reported to be vigorously helping to support the British troops in their fight against the Burmese Buddhist rebels. In 1929, a Karen leader wrote a book in which he stated that the Burmese and the Karen could not be governed together because of the cultural differences (San C. Po 2001). The ideas developed in the book can be seen as the beginning of the Karen demand for a separate state as a reward for their loyalty to the British. During World War II Karen soldiers served in the British army, fighting the Japanese and their allies, the Burma Independent Army (BIA) under the leadership of Aung San. In 1942 violent clashes took place between the BIA and the Karen in the delta region. This shared experience is a crucial part of the social memory of the Karen – both Christian and Buddhist (Gravers 2007; 2014: 180-182).

In 1947, the Karen National Union (KNU) was formed from the KNA. The leadership consisted – and still consists – of wealthy Christian elite of Karen. The KNU demanded a state consisting of all regions where the Karen were the majority. The majority of the rank and file of the KNLA were Buddhist Karen, while the leadership was Christian. This led to tensions. The Buddhist Karen felt that they were exploited by the Christian leaders. As a result, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was formed in 1994 under the patronage of U Thuzana, a charismatic Karen Buddhist monk. As a consequence, the headquarters of the KNU and other opposition groups located at the Thai border were lost in early 1995 to the military junta that ruled Myanmar after 1988. Therefore we hardly can speak of THE Karen people as a united entity. We have to differentiate between various groups of Karen with particular interests and organization – e.g. the refugees, the Karen diaspora, the internally displaced Karen, and the great number of the “other” Karen, as Thawnghmung calls them (2013). The latter are often victims who suffer because of the Karen struggle for autonomy and the clashes with the Burmese army. Most of what has been retold here was not known to Saw Phae Dae. He belonged to the group of Karen living in the east of the country close to the Thai border and was just dragged into the conflicts between the Karen and the Burmese as well as into the Buddhist-Christian divide.

Saw Phar Dae

Saw Phar Dae (*1945) grew up in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State. He was the first born child of U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe, who both were Sa’gaw Karen. The family occasionally lived on Bilu Island, just offshore from Mawlamyine. Bilu Island was the place of origin of Daw Shwe, his mother. His father, U Shwe Tun, was from a Karen town south of Mawlamyine, Kyainseikgyi. Both of them, U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe, went to different schools near their homes. These schools were responsible for the conversion of U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe to the Baptist branch of Christianity, which is the biggest Christian community in Myanmar. It was the school organisation, too, which arranged the marriage later. All this happened in the 1940s, at the time of the Japanese conquest of Burma. Saw Phar Dae has two younger siblings born in the early 1950s. He remembers his school time as a time he did not like. He made it up to standard five and tried to pass standard six for some years. But neither the school nor his family thrilled him. When he was fourteen years old, he left home and joined a group of Karen youngsters who roamed the woods. It was at this time that he met many of the later KNU members and leaders – Dawle was one of them.

Map

In Saw Phar Dae’s memory he might have been around 26 years old when he was introduced to a gemstone trader. This trader was Karen as well and was used to traveling between Kachin State in the north of the country, which is rich in gemstones, and the trading town of Mawlamyine. Soon after meeting the trader, Saw Phar Dae started to engage in illegal gemstone trade with Thailand. He took stones from the trader in Mawlamyine and went by boat to Kyainseikgyi. A wearing and daring hike followed, which took him about two days through the dense forest of Karen State. This was the time when Saw Phar Dae became familiar with the rough landscape of his ancestors. Another three-hour boat ride brought him finally to Mae Sot in Thailand. Since the Karen are living both in Burma and Thailand, it was possible for traders and couriers like Saw Phar Dae to easily pass the border illegally. Usually, his journey ended in Mae Sot, but once he even went to Bangkok – without any immigration paper. Usually upon reaching Mae Sot he had to hand over his trading goods, the gemstones, to another courier on the Thai side. In return, Saw Phar Dae later got money from this courier, which he again brought to the trader in Mawlamyine. This was the routine procedure and it worked quite well. He brought gemstones to Thailand every three to five months. It was quite a lucrative job, since the gemstones were precious.

In the second year of his courier job, Saw Phar Dae was cheated by the Thai courier. Saw Phar Dae brought an exceptionally big and pure ruby from Mawlamyine. After he handed it over to the Thai courier, he never saw him again – nor the money, which he was obliged to hand over to the Karen trader in Mawlamyine. He became afraid of returning home, since he had no money to pay to the Karen trader. He stayed in the villages of the hinterland of Karen State. At that time he did not realise that he would only return to Mawlamyine 43 years later, that he would not see his mother again, and that his decision had a fateful consequence for his whole family in Mawlamyine – as he learned much later. Only his brother visited him from time to time on his travels through the region – but he never said anything about the consequences for his family.

Saw Phar Dae stayed in Win Kha Na village and joined the group of Dawle, whom he knew from his younger days. Dawle was a local KNU leader in the meantime; he controlled Win Ywa Township, which was one of four parts of the KNU region no. 6. This region was (and is still) controlled by the KNU and not by the Tatmadaw. Small groups of twenty to thirty patrolled their region – and Saw Phar Dae was one of them. From time to time, he served as a teacher in one of the village schools when there was a shortage of teachers. He has good memories of his time as a member of Dawle’s group. He loved the freedom of wandering through the forest area, which he fell in love with. Admittedly the expeditions were demanding too, but he would pursue one of his favourite activities: hunting. When the group needed food while patrolling the area, the leader always turned to Saw Phar Dae because he was the best marksman and he always hit his targets.

It was on one of these patrols when he met a local Karen girl, Se Wa, who lived in Thanbaya, one of the villages they controlled. They met from time to time over a period of three years before they asked Dawle for permission to marry. After the wedding in Win Kha Na village – Saw Phar Dae was nearly 30 years old – he and Se Wa went to Thanbaya village to live there. They raised three children – a girl and two boys. Nevertheless Saw Phar Dae still joined Dawle on his patrols through the KNU region. Since the KNU is the political wing of the Karen movement, the KNU “fighters” were not trained soldiers – the regular soldiers were united in the KNLA. Nevertheless, the KNU fighters had clashes with the Tatmadaw. Usually Dawle and his group with Saw Phar Dae tried to avoid making contact with the Burmese Army. If Burmese soldiers appeared – often using Karen villagers and porters as human shields – the KNU fighters hid in the forest. Nevertheless they were ambushed by the Tatmadaw two times during Saw Phar Dae’s time as a KNU fighter. Up to five KNU fighters died in one clash, but in these fights there were no casualties on the Burmese side.

Saw Phar Dae had a happy marriage, except for one thing: his wife Se Wa descends from a Buddhist family. From the beginning, his parents-in-law wanted him to convert to Buddhism. He always refused, since he was raised as a Baptist. The fact of different religions within this marriage became a problem over the years, until Saw Phar Dae and Se Wa decided to divorce after more than 10 years of marriage. Saw Phar Dae says today that he doesn’t like religions, neither Baptism nor Buddhism. He never again saw one of his children after the divorce. But he remained true to Dawle and roamed the region. He loved the freedom and nature, “to be free and to do what I want” is the sentence he uses today in describing this time of his life.

This time came to an abrupt end. His commitment as a KNU fighter was closely connected to his leader. When Dawle was assassinated in an underhand manner, Saw Phar Dae decided to leave the group and the KNU after more than 20 years as a fighter. As a 50-year-old man he retired to Htee Phar Htaw village, which he always loved because of its pure nature and the freedom he felt there. He had (and has) a lot of friends there from his time when he patrolled the region. Although he stil owns no house, he is always welcome in one of his friends‘ houses. Saw Phar Dae was making his living by hunting animals – mainly birds with an airgun – and selling them in the village.

The Burmese army paid visits to Htee Phar Htaw village from time to time. They were looking for Karen soldiers, army facilities, or strong Karen men whom they took as porters or forced labourers. Saw Phar Dae always hid himself in the forest as the other villagers did. He decided later to flee to Thailand – as others did. He lived for around two years in the Hwe Malei refugee camp in Thailand. It was safe there and a lot of his friends and Karen acquaintances were living there, too. But he couldn’t be happy there; he had nothing to do and the camp live was regulated by Thai authorities. He missed the freedom and landscape of his beloved village. Despite the danger, he returned home on a three-day walk. Back in Htee Phar Htaw village, he lived a happy life. However, it was not without hazards. The villagers still had to hide from the Burmese army from time to time, but it was (and still is) a life in freedom. And today the Burmese soldiers are not coming any more.

Saw Phar Dae’s youngest son lives nearby and they meet often. His brother visits him from time to time on his travels through the region. Some years ago Saw Phar Dae found out that his mother had died in the meantime in Mawlamyine. He also found out about what had happened decades ago, when he did not return to Mawlamyine after being cheated by the Thai courier. When the Karen trader in Mawlamyine could not obtain the money from Saw Phar Dae, he contacted the family. His mother paid out the trader by selling part of her land. If Saw Phar Dae had known then, he would have gone back to Mawlamyine to stand for his debts. But so many years later, at the age of nearly 60 years and penniless, he saw no reason for returning to Mawlamyine. He only did it years later because his nephew insisted. Saw Phar Dae lived his life as a hunter until his eyes became weaker and he had problems hitting the target. He was then 70. He decided to sell his beloved gun. For four years now he is making a living by selling Thai lottery in the village. He is worried about his future. Although he is still able to take care of himself, nobody knows for how long. He doesn’t know what will happen then and who will take care of him.

Afterthoughts

To describe Saw Phar Dae as an idealistic person fighting for his fatherland would not be correct. He rather accidently joined the KNU. But more important is that he overcame all difficulties and hazards in his life. Saw Phar Dae seems to make his own decisions in his life. In his youth he loved to range the woods with friends. At this time the KNU had only recently been founded – some ten to fifteen years before. It was growing and on the way to being a powerful and influential organisation. It became attractive for the commitment of the youth. But this was not the case for Saw Phar Dae. He joined the KNU for other reasons, On the one hand, he was good friends with Dawle since his younger years. In the meantime, Dawle had become one of the sub-leaders of KNU region no. 6. Saw Phar Dae joined Dawle’s group because of his deep friendship and his wish to support his friend. On the other hand, Saw Phar Dae was afraid of returning to his hometown because the cheating Thai gemstone courier left him in a precarious situation and without money. Saw Phar Dae was in a situation of not knowing what to do next. His decision was based on a mixture of reasons. Only the fact that Saw Phar Dae left the KNU soon after Dawle was murdered supports the assumption that it was mainly the close relationship with his friend that made him a Karen fighter. Saw Phar Dae himself does not think about the reasons behind his commitment. He points out that he was satisfied with the situation of his life after he joined the group of Dawle.

Freedom, love towards his homeland, and independence from social or materialistic constraints are some of the key words that seem to run through Saw Phar Dae’s life. Nevertheless, he could not avoid one strong influence of his social milieu. The tensions between Buddhist and Christian Karen that led to the formation of the DKBA in 1994 affected Saw Phae Dae personally. The more or less hidden tension between his Buddhist parents-in-law and himself came to the surface. His parents-in-law finally faced him with the choice between becoming Buddhist or divorcing his wife. He decided to divorce. Was it because of religion? Saw Phar Dae says no — he doesn’t like religions. Was it because of tradition or the habits of his life? He doesn’t know for sure. But freedom and self-determination surely played a key role in this decision.

And this is how Saw Phar Dae has lived his life up to today. When his eyes were getting worse, he made his own decision and looked for other work. He didn’t rail against his fate, but sold the gun which he had used so many years – and he started a new life at the age of seventy!

Literature

Gravers, Mikael. 2007. “Conversion and Identity: Religion and the Formation of Karen Ethnic Identity in Burma.” In Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, edited by Mikael Gravers: 227-258. Kopenhagen: NIAS Press.

Gravers, Mikael. 2014. “Ethno-nationalism and violence in Burma/Myanmar – the long Karen struggle for autonomy.” In Burma/Myanmar-Where Now? edited by Mikael Gravers and Flemming Ytzen: 173-197. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Morrissey. 1998. “On oral history interviewing.” In The oral history reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson: 107-113. London and New York: Routledge.

Perks, Robert and Alistair Thomson (ed.). 1998. The oral history reader. London and New York: Routledge.

San C. Po. 2001. Burma and the Karens. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.

Slim and Thompson. 1998. “Ways of listening.” In The oral history reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson: 107-113. London and New York: Routledge.

Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung. 2013. The “other” Karen in Myanmar. Ethnic minorities and the struggle without arms. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Winterberger, Georg. 2017. Myanmar. Durch die Linse der Menschen. Through the lens of people. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag.

Footnotes

1 The Burmese name for ‘Karen’ is ‘Kayin’. This text uses the English word which is used by many Karen/Kayin when they talk about themselves to foreigners.

2 No exact numbers exist, but the percentage of Christian Karen is estimated to be 25% (Gravers 2014: 175).

Htein Win (born 1946) – Photoshooting the Truth

Johanna Kuchel

Introduction

In the past decades, Myanmar has seen many rebellions against the government. The U Thant Crisis of 1974 showed people’s disagreement with the handling of the former UN General Secretary’s  funeral by Ne Win’s socialist administration. The protestors of the 8888 Uprising demanded democracy and freedom.

Htein Win is a photographer and was one of the few who had the opportunity and the courage to take photos of these events. Thanks to him there now is evidence of the events, which helps to understand what was happening and why it was and is important.

The mission Htein Win follows with his photography is to capture the truth of the present. With his photos, he wants to show reality and truth and to convey that to people.

Biography

In 1946 Htein Win was born in Bassein (today Pathein) in the Irrawaddy Region. At the age of 11 he was sent for four years to St. Joseph’s College, a boarding school in North Point, Darjeeling (India), in order to learn English. After finishing his basic education, he wanted to study English at the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University. However, as this degree was not offered at that time he started studies at the Institute of Medicine 1  in Rangoon. While not being very passionate about medicine, he became seriously interested in photography there. Borrowing cameras from the medical labs, where photos were taken for teaching purposes, he started to take photos of people and their lives, university events, etc.

In 1974, he photographed the student demonstrations triggered by the death of U Thant. It was aimed at the Burmese military government’s refusal to give U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, a state funeral. Because of political censorship, Htein Win could only publish his photos 40 years later in a book.

Cover of the book about the U Thant Crisis (Source: Htein Win)

After the U Thant Crisis Htein Win founded the “Htein Win Sarpay Publishing House”, publishing first comics and later also literary works. Through his work as a publisher he got in touch with numerous writers and artists – many of whom can now be found in his portrait series.

During the 8888 Uprising of 1988, Htein Win took photos of the demonstrations and most significant events, of key players and the everyday activities of those involved, immersing himself in the life of students and factory workers (who comprised a large proportion of the participants). Despite trying to save his photos by keeping them at friends’ houses and sending them abroad, about half were lost or destroyed because of unexpected checks by the security forces. Htein Win was detained for four weeks in 1988 and again for 11 days in 1989.

Employees of the state newspaper New Light of Myanmar holding the state flag upside down

Since then Htein Win has completed many assignments and photo essays, often for international organisations and agencies (including UNICEF, WHO, World Vision). These works often cover topics of social relevance in Myanmar and elsewhere. His photo exhibitions: “The Grand Families”, “HIV in Myanmar” and “Reproductive Health in Myanmar” deal with the issue of AIDS in Myanmar. His exhibition “Victims of War: Children away from home and parents” shows the life of internally displaced children in camps in the Kachin State near the Chinese border.

In 2007 Htein Win documented the Saffron Revolution and his photos were published on the internet and in newspapers anonymously, to protect him in the tense political situation.

A march of the monks on Sule Pagoda Rd. during the „Saffron Revoluition“ (Htein Win)

In the aftermath of cyclone Nargis in 2008, he documented the work of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies and the Myanmar Red Cross.

In 2011 Htein Win participated in the high-profile exhibition “ASEAN and Korean contemporary Arts in Seoul in 2011”.

Currently Htein Win is living in Yangon and working on a book about the 8888 Uprising.

Aims, Achievements and Personality

Htein Win first encountered photography through his father, who showed him how to use a camera and gave Htein Win a small camera to take with him to boarding school in India. He describes photography as being his “first love”. His fascination for photography comes from its ability to capture a moment for the future. For him the camera serves as a tool for freezing a moment in time. He sees it as a way to present things as they are – to capture the truth objectively .

Htein Win wants to use this tool to show the truth and reality. As he realized during the 8888 Uprising: “I have to have records. This will become history.” As a photographer, he wants to capture the things that were and are happening in order to keep them for the future. Later they could become useful to touc  and to teach people. Presently people who were not present at historic events such as the 8888 Uprising or the U Thant Crisis can look at his photos and feel connected to history, better understanding what was happening at that time. The importance of those demonstrations and the way they still affect Myanmar can be perhaps best conveyed through photos. Pictures show and influence the viewer directly and events can be more easily grasped than through words. According to Htein Win, photos also serve as evidence — evidence that proves events occurred and shows how they unfolded. He says that photos are “stronger” than words. All this made Htein Win go on to the streets and photograph the demonstrations. He says that he was led by an “instinct” to do so.

In order to achieve this aim of capturing and storing historical moments for the future, Htein Win was also willing to take risks. He states: “I knew  that I would get in trouble but I took the trouble.” And trouble came. After taking photos at the 8888 Uprising Htein Win was detained and interrogated by Military Intelligence. After some „wire shots“ as he calld the electic shocks happlied to him, as a means of torture and pressure, Htein Win confessed to having the photos and had to hand them over. A friend of his who stored negatives burned them out of fear of being controlled by Military Intelligence. Luckily, some photos had been sent to an international archive in Amsterdam with the help of a friend working in an embassy in Rangoon. Thereby approximately half of Htein Win’s photos could be saved.

Htein Win chooses his subjects carefully. They must have some value. For him, valuable and worthy is what cannot be seen and experienced again – the unrepeatable moment.  A photo can be like a window to the past: one can look at the photo and see, experience, and understand.

The photos of the 8888 Uprising, the U Thant Crisis or the Saffron Revolution have this kind of importance. Sometimes photos also enable the viewer to see, experience and understand present events that are commonly out of one’s reach. Photo reportages about HIV in Myanmar, the devastating effects of cyclone Nargis and the refugee camps in Myanmar could be examples of this. A third subject that Htein Win finds worthy of being photographed are humans. With portraits and documentaries about the lives of people, Htein Win puts a focus on humans who are – by their being and their actions – creating the world that he wants to capture with his photos.

But the mere act of taking photos does not fulfil Htein Win’s goal to affect and convey messages to people. He wants to show them „truth“ and „reality“ through his images and thereby broaden the viewer’s perspective. His aim is to make important events accessible through photos, reaching people with them. Thus Htein Win has organised several exhibitions of his photos. In 2014 he published a photo book about the U Thant Crisis, including essays from people who had participated.

When being asked about politics, Htein Win replies that he is personally not interested in politics. Yet most of his photos are related to politics. Still, he sees himself as a photographer, and his main interest lies in the photos and in capturing moments.

Assessment

Htein Win’s photos serve as evidence for some of Myanmar’s most important historical turning points and steps towards democracy in recent history. In his photos, the longing for freedom and democracy, and also the will with which the protesters fought for these values, can be seen and better understood. According to Htein Win, photos can touch and affect people more than words; being touched and moved is surely necessary to create a bond to history.

Thus his photos can help people (especially younger generations) understand the relevance these events had and have for Myanmar, its people and its development to the present day. It surely is  important for society in Myanmar to deal with the past decades; they are connected to and affecting Myanmar’s political situation and conflicts today. It seems that dealing with current challenges and making progress can perhaps only be achieved if the past and the larger picture of Myanmar are taken into consideration.

Despite not considering himself as a political person, the topics his photos deal with are highly political. His photos concern Myanmar’s people, challenges, progress and, of course, history and politics. However, his aim is not to convey political attitudes but to convey truth and to inform. Whether or not there is a truth, especially concerning historiography, and in how far it is possible to convey an objective truth through photos can be questioned, of course. By deciding to take photos of certain political events, he judges them to be important and relevant. One could say that by presenting photos that depict certain political attitudes, he directs the viewers’ opinion and thus actually is being political.

Either way, Htein Win’s photos are a record of important events in Myanmar’s recent history and provide a perspective on them which helps come closer to the truth. By making his photos accessible to the public, Htein Win has a crucial role in conveying knowledge of historical and current challenges and thereby reinforcing a knowledgeable and responsible society in Myanmar.

Sources

This biography is based on an interview with Htein Win in January 2019 and on material that he provided.

For further information influding some of his pictures on Htein Win including some photos see https://kite-tales.org/en/article/life-behind-lens and https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/historic-88-uprising-photos-on-display-30-years-later.html


Serge Pun (born 1953)

Alexander Zimmermann

Serge Pun with the Shwedagon Pagoda in the background

Introduction

Serge Pun led an eventful life. Even though his role in the history and political development of Myanmar cannot be compared with that of General Ne Win or Chief of Intelligence Khin Nyunt (with whom he shared ethnic Chinese roots), he can be considered one of the most interesting  and – in his alleged role as a ”crony” of the disliked military – most controversial personalities in Myanmar. His life and career are testament to the economic potential of Myanmar but also show the downsides of big business in a country which lacks a strong legal and economic framework.

Biography

Serge Pun (Chinerse: pan jize – 潘继泽) spent the first eight years of his childhood in Yangon, where he was born as Theim Wai in 1953. He lived together with his parents and four siblings. His early childhood fell into the so-called democratic phase in Myanmar between 1948 and 1958 under the leadership of U Nu. His father worked at the Chinese Bank of Communication (jiaotong yinghang – 交通银行). As a Chinese banking family Pun’s family belonged to the upper middle class in and provided Serge Pun with a privileged youth in Burma, where he visited the St. Pauls Catholic School in Yangon until 1962.

As his ancestry shows, Serge Pun was an ethnic Chinese. Even though the Chinese in Myanmar make up only around three percent of the overall population, they play an important role in the country’s trade and business.

Domestic political unrest resulted in a military coup in 1962 and the establishment of the Ne Win regime based on a socialist model.1 As part of his non-alignment policy during the cold war, Ne Win pursued a policy of self-sufficiency which led to the isolation of the country. Non-governmental schools like that attended by Serge Pun were closed and privately owned businesses were gradually nationalized.2 Also, ethnic minority groups such as the Chinese in Myanmar were increasingly marginalized.

In 1965 Serge Pun’s father decided to leave Myanmar. The family moved to China. In Beijing, Serge Pun and his siblings attended a school for Chinese from overseas, but the anticipated peace was short lived. In Beijing, the unrest of the Cultural Revolution was already awaiting Serge’s family. The Cultural Revolution finally broke out in 1966, nine months after the Pun family’s  flight to Beijing.

Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the so-called „Red Guards“ (红卫兵) recruited their ranks from pupils and students, and played a major role in the movement. Like many other students, Serge Pun became a member of the Red Guards.  He himself recalled: “We ran around and did all the things that young revolutionary youngsters did. Riding around the country, writing big-character posters.“

After the Red Guards had become politically unacceptable because of factional infighting, many of their were sent to the countryside. Hence, at the age of 12, Serge Pun was separated from his family and sent to Yunnan with 1,500 other children.3

In Yunnan he had to survive on a remote state farm, isolated from other farms and villagers, with only rudimentary supplies and hardly any opportunity for further education.

Pun later remembered: “For four years, we built a dam with our bare hands. We lived in huts we built from bamboo and constructed beds from branches. We had no electricity and bathed in a stream – even in winter. We were given the bare staple, rice, and the rest was up to us. If your battalion was good, planting vegetables and raising pigs, you could eat meat. Otherwise, it was dried vegetables – they tasted horrible”. (Financial Times)

In 1973, Serge Pun managed to make his departure to the British colony of Hong Kong after China had started to loosen its border controls. The details of this escape remain unclear. After his arrival in the British colony, he worked as a day labourer and port worker initially, but later became a sales agent for scent trees (air freshener), of which he had become aware through a newspaper advertisement.

Elmar Busch

Finally, his professional career led Serge Pun into the real estate sector, which was booming at that time due to strong demand in Hong Kong.4 In his function as a sales agent, Serge Pun met the German real estate broker and entrepreneur Elmar Busch, born 1944. Serge Pun showed his entrepreneurial spirit. He tried to sell air freshener in his broken English; he stood out due to his stubbornness. Elmar Busch made him a job offer, which Pun accepted. Pun however demanded that Busch had to buy an air freshener from him in exchange. This was the last scent tree Serge Pun sold in his career as a sales agent.

By joining Busch’s company, Serge Pun was introduced to the real estate business. Elmar Busch helped him to become adept in all tricks of the trade within the ten years Serge Pun worked for him. Busch even invited Serge Pun to accompany him on his business trips to Europe and Canada, which broadened Serge Pun’s horizon. Until then, he had known little about the world because of his lack of formal school education.

In 1983, he dared to take his next step and the founded the Serge Pun & Associates Group (SPA). From 1988 onwards, SPA opened branches in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Dalian and Taiwan. In this stage of life, he met his wife, a Hong Kong Chinese, working at a Chinese investment forum.

During his time in exile, Pun always longed to return to his place of birth. His chance for a return finally came after the military coup of 1988 that resulted in a liberalization of the economy and the easing of state control. One central move of the new policy was opening the country for forein investment.5 From 1992 to 2003 the country experienced a steady economic growth, which is why Serge Pun often speaks of the first economic spring in Myanmar.

In 1992, Serge Pun founded his flagship company in his country of birth, First Myanmar Investment Co Ltd. as one of the first public corporations in Myanmar first concentrating on the real estate sector. At the same time, Pun’s SPA Group benefited from investment in the property market in China and allowed him to finance his endeavours in Myanmar. In addition, Pun expanded his business to other industries. In 1993, he obtained a banking license and founded Yoma Bank, which is the second largest private bank in Myanmar today. For Serge Pun „The business just kept growing“ (Financial Times).

Serge Pun experienced a first setback during the banking crisis happening in early 2003 after rumours caused customers of Burma’s banks attempted to withdraw their money leading The crisis finally resulted in the closure of three private banks the most prominent being the Asian Wealth Bank (AWB) during the following years that were accused of money laundering. Serge Pun kept the license of his bank that was regarded to rather “clean” but but was barred from taking deposits or making loans for some time. He enjoyed good relations with long standing “No. 3” of the country and short-time Prime Minister, Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, kept out of direct involvement politics. The removal of Khin Nyunt by junta chief Than Shwe was later described by him as „the beginning of cronyism because there was no real economy left.“ In contrast, Serge Pun describes Khin Nyunt as a liberal and rational man: “You could talk logic and reason with him. He was open-minded.”(Montlake).

Due to his economic basis that he had built up over the years, it was possible for Serge Pun’ business enterprises to stay relatively independent during this time. Most of the land development rights held by Serge’s SPA Group had already been acquired in the 1990s. Moreover, most of his enterprises were profitable and did not depend on government grants. In addition, he was able to repeatedly use his own Yoma Bank to get financial resources and to lend to his own companies. In order to obtain additional capital, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. got listed as the first company in Myanmar at the Singapore stock exchange.6

Despite all this, it was impossible for Serge Pun to live through this economic crisis after 2003 without violating any restrictions and regulations. Yoma Bank exceeded the 15 percent credit limit for affiliates, and some private investors had to wait several years before they could withdraw their money. Serge Pun admits that his Yoma Bank had broken bank regulations during the „five dark years“ as Pun called them. Only in 2012 the full banking license was granted again.[R7] 

An end to the „five dark years“ only started to become apparent with the announcement the adoption of a new constitution in 2008 and the holding of elections in 2010. These and the reforms, launched in 2010, marked the start of the second economic spring for Serge Pun.

Success, Business Philosophy, Critique

and CritiqueCurrently, Serge is the Chairman of the Board of the SPA Group. In just 21 years, Serge Pun’s ‘business empire’ has grown to nearly 5.000 employees and 40 different subgroups. These include the First Myanmar Investment (FMI) and the Yoma Strategic Holdings. SPA Myanmar is one of Burma’s largest conglomerates and operates in eight different sectors, including banking, financial services, real estate, developing automotive industry, logistics, tourism, technology, and as well as agriculture and medicine.

Serge Pun might be not as popular as other people from Myanmar, but he must be regarded as one of the most influential business men of the country. His success can hardly be explained without his early experiences outside of Myanmar. The experiences during the Cultural Revolution and the ensuing deportation to the countryside played an important role in shaping his business spirit, as he said in an interview with Gwen Robinson: „Not only do I not re­gret the hardships I went through in China, I actually treasure them. Because whatever I learnt and en­dured over those years laid the foundation for what I achieved in my later years.”

With his sharpened sense for politics and business, he quickly managed to achieve his professional goals. During his time in the Red Guards, Serge Pun’s duties included to propagate the Maoist ideology. To this he himself says: „I have done a good job of selling the ideology“.

It is therefore hardly surprising that during his work as a sales agent, Serge rose to the best seller within a month and was later discovered by Elmar Busch as a business talent. His Chinese roots also contributed to his success. Through a network of personal contacts and relationships (guanxi – 关系)7, he was able to acquire orders in Hong Kong and later also throughout the region and expand his business ever further.

ersonal acquaintances and connections have also made it easier for Serge Pun to expand into Myanmar and expand his business to today’s extent. It is therefore significant that one of his most important projects in Myanmar was a 600 acre (2,43 square km) golf club that opened in 2000 under the name of Pun Hlaing Gold Resort. It developed into a centre of the golf scene in Myanmar and counts the most important representatives of the economy of Myanmar and the so called elite, including leading militaries as its members. Therefore, the Golf Club played and still plays an important role in establishing new economic contacts and networks.

Pun Hlaing Golf Cluc, Yangon

However, his close contacts with military brass and influential business people exposed Serge Pun to the suspicion of exercising personal advantages. Critics say that the formation of a company group with extensive business relationships in different industries in Myanmar could not have been achieved without close cooperation with the military junta. Thus, he was accused of belonging to a circle of selected individuals who had a sort of symbiotic relationship with the government, to undermine the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union after 1996 and, in return, gain access to lucrative business. His contacts with government and business people were indeed so close that in 2008 the US government was considering to sanction Serge Pun and his Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holding and to exclude them from operating in the US.

Serge Pun always denied any accusation of looking for personal advantages although his close contacts to the Myanmar government make the allegations appear comprehensible. However, since the downfall of Khin Nyunt in late 2004 it is at least plausible to see Serge as an opponent of corruption and cronyism. With the overthrow of Khin Nyunt as the leader od what he and others regarded as a “Liberal Group” within the military in 2004 the economic climate in the country began to change. The economically stable situation in Myanmar was shattered overnight by the easing of monetary policy, which led the country into an economic recession. Accordings to his view, corruption and cronyism gained momentum after 2004, which is why Serge Pun speaks of the following period as of the „five dark years“. Since he himself was unable or unwilling to participate in this practice, he always regarded cronyism as a severe economic hindrance.  He says: „I never paid a cent for any favours … The pressure was huge, but I can say honestly: I have never received a sweetheart deal. We landed deals that needed performance – and we delivered, every time, the right way and in right time”.

Because of the political changes in 2010 and Serge Pun’s contacts to the new government, he however remains a controversial personality. Thus, by virtue of his actions before and after 2010, he is treated by some as a role model, while his critics still regard him as the crony of the former military junta.

Despite having denied any political ambition within Myanmar, Serge Pun has been a long-time member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Dalian (辽宁省大连市的中国人民政治协商会议) and a member of the Asia Business Council. Especially due to his network outside of Myanmar, Serge Pun continues to be perceived as the type of crony who represents a foreign interest group. However, on the other hand Sege Pun had also been a member of the Global Agenda Council for Transparency and Anti-Corruption of the World Economic Forum from 2014 to 2016, which sends a contrary message to the above.[R6] 

While international organizations such as the World Bank are considering cooperation with Serge Pun, critics are concerned. According to them, an inclusion of Serge Pun and his group in the rebuilding of Myanmar would only cement his position as a crony and hinder the goal of development and combating poverty in Myanmar. However, Serge replies to these and similar allegations: „Many organisations are required to conduct thorough due diligence, including the likes of the World Bank, ADB (Asia Development Bank), IFC and the U.S. Embassy, and they have ongoing dealings with us because of our reputation. That would give clear evidence, over the circumstantial allegations.

Assessments

Today, Serge Pun is living in Yangon together with his wife and four sons. Despite his Chinese roots, he poses as a representative of the Burmese culture.  He often appears in a collarless shirt and a Longyi (traditional Burmese wrap skirt). He says, „Myanmar is my first home, I have deep feelings“, which also had motivated him to return to the country.

His proximity to Myanmar as well as his business experience and contacts make him a sought-after expert for business and development in Myanmar. He is often consulted by the new government; whose program contains hardly any specific new approaches for economic and business matters.

According to Serge Pun, structural deficits continue to be the main obstacles for development in Myanmar, as well as a relatively high rate of inflation. Despite the visible progress in the country’s development and the abolition of the economic sanctions, investors often hesitate, because Myanmar as a market can hardly be reliably assessed in many sectors including his own enterprises.8 Nevertheless, Serge Pun sees the reform process that began in 2010 as a second „economic spring“, which is to be used. According to Serge’s view, foreign investors should not only rely on short-term profits or enter the market in Myanmar with too high expectations. Companies should rather be more long-term oriented, in order to be successful. Only in this way it is possible for the companies to leave a positive impact in society and to profit from the general development.

Due to his business relations both at home and abroad, as well as his long-term oriented business stance, Serge Pun is seen to function as a potential catalyst for the development in Myanmar. Where the government is not yet able to push the economic development due to encrusted structures, lack of expertise or lack of contacts abroad, pioneering work is needed. Hence, the infrastructure already set up by Serge Pun is believed to have the potential of directing foreign capital to Myanmar and creating new business opportunities.

Whether his supporters or critics are right, only time will tell. One may say that to assess his contribution to Myanmar society is as open as an evaluation of Myanmar politics since 1988. Nonetheless, as early as 2008, some aid organizations had worked directly with Serge Pun after the Cyclone Nargis instead of approaching the government and thus regarding him a part of the country’s civil society.9

Today, the IFC (International Finance Corp)10 is planning to cooperate with Yoma Bank to provide loans worth around 30 million US-Dollars to small and medium-sized businesses. Due to the shortcomings in areas such as infrastructure and financial services in Myanmar, cooperation with Pun offers the opportunity to use the funds effectively and reach as many people as possible.

Literature

Auswärtiges Amt (April 2017): Länderinformationen. Hongkong. Wirtschaft. Web. http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Aussenpolitik/Laender/Laenderinfos/Hongkong/Wirtschaft.html (01/05/2017)

Ben Yue (18-24/06/2014): Rebuilding Myanmar. Hard Work Helped Serge Pun Escape Turbulent Childhood To Become A Tycoon Instrumental In Nation’s Development. In China Daily, Asia Weekly, S. 32.

Central Intelligence Agency (12/01/2017): The World Factbook. Burma. Web. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html (01/05/2017)

Chinatownology (N/A): Overseas Chinese in Burma. (Myanmar). Web. http://www.chinatownology.com/overseas_chinese_burma.html (01/05/2017

Dawson, Stella (June 11, 2017): World Bank’s financing of luxury projects in Myanmar and man linked to military faces criticism. In: The Independent. http://www.theindependent.sg/world-banks-financing-of-luxury-projects-in-myanmar-and-man-linked-to-military-faces-criticism/ (12/06/2017)

Montlake, Simon (September 2013): Golden Return: Serge Pun Constructs A RealEstate Empire In Myanmar. In: Forbes. Web. https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonmontlake/2013/08/28/golden-return-serge-pun-constructs-a-real-estate-empire-in-myanmar/#3ef2be892321

Oxford Burma Alliance (N/A): The Ne Win Years: 1962-1988. Web. http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup–ne-win-regime.html (01/05/2017)

Oxford Business Group (N/A): OBG talks to Serge Pun, Chairman, Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar). Interview: Serge Pun. Web.https://www.oxfordbusinessgroup.com/interview/obg-talks-serge-pun-chairman-serge-pun-associates-myanmar (01/05/2017)

Property Report (25/06/2016): The story of Serge Pun: Myanmar’s 2016 Real Estate Personality. One of Myanmar’s most recognised businessmen will be honoured by Property Report at the country’s biggest industry event. Web. http://www.property-report.com/the-story-of-serge-pun-myanmars-2016-real-estate-personality/(01/05/2017)

Robinson, Gwen (SEPTEMBER 9, 2012): A business school of hard knocks. The Monday Interview. In: Financial Times. Web. https://www.ft.com/content/f9093c8a-f8cd-11e1-b4ba-00144feabdc0 (01/05/2017)

Tan Hui Ann, Connie (17/06/2015): Myanmar must plan for the long-term: Top tycoon. In: CNBC. Web.http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/17/myanmar-must-plan-for-the-long-term-says-yomas-serge-pun.html (01/05/2017)

The Economist (19/06/2008): Myanmar after the cyclone. Chrony charity. Web. http://www.economist.com/node/11579356 (01/05/2017)

Footnotes

1The so-called „Burmese Way to Socialism“contained elements from Marxism, Buddhism and extreme nationalism. (http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup—ne-win-regime.html)

2Private Hospitals were nationalized as well. (http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup—ne-win-regime.html)

3At the end of 1968, Mao Zedong called the Red Guards „go out into the world.“ This led to the deportation of about ten million students who were told to learn from the peasants at the country and spread Mao’s ideology.

4Due to the rapid development and the high demand for housing, the colonial administration launched a program in 1972, which was to create housing for about 1.8 million people over the next ten years. Later this program was extended until 1987.

5A significant move of the turning away from the socialist economy was the Foreign Investment Law issued already in November 1988, two months after the coup.

6To date, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. ss the only company in Myanmar, which is listed on an international stock exchange. (China Daily).

7Guanxi describes a basic personalized network of relationships that plays a central role in Chinese society.

8The evaluation of Serge Pun’s group of companies is often difficult, as international benchmarking in Myanmar is hardly possible due to the lack of a market development. (Financial Times).

9The organisation “Save the Children” and Singapore’s Red Cross used both Serge Puns boats and warehouses to distribute food, medicine and tents to the crisis regions. (The Economist)

10The International Finance Corp is the World Bank’s financing arm.

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (Irene Po) (1905-1994)

Getrud Wellmann-Hofmeier

1 Introduction

San C. Po

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (called Irene Po as well) was the daughter of the Kayin physician and politician San C. Po who in a book published in 1928 had advocated a separate administrations for Burmans and Karens. [http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0800051h.html) After independence, she held a political office for a short time as a minister in one of U Nu’s cabinet. She was the first and only female cabinet member until 2012 after a formally civil government under ex-general Thein Sein had taken over the government from the previous military junta.[1] Her main interest, however, was to promote education and social services. Being a Christian, she used the organisation of the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) to accomplish these objectives and to represent Burma internationally. She is a representative of the Anglophile Christian Karen elite of the country and the attempts of members of this elite to hold the country together.

2 Biographical Sketch

Claribel Ba Maung Chain was born on 1 June 1905 in Pathein. Both her parents were members of the Kayin elite and had studied in the United States and England respectively. Her mother was the daughter of a co-founder of the Karen National Association that in 1884 became the first native political organisation in Burma. Like her father, she wanted to studied medicine, but was not able to do so because of poor health. After studying English literature at Rangoon University and the Judson college, she worked as a teacher in her home town from 1928 until her marriage in 1935 to an engineer who had studied in England. The couple moved to Rangoon. She gave birth to two daughters. Both of them studied medicine.
After the war and the beginning of the civil war, she was part of a delegation of the government trying to negotiate a peace settlement with the Karen National Union (KNU). In 1951, she was part of a committee working on a bill to create a separate Karen State within the Union of Burma. Before the elections held in 1951/52, she joined one of the Kayin parties, the Union Karen League that had decided to join the AFPFL and was elected as a member of parliament in Hanthawaddy District. After a Ministry for Karen Affairs was established in 1952, she became the first head of the new ministry and was sworn in on March 18, 1952. One of her main initiatives was to persuade young rebel soldiers to stop fighting the government and start a civilian career. She resigned from her post on March 4, 1953 after having participated in a parliamentary delegation to Britain in 1952. Later, she was offered the post of ambassador to England but declined, allegedly because of objection of her husband.
Already in 1951, she had become the first native President of the YWCA and a member of the Executive Committee of the world’s YWCA. In the following years, she became the association’s Vice President for Asia and was responsible for one of the “Y#s” committees. She was re-elected in 1959. She travelled widely and represented her country at various conferences and church meetings around the world. Her last reported participation in such a meeting took place in 1961 at a conference of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi. In the same year, she became president of the Burma Council of Churches.
Nothing is known about her last years. She died on February 24, 1994.

Birmas Kabinett von 1952

3 Aims and Objectives

Claribel Ba Maung Chain has not written any book and none of her many speeches that she must have delivered has been recorded. It is however quite clear from her biography that she was dedicated to serve the “social gospel” emphasising the practical dimension of the Christian faith. She was thus rooted in the tradition of what many Karen women were renowned for serving others in the field of education and medicine. In this way, she was a “minister”, a servant in the literal sense of the word, but never a politician. “Politics is a dirty job – but can be made clean” she is reported to have said. She tried to perform “clean politics” during her short time as a politician, a task she had taken over because she had been asked by members of the Karen community and Premier Nu.
In an interview given to an American journalist in 1952 after her appointment as minister, she explained about pragmatic attitudes towards those parts of the Karen community fighting the government. “One hope we have is that the Karen parents are getting tired of their children missing education just as they did under the Japs [Japanese]. They want peace, we think.” She further went to the edges of the regions held by the rebels and talked to some leaders and helped to severe ties between the rebels and British supporters that had been established during the fight against the Japanese.3 Ain a newspaper report, she she was quoted thus: “Since we have rooted out a certain Seven Day Adventist missionary, a London newspaperman and a British major who kept a rebel headquarters at Calcutta, we feel that the British are staying out of the Karen troubles.”4 Accordings to the same article, she added that she was worried about a possible communist influence on Kayin leadership.
Another anecdote shows that she was not just critical to direct foreign interference in Burmese affairs but to other impacts of the West as well. She told another journalist about a conversation with a young Karen rebel fighter shortly before her resignation whom she had asked: “Why must you carry on this senseless fight? What is the future of us Karens if young men like you never go to school, never learn anything how to use a gun?” The answer: “You don’t need education to be successful. Look at Henry Ford.”5
Claribel Ba Maung Chain was in no way an “ethno-nationalist” but somebody who – differently from her father – believed in the cooperation between the Burmese and Kayin people to establish an independent nation of Burma. Furthermore, she sregarded education as a key to make the Burma a peaceful place.
One might suspect that her experiences as an “amateur” politician trying to help solving political problems at the grassroots level were frustrating and she thought it more rewarding to use her talents to help the people of her country as a community worker and somebody establishing ties between Burma and the world. Her “second love” as she called the YWCA – second after her husband – provided this opportunity.

4 Assessment

Claribel Ba Maung Chain is one of the many Burmese persons about whom we know too little to assess their contribution to the society of her country in an adequate way. She grew up in a multicultural Karen-Christian-Anglicised context strongly influence by the missionaries’ emphasis on medical care and education.
Her to speak many languages and thus be qualified to mediate between different cultures. She possessed all these qualities and was therefore chosen to represent the people of Burma in a variety of national and international contexts.
Her function as the first and for a very long time the only female minister of Burma is almost stereotypically repeated both by western and Burmese media. Such highlighting stresses the lack of representation of women in Burmese politics and tends to downplay her achievements as an “ordinary citizen” of Burma. Such way of looking at things concentrates on the quantity of women known as political and societal leaders and neglects the quality of women’s contributions to uplift the welfare of the people. As a consequence, Claribel Ba Maung Chain might be regarded as a representative of the many Burmese women who worked in certain sectors of Burmese society in order to maintain the social balance despite the many catastrophes happening in Burma/Myanmar in recent history. She was a very responsible person but at the same time a very independent one. She followed her father in getting engaged in the political affairs of the country but quit office after she had realised that she could serve the people better in other ways. She was educated as a member of a Christian-Karen elite, but was highly critical of any attempt top play off the different ethnic groups in Burma against each other.
On this background, Claribel Ba Maung Chain’s life might be seen as an indication that the course of Myanmar history would have been different if the pragmatic approach taken by her and many other women to serve their country would prevail. The few quotations recorded from her demonstrate that she was an intelligent and witty speaker whose assessments were based on a down-to earth analysis of the situation. She was thus a good ambassador for her country as well of the Kayin community she represented without carrying an official title. She did a lot of networking as well as inspiring other women to follow her footsteps. One of her granddaughters is stepping into her shoes by working as an YWCA executive.

5 Sources

This text is based on the short biography written by Saw Nathanayla for a collection of  life stories of Burmese Protestant Christians.6 Besides a number of internet sources, the following publications were consulted as well:
Tinker, Hugh 1957 The Union of Burma. A Study of the First Years of Independence. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Who’s Who in Burma 1961 Rangoon, People‘s Literature Committee and House.

[1] Myat Myat Ohn Khin was appointed as Minister for Social Welfare in September 2012.

Editing: Hans-Bernd Zöllner