Professor Tun Aung Chain (born 1933)

Biographic Essay

Thin Thin Aye


U Tun Aung Chain has been writing books and articles on Myanmar history. As a historian, his work is meticulously crafted, cleaves closely to the available evidence, stresses accuracy and precision, and rarely contends with issues for which the available data provides little guidance. In the course of his influential and productive career, he has published original works as well as translations, including the translation of U Kala’s The Great Chronicle (1597-1711), the first of the Myanmar national chronicles.

U Tun Aung Chain served in the University of Yangon for a great part of his life and belongs to the generation of post-colonial Myanmar historians who took Myanmar history into a new direction after Myanmar independence in 1948 as well as shaped the development of historical studies in the universities and colleges.

U Tun Aung Chain not only served in the University of Yangon for nearly 40 years but also continued his connection with the University after retirement as a part-time professor. I had the opportunity of not only being a student while he was Professor but also of having him as a referee for my PhD dissertation in 2005.


U Tun Aung Chain was born on 7 January 1933 in Myeik, southern Myanmar, while his father Dr Ba Than Chain was serving there as a Civil Surgeon. His mother was Daw Lucy Chain (née Hla Htoo). He has four siblings, two of them medical doctors, the others a mining engineer and a theologian. He was brought up in Pathein, his father’s native town, where his early education was in St Joseph’s Convent. His education, interrupted by the Second World War, was resumed after the War with a year at the Bahan Post-Primary School in Yangon and then the Kothabyu Sgaw Karen High School in Pathein run by the American Baptist Mission.

Matriculating in 1949, he graduated from the University of Yangon in 1954 with an Honours degree in history and the Moay Twe Main Gold Medal for standing first in his class. He joined the Department of History as a tutor in 1954 and, except for five years at the University of Mandalay and a few months at Mawlamyine University (then still a College), spent the whole of his academic career in the University of Yangon until retiring as Professor in 1993. With leave of absence granted by the University, he pursued postgraduate studies at Harvard on scholarships of the Rockefeller and Asia Foundations and spent a year as Visiting Scholar a year at Cornell University as a Fulbright Fellow, a year at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and a few months at the Institute of Asian Studies of Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok) on the invitation of the host institutions. Other brief absences from the University included a fortnight at the University of Philippines, Diliman, as Visiting Lecturer on the South East Asian Studies Regional Exchange Programme, and study tours of higher education institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Federal Republic of Germany, Japan and the People’s Republic of China arranged by the host countries.

Tun Aung Chain in Kayin dress

Although U Tun Aung Chain’s contribution to the University as it went through several changes was mainly with regard to the academic programme in history, he also played a major role in the creation of two new departments at the University, the Department of International Relations and the Department of Archaeology, giving shape to their initial programmes and helped staffing them using the resources of the Department of History.

The resources of the History Department were also drawn upon in two projects of national significance in whose implementation U Tun Aung Chain served as Secretary. The first, commissioned by the Burma Socialist Programme Party, resulted in the publication of five volumes on the traditions and customs of five national minorities, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin and Shan, with the Kayah volume accomplished by the Department of Anthropology and the other four by the Department of History. The second project, commissioned by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, was a study of the reasons for the military coup of 2nd March 1962 which had a profound and far-reaching effect on Myanmar’s post-independence development. The project resulted in the publication of two works: the two-volume The 1947 Constitution and the Nationalities, and the three-volume Myanmar Politics (1958-1962).

U Tun Aung Chain’s effort to promote historical studies and scholarship extended beyond the University. The Myanmar Historical Commission was established in 1955 to create a credible past based on sound scholarship for the nascent nation. However, in the general reorganization of administration in 1972, the Commission was turned into a regular government department, depriving it of the senior scholars which had aided and guided its efforts. With the revival of the Commission in 1991, U Tun Aung Chain became a member, then Secretary in 1996, which enabled him, together with other members of the Commission, to aid and guide the work of the research staff and to fittingly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Commission in 2005 with a Conference which attracted many international scholars and the publication of the writings of twelve members of the Commission in the series Selected Writings. Currently, U Tun Aung Chain continues to be a part-time member of the Commission and to contribute occasional articles to its Myanmar Historical Research Journal.

Another initiative in history in which U Tun Aung Chain played a part was the establishment of the SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition in 2000 which emphasized Myanmar’s commitment to the SEAMEO vision of “enhancing regional understanding and cooperation in education, science and culture for a better quality of life in Southeast Asia.” He was active in the preparations for establishing the Centre, served briefly as Centre Director, and lectured on Bagan art and architecture in the Centre’s programme for regional understanding, “Myanmar History from Myanmar Perspectives.”

U Tun Aung Chain’s work not only extended beyond the University but also beyond history. For a great number of years he served on two committees of the Sarpay Beikman, established in 1947 with the motto, “Light Where Darkness Was.” Both committees were responsible for the annual National Literary Awards; he served firstly on the committee for manuscripts, then later on the committee for published works. His contact with literary scholars and critics as well as with current literary works through the Sarpay Beikman enriched his work on history.

Aims and Achievements

When the Department of History was established in the University of Yangon in 1921, the history curriculum, patterned on those of British universities, was confined to British and European history, Following Myanmar independence in 1948, an effort was made in the 1950s to expand the history curriculum and U Tun Aung Chain was one of the scholars sent abroad to develop the study of East Asian history in the University. With the advent of a military government in 1962 and a policy of national isolation, it became difficult to further develop the programme of East Asian history. U Tun Aung Chain’s attention therefore turned towards Myanmar history for which there were abundant resources within the country.

U Tun Aung Chain has written much on Myanmar history and some of his books have received literary awards: the Tun Foundation Literary Award in 2011, the Dr Tin Shwe Literary Award in 2014, and the National Literary Award in 2015. He has also been named Ambassador of Peace (Shantidut) by the Peace Movement Trust in India in 2016 and his literary work and scholarship given recognition by the Lifetime Literary Achievement Award in 2019 and the title Theippa Kyawswa (Outstanding Scholar) in 2020. Among his outstanding books are:

A Chronicle of the Mons, awarded the Tun Foundation Literary Award in 2012, is a translation of a text in Myanmar of an earlier Mon text which is now lost. For a great part of Myanmar history, the Mons occupied southern Myanmar, while the Bamars (now the majority population) occupied the north. There was warfare between the two, the earliest in the 11th century with the conquest of the Mon kingdom of Thaton by the Bamars in AD 1057 providing the stimulus for the development of Bagan, and the last in the middle of the 18th century when a brief resurgence of the Mons in the south which resulted in the downfall of the penultimate Myanmar kingdom was ended by Alaungpaya who established the last Myanmar dynasty. This history of conflict between north and south has resulted in the loss of many Mon records and writings so that there is a paucity of Mon chronicles and historical writings. A Chronicle of the Mons, which covers Mon history from the legendary arrival of the Buddha at Suvannabhumi to the reign of Daka Ratpi (Benefactor of the Three Gems, 1525-1539), is mainly anecdotal and does not have the solidity of Myanmar chronicles, but is still of value because of the rarity of Mon historical writings.

Flowing Waters: Dipping into Myanmar History was awarded the Dr Tin Shwe Literary Award in 201. It contains is a collection of nine articles studying Myanmar history from the late 11th to the early 20th centuries. The lead article, “Flowing Waters, Freshening Life: The Ayeyarwady in the Late 18th Century”, studies Myanmar social and economic life along the Ayeyarwady river, running through the Myanmar heartland uniting north and south, in the late 18th century, the high noon of traditional Myanmar society and culture which was to come to an end in the course of the 19th century as the British annexed the country and brought about a sea change. Two articles deal with Bagan, one on financial transactions, the other on its gardens. There are also two articles on the Chinese in Myanmar in the early part of the 20th century, one providing a demographic profile based on the 1931 census, the other providing profiles of some prominent members in the early 20th century. They came from Guangdong and Fujian, escaping from the conditions of dynastic decline, fitted in and made their way in a Myanmar society in change under British colonial rule, such as Ho Wah Kain, starting his business with the sale of opium and spirits on licence, then graduating to rice milling, and creating endowments in the University of Yangon in his name and that of his wife, Moay Twe Main, for awarding medals to outstanding students.

Maung Yin Maung and Ma Mè Ma, awarded the National Literary Award in 2014, is a translation of a work of historical significance published in 1904 as the first Myanmar novel. Traditionally, Myanmar literature had been created in a court setting, with monks or those with a monastic education writing for an elite circle. The author of Maung Yin Maung and Ma Mè Ma, James Hla Gyaw, had been brought up in a Christian setting, educated in a Christan institution, St John’s College in Yangon, and served as an interpreter at Mandalay soon after the British annecation of the Myanmar kingdom in 1886. He wrote for an emerging Myanmar middle class, reaching out to them through the use of the printing press. The setting of the novel was in the first half of the 19th century, with the main character, Maung Yin Maung, the son of a merchant carrying on trade along the Ayeyarwady in a large cargo boat. Maung Yin Maung is accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the King and imprisoned, but escapes in the manner of Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and goes through a series of trials and hardship before restoration to his position and reunion with Ma Mè Ma, the bride from whom he had been separated by his arrest on their wedding night. To his readers of the middle class in British colonial society, James Hla Gyaw gave the message of exertion, comparing Maung Yin Maung to the Buddha in his existence as Mahājanaka when he perfected the virtue of exertion. U Tun Aung Chain’s translation was hailed as “an excellent example of the few Myanmar novels available to the world in English.”


U Tun Aung Chain belongs to a generation whose education was adversely affected by the Second World War. Yet that generation made an effort to overcome that handicap and, in the period following Myanmar independence, when a great wave of young Myanmars was sent to premier universities in the United Kingdom and the United States in order to fill the gaps in government departments and the University of Yangon created by the departure of British and Indian staff, made a success of the opportunity offered and returned to build Myanmar as an emerging nation. By the 1950s the returning wave of scholars had resulted not only in the departments of the University of Yangon being headed by Myanmars but also in the establishment of new departments.

As a member of that generation tasked with the building of the new Myanmar, U Tun Aung Chain has, throughout his career in the University of Yangon, tried to develop and advance the academic study of history. As his interest turned towards Myanmar history, he has, with other members of his generation, tried to develop and take Myanmar history into new directions. Furthermore, in order to acquaint the world with the new directions being taken in Myanmar history, he has published most of his work in English.

As the universities of Myanmar embark on a new period of growth and development, U Tun Aung Chain remains a shining light, inspiring a new generation of Myanmar historians towards higher levels of achievement.

Works of U Tun Aung Chain


  • Selected Writings of Tun Aung Chain. Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2004.
  • Broken Glass: Pieces of Myanmar History. Yangon: SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, 2004.
  • Texts and Images: Glimpses of Myanmar History, Yangon: SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, 2011.
  • Flowing Waters: Dipping into Myanmar History, Yangon: Myanmar Knowledge Society, 2013.
  • Founders: Yangon: Department of History, University of Yangon, 2020.


  • The Minami Organ, by Izumiya Tatsurō, Yangon: Department of Higher Education, 1981.
  • Chronicle of Ayutthaya, Anonymous, Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2005.
  • A Chronicle of the Mons, Anonymous, Yangon: SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, 2010.
  • Maung Yin Maung and Ma Mè Ma, by James Hla Gyaw, Yangon: Myanmar Knowledge Society, 2014.
  • The Great Chronicle (1597 – 1711), by U Kala, Yangon; Myanmar Knowledge Society, 2016.

Supplement to Thin Thin Aye’s biographic essays of Professor Tun Aung Chain

I am a fan of the few articles written by Tun Aung Chain that I have read whom I had the chance to meet at different occasions. One of the was the Kayin New Year Festival celebrated in the compound of a Buddhist monastery in Insein where he delivered a speech. I did not not understand anything he said but it was clear that he was a very respected member of the Kayin community. Some time later, I acquired his „Selected Writing“ published by the Myanmar Historical Commission of which he was the Vice Chairman (see bibliographical note of Thin Thin Aye’s essay). I noticed a particular approach taken by him towards historic research that appealed to me because the reconstruction of past events were linked to the present in a sophisticated and unobtrusive way allowing the reader to draw his own conclusion.

I was therefore not surprised to learn later that Professor Saw Tun Aung Chain – the “Saw” denoting him as a Sgaw Kayin – had got engaged in the peace talks between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the military government. He combined his scientific work with practical public service. The following remarks shed some light on his way of combining historical research and practical engagement.

1 Highlighting the meaning of history

I would like to illustrate Tun Aung Chain’s special approach to historical research by the first and ninth contribution of the collection of his writings published in the volume that I acquired. Th first essay deals with a review of a famous – and rare – joint venture in the history of Burmese scholarship, the translation of the Glass Palace Chronicles into English by Pe Maung Tin and his British brother-in-law Gordon Luce published for the first time in 1921 by the newly founded Burma Research Society and reprinted many times since then. The work is widely acclaimed as a pioneering work throwing „much light on the mentality of the Burmese as well as on their history“ as an early reviewer worded it in 1924.1

In an article written to honour Pe Maung Tin on his 110th birthday in 1998, Tun Aung Chain point to some shortcomings of the work, particularly with regard to the Burmese author who did the main work of translation. He notes that the chronicle, commissioned by king Badyidaw after the first Anglo-Burmese War, is not just a „copy“ of previous chronicles but a notable step forward in Burmese historiography. Tun Aung Chain further notes that the reasons for not translating the first chapters of the chronicle dealing with the „legendary“ prehistory of the Burmese kingdoms given by Pe Maung Tin, are „a bit unreasonable“. These parts are important because they

set down the fundamental principles on which Myanmar kings are to guide their action […], and furnish an ideal of kingship in the life and activities of Asoka. (Tun Aung Chain 2004:

This way, Tun Aung Chain contributed to a developed interpretation of the chronicles as not just containing historical „facts“ but also the „meaning“ of history in the context of Burmese royal history that might influence the country’s modern history as well. He closes his review with the comment that the book still is a „great monument“ but a „monumental reproach to us“ as well because the missing parts of the translation have not yet been translated – and thus the hope expressed by the first reviewer in 1924 was still unfulfilled.

The second article is the text of a lecture given in 1980 at Cornell University entitles „Legitimation Ploys in 18th century Myanmar“. It commences with a general statement to introduce the foreign listeners to a difference between Burma and the West.

In Myanmar there are two measures of time: the Western calendar and the Myanmar lunar calendar. All important official documents are dated both in the Western and Myanmar manner. Since the Myanmar political leadership lives in two kinds of time, there can be varied responses to the question of legitimacy. On the one hand, there can be constituencies, parliaments and elections, and, on the other, the building of pagodas, the purification of the sangha,2 etc. (Tun Aung Chain 2004: 151)

He illustrates this observation on the example of achieving legitimacy in the establishment of the last Burmese dynasty by king Alaungphaya, the founder of the last Burmese royal dynasty. He argues that the king used two traditional concepts, hpon and dhammaraja, to underpin his legitimacy to rule over the power centres of the region. Both terms designate the quality of the ruler but include a quantitative element. Hpon, meaning „merit“ (as in the word for a monk, hpon-gyi, great merit), „glory“ and „power“ is an attribute in which past merits and present achievements come together and result in the claim that the particular „owner“ is superior to others as a ruler. The concept of the dhammaraja (Dhamma-King) is connected to the idea that the present ruler has the qualities toe become a future Buddha.

Alaungphaya used these concepts skilfully in many ways, one of them being to build pagodas both in his home town Shwebo on the place where his parents had lived and in Bago. Through these buildings as well as his proclamations of promoting the religion together with uniting the various power centres, Alaungphaya symbolically legitimised his authenticity to rule.

Tun Aung Chain closes his presentation with another general remark on „one aspect of the traditional Burmese state“:

The actual apparatus of administration and control was very flimsy, and therefore one of the important props of the state was an image of kingship which was in great part created and sustained by symbolic action. (Tun Aung Chain 2004: 161).

The sentence might be regarded as an invitation to the reader to draw conclusions about what is happening today. The two versions of measuring Myanmar time are still in use. The same applies to the and legitimation of political power. One may conclude that Tun Aung Chain used his research on history to stimulate critical reflections about present developments.

2 Engagement for peace

From the rare sources available to me one can conclude that Tun Aung Chain got involved in the peace talks form the beginning of direct contacts between the military junta that took over the government in 1988 and the Karen National Union (KNU) the political representation of the Kayin that had started a rebellion against the Burmese government shorty after independence.3 In December 1995, he was one of six members of a Kayin “group comprising of peace intermediaries”4. He continued to be pa member of this advisory group to the Kayin political and military leaders for some years. Shortly after in January 2012, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Myanmar government and the KNU, Tun Aung Chain was reported to be the Honorary Moderator of the Kayin “Peace Support Team” located in Insein where he lived.5 He was almost 80 years old at that time.

In his double role as a respected member of the Kayin community and a historian teaching at Myanmar’s most most prestigious university, Tun Aung Chain addressed the two sides who had been involved in an armed conflict since early 1949. Over the years, he spoke on various occasions to his fello Kayin and “highlighted the need for a creative response to the challenges facing the Karen community.”6

On the other hand, a number of his academic writings can be seen as suggesting a change of the state’s use of history to justify the claim that multi-ethnic Myanmar from the beginning had been a united nation. This was most clearly expressed in an article written in 2000 in which Tun Aung Chain outlined three attempts of Burmese writers to historically underpin a statement of Burma’s first Prime Minister U Nu declared on 4 January 1948, Independence Day, “that although Mons, Burmans, Rakhines, Kayins, Shans, Kachins and Chins each live by their own culture they come together before the world as a single nation.”7 It was the later UN General Secretary U Thant who wrote a three-volume history of Burma on U Nu’s request. Two more accounts followed in the scialist period after 1962, the last officially endorsed by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) that ruled Burma between 1974 and 1988.

Tun Aung Chain closes his review of the three records:

A type of history emerged in post-independent Myanmar which attempted to make itself politically relevant and of use in the nation-building effort. In an ethnically diverse and problematic situation, the creation of Myanmar nationhood was high among the priorities of nation-building, and the aspiration of Myanmar nationhood was projected back into the historical past. Addressing itself to the general public and not to a critical scholarly audience, the history resorted to a number of simplifications and unhistorical positions. Rather than thinking of nationhood as a process developing in the course of history, it regarded nationhood as an underlying constant of Myanmar history innate through the political fluctuations of the Bamar history. Bearing the weight of traditional Myanmar historiography, it conceived of the Bamar centre from the Bagan dynasty to the Konbaung as the centre of Myanmar nationhood without taking into account other equally valid political and cultural centres – Mon, Rakhine and Shan – of Myanmar nationhood. Thinking of nationhood primarily in political terms, it did not take into account the social and cultural interactions which contribute to the development of Myanmar nationhood. Since the creation of Myanmar nationhood out of its ethnic diversity still remains high on the agenda of Myanmar nation-building, the formulation of a more sophisticated history of Myanmar nationhood still remains as a challenge to Myanmar historians.8

Some two decades later, the mentioned “challenge” still exists. The preamble of the constitution of 2008 shows that an unsophisticated Bamar-centred historical perspective still dominates. Its first paragraph can be seen as a summary of the previous attempts to historically “unify” Myanmar from the Bagan period onward:

Myanmar is a Nation with magnificent historical traditions. We, the National people, have been living in unity and oneness, setting up an independent sovereign state and standing tall with pride.

Given the still were problematic course of Myanmar’s recent development, it seems quite clear to me that Tun Aung Chain’s writings deserve to be read not just in Myanmar but outside the country as well. As the biographical essays shows, a number of his writings are available in English, but just a few are available in western libraries and book shops.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner, November 2021

1Review of C.O. Blagden in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 56,1: 19 (; accessed 2.5.2021).

2This remark refers to the reform adopted by the Burmese Sangha on the initiative of Ne Win’s government in the year of holding the lecture.

3For more information on the conflict see the biographies of

4The Karen and Their Struggle for Freedom: 19 (; accessed 31.10.2021).

5KNU » Myanmar Peace Monitor ( (accessed 1.11.2021).

6Alan Saw U 2007 Reflections in Confidence-building and Cooperation among Ethnic Groups in Myanmar: The Karen Case. N. Ganesan and Khyaw Yin Hlaing, Myanmar. State, Society and Identity. Singapore, ISEAS:219-235: 230.

7Tun Aung Chain 2000 Historians and the Search for Myanmar Nationhood. Tun Aung Chain 2004, Broken Glass. Pieces of Myanmar History. Yangon, SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, 9-24: 9.

8Tun Aung Chain 2000: 19-20.

Khin Maung Din (1931-1987)

Karl-Hermann Mühlhaus


A decisive call for a theology in Myanmar, which is adequate for the religious, intellectual and social environment of Myanmar has come from a layman, a professor of philosophy, U Khin Maung Din. It is mainly two of his articles, which are always referred to and which have shaped much of contemporary contextual theological thinking in Myanmar. One deals with principles and basic ideas of a Burmese Christian theology and the other one with a new understanding of mission in the Buddhist environment. It is amazing how these two relatively short texts have had such deep impact on the Myanmar theological scene.

Biographical Sketch

Khin Maung Din seems to have been a remarkable personality. He was born in 1931 into a Christian (Baptist) family in Mawlamyine in South East Myanmar and was baptized when he was eleven at the First Baptist Church there. He was a brilliant student, graduated very early from Morton Lane Judson High School, so that he had to wait a year until he could enter university.

He initiated an interdenominational youth organization in his city, the Mawlamyine Combined Youth consisting of youth groups from Anglican, various Baptist and other churches. This youth movement grew stronger year by year, organized Bible assemblies, held summer camps every year, even had its own camp site.

After he had finished the bachelor class in Philosophy at the University of Yangon with B.A. (Hons.) in 1953, he was appointed tutor at the Philosophy Department. He was the youngest tutor there, attended at the same time M.A. classes and graduated in 1957 with a Master of Arts degree in philosophy with first class honors. When Mawlamyine College (then called Moulmein Intermediate College, under the University of Yangon), which now has become Mawlamyine University, opened, he returned to Mawlamyine and started building up the Department of Philosophy. His students appreciated his teaching as clear and understandable and he was popular both among the students and at the college in general, also for his amicable personality.

In 1958 he married Daw San San Swe, with whom he had two sons. They also adopted a niece. His two sons are married and participate in the activities of a Ywama Baptist church in Insein/Yangon.

Weddin photo

U Khin Maung Din involved a lot in the Student Christian Movement and was from 1958 to 1960 the first full time general secretary of the National Student Christian Movement of Burma. He attended the general assembly of the World Student Christian Federation at Strasbourg, France. Through this involvement he got acquainted with the Indian and Ceylonese theologians M.M. Thomas and D. T. Niles whom he regarded his teachers over decades.

Afterwards the University of Yangon invited him back to its Department of Philosophy. From 1961 until 1982 he was lecturer and the head of this department. In 1982 he was promoted to be professor.

He was not only a popular teacher of philosophy, but also involved in his church, in the Myanmar Council of Churches and, as honorary part-time lecturer in Christian Ethics, at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, then called Burma Divinity School. Among others „he helped the study commission of the Myanmar Council of Churches to formulate a response to the statements of the World Council of Churches on ‚Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry‘ and ‚Education for Ecumenism‘.” He liked to sing and to play guitar and flute and composed popular hymns, some of which were accepted in the Burmese Hymnal. He also wrote plays on Christian themes, e.g. “Calvary” and “The Life of Judson: From the Past towards the Future”. In 1987 he passed away while on a government study tour to the US.1

Aims and Achievements

Khin Maung Din had three major concerns:

1) philosophy was his main occupation. His achievements in this field, other than what has been mentioned in the short biography, are not the subject of this little presentation;

2) his work for the reconciliation and cooperation of Christians of different denominations expressed in his ecumenical activities in his home city, his involvement in the Christian Students´ Movement and his work for the ecumenical institutions in Myanmar;

3) and his concern for a Burmese theology for today. He did not just want to make the traditional Christian theology understandable for Burmese, but „to discover more about the gospel itself with the aid of some Buddhist and other Oriental categories.“ The issue for him is not how the established theology is presented to Buddhists, but what the content of theology and mission should be in the face of especially Buddhist thinking and practice. Not only the bottle should change, but also the wine.

Here a comprehensive appreciation of Khin Maung Din´s work is neither aimed at nor possible.2 In the focus of this small presentation is the last aspect: his challenging and deeply influential ideas on theology and practice of mission in Buddhist Burma.

Some examples shall demonstrate this:

  1. The concept of God

Over against a traditional Christian presentation of Buddhism as an atheistic at best non-theistic thinking and practice, Khin shows that there is clear evidence of the fundamental role of transcendence in Buddhism, even though it could and should not be described. To be sure the idea of a personal God is rejected in Buddhism. However, dialogue between Christians and Buddhists should be possible if Christians broaden their understanding of God to allow non-personal aspects and to accept meditation as a way of communication with transcendence. For Khin, such communication can also lead to the „peace which passes all understanding“. This would mean that the one and only God can be worshipped in non-Christian forms and communities too.“ This has been widely accepted in contextual theology in Myanmar, but criticized by evangelical authors.

  1. The role of Christ

Khin wants to eliminate unnecessary “stumbling blocks” (1 Cor. 1,23) for the understanding of Christian faith. So the idea of blood sacrifices, which existed in the pre-Buddhism Burmese society, but were gradually abandoned under Buddhist influence, is repulsive for Burmese and an unnecessary hindrance for them to believe.

Khin wants to distinguish the relative and particular Jesus-event in its Jewish context from the universal and eternal Christ-event. Jesus reveals God’s coming into this world before, through and after Jesus. In this sense the cross of Jesus should be understood as the centre of history. „The continuing Incarnation, the ongoing Immanence, ministry, crucifixion, and the resurrection of the Transcendent Christ“ in the „’now‘ of every moment of history“ should be emphasized.

These ideas have strongly influenced Burmese Christian theology, especially the idea that in Burmese history and religion Christ has spoken even before his coming into this world and, through Christian mission, into Burma, which now is called Myanmar.

  1. Buddhist Christians

Khin was invited to speak at a Seminar on Evangelism of the Burma Baptist Convention in 1986. The topic given to him was „Challenges Confronting Mission Today“. Khin asked the responsible people to change the topic into „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“

He did not reject what he calls classical evangelism aiming at converting animists to Christianity or so-called dead Christians to have a living faith. But he asked whether there could not also be another kind of evangelism, a dialogical evangelism, based on Jesus’ command to love. The aim would not be to convert Buddhists to become Christians, but to help them to become Buddhist-Christians, which means that they remain Buddhists but also become Christians. Instead of asking what a Buddhist must give up in order to become a Christian (things like atheism) or should believe (like the doctrine of grace, the Triune God), he asks what is essential for a Buddhist to enter the Kingdom of God. What would Jesus require from a Buddhist? According to Khin that would rather be decisions of life rather than doctrinal affirmations. And if the church insists on confessing a creed it should be something like a “Christocentrically Syncretized Creed”, which includes both Buddhist and Christian elements and is acceptable for both religions. This idea goes back to M. M. Thomas, the mentioned Indian theologian.

Khin exemplifies this with a cousin of his, a Burmese Buddhist who is married to a Muslim. She is a Buddhist Muslim, a very religious person and prays every morning and evening. Instead of asking doctrinal questions, Khin’s Christian family loves her prayers. Khin says he has seen Buddhist people who love and serve their fellowmen.

Khin also thinks that interfaith communities of Buddhist-Christians and Christian Buddhists are possible, with a very practical mission for “liberation, peace, justice and development”. Dialogical evangelism would strive to form such communities. Within them the good news is proclaimed not only by the Christians, but Christians are also ready to hear the good news from the Buddhists, especially on the unity of mankind. For Khin, there would be no problem in them partaking in the Holy Communion, since Jesus has called and invited them. They could also be witnesses to Jesus, since they have “seen his salvation”.3

He suggests a yin-yang approach to theology, i.e. the idea that the whole can only be grasped as opposites supplementing each other, that God should be understood not so much in terms of either-or, but of both-and, e.g. that God is somehow personal and somehow non-personal, Christ is fully human and fully divine, conversion somehow requires a definite confession of Christ, and somehow it does not require such confession.

These ideas has been reflected and acclaimed by prominent Myanmar theologians. They certainly have had a deep impact on the Myanmar Institute of Theology. However, there is a question whether such communities have been established in Myanmar in reality (as has been done for instance in Sri Lanka), and how much these thoughts have influenced the missionary practice in Myanmar.


Khin Maung Din’s ideas have been a great challenge and inspiration for Christian theology in Myanmar. They have pioneered a new and fairer approach especially to Buddhism and Buddhists. Some points seem to be simply convincing, especially concerning the Christian critique of Buddhism as an atheistic religion and the challenge to a mere saving souls mission, which does not take into account the challenge to an egocentric life by both Christianity and Buddhism, the responsibility of people of all religions for the wellbeing of the whole population and of the earth, and dialogue as a way towards this goal. It also makes sense that such dialogue can lead to a new fellowship of Christians and Buddhists in the service for the society of Myanmar and of the world at large, since e.g. the environmental issues concern everyone and cannot be understood and tackled without a global perspective. It is true that the church has to play a serving role in the society and has to be ready to find ways of serving together with people of other religious communities for the best of the people and the nation, following the example and command of Jesus (Mk.10,45).

While some later theologians have followed Khin Maung Din almost completely and developed his ideas, even going beyond Khin (e.g. Saw Hlaing Bwa, who has rejected classical evangelism completely), others have modified Khin Maung Din’s approach, even though they have been appreciative and indebted to his pioneering ideas. Particularly Samuel Ngun Ling and Simon Pau Khan En have maintained the necessity of the Christian witness to the Gospel in a humble way, but also of listening to the other side and being open to what God has to say through them.

In fact, when Jesus has died for the sins of the world (e.g. John 1,29.36, Mat. 26,27 parr), should the Buddhists be excluded? On the other hand it is true that Jesus has emphasized the reality of a life of love over against a relying on right belief and pious action (Mt.7,21; 25,31-46; Lk.10,25-37). Therefore Christians should not hide the Gospel of Christ, while they also must be mindful of themselves and of the lives of other people, learn from whatever good can be found and be ready to serve the common human needs with anyone prepared to do so.


Khin Maung Din, “Some Problems and Possibilities for Burmese Christian Theology,” What Asian Christians are Thinking, ed. Douglas J. Elwood, Quezon City, The Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1976, p.87-104 (Khin Maung Din, “Burmese Christian Theology“), here p.88. The article has also been published under the title „How to Feed His Lambs“ in International Review of Mission, Vol. LXV, 1976, p.151-163, also in Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles, Yangon: Myanmar Council of Churches, 2002.

Khin Maung Din, „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“ Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles, Yangon: Myanmar Council of Churches, 2002, p.181ff.

The Collections of Professor U Khin Maung Din’s papers & articles is book is not easy to get by, but there are good summaries with discussion in the following articles:

Saw Hlaing Bwa, „The Contextualization of Theology in Myanmar“, kindly made accessible by the author in 9/2010, published in Contextual Theological Education. Practice and Reflections from the Mekong Region, 5th Mekong Mission Forum Publication, Editor-in-Chief Christa von Zychlin, Hong Kong: Lutheran Theological Seminary, 2012, p.35-46, here p.40f;

Saw Hlaing Bwa, „Doing Theology in Myanmar on the Way to Democracy“, in Regionale Aspekte der Globalisierung: eine theologische Würdigung = Regional Issues in Globalization, ed. Hans Schwarz/Thomas Kothmann, Frankfurt/M., Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York/NY, Oxford, Wien: Lang, 2012, p.181-204, here p.180-189. The part of this article about U Khin Maung Din’s second essay was published before under the title „Theological Reflections on Prof. Khin Maung Din’s Article: ‚Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?'“ in Engagement. Judson Research Center’s Bulletin, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, Yangon, Vol.9, 2007, p.59-67).

U Win Tin, „Biography of The Late Prof. Khin Maung Din, A Burmese Lay Theologian“, Engagement. Judson Research Center’s Bulletin, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Insein, Yangon, Myanmar, Vol.9, 2007, p.37-39. See also, accessed 2-May-14 (in 2019 not found any more).

Sincere thanks go to Nyan Min Din for providing some comments and the pictures.

1 h, accessed , accessed 2-May-14

2 the author does not understand Burmese

3 Khin „Can Buddhists be Buddhist-Christians?“, No. XV

Daw Kyan (1918-2019)

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

Thin Thin Aye

Burmese version of this biography

1. Introduction

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

2. Biography

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

Ma Kyan as graduare

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

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

In London

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

Doing fieldwork

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

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

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she was honored with a big reception given at the Sarpay Beikman (“Palace of Literature”) Building in Yangon. A report broadcasted on Myanmar Information Television (MITV) was posted on you tube by her nephew (

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

3. Awards and Achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Assessment

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

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

With Lilian Handin (Northern Illinois University) and the author

5. Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bao Youxiang (born 1949)

Alexander Zimmermann


Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥), also known under his Myanmar name Pau Yu Chang and his Wa name Tax Log Pang (Chinese Wa: Dax Lōug Bang), receives little attention in Myanmar’s political history literature alongside Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han as one of the „kings“ of the opium trade in the Golden Triangle.

Often, his name is only a footnote related to the Communist Party of Burma as well as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division1 in the Shan State. But while Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han have long withdrawn from the political stage, this is not the case with „Chairman Bao“.

Although Bao Youxiang has not attracted the same media attention as the notorious Khun Sa, he can still be considered one of the most powerful war lords in Southeast Asia. He has become the head of a de facto independent Wa nation-state that is not officially recognised by any other country and envied by the leaders of other ethnic groups in Myanmar that fight for greater autonomy from the central government.

How it came to the development and the connection between him, the drug trafficking and the minority conflicts in the Shan State will be explained in this short biography.


Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥) was born in 1949 as the son of a Wa clan Chieftain in the village called Kunma in the Wa Region, located in the northern part of Myanmar’s Shan State and directly bordering the southern Chinese province of Yunnan (云南). The region is populated by a variety of minorities, such as the Bamar and Karen, as well as many Burmese Chinese and various smaller tribes. Although Bao Youxiang belongs to the Wa minority, his name is Chinese. This among other reasons is due to the geographic proximity to China and the close economic ties to the neighbouring country. As a consequence, Chinese is widely spoken here the lingua franca in addition to the many minority languages across the Wa Region.

The early youth of young Bao Youxiang was rather unspectacular. He was the second youngest of a total of 8 brothers and had – according to his own account – never left his home village Kunma in his youth. Nevertheless, as a member of the Wa minority, he remembers having felt the pressure of the central government, which sought to oppress independence movements and calls for autonomy in the Shan State after the military coup of March 1962.

Already at the age of 17, Bao Youxiang together with his older brother Bao Youyi and his uncle Bao Sanban founded a guerrilla group in Kunma, making a name for themselves with the force of the gun. In order to finance the resistance against the Burmese government, Bao Youxiang like many other smaller warlords got involved in opium smuggling. Due to its strategically favourable location, the Shan State borders to southern China, Thailand and Laos, making this area an important hub for smuggling within the Golden Triangle. Adding to that, the wild mountains and forests as well as the lack of control by the central government helped to make smuggling a lucrative business, through which several armed groups financed themselves throughout the decades.

Despite his success as a rebel leader, Bao Youxiang can only be seen as one of the countless little warlords and drug smugglers during this episode of his life. It was only when he joined the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1969 that Bao Youxiang began his political career.

As a means to unite the Wa Region under one leadership, Bao Youxiang and other rebel leaders like Zhai Nilai, Lu Xingguo and Ai Ken joined the CPB.

He worked in the military party wing where he first served as battalion commander for his home village in Kunma, but rose swiftly to the rank of a brigade commander. Together with Li Ziru from the Chinese Communist Party, he led the 683 Brigade near the border between Thailand and Myanmar. At the 3rd Party Congress in 1985 held in Panghsang (Pankham)2 he also became a member of the Central Committee of the CPB.

Despite his merits and steep rise within the party, Bao Youxiang, like many of his Wa compatriots, saw the CPB merely as the means to the end of procuring weapons and resources for the Wa troops and to fight the Burmese government. This was due to the reality, that the majority of the members of the Politburo was comprised of ethnic Burmans. Accordingly, a few years later, Bao Youxiang’s true loyalty was revealed.

In 1988/89 several groups within the communist party started to question the inner leadership and even went as far as to openly defy the party. Many armed groups under the CPB, such as Kokang and Wa, were dissatisfied with the leaders of the CPB. The positions of the party’s leadership was considered too unrealistic and dogmatic. There was also the accusation that ethnic Kokang and Wa soldiers were being used as cannon fodder in a political conflict between ethnic Burmans instead of advocating for the interests of all ethnic groups.

The infighting resulted in the internal uprising of 1989 by the ethnic minorities against the CPB’s leadership, that was driven out to China, resulting in the dissolution of the CPB and its army.3 In its stead several new factions were formed along ethnic lines. As a result of the fragmentation of the CPB, Myanmar’s government began negotiations with various Wa rebel leaders such as Bao Youxiang, Peng Jiasheng and Zhao Nyi lai. On April 17, 1989, the Wa Region broke away from the CPB and formed the United Wa State Party (UWSP). Bao Youxiang was first commander of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which formed the armed wing of the UWSP and at the time of its creation comprised about 10 000 men. Current estimates, however, assume an army strength of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 men and thus the strongest of all armed groups contesting the Tatmadaw, the army of the Myanmar state.

A few years later in 1995, Bao Youxiang also took over the UWSP leadership as Chairman Bao, thus replacing his predecessor Zhao Nyi Lai (1939-2009) who had to resign for health reasons as a result of a stroke. Since then, Bao Youxiang has taken the position of the military and political head of a quasi-autonomous Wa State in eastern Myanmar.

Due to health problems, Bao Youxiang resigned as party chairman in 2005 to his youngest brother, Bao Youyi. However, Bao Youxiang has not withdrawn completely from the political scene and has remained the leader of the UWSA.

Striving for an independent Wa State

In the ceasefire agreement signed on May 18th, 1989 with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)4, the UWSP formally recognized the government in Myanmar as sovereign, and in return was awarded a self-administrative status in the northern part of the Shan state. Since then the Wa Region has been led by the UWSP from Panghsang as its capital like an autonomous state and later officially dubbed “Wa-State” by Bao Youxiang. With the ceasefire agreement of 1989, the UWSP had in principle accepted its place as part of the state of Myanmar. According to UWSP’s Chairman Bao Youxiang: “Wa State is an indivisible part of the Union of Myanmar. As a minority autonomous region, we only ask the government to grant us more power in self-administration.” This status had later been officially acknowledged within Myanmar’s constitution from 2008, which recognized six townships in the Wa-Region as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administrative Region.5

Although the ceasefire agreement had created a relative stability, it had failed to resolve the issue of economic sustainability. The access to legal trade and business with other parts of Myanmar was restricted. The relative autonomy of the UWSP in the Special Region 2 combined with that of the ceasefire thus constituted an indirect toleration of all drug trafficking and even led to its expansion. The lack of economic alternatives, as well as the historically evolved structures, led to a consolidation of the cultivation, trading and smuggling of opium as a major economic branch within the Wa State. Thus, after 1989, opium production increased significantly.

Drug trafficking reached such proportions in the early 1990s that Bao Youxiang, along with many other leaders in the Wa area, were also wanted by the Chinese police for their involvement in drug trafficking. As a consequence of this development, Bao Youxiang and Zhao Nyi Lai had signed the Cangyuan Agreement (沧源合同) with local officials in the Cangyuan Va Autonomous Region (沧源佤族自治县) in China, agreeing: „No drug goes into international society (from Wa State); no drug goes into China (from Wa State); no drug goes into Burmese government-controlled-area (from Wa State).“

However, a noticeable change did not seem to appear until Bao Youxiang took over the UWSP leadership in 1995 as „Chairman Bao“. With Bao Youxiang’s takeover, the UWSP took further action against the drug trade and announced in 1997 the official goal to make Wa State opium free by the end of 2005. Following this announcement, Bao Youxiang ordered the reallocation of tens of thousands of villagers in 1999. For this purpose, poppy farmers and impoverished villagers in the Wa Region were resettled from their mountainous homelands in the north to the more fertile southern valleys of the southern Shan state, where they were able to grow other crops. In this context, the previous residents from other than the Wa ethnic groups – Shan, Lahu and Akha – were expelled, and their land was often confiscated without compensation.

Measures of the UWSP’s anti opium policy culminated in the official prohibition of opium cultivation, which was announced in 2005. Since drug cultivation had been the main source of income for most farmers, the UWSP, with the help of the United Nations and the Chinese government, sought to create new alternatives. Attempts were made to incentivise Chinese investments in rubber, tea and sugar cultivation. However, these measures were insufficient to present a sustainable alternative.

Bao Youxiang had hoped to turn the Wa region into a tourism hub and economic zone through the introduction of the opium ban. Even though there had been no major changes at first, some minor successes were achieved over the years. In 2004, UWSP announced the completion of 1,800 kilometres of road in the north of the Wa Region and another 600 kilometres in the southern command centre of the UWSP near the Thai border. In addition, according to the UWSP seven power plants were built and further urbanization projects started with the help of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drug Crimes). In addition, a small industry of its own started to emerge in the Wa area with the construction of a cigarette and paper factory in Panghsang, as well as a lighter factory, mineral water factory and beer brewery. The construction of larger casinos in the Wa Region however has become a particular important source of income as they attract investments from China.

Investments and ventures outside the Wa state were other means through which Bao Youxiang and several leading members of the UWSP tried to generate new revenue sources. For example, Bao Youxiang’s son-in-law, Ho Chun Ting, who holds the majority of shares in Yangon Airways and is also the chairman of Tetkham Co Ltd, which operates a hotel chain.

As a military leader, Bao Youxiang continued to play an important role in the country’s development and the relations to the ‘big neighbours’ of the Wa region, China and Myanmar. His main aim seems to keep both at a distance in order to maintain as much autonomy for the Wa people as possible. The UWSA however still maintains a close relationship with China. This was recently publicly demonstrated when China’s Special Representative Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) met with Bao Youxiang in 2019 for the 30th anniversary of autonomy in the Wa Region to attend the ceremony. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary and the visit of Chinas Special Envoy, Bao Youxiang was quoted as having proclaimed:

What we need is ethnic equality, ethnic dignity, ethnic autonomy, and we ask the government to give the Wa an autonomous ethnic state; then we will fight for our lives. Until our political demands are realized, we will hold high the banner of peace and democracy on one hand, and armed self-defence on the other, and maintain the status quo.6

Bao Youxiang and Sun Guoxiang at the 2019 ceremony (Photo: Frontier Myanmar)

Bao Youyi (2nd from left) together with the chairman of the KIA (left) and two representatives of the USDDP and the NLD in May 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Bao Youxiang furthermore proclaimed during his speech that “The Wa people are masters of their own destiny,“ and that his 600,000 “war-tested” people would never accept a role as pawns in a proxy war.7

On April 19th, 2017, Bao Youxiang became chairmen of the newly founded Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) formed in Panghsang by seven armed groups that did not sign the National Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government in October 2015.8 This was seen as an alternative to the peace conferences organised by the Myanmar government entitled the 21th Century Panglong Conference. Chinas Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) who regularly meets with UWSA’s leadership to discuss the peace process in the region bordering China, attended the ceremony. On the other hand, the UWSA was invited to attend the Panglong Conference and Bao Youxiang’s brother attended the meeting that took place in Naypyidaw in May 2017 shortly after the anniversary celebrated in the Wa State. However, there are no indications that the Wa leaders will make contributions towards a breakthrough that might lead to and end of the “stable limbo” existing for many years in Eastern Shan State and elsewhere on Myanmar soil.

Bao Youxiang is thus a key figure in the peace-building process with the government of the Union of Myanmar and makes use of the special location between Myanmar and China as well its close ties with other rebel groups operating in the north-eastern parts of Myanmar.


Today the opinion on Bao Youxiang is divided. As leader of the UWSA, he is regarded as a warlord and responsible for drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle by many members of the international community. In 2005, the US Department of Justice charged Chairman Bao Youxiang among with several other UWSP leaders with trading in heroin and methamphetamines. It denounced the UWSA as „one of the largest heroin-producing and trafficking groups in the world.”9

Adding to that, several various human rights violations can be attributed to Bao Youxiang, such as the use of child soldiers and the violent expulsion of minorities from Wa areas. This lets appear Bao Youxiang as an unscrupulous War Lord.

However, the use of drug trafficking as well as some other crimes cannot all directly be attributed to him, since many resistance groups had financed themselves via drug trafficking before and after 1989. Furthermore, it must also be noted that in the wake of the fragmentation of the CPB, the UWSP was still involved in combat operations with the drug kingpin Khun Sa until 1996.

It was also with Bao Youxiang’s takeover of the party´s chairmanship in 1995, that a change in the UWSP’s drug policy was initiated to make the Wa Region opium free until 2005. During this time, a number of concrete measures were undertaken to combat opium cultivation. It could therefore be argued that Bao Youxiang himself sees the opium trade as a problem and seeks to rid his people from it on the long run by creating long-term alternatives. These however make the Wa State more dependent on investments and goodwill of other actors such as China.

Despite of the anti-drug measures implemented since 1995, the Wa Region continues to be a region heavily dependent on smuggling and drug trafficking, raising the question of the sincerity of Bao Youxiang’s actions. For example, crystal methamphetamines are now being manufactured for export.

However, the slow development of the Wa Region and the failure of the Wa leadership’s anti-drug policy cannot only be blamed on an assumed unwillingness of the leadership to really change its ways. The Wa leadership still faces a lot of barriers put in place by Myanmar’s government. The approval of new companies and products by the administration of Myanmar is complex and long-winded. Furthermore, the central government had put restrictions in place not allowing companies in the Wa Region to send their products to Central Myanmar. Also, the export to international markets is restricted and only possible through certain border checkpoints controlled by the central government in Myanmar. The export of own products from the Wa Region is therefore often hampered by corruption and bureaucratic obstacles. This partly serves to regulate official trade with China, but had also served as a strategy of the Burmese government to weaken the ceasefire groups. It is therefore all the more understandable that Bao Youxiang is seeking out China as his strategic partner to develop the Wa Region in a semi-legal fashion.

As one of the central figures in the Wa Region, Bao Youxiang has managed to create an autonomous area in the Shan State, where the Wa minority can manage its own affairs. This has even been recognized in Myanmar’s Constitution of 2008, where in Art. 56f it officially defined the townships of Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.

It can be speculated that Bao Youxiang himself, as a member of the Wa minority, has been guided by his own national feeling and wish to fight for the rights of his people in creating an independent state. However, today his legacy is overshadowed by the discussion of drug trafficking, corruption and smuggling. The choice of Bao Youxiang’s methods led many of his critics to accuse him of selling out the Wa area resources and enriching himself at the expense of his people. Like so many drug traffickers who have become wealthy warlords, Bao Youxiang has also accumulated a lot of capital and invested it in various corporate groups in Myanmar, such as the Myanmar May Flower Group.

Thus, no conclusive judgment can be made. Bao Youxiang continues to be the de facto president of the Wa Region, shaping many decisions of the leadership in the Wa Region. His legacy will therefore depend on his ability to create more legal alternatives and further the economic development of the Wa Region through Chinese support.


1 This is the name used in the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar. The area was known before as the Wa Special Region 2.

2The town can be regarded as the capital of the Wa State and is the headquarter of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its precedents.

3 The internal purges in the CPB during the Cultural Revolution combined with the failure to use the 1988 demonstrations as an opportunity served as the last straw that led to the uprising of the different minor armed groups against the CPB (Kramer, 2019: p.11-44).

4 Subsequent to 1988 demonstrations, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by the general Saw Maung had replaced the previous socialist government BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party). (Kramer, 2019: p.9)

5 According to Art. 56f of Myanmar’s Constitution the townships Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) were forged into the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.

6 The Irrawaddy, 17.4.2019 (; accessed 13.3.2019)

7 Mratt (2019)

8 In April 2017 the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Shan State East National Democratic Alliance Association (NDAA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) jointly formed the FPNCC. (Tønnesson 2019, S.1)

9 Justice Department (2005)


Justice Department (January 24, 2005): Justice Department Charges Eight in Burma with Drug Trafficking (Long-term international effort targeted leaders of United Wa State Army) (2060). Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web. (26.02.2020)

Ko-lin, Chin (January 14, 2009): The Golden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia’s Drug Trade. Auflage: 1. Cornell University Press.

Kramer, Tom (July 2019): NEITHER WAR NOR PEACE. THE FUTURE OF THE CEASE – FIRE. Drukkerij Primavera Quint. Amsterdam

Liu, Yun (2017): Building Peace in Myanmar: Birth of the FPNCC. (29.02.2020)

Mratt, Kyaw Thu; AFP (April 17, 2019): ‘Armed self-defence’ needed till demands are met, says Wa leader. In: Myanmar Frontier. Web. (29.02.2020)

Ministry of Information (Sept. 2008): Constitution oft he Republic of The Union of Myanmar (2008). In: Nay Pyi Taw

Sai, Wansai (February 07, 2019): Shan State re-emerges as illicit narcotics production center. In: BNI Multimedia Group. Web. (20.10.2019)

Sandford, Steve (May 15, 2019): Relative Stability Brings Progress to Myanmar Region. In: VOICE OF AMERICA. Web. (20.10.2019)

The Irrawaddy (17 April 2019): UWSA Leader Repeats Demands for Autonomous Wa State on 30th Anniversary. Web. (15.03.2020)

Tønnesson, Stein; Aung, Ne Lynn; Nilsen, Marte (2019): Will Myanmar’s Northern Alliance

Join the Peace Process? PRIO POLICY BRIEF 02.2019. Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Weng, Lawi (May 5, 2015): We Have Been Subjected to International Pressure. Web. (20.10.2019)

Xiaoning (August 24, 2005): Bao Youxiang, seigneur de la drogue. In: Courrier international. Web. (20.10.2019)

Yimou Lee (DECEMBER 29, 2016): Through reclusive Wa, China’s reach extends into Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. In: Reuters. Web. (20.10.2019)

Sein Bo Tint (1938-1994)

by Daphne Wolf

Burmese version of this biography


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.

Biographical Sketch

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 lung cancer.

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.

Instruments of a Hsaing Waing Ensemble (Khon Tin Soe)

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.

The biography was edited by Hans-Bernd Zöllner

1For some youtube videos about the project see;;

Saw Ba U Gyi (1905-1950)

Laura Hornig

Burmese version of this article

(I use “Karen State” and “Burma“ since many of the events addressed here took place before the renaming).


Researchers, journalists, and aid workers who met the Karen communities along the Thai-Myanmar border have surely encountered his face a dozen times at least – on 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.

Biographical sketch

Saw 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.

Not 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.

After 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).

Saw 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.

Saw Ba U Gyi and his car (Courtesy of Paul Sztumpf)

Before 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 independence.

When 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 ship.

In 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).

Saw 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.

The 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).

While 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.

Negotiations 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 political destiny.

The 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 12th 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.

Up to today, the 12th of August is celebrated as Martyr’s day in Karen State.

A statue of Saw Ba U Gyi was built in Yangon with the cooperation of KNU (Karen National Union) and Karen civil society organisations. The Myanmar authorities did not allow it to bring it to a compound of a KNU Brigade in Kren State (Myanmar Times)

Aims, Achievement, Legacy

While 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.

These 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.

I want to thank Paul Sztumpf, the grandson of Saw Ba U Gyi, for sharing information and his views with me in an email correspondence.


Keenan, Paul (2008). Saw Ba U Gyi. Voices of the Revolution. KHCPS paper.

Smith, Martin (1991): Burma. Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Zed books.

Sztumpf, Paul (2011): The life and times of Saw Ba U Gyi. E-booklet.

South, Ashley (2011): Burma’s longest war. Anatomy of the Karen conflict. Transnational Institute Burma Center Netherlands.

South, Ashley (2008): Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict. Routledge.

Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung (2012): The „Other“ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities And The Struggle Without Arms. Lexington Books.

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

by Georg Winterberger

Burmese version of this article


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Karen

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

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

Saw Phar Dae

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


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

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

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

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 Burmese side.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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.

2 No 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).

Htein Win (born 1946) – Photoshooting the Truth

Johanna Kuchel

The Burmese version of this biography


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims, Achievements and Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 and

Serge Pun (born 1953)

Alexander Zimmermann

Serge Pun with the Shwedagon Pagoda in the background


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elmar Busch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success, Business Philosophy, Critique

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

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

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

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

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

Pun Hlaing Golf Cluc, Yangon

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Auswärtiges Amt (April 2017): Länderinformationen. Hongkong. Wirtschaft. Web. (01/05/2017)

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

Central Intelligence Agency (12/01/2017): The World Factbook. Burma. Web. (01/05/2017)

Chinatownology (N/A): Overseas Chinese in Burma. (Myanmar). Web. (01/05/2017

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

Montlake, Simon (September 2013): Golden Return: Serge Pun Constructs A RealEstate Empire In Myanmar. In: Forbes. Web.

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

Oxford Business Group (N/A): OBG talks to Serge Pun, Chairman, Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar). Interview: Serge Pun. Web. (01/05/2017)

Property Report (25/06/2016): The story of Serge Pun: Myanmar’s 2016 Real Estate Personality. One of Myanmar’s most recognised businessmen will be honoured by Property Report at the country’s biggest industry event. Web.

Robinson, Gwen (SEPTEMBER 9, 2012): A business school of hard knocks. The Monday Interview. In: Financial Times. Web. (01/05/2017)

Tan Hui Ann, Connie (17/06/2015): Myanmar must plan for the long-term: Top tycoon. In: CNBC. Web. (01/05/2017)

The Economist (19/06/2008): Myanmar after the cyclone. Chrony charity. Web. (01/05/2017)


1The so-called „Burmese Way to Socialism“contained elements from Marxism, Buddhism and extreme nationalism. (—ne-win-regime.html)

2Private Hospitals were nationalized as well. (—ne-win-regime.html)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aung Soe Min (born 1970)

Lilly Seiler

Burmese version of this article


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 publishing himself.

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 Canadian government.

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 shop.

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.

Pansodan Galler, Tuesday night, July 2017 . In the center: Aung Soe Min (Photo: H.-B. Zöllner)

In 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.

Social 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.

According 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 things out.

However, 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.

Aung 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.

Besides 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 offer.

Intercultural exchange

By 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”

The 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.


To 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.


The 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 know him.

For more sources see Wikipedia.

1 (accessed 25.2.2019).