Sein Bo Tint was regarded as a leading Burmese musician. He was
renowned for his virtuosity in playing the hsaing-waing (also
called pat-waing), a set of 21 drums arranged in a circle, for
which this traditional Burmese ensemble of instruments is named, and
also for his compositions and his innovations in Myanmar’s
traditional music, despite the restrictions imposed on the Burmese
cultural scene in the socialist period between 1962 and 1988. He can
be regarded as a musician who linked the traditional Burmese music of
royal times with “modern” elements and as an artist integrating
different segments of Myanmar society. He was also one of the three
favourite musicians of Ne Win.
He was born in 1938 as Maung Tint, the fifth of ten children in Kyaik-lat, a town in the Ayeyawadi Division some 120 km southwest of Yangon. His father was a hsaing-waing (drum circle) player. At the age of seven, the family moved to a western Yangon township where he lived until the end of his life. As a young boy, he learned – in addition to his father’s instrument – to play patala (a bamboo xylophon), mandolin, flute and hne, a reed instrument. His talent was noticed early. Shortly after having moved to Rangoon, when playing at the Shwedagon Pagoda, he attracted the attention of the national hero and general (Burmese bo-gyoke) Aung San. For that reason, the word “Bo” (commander) was later prefixed to his name. The third part of his name – Sein – was added later, after he had become famous as a hsaing saya, a master of the instrument, like many other Burmese orchestra musicians who had been named “Sein”.
He left school after finishing grade seven at the age of 14; after that he became a full-time musician. It is reported that he composed his first song at the age of 16 or 17, showing his talent to write song texts. Sein Bo Tint was the student of a number of renowned musicians who had been students of musicians who had played at the last royal court in Mandalay. He became famous nationwide after his performances were broadcast via radio and TV, and he was active in a number of state organisations aiming to preserve the traditions of court music. Furthermore, he was member of the board of the Cultural University, engaged in reviving music and dance competitions and promoting the exchange of musicians from different ethnic groups. From time to time he was invited by the country’s Number One, Ne Win, to perform at meetings in his home on Ady Road.
He had to support a large family with his performances – reportedly
he had eight children, among them only one who stepped into his shoes
by becoming a musician. He was a chain smoker and died in 1994 from
Aims and Objectives
During royal times, until the end of the Burmese monarchy in 1885, a canon of songs called maha-gita (great music) was established, performed by a variety of ensembles and singers. After the British conquest of Burma in 1885, the traditional canon lost its importance due to the abolishment of the royal court and its dominating influence on the country’s culture. New types of songs arose, influenced by the attempts of the British administration and missionaries to adapt Burma to modern times. Of the music ensembles only the orchestras around the hsaing-waing survived. However, one crucial characteristic element of Burmese music did not fundamentally change: the close teacher-student relationship. Students repeated what their teachers played, but at the same time were encouraged to find their own style by inventing ornaments and other variations added to the basic tunes.
Sein Bo Tint received his basic education at a time of great cultural variety after independence during the premiership of U Nu, who had wanted to become a playwright in his early days. U Nu was called thabin-wun – “theatre minister” – because of his affinity with the fine arts. This period, in which musical elements from abroad like swing and other jazz genres became popular, influenced the young musician and contributed to his ability in combining the tradition rooted in royal times and adapted elements coming from abroad, for which he became famous.
When the military took over power after the coup of March 1962, Sein Bo Tint was able to cope with the new situation of Burma’s isolationist policies that also affected culture. Culture was regulated and the old traditions originating in royal times were revived at the expense of foreign influences. Sein Bo Tint adapted to these conditions and contributed to the new ideal of unity under Burmese domination by creating a song in which rhythmic elements of the main ethnic groups of Burma varied the tune invented by the musician. Here the official ideal of ethnic harmony and integration under a dominating force was musically represented. However, this political ideal never matched the political realities.
On the other hand, Sein Bo Tint introduced a number of innovations to traditional Burmese music and the instruments on which it is performed. He introduced a new order and an enlargement of the hsaing-waing ensemble – sometimes up to seven hne-players were included – in addition to a new design of the whole ensemble, positioned within a great carved frame on a variety of levels. The name of the orchestra alluded to a king of old times who used to play the harp so beautifully that even elephants peacefully came to him to listen to the music. Carved elephant figures served as a visual illustration of this historical reminiscence. On the other hand, the artist from time to time gave solo performances.
Another innovation was the invention of chromatic instruments that could help to bridge the gap between Burmese and western tonalities. The kyi waing was extended to 29 gongs. One of his pupils was trained to tune the gongs with the assistance of 12 European fifes. Later electronic tuners were used. This innovation contributed to a broadening of the repertoire of the music groups and their ability to play with western musicians while not giving up their traditional acoustic colour. He finally invented a simple bass instrument, not known before in Burma, just one string placed using a washtub as resonator, that is known as a “washtub bass” in American folk music.
Sein Bo Tint thus balanced traditional music with introducing new and even “western” elements that were otherwise shunned by the socialist government’s cultural policies, which emphasised the preservation of traditional arts by way of simply “freezing them”. The fact that Ne Win liked his music, and might have used its public fame to make the socialist system gain some popularity, was helpful to preserve this balance.
Sein Po Tint was a musical practitioner, not a theorist who talked or
wrote about what the music he performed was about. He communicated
through his music and through his students who carried on what they
had learned from him. He himself had carried on by balancing what he
had been taught and inventing something new throughout the succession
of his teachers. He might be called a “traditional reformer” who
excelled because of his special talents.
With regard to the cultural-political context of his life and work,
one may say that he helped to bridge the 26 years of Burmese
socialist isolation between the Nu-era and the opening of the country
after 1988 when – somewhat ironically – western countries did not
fully use the opportunities offered by the military junta for
opening the country to foreign influences. In a way, it was Sein Bo
Tint’s students who benefited from his innovations, both inside the
country and in the exchange with foreign musicians.
Inside Myanmar, the economic and cultural opening up of the country
was used by some of his students to become successful “band
leaders” of hsaing-waing ensembles, producing CDs that sold
well and received prestigious awards. These students concentrated on
using one of his innovations and developed it further.
Other students used the adaption of the western musical traditions
and techniques. This way the door was opened to playing together with
jazz musicians at festivals in Europe as well as in Myanmar. As
adults, his students had developed an affinity with western musical
culture without abandoning the traditional concepts of Burmese music.
Such blending of different musical traditions was well-received by
various audiences and very much enjoyed by the musicians on both
sides. This developed into a series of meetings of the two sides
under the heading “Myanmar meets Europe”.1
It was Sein Bo Tint’s – as well as some other musicians’ –
popularity during the Ne Win era that paved the way for such new
encounters between different musical cultures. He did not fight the
conservatism of the Burmese cultural bureaucracy in the socialist
period, but used free space to introduce new ways that he found
worthwhile after his experiences under U Nu. He and his students
further benefited from the traditional personal way of passing on
knowledge in Burmese society. He was an individualist like his
students and therefore not interested in founding any kind of
“movement” that could be regarded as a threat to the state.
However, it remains to be seen how the music of his students will
cope with the trends in Myanmar to copy western pop culture, which
had been strictly prohibited during the socialist period.
No literature on Sein Bo Tint is available in a western language. The biography is based on the research of the author in Myanmar.
use “Karen State” and “Burma“ since many of the events
addressed here took place before the renaming).
journalists, and aid workers who met the Karen communities along the
Thai-Myanmar border have surely encountered his face a dozen times at
posters in people’s houses or on banners during the annual Karen
martyr’s day celebrations. Saw Ba U Gyi, up to today, is the
face of the Karen rebellion. He is best known as the founder of the
Karen National Union (KNU). Ba U Gyi was a committed politician, who
repeatedly voiced the Karen cause in negotiations with the British
and the post-independence Burma government, and eventually resorted
to an armed struggle. This article aims to explore the life and
legacy of this Christian Sgaw Karen man, born in a village far away
from later Karen State, who in the years prior to the civil war lived
in London to study law, married an English woman, and became a father
of three. Saw Ba U Gyi was murdered in 1950, at 47 years of age. He
remains of symbolic importance for the Karen National Union as an
organization, which remains active and influential, and for many
Karen who have been directly or indirectly affected by the violent
conflicts in Eastern Myanmar.
Ba U Gyi was born in October 1903, in a village near Bassein (now:
Pathein), the capital of Irrawaddy Division. Ba U Gyi’s father was
a landowner, and he was also the headman of the village, facts that
made him relatively wealthy and influential. The British had ruled
Burma for several decades by that time, and they had turned the
Irrawaddy Delta region from a laid-back and scarcely populated part
of the country into the country’s main rice producing area. In this
process, thousands of migrants came from upper Burma and from India,
to turn swamps and jungles into rice fields for large-scale
cultivation. This endeavour brought about vast changes for the Karen
and Burman people in the region who had previously mainly practised
subsistence farming and fishing. Many of the Karen people had adopted
Christianity as well as ideas of the importance of formal education.
People increasingly moved to towns, and livelihood patterns changed.
What is known about Saw Ba U Gyi’s life has thankfully been
published by his grandson, Paul Sztumpf (2011) in order to enable
both, Karen and non-Karen to understand more about what he and his
family had experienced. Ba U Gyi’s father belonged to a family of
Christian Sgaw Karen. In his village, however, there was also a
sizable Burman Buddhist population. According to reports, both groups
lived in peaceful coexistence, but inhabited separate parts of the
village and contact between them remained limited. Community life in
each part of the village was centred around the church and monastery
respectively. Village life was generally marked by the seasons, by
agriculture and by the cycle of traditional festivals. Ba U Gyi’s
father, as village headmen, was responsible to care for all people’s
concerns. He supported community projects such as Bassein Sgaw Karen
High School named Ko Tha Byu. The Ko Tha Byu Church and the
Theological Seminary remain the center of the Sgaw community of
Pathein up to today.
much is known about Ba U Gyi’s mother, who he grew up with,
together with his two older, and two younger sisters. What we do know
is that Saw Ba U Gyi went to a Baptist high school where he was
taught by foreign missionary teachers. Saw Ba U Gyi grew up with the
awareness of being Karen and Christian, and thus belonging to an
ethnic and religious minority. Increasingly, and not least because of
British policy, hostilities emerged between Karen Christians and
Burman Buddhists. The British had recruited many Karen into the
police and the armed forces. While among Burman nationalists the wish
for independence grew, in the eyes of some Karen leaders British rule
seemed to grant some degree of protection and privileges to the
Karen. Difference in loyalties should become one of the major
dividing lines of an emerging conflict that would shape the fate of
the Karen people for decades to come.
completing high school, Ba U Gyi was sent to London to study law and
train as a barrister, together with his cousin. He arrived in London
aged 18, and he would stay for eight years. While studying in London,
he met Renee Rose Kemp, an English woman, a talented seamstress, who
worked as a shop window dresser in one of London’s main shopping
areas. The couple started dating, went for dinner, to the cinema, and
dancing to Charleston. They married in 1926, and a year later their
son Michael Theodore was born. After finishing his degree in law in
1926, Ba U Gyi had to be trained in a lawyer’s association, until
he could finally call himself a barrister three years later. In 1929
Ba U Gyi finished his training, and became father of a second child,
a girl named Thelma Resa. By the end of the same year, the whole
family boarded a ship to Burma. Saw Ba U Gyi was now 26 years old
(see Sztumpf, 2011).
Ba U Gyi and his family set up their home first in Pathein, and later
in Myaungmya, a nearby town which is home to a large Karen population
until today. Pathein and Myaungmya had now for many years marked by
to commerce. They were urban centres with mostly Burmese, but also
Karen, British, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants. Respectively, a
variety of food, music, movies and products was available. The family
lived here for several years, and Saw Ba U Gyi run his office as a
lawyer. He spent his free time exchanging ideas with students and
teachers from the Karen High School, and playing football and golf.
Photos of those days show him wearing a western-style suit and
driving a Ford V-8RD.484. In court, he would wear a gown, like a
British barrister. Renee adapted to the new life in Burma. She had a
friend in a fellow foreign Lady in town, the Scottish wife of Ba U
Gyi’s cousin, who had also spent his student years in London.
long, circumstances became more challenging. The Great Depression had
taken a toll on Burma. Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta were highly
indebted to moneylenders or absent landowners. Economic struggles led
to intensifying tensions in the country’s population and fostered
nationalism and hostility toward immigrants and ethnic minorities.
Indians and Chinese in particular were targeted and at times they
became victims of violent attacks. Furthermore, the British, too,
made more and more use of violent suppression. Recruiting members of
ethnic minorities into their army fostered divisions. In 1930 the
Saya San uprising was answered with a major military act by the
British, with many of the 10.000 involved soldiers being Karen.
Within the political realm, a Burmese elite started to emerge around
Aung San and his companions, who attempted to lead the country toward
the war reached Burma, Saw Ba U Gyi left to his native village and
four years should pass until he could see his family again. By April
1942 large parts of Burma were under Japanese control. What was left
of the British army as well as hundreds of thousands of Indians fled
toward Arakan under horrendous conditions. Among the masses of
refugees were Ba U Gyi’s wife Renee and their two children. Upon
his return, Saw Ba U Gyi found his house empty. With luck and the
help of influential friends his wife and children could leave Indian
exile to return to London, on a weeks-long journey from Bombay by
Burma, violence between Karen and Burman groups erupted in several
parts of the country. Many Karen were branded traitors, having fought
for the British. Burman nationalists had managed to set up the Burma
Independence Army (BIA). Saw Bah U Gyi’s cousin and lifelong friend
Pe Tha was killed alongside his Scottish wife and their children, as
were countless others (Karen as well as Burmans) in the area around
Myaungmya, a Karen stronghold. It is those traumatic events that
arguably constituted the root of Saw Ba U Gyi’s evolving political
agenda, and his four principles that the Karen National Union (KNU)
upholds until today (see below).
Ba U Gyi initially worked together with General Aung San to prevent
violence and support reconciliation between and within communities.
Living in Yangon now, he formed the Karen Central Organization (KCO).
The KCO was recognized as an official body representing the interests
of the Karen by the ruling political powers. Having been in contact
with the Japanese, Saw Ba U Gyi at one point even went to Japan for a
visit. In 1944, the British were ready to reinvade Burma. They had
planned this undertaking carefully, having trained thousands of Karen
as soldiers. Some of them would later become leading figures in the
KNU. A growing Karen ethno-nationalism fuelled the conflict,
depicting the Burmans as the enemy. General Aung San tried to keep a
balanced position between the various political interests, but now
oriented more strongly towards the Allies that after the victorious
battle of Imphal (India) in July 1944 could be expected to drive the
Japanese out of Burma. The Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
Only a few weeks later, a delegation of seven young leaders from
Burma was invited to Ceylon, to start negotiations. Aung San went,
and with him Saw Ba U Gyi, to represent the Karen. The responsible
British commander to lead the negotiations had a liberal orientation.
He promised Aung San Burma’s independence within three years.
However, the country’s infrastructure had suffered, the economy was
set back. Several different groups with competing interests started
to participate in the race to shape the new Burma, and a number of
these groups set up their own armies.
KCO made official demands to the British for a Karen state, either as
a separate state or as an equal partner in a federal dominion. It was
also Saw Ba U Gyi who used the word “Kawthoolei“ for this state
(which translates to “a land without evil“), a term that is still
in use among Karen communities today (Keenan, 2008, 3). However,
ultimately none of the demands for such a state were answered. The
Karen leaders envisioned equality for their people, a chance to shape
their own destiny without having to live as second-class citizens. In
August 1946, a delegation of Karen, led by Saw Ba U Gyi, reached
London to present their cause. Arriving at the docks, he was reunited
with his family. Saw Ba U Gyi soon realized that his mission would
not succeed. While the Karen leaders received recognition for their
past services, no one supported them in their demand for a state of
their own, regardless of promises that might have been uttered in the
past. These demands were basically ignored. Saw Ba U Gyi returned to
Burma, disappointed and without his family. He and his wife decided
to divorce (Sztumpf, 2011).
Aung San continued to negotiate details on Burma’s independence,
Saw Ba U Gyi reorganized the KCO, and formed the Karen National Union
(KNU), with the idea to unite Karen of several religions with a
shared hope for a separate state. However, other organized Karen
groups had been established in the meantime, and not everyone was
agreeing on specific demands. There were differing views, for
instance, on the areas that a Karen state should encompass. Saw Ba U
Gyi soon resigned from Aung San’s cabinet as a sign of protest. It
remains unknown whether Aung San’s attempts to overcome tensions
and conflicts between different ethnic groups could have been
successful. He was assassinated in July 1947, together with other
members of his cabinet. A few months later, in January 1948, Burma
officially gained independence. The British left, but the “Karen
conflict” remained unsolved.
with the new government under U Nu took place, but for Saw Ba U Gyi,
the offers by the leading party did not leave enough room for Karen
rule. Consequently, they were rejected by Karen representatives.
Decades of divide-and-rule had imposed distrust. When the talks went
silent, the Karen under Saw Ba U Gyi resorted to direct action. A
period of unrest and violence started, not only between Karen and
Burmans but also on other fronts. On February 11, 1948 Karen people
started demonstrating in different parts of the country. In the
violent incidences of the following weeks, many Karen soldiers as
well as parts of the Burmese army acted independently from their
leaders. Karen villages were attacked but the Karen army seized the
township of Insein which it held for 100 days. The Burmese army could
eventually claim it back, and the KNDO (Karen National Defence
Organization) had to resort first to Toungoo, and after long
fighting, further back into the mountains of Karen country. U Nu and
Saw Ba U Gyi attempted to negotiate, but no solution could be
reached. In 1950, a KNU congress under Saw Ba U Gyi was organized,
and the organization specified its demands. In this context, Saw Ba U
Gyi formulated his famous four principles that are uphold by the KNU
up to today:
1. For us surrender is
out of the question, 2. The recognition of Karen state must be
complete, 3. We shall retain our arms, 4. We shall decide our own
post-independence period saw widespread insurgencies in different
parts of the country, of which the Karen rebellion was one. Martin
Smith estimated that around 60.000 people died in Burma within the
first two years of resurrections alone (Smith, 1991, 119). On the
of August 1950 Saw Ba U Gyi was travelling through Papun district in
today’s Karen State that was created in 1952 with nine of his
colleagues. They had no guards. The group had been staying in Karen
villages, in one of which their trust was eventually betrayed on that
day. Saw Ba U Gyi and his colleagues were attacked and killed by
government troops. Ba U Gyi’s body was taken to Moulmein, where it
was thrown overboard near the coast, to ensure that no Marty’s
grave could be set up.
to today, the 12th
of August is celebrated as Martyr’s day in Karen State.
we have some information, many details about Saw Ba U Gyi‘s role in
the turbulent times during the Second World War and after
independence remain unclear. Why did he fail in the negotiations? Did
he overestimate the loyalty of the British, and the unity among
Karen? What drove him to ultimately resort to an armed struggle? Who
were his close allies? Who betrayed him? Today, he is often presented
as a unifying Karen leader, famous for his four principles and his
persistence to achieve the goal of a Karen state. However, several
people remember him personally as someone who would clearly have
preferred to solve things peacefully. As a passionate lawyer who
respected regulations, someone who was open to compromise, and
certainly not a hardliner (Thawnghmung, 2012, 47–49). However, Saw
Ba U Gyi was also greatly disappointed by the British and the newly
set up Burmese government alike, both of which largely ignored the
demands of the Karen he represented. He had witnessed the horrendous
deaths of many friends and fellow Karen in the 1942 Myaungmya
incident, and he was under pressure to bring forward the wishes of
many who feared repression and revenge by Burmans more generally and
the Burmese military more specifically.
people’s fears were not unfounded. The “Karen conflict“ should
develop into a decade-long brutal war. The Tatmadaw attacked the KNU
controlled areas viciously, killing thousands and displacing even
more. Entire communities were forced to hide in the jungles. At times
more than 120.000 lived in refugee camps in Thailand, and tens of
thousands still do. For a long period, the Karen National Union held
large parts of the country’s Karen state under its control.
Financed mainly through cross-border trade and taxation, the KNU
managed to set up state-like structures, including an elected
leadership, a strong army and several civil organizations, such as a
women’s groups and a youth group. However, the KNU, despite being
one of the most influential ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, is far
from representing all Karen. Many sub-groups have emerged and there
is a high degree of fragmentation among the Karen. Moreover, the
majority of the Karen people do not live in Karen state, and thus far
away from the KNU controlled territories. And while most Karen are
Buddhists, the KNU has from the very beginning been dominated by an
educated Christian Sgaw Karen elite. Internal conflicts and
fragmentation within the KNU have led to the foundation of several
armed splinter groups, such as the Buddhist-led DKBA in 1994.
Conflicts between different armed Karen groups, shifting loyalties,
and repeated attacks by the Tatmadaw have weakened the organisation
over the years. Nevertheless, identification with the KNU remains
strong in the refugee camps on Thai ground and probably among many
communities living in Karen state, not least because these were
directly affected by violent conflicts in past decades. The KNU
remains one of the most important non-state parties in peace process
negotiations. Its current leader Saw Mutu Say Poe has signed a
ceasefire with the Burmese government in 2012. However, new clashes
have occurred since then and the conflict seems far from over. Karen
leaders have repeatedly emphasized that their struggle does not aim
for an independent state, but for a life in peace and without fear,
for being able to preserve their culture and language, for a Karen
area under Karen leaders. Its founder’s role today is a symbolic one.
For many, Saw Ba u Gyi remains the face of the Karen struggle. His
photo is omnipresent in KNU-influenced areas (including refugee
camps) in people’s homes and in public buildings, and especially
during celebrations, where as a symbol, it serves the reproduction
and performance of “Karen-ness“. As always, collective ethnic
identity is also defined in distinction to “the other“, in this
case mostly the Bamar. Keeping the struggle alive is thus also a
continuing manifestation of differences, in ethnicity and religion,
long fostered and instrumentalized by different sides, during the
rule of Burmese Kings, during colonial time, during military years.
For most Karen people on the ground the struggle has first and
foremost been about hopes for safety, respect, and the freedom to
keep and perform their ethnic identity.
want to thank Paul Sztumpf, the grandson of Saw Ba U Gyi, for sharing
information and his views with me in an email correspondence.
Paul (2008). Saw Ba U Gyi. Voices of the Revolution. KHCPS paper.
Martin (1991): Burma. Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Zed
Paul (2011): The life and times of Saw Ba U Gyi. E-booklet.
Ashley (2011): Burma’s longest war. Anatomy of the Karen conflict.
Transnational Institute Burma Center Netherlands.
Ashley (2008): Ethnic
Politics in Burma: States
Ardeth Maung (2012): The „Other“ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic
Minorities And The Struggle Without Arms. Lexington Books.
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 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
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 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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
The surroundings of Saw Phar Dae’s village (Photos: Winterberger)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
exact numbers exist, but the percentage of Christian Karen is
estimated to be 25% (Gravers 2014: 175).
* The field trip for visiting Saw Phar Dae and this publication was financially supported by the Foundation for Research in Science and the Humanities at the University of Zurich (No. STWF-17-021).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
– 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.
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.
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
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
ethnic minority groups such as the Chinese in Myanmar were
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
flight to Beijing.
the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the so-called „Red
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.“
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
1992 to 2003 the country experienced a steady economic growth, which
is why Serge Pun often speaks of the first economic spring in
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).
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
being the Asian Wealth Bank (AWB) during the following years that
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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”.
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
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.
Serge Pun is
living in Yangon together with his wife and four sons. Despite his
Chinese roots, he poses as
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
of the turning away from the socialist economy
was the Foreign
issued already in November 1988, two
months after the coup.
date, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. ss
the only company in Myanmar, which is listed on an international
stock exchange. (China Daily).
describes a basic personalized network of relationships that plays a
central role in Chinese society.
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).
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)
International Finance Corp is the World Bank’s financing arm.
On May 1, 2018, a new shop, Matika,
opened in the middle block of Yangon’s 37th Street, replacing a restaurant
that had been offering traditional Myanmar food. The new shop offered a “window
in the past” as the Myanmar Times titled an article about the new
establishment from which the above picture is taken.1 The title, however, covers only a part of what
was displayed in the small shop in an old building from the country’s colonial
period. Besides old books on Burma, magazines, film posters, and badges from
the socialist period, the visitor can see and buy modern paintings hung on the
walls, also clothes, and silver or bronze jewelry – all made in Myanmar
and designed by the owner Aung Soe Min, as the article states. A visitor to the
new shop some time later could see a craftsman working on a bracelet in a room
behind the shop.
Aung Soe Min was born as one of three
brothers in November 1970 during the socialist era in Kyaukpadaung, a small
city close to Mount Popa, where he stayed in school until 1986. Already around
that time Aung Soe Min was certain that he wanted to become an artist. At an
early age he was interested in poetry, painting and especially writing. During
the socialist era many families in Burma, including Aung Soe Min’s, were struggling.
This was due to the country’s economic depression which peaked in 1987, that
resulted partly from the planned economic system enforced by the socialist
government. In addition to that, the youth of that time did not have many
educational opportunities. This is why Aung Soe Min studied engineering in 1987
at the Government Technical Institute of Chauk, a centre of Burma’s oil
industry close to Kyaukpadaung. To continue pursuing his goal of becoming an
artist, Aung Soe Min started to befriend several artists, booksellers and
intellectuals, and started to read and collect books himself . This was not an
easy thing to do due to the socialist government’s restrictive censorship
policies prohibiting a wide variety of books and forms of art.
While he was still studying, the student
movement of 1988 arose and students, as well as monks, started to demonstrate,
not only in Yangon but all over the country. Even in Kyaukpadaung several
political groups were formed. Aung Soe Min and his brothers participated in
producing „underground“ pamphlets and papers with information about the bad
ways of the socialist government and how to oppose it. They took part in
several strikes and demonstrations as well. On the “Four 8 Day”, 8.8.88, young
Aung Soe Min spent one night in a cell at the local police station.
At first he wasn’t sure whether or not he
would ever be allowed to go back to study after his involvement in the protests.
When he was, he had to pause in studying several times, because the school was
closed due to different strikes and governmental counter measures,like the
closures of schools after the 8888 uprising. Finally he finished his
studies in 1992. Afterwards Aung Soe Min moved to Yangon in 1993, where he had some small
jobs as an engineer to earn some money. More importantly he started his career
as an entrepreneur in the field of bookshops and publishing. Besides getting
involved with several bookshops and libraries, he started writing and
In 1995 Aung Soe Min was called to go
back to Kyaukpadaung to support his family, that was still struggling with
money problems related to the current political situation. There Aung Soe Min
helped found the first bookshop and the first library Kyaukpadaung had had in
over 30 years. Both are still being run by Aung Soe Min’s co-founders. According
to his own account, this method of starting a cultural business has been employed
some 30 times since then.
The method includes having an idea, the
knowledge to implement it, establishing a social network and in some cases one
to provide the money needed to get a small business going. This happened not
only in Kyaukpadaung but also in Yangon and other regions of the country later.
The businesses he founded and co-founded range from bookshops and libraries to
hairdressers and even the production of LED lamps.
While staying in Kyaukpadaung Aung Soe
Min also met his future wife Nance Cunningham, a Canadian who was working on
public health projects in Burma at that time. Nance has migrated to Myanmar
permanently but still must leave the country and renew her Visa every three
months, since it is not possible for a foreigner to become a citizen of Myanmar.
She is able to speak Burmese and other ethnic languages of the country, such as
Shan, and also speaks Thai, French and even some German. Because of her openly
voiced criticism of Myanmar’s military government, the authorities put her name
on the “black list“. As a consequence, she could not enter Myanmar for some
years and lived in Chiang Mai. There she managed an art gallery plus café.
Apart from her work in Yangon with Aung Soe Min, Nance is involved with several
international projects in the public health sector. In 2018, for example, she
lived in Pakistan for nine months, working on a project supported by the
Shortly after Aung Soe Min went back to
Yangon in 1999, he and Nance moved into an old downtown flat on the eighth
floor – without an elevator –in Seikkantha Street. From the beginning, the
place was partly living space and partly treasure trove for everyone interested
in Burmese history and culture. The flat hosted a huge and varied archive, with
stamps, coins, books, paintings and other pieces of art, postcards, newspapers,
books, historical films, colonial files and even some archaeological pieces.
From that point on the two of them started to invent cultural projects and to
invest in them. Many of these pieces are still at the couple’s flat; many
others have been moved to other places – some of them in 2018 to the Matika
The somewhat chaotic archive was a first
step to becoming prominent in Yangon’s emerging lively and diverse history,
culture and art scene. Besides being a collector, Aung Soe Min is an artist
(painting and music), film maker, writer and publisher.
August 2008, the couple opened the Pansodan Art Gallery “in
order to provide a possibility to Myanmar artists to present their
works both to the local and international scene” as Aung Soe Min
worded it. This so called art space holds paintings of over
200 Myanmar artists, many of them are contemporary but due to the
hand in hand development of archive and gallery one can also find
many older and rare pieces of artists like Khin Maung Yin or Bagyi
Aung Soe. The thought behind initiating the gallery was to provide a
space for any kind of Myanmar painter to show his or her art and
providing an opportunity to sell it.
alIn June 2013, another enterprise was opened in the middle block of Pansodan Street – Pansodan Scene. In another colonial building, public events take place and people are invited to enjoy the paintings on the walls and having a chat over a coffee or a soft drink. Later, around 2016 the restaurant Anya Atha was opened in 37th Street, offering traditional food from central Myanmar where Aung Soe Mins is from, was opened, different to some of his other places this restaurant was frequented by many Myanmar people enjoying the excellent traditional and yet cheap food. This restaurant was than in 2018 converted into the (book) shop Matika.
and cultural entrepreneurship
Being born in the socialist era, participating – albeit not in a leading role – in the country’s popular revolution of 1988 and seeing the country being drawn into yet another military dictatorship, Aung Soe Min developed his ideas to contribute to an animated political culture supporting a democratic government fin in a bottom-up manner. In his view, a stable society of the country has to rest upon the awareness of the country’s history in its manifold forms instead of the respective government’s propaganda. Aung Soe Min knows that this is a rather ambitious program that seems impossible to achieve in Myanmar – still this idea set the spark for building up a collection that by now might be the countries biggest private archive that is meant to serve the public interest.
to Aung Soe Min, the idea behind his above described model of
entrepreneurship is and was to carry out a certain kind of
development work mainly for friends and family but also for people
that just consulted him with their problems and ideas. As soon as a
project idea had grown and become stable enough to stand on its own
feet and other people were confident to carry on themselves, Aung Soe
Min would retreat from the business. It seems that this concept
worked out not because he was able to provide the money one would
need, he mentions that he started some businesses with not much more
than 500 kyats, but because Aung Soe Min was brave enough to try
some basic enterprises like the two Pansodan places are still
directly supervised by him and Nance. Art galleries have a long
tradition in Burma but due to censorship restrictions the art shown
there was purely traditional in the past and exhibitions showing
“modern art” were almost impossible for a long time. All works
exhibited had to be checked by a government official. That resulted
in the prohibition of displaying any piece of work that according to
the government’s ideology was regarded as nonconformist and
displaying “western” culture. Pansodan Gallery opened in 2008
shortly after the censorship restrictions had been eased and was one
of the first galleries in Myanmar to show works by a wide range of
contemporary Myanmar artists.
Soe Min says, that through both the gallery and the archive he tries
to continue his own interpretation of the 8888 uprisings idea of
freedom of art and freedom and expression and tries to support and
contribute to building and engaging an intellectual and creative
society. He himself is also still engaged in painting, sculpture
making, poetry writing, screen writing, making and producing music
and shooting feature length movies.
his many selfless activities, Aung Soe Min and his wife obviously
have a hand for entrepreneurship. They managed to build up a small
empire and a much bigger network within and outside of Yangon. He
doesn’t like to talk about money and about how all his ideas are
being financed but one can assume that some money comes in from all
the different ventures he has founded and in some cases abandoned
later. Aung Soe Min can probably be seen as both an important
collector and artist that with his ideas has and will contribute to
an uprising scene of culture and intellectuals in Yangon and Myanmar
and as a clever Myanmar businessman that knows how to use the unique
opportunities that old Burma and current Myanmar
now, Pansodan Gallery has developed to become a meeting space for
Myanmar artists and intellectuals as well as for foreigners, both
tourists and expats. One reason for this development were the weekly
Tuesday night parties hosted by Nance and Aung Soe Min. Here
foreigners and Burmese met and had the opportunity to chat and drink.
Very quickly, this jour fixe became very well known all over
Yangon. In 2018 however this tradition was terminated, another sign
of the mobility of the “project designer”
two “Pansodan places” offer special ways of cultural exchange
that Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham have established. People who
are attending the events offered here via Facebook and other media
can get explanations and information on Myanmar’s history, current
issues and – of course – the artists. Many prominent western
scientists doing research on Myanmar gave talks at Pansodan Scene. In
addition to that Nance and Aung Soe Min published an English-Burmese
dictionary that holds a separate chapter on how to pronounce every
single Burmese word featured. In addition, weekly meetings to
practice Burmese language are offered, initiated by Nance who
participates herself when she is in town. These meetings however took
place at the Pansuriya, another cultural establishment founded with
Aung Soe Min’s assistance in Bo Galay Zay Street
near the Secretariat building offering food, art and historical
pictures hanging at the walls that is much frequented by foreigners.
Another evidence of the flexibility of the enterprises under
the guidance of the artist cum entrepreneur cum cultural cum social
activist is the transformation of the Pansodan Scene into an Art Café
offering food and drinks as well in early 2019. Chairs and tables
have been moved from the restaurant in 37 Street that is now the art
and book shop Matika.
assess Aung Soe Min’s impact is not yet possible, simply because it
is absolutely not finished yet. Like many Burmese, he is a man of
many talents and a man who exhibits the highest Buddhist virtue of
giving (dāna) in his own way – and without calling himself
a devote Buddhist.
biography is based on many talks with Aung Soe Min during the
internship of the author in the Pansodan Gallery and Pansodan Scene
in late 2016 and early 2017 and on information provided by people who
Pe Maung Tin is one of those rare Burmese scholars, who reached recognition beyond his own country. His work and personality have often received appreciation, also in English literature. It was in the 1920ies and 1930ies when he made his great contributions to Burmese society. His aim was, together with some Burmese and British friends, to make Burmese traditions meet the challenges of contemporary international modernity.
Pe Maung Tin was born on 24. April 1888, at Insein. His father, U Pe was superintendent of Insein Veterinary Department and his mother was Daw Myaing, both Baptist Christians from central Burma. U Tun Nyein, who compiled the well-known first English – Myanmar Dictionary and tramslated the Bible from English into Burmese, was his uncle from his father’s side. His maternal grandfather was the Taunghkwin (highest patriarch) of the Buddhist sangha of Upper Burma. He was known as “Maung Tin” during the first years of his life and added his father’s name later.
Despite coming from a Christian family, he received his primary education from 1893 to 1896 at a private school where he was taught classical Buddhist texts. In 1896 he changed to a government high school in Rangoon where he won his first prize at the age of 14. More prizes followed after he entered college. At the age of 15 he led a boycott at his school to protest the custom of joining hands in a prayer gesture when addressing foreign teachers. The order was revoked afterwards. In 1906 he entered Rangoon College and studied Pali and finished his M.A. in 1911. Only one year later, he became professor after his teacher, a European, had been promoted to another post.
From the beginning of his academic career Pe Maung Tin associated himself with other scholars both from Burma and abroad. He was a founding member of the Burmese Research Society in 1910 and contributed many articles to its journal. His first article entitled “Missionary Burmese”, a critique of the linguistic skills of foreign missionaries, appeared in its first issue in 1911. He acted as the first editor of the journal and became treasurer of the society in 1912. As professor of Pali, he had contacts with Pali Text Society based in London and from 1916 on he started to translate canonical Pali texts into English as well as Burmese.
In 1920, the year of the founding of Rangoon University, he went to London and studied in Oxford and London until 1924. His contacts with the Pali Text Society and its presidents, Thomas (until his death in 1922) and Caroline Rhys Davies, intensified. During the time he spent in England he compiled a ground breaking translation of a historical Burmese work, the Glass Palace Chronicle. The chronicle was compiled in the first half of the 19th century at the royal court in Amarapura. Pe Maung Tin’s translation was published in 1923. The work was a joint venture with Gordon C. Luce (1889-1978), professor of English literature in Rangoon since 1911 who had married Pe Maung Tin’s younger sister in 1915. It was a translation that showed Pe Maung Tin’s qualities as a historian as well. Luce and Pe Maung Tin became lifelong friends. Their cooperation helped the British professor to become a leading expert on Burmese ancient history. With regard to the translation of the Pali text, Pe Maung Tin laid the fundement and his brother-in-law polished the English style.
After his return to Burma, he continued his work as a professor and laid the foundations for the university’s “Oriental Department”, comprising Pali und Burmese studies. One main impact of his teaching was the emergence of a new literary movement in Burma called khit-san (“testing the age”) that started with articles, short stories and poems written by some of his students in a “modern” style.
the other hand, Pe Maung Tin supported John S. Furnivall, the
co-founder of the Burma Research Society, in his efforts to promote
the intellectual advancement of the country by educational means. One
instrument to achieve this aim was the bilingual monthly periodical
TheWorld of Books published from 1925 on, another one
was the Burma Education Extension Education Association
established in 1928 promoting reading circles and encouraging people
to contribute to the monthly periodical.
1928, he married Daw Kyi Kyi, called Edith, in
an Anglican church.
The couple had two daughters.
In 1937, Pe Maung Tin was the first Burmese to be appointed principal of University College and during the Japanese occupation he had to serve as the chairman of the university’s advisory board. In 1946, he retired. After he continued to write articles on a variety of topics in the field of linguistics, literature and history. The bibliography of his works contains 227 entries.
1957-58 Pe Maung Tin visited the United States to lecture on Buddhism
at the University of Chicago which awarded him an honorary
doctorate. In Kuala Lumpur in May 1959 he attended the
inaugural assembly of the East Asia Christian Conference. The Burmese
U Kyaw Than was elected general secretary at
Today, the organisation,
Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in 1973,
Pe Maung Tin
later went to China as a member of a cultural exchange delegation. In
1961 he contributed to the first Buddhist-Christian dialogue of South
East Asia, which was held by the East Asia Christian Conference under
U Kyaw Than at Holy Cross College, Yangon. He made a critical comment
on the cultural approach of Western missionaries. This dialogue
proved to be an important Asian input to the first assembly of the
World Council of Churches in Asia in New Delhi 1961.
1960 to 1964, Pe Maung Tin served as chairman of the Burma Historical
Commission. He led the Burma Translation Society in compiling the
Burmese Encyclopedia. In 1968 the Burmese Research Society marked his
80th birthday with a special celebration. During his retirement he
served as professor of the Holy Cross College, Yangon, one of
the leading theological seminaries of Burma affiliated to the
Anglican Church. As a practising Christian, he was as a founding
member of the Burma Christian Council, and took charge of the
Christian Literature Society. He was the chairman of the Study
Commission on Buddhism of the Burma Council of Churches.
Maung Tin died on 22 March 1973.
Aims and Achievements
Pe Maung Tin was keenly aware of the “clash of cultures” – the
political confrontation with European colonialism and culture, and
the religious encounter with Christianity, mainly from US-American
background. His response was the profound study of history and
culture of his own country. At the same time, he reflected his
personal position at the cultural crossroads, being a Christian in a
Buddhist country. His answer was to support a natural patriotic
spirit vis-a-vis the colonial presence, together with his great
effort of deep reciprocal respect, understanding, trustfulness and
response to the cultural challenges by colonialism was to emphasise
the importance of Myanmar language (b’ma)
for the cultural development of Myanmar as a nation, and also the
importance of the establishment of a literary and intellectual
climate in Myanmar that would combine the traditions of the country
with those coming from abroad. That is why he made strenuous efforts
for the higher qualification of Myanmar language and literature in
his life time. One of his achievements was that all schools whether
government or missionary, were required to teach compulsory Myanmar
language in their studies. At the same time, he sharply criticized
his fellow Christians, for not studying Pali and Myanmar language and
Buddhist culture. He was interested in the two cultures to meet,
despite the colonial context
of the time favouring anti-western sentiments.
He later extended his insights in the fundamental role of language as a medium of intercultural exchange. In March 1954, a three-day seminar on linguistics was held in Rangoon which aimed as using this academic discipline as a tool to bridge the cultural differences between Burma and the English speaking world as well as between the different linguistic and ethnic groups. A newspaper article that possibly was written by Pe Maung Tin but certainly was inspired by his intentions, summarised the intentions of the seminar thus.
We in Burma are very much concerned at the present time with the findings of linguistics because they can be of immense help to us in certain entirely new tasks which we have undertaken. One of these is the teaching of English as a foreign language. […] We need […] to find the most efficient means of teaching English to our people so that they gain a working knowledge of the language in a relatively short space of time. […] Besides this, linguistics can help us in the study and classification of the indigenous languages of the country, a task which becomes increasingly important […]. Linguistics is an important key to efficiency in all these tasks since it provides an understanding of one of the most complex, yet most basic activities of any group of people, their language, which means their method of communication with one another.1
linguistic research is linked to the necessity of meaningful
communication inside Myanmara multi-ethnic mulit-lingual country, and
at the same time the necessity of using English as a second
language taught in the schools besides Burmese.
Pe Maung Tin was an intellectual and a reformer who tried to use his
great talents to reconcile Burmese traditions and western modernity.
As an outstanding scholar in the late colonial period he exerted some
influence on the literary scene of the country that tried to
to the world without losing its cultural identity.
Pe Maung Tin’s attempt to combine Burmese traditions with western modernity was only partly welcomed by the young revolutionaries who became the leaders towards independence. The cultural revolution on which their political activities was based, was not a dialogue between the Burmese and the western “world of books”, but a “Burmanisation” of the contemporary knowledge and literature. The young members from the Thakin movement – Nu, Soe, Than Tun and Aung San – founded the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club that published books in Burmese language only in the interest of supporting a political revolution by cultural means.2 After the war had started in Europe, this group exchanged the pen with the sword and finally achieved independence with the help of a national army.
to the literal and political nationalism of the Thakins and their
mass followers, the cultural reform that Pe Maung Tin wanted to
support could be termed “cosmopolitan”. Looking for a sound
cultural base for Myanmar citizens, Pe Maung Tin advocated making use
of a blend of cultures to be comprised in the texts of national
textbooks as well as in the sermons of Christian preachers.
attitude is founded in his love of the literature and culture of
Myanmar, accompanied by an estimation of European traditions of
academic enquiry. This attitude did never represent the mainstream of
Burma’s political culture. It was rather characterised by external
and internal confrontation due to the memories of colonial rule and
ongoing civil war that commenced shortly after independence.
the military coup of 1962, Burma became a secular
general Ne Win’s leadership. The “Burmese Way to Socialism”
which was implemented, dramatically affected not only Burma’s
cultural climate, but also all other segments of Burmese life. Pe
Maung Tin was not directly affected by the „climate change“
during which a Burmese “union culture” was promoted corresponding
to a strict political neutrality and economic self-reliance. Cultural
exchanges with neighbouring countries and as well with the West, were
no longer encouraged.
were others that felt the consequences of the new order. Gordon Luce,
Pe Maung Tin’s brother-in-law, was ordered to leave the country in
1964. His wife was asked by the top leader to stay, but she
accompanied her husband. His huge library was impounded by the
authorities and Daw Tee Tee, Pe Maung Tin’s sister, was even
stripped of her wedding ring because no jewellery was allowed
to leave the country.3
It is not
known how Pe Maung Tin reacted to such harsh treatment of his friend
and his sister. He did not witness the end of the Burma Research
Society and its journal that was terminated by the government in
Pe Maung Tin is still admired as an intellectual genius in Myanmar
but as a rather singular
one. Not many contemporaries follow his approach today in the present
climate of a new Myanmar nationalism and massive Western criticism of
consecutive Myanmar governments. Pe
Maung Tin’s cosmopolitan” approach to reconcile Burmese and
western cultures ist still not realised.
Allott 2004 Professor Pe Maung Tin (1888-1973). The Life and Work of
an Outstanding Burmese Scholar. In: The Journal of Burma Studies
more details see the Myanmar Literature Project that published a
number of working papers on the Nagani Book Club:
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
 Myat Myat Ohn Khin was appointed as Minister for Social Welfare in September 2012.
Naw Ah Loh Wah Paw is on the national Myanmar women football team since 2007. She is the only Christian in the team, coming from the Kayah state. When moving from the strongly Christian village background to the national Training Centre for Myanmar in Yangon, she underwent a big personal change. She moved from her village to urban life. Her ethnic identity as a Kayah was confronted with the foreign dominant culture of a national majority, and with the plurality of cultures and religions, and with her own role as a football striker on the national level. Her biography shows the opening up towards trust in people who are different, by means of her role as team in the national team. The biography sheds some light on the role of sports in Myanmar.
2 Biographical sketch
Ah Loh Wah Paw was born on August 1, 1988 in the Demawhsoe Township of Kayah state, to her parents Saw Moody and Naw Yuti and their eight children. In her village she is brought up as a Christian child. At the age of 15 she moves to the big city of Yangon for physical education, and four years later she is made a Myanmar selected women football player.
This school and physical education is very hard, football training every afternoon 3:30- 5:30 PM, individual study in the morning (8:00 – 12:00 noon), lunch and break time between 12:00 and 3:30 PM, and in the evening from 7:00 – 9:00 PM again individual study.
When she was a child she had already been selected as a volleyball player of her school. Her teachers were impressed with her volleyball skills so they sent her on her career to education on the national level, with a government scholarship. Then she undergoes a heavy training schedule. In 2011, they are being trained by a Japanese coach. Her national team is now qualified for many Asian regional contests.
When moving onto the national level she follows one conviction: “to do her best for her country”. Every aspect of daily life is subordinate to this aim. When doing her physical training she used to get discouraged because she is the only Christian, and there is some discrimination against her because of her religion. But, as she says, by the grace of God, she gets a chance to go to church on Sunday. So she looked for a Baptist Church in Yangon which suited her local upbringing.
On the one hand she learns how to cope with this new pluralistic life within the framework of her religious tradition. Although she has to live among non-Christians, she never forgets God. She manages to overcome all difficulties she is facing with the courage and strength given by God. So in the end she no longer has problems in dealing with non-Christians, because since the time of her baptism, she has learned how to forgive. In this way, she says, she can proclaim the love of God.
On the other hand she makes the new experience of a team spirit in the national football team. They learn together on the pitch. Her experience is the unity and harmony among the players. Now she knows how to live peacefully and amicably with other people. There is mutual respect and mutual understanding between her and her non–Christian friends. They help each other when one is in need. She learns her lesson: Her friends are also loving, compassionate and helpful although they are not Christians.
3 Aims and Achievements
Ah Lo Wah Paw is exposed to a world very different from her childhood in a Kayah village. Her biography is a model for developing an approach to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The isolation of a closely knit community, and culture, is being opened up in an individual life span of a girl. As a young adult she can say: I am proud to serve my nation, on the football pitch. All this happens within the framework of military rule at that time.
The training makes a very remarkable contribution to her national identity. She learns the conviction that she is working not only for herself but also for her people and her country. When reflecting upon her career she realizes: She was born and bred in a small village in Kayah state, but she has managed to bring glory to her country Myanmar. She says: It is really praiseworthy. By scoring the only goal against the Laos team in 2011, Ah Lo Wah Paw helped the Myanmar team to to finish the ASEAN Football Federation’schampionship in 2011 as runner-up.
But at the same time she is loyal to her ethnic identity. She says: I will never forget Kayah State and Kayah people that I love very much. She is determined to help Kayah young people become good sports men and women, when she will have to retire from sports in the years to come.
This biography shows an impressive personal development within few years of one’s life. As a European, one can feel distanced by the black and white perception – there are either Christians, or there are non-Christians, there is the minority of the Kayah people, and there is the large country of Myanmar, member of the ASEAN. But at the same time one can feel the miracle of the British team spirit on the playground: the team spirit opens up the black and white world view. It is now possible to live in peace and friendship with people who are very different from me, even though they are Buddhists and Burmese, not Christian and Kayah. This is very moving.