Daw Khin Kyi (1912-1988)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Introduction

On December 24, 2017, the Myanmar state newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar displayed on the title page a photo showing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi unveiling a statue of her mother, Daw Khin Kyi on the occasion of the re-opening of the Khin Kyi Women’s Hospital. The text gave information about the speech given by the State Councellor and on the history of the building. Its foundation was laid already in August 1933, close to the house in which Aung San and his family lived after the war, and it was used as a maternity hospital. In 2017 it had been recently renovated with funds donated by the Chinese embassy and a Chinese welfare organisation promoting peace.

Aung San Suu at the opening ceremony, December, 23 2017

In her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi said that the hospital reminded her of her childhood, when nurses came to her home to see her mother, who had been a nurse as well. Despite coming from different regions of the country, the nurses had the “Union Spirit” and in her eyes were more important than the doctors because of their “giving personal treatment and encouragement to the patients”

In the newspaper report the name of Khin Kyi serves as a link between the pre-independence days when Aung San Suu Kyi was born, the activity of the her mother after the assassination of Aung San in 1947, and the present times of NLD leadership. Furthermore, memorialising Khin Kyi is used to foster ties between the new government and the People’s Republic of China. Already earlier her name had been taken by the daughter for the name of a foundation, set up by Aung San Suu Kyi “in loving memory of her mother” to “promote the health, education and living standards of the people of the country, focusing its attention especially on the needs of Burma’s least developed areas”,1 an idea in line with the daughter’s speech given at the hospital.

Not mentioned in the report about the health facility but used both materially and ideologically recently is the rumour that Aung San Suu Kyi was born in today’s Aung San Museum Rd. The house in which the family formerly lived has been converted into a museum honouring the father of the country. The hospital commemorates the mother of the country’s present “Mother Suu”, as Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately called by many of her supporters.

These are indications that Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother has had a lasting impact on her daughter and thus on the whole country. A closer look at Khin Kyi’s life, achievements and impact might be helpful to better understand the developments in Burma’s recent history.

Biographical Sketch

Ma Khin Kyi was born to U Bo Nyin and Daw Pwa Su on April 16, 1912, in Myaungmya in the Ayeyawadi Delta. The eighth of ten siblings, her father served as an official in the Road and Transportation Department. She studied up to seventh standard in Myaungmya, then continued her education and matriculated at the American Baptist Mission Girls’ High School, Kyemyindine, Yangon. She then received a Middle School teacher’s certificate from the Morton Lane American Baptist Mission School’s Teachers’ Training program and taught at the National High School in Myaungmya for some time.

However, Khin Kyi was more interested in nursing, a profession that two of her elder sisters had taken up already and enrolled in the Midwife and Nurse Training program at Dufferin Hospital, Yangon, today’s Yangon Central Women’s Hospital in today’s Bogyoke Aung San Street. After graduation, Khin Kyi began working as a nurse at Yangon General Hospital. From December 23, 1941 on, the bombing of Yangon wounded many civilians and Khin Kyi accompanied the wounded for medical treatment in Calcutta, India.2 She was later promoted to the rank of a “sister” by Dr. Ba Than, the most renowned Burmese surgeon of that time who stayed in the country after the Japanese occupation. When Aung San fell ill in May 1942, he was hospitalised. Dr. Ba Than entrusted Khin Kyi to care for the commander of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA). He fell in love with the three-year-older nurse. After some hesitation, she agreed. The marriage took place on 6 September 1942.3 Three children were born to the new couple in swift succession: Oo 1943, Lin 1944 and Suu Kyi 1945. Another daughter was born in 1946, who however died soon after birth.

The official wedding photo

The marriage had political significance. In Khin Kyi’s home district of Myaungmya fighting had broken out between the BIA and Karen armed groups after the British had left. The violence that strained Burmese-Karen relations for decades only stopped after the Japanese army arrived. Khin Kyi was a Burmese, but her father was a Baptist Christian.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945, in the midst of dramatic times, a few days after the British and their new Burmese allies‘ victory parade in Rangoon. Three months before her birth, Aung San had announced on March 27 that it was no longer the Allies, but the Japanese that were the enemies of the Burmese army. It was a risky move and Aung San knew it. This is clear from the fact that he had his family moved out of Rangoon some weeks before the announcement. Khin Kyi, with both sons and pregnant with the little girl, was accompanied by three soldiers to Hmway Saung, a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta. A wealthy businessman had made his house there available to the family. Today the journey to this place near Pyapon takes about four hours by car. At the time of Khin Kyi and the children’s trip, the journey by boat took several days. The family escaped disaster twice on this journey. On the way there, the boat met Japanese soldiers. It was with great effort that Khin Kyi managed to keep her Burmese guards from opening fire. On the way back, at the end of the Buddhist New Year and Water Festival Thingyan in April, numerous British bombers flew over the area, threatening to drop their deadly cargo. After the safe return, Aung San Suu Kyi was born in the family residence, close to today’s Khin Kyi hospital that is now the Bogyoke Aung San Museum.

For two years, Khin Kyi lived the life of the wife of the country’s independent hero and cared for the three children in the house in Tower Lane 15. She however accompanied him during his travels before the election of the Constituent Assembly in early 19474 until Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947. Shortly after, Khin Kyi’s father moved in to take over the role of a male counterpart of the children.

For a short time, she took over Aung San’s seat in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the constitution of 1947, and from then on was a working mother. From October 1947 to 1952 she was the appointed Director of the Department of Maternity and Child Welfare. In 1952 she became head of the country’s Social Planning Commission under the government of U Nu. .

Khin Kyi (2nd from left) dancing together with U Nu (4th from right) in
the northern Chin
Hills (1950)

Khin Kyi had been a member of the AFPFL, that was chaired by U Nu after Aung San’s death. She In the by-election after his death, she was elected to become a member of the Constituent Assembly for Lammadaw, her husband’s constuency. Furthermore, she accompanied Premier Nu on various visits in the country and even to London in May 1950 to attend the a memorial service for the soldiers who died in the Burma Campaign of World War II.

Khin Kyi with Premier Nu and his wife in London (Source: Irrawaddy)

After the split of the League in October 1958, joined Nu’s “Clean AFPFL”. She supported his campaign – including the promise to make Buddhisms the state religion – by speahing at many rallies in various towns in central Burma during the 1960 election campaign that resulted in the resounding victory over the rival “Stable AFPFL” in April. She belonged to the inner circle of the party leadership. One may wonder how her support of Nu and its opposition to its socialist rivals and the army under Ne Win that was supposed to support it, inflensed the mind of young Aung San Suu Kyi who was a teenager of 14 years at that time. On May 19, 1960, she was appointed Burmese Ambassador to India and one month later for Nepal as well, the first woman of the country in such a position.

During the years in government service until 1960, she took over honorary posts like the presidency of the Union Women’s League and received some honorary titles by foreign countries.5

In contrast, her private life was struck another heavy blow in January 1953 when her second son Lin drowned in a pond on the compound of her house. After that she moved to University Avenue 54 on Inya Lake, given her by the government.

Not much is known about the eldest son. He was sent to Dover College in England, a boarding school in Kent, in the late 1950s and studied engineering later at Imperial College London, From there he later went to the United States, becoming an American citizen.1 His sister, on the other hand, accompanied Khin Kyi to India, where she finished high school before going to university in Oxford in 1964. No details are reported about Khin Kyi’s activities as Ambassador.

At the age of 55, Khin Kyi resigned from her position, allegedly because she did not like the policy of General Ne Win, who had terminated the rule of U Nu in March 1962 by a coup. However, she never talked about politics in public after having taken role as Ambassador. Furthermore, at 55 she had reached the retirment age for public servents in bURMA at that time. Later she lived quietly in her house, receiving friends and regular visits of her daughter and her family. Her two grandsons celebrated the traditional Shinbyu cermenoy with her in Rangoon.

In late March 1988 she suffered a stroke and was admitted to Bangkok Greneral Hospital where she had served as a nurse. Aung San Suu Kyi flew to Rangoon to look after her. In July she was brought back to her house. According to the testimony of a Baptist pastor of Judson Church, she called for him to receive Communion. She died on December 27, 1988.

Two pictures from the funeral (Courteey of Goethe Institute, Yangon)

She received a state funeral on January 2, 1989. It was attended by an estimated crowd of over one hundred thousand people and was regarded as a political protest against the military junta, who had taken over the government on September 18, 1988.

Khin Kyi’s mausoleum on Shweadagon Pagoda Rd. (middle) between those of the last Burmese Queen, Supalayat (left, and Thakin Kodaw Hmine, the coutry’s national poet (Photo: Courtesy of Ben Basal)

Aims and Achievements

No speeches or articles originating from Khin Kyi are available. We do not therefore know how she assessed the life and death of her famous husband and his legacy. There are just a few quotes published in American newspapers informing about her visit to the USA in June and July 1952 on the invitation of the State Department after having attended a meeting of The World Health Organisation in Geneva.

The reports show that she was very proud of the 108 Maternal Child Centres established in Burma that she supervised. The number had risen from just 35 before the war. She emphasised that the scheme was based on local initiatives, just supported by the state to guarantee equal standards. This principle was in line with the attitudes of the villagers. If the government would provide a building for centres, the volunteers “would not take an interest in it”, she was quoted as saying. Furthermore, there were many more applicants for the few government paid jobs than available vacancies.1

Acccording to the newspaper coverage of her visit to the USA, she was very proud of the 108 Maternal Child Centres established in Burma supervised. The number had risen from just 35 that existed before the war. She emphasised that the scheme was based on local initiatives that were just supported by the state to guarantee equal standards. This prinviple was in line with the attitudes of the villagers. If the government would provide a building for centres, the volunteers “would not take an interest in it”, she was quoted. Furthermore, there were much more applicants for the few government paid jobs than vacancies.7

Furthermore, the reports show that Khin Kyi was very much convinced of the Pyidawtha scheme propagated by U Nu that was based on local self-initiative supported by the state. They are furthermore in line with other assessments of her character as a very strong, dedicated and straightforward person. The most telling remarks were made by her daughter in a series of interviews given to Alan Clements in 1995 and 1996. Here are some quotes:

I treated my mother with a lot of love, respect and awe, as most Burmese children are taught to do. To me, my mother represented integrity, courage and discipline. She was also very warm-hearted. But she did not have a very easy life. I think it was difficult for her to bring up the family and cope with a career after my father’s death. – I think she tried her best. She tried very hard to give us the best education and the best life she could. I do not think anybody is ever free from making mistakes. She was very strict at times. When I was younger, I felt that was a disadvantage. But now, I think it was a good thing because it set me up well in life. – (Asked about the meaning of “strict”) Highly disciplined… everything at the right time… in the right way. She was a perfectionist. – I’m not that much of a disciplinarian, but I am strict. My mother was a very strong person and I suppose I too am strong, in my own way. 8

Aung San reportedly in a joking way called her attitude towards him “snobbish” because she had not immediately consented to marry him.9

Khin Kyi’s strictness is illustrated by two anecdotes. It is reported that she was informed of her son’s death through a telephone call at her work. She finished the day’s tasks before returning to her residence and attending to the two other children.10 In the same vein it is told that she did not cry at her husband’s wake because she did not want to indulge his opponents with a sense of triumph.11

Her support for the politics of the devout Buddhist U Nu, whose plan to make Buddhist the state religion in 1960 she must have supported, suggests that her convictions were rooted in Buddhism. Another quote of her daughter supports this assumption:

What I have learned in life is that’s always your own wrongdoings that cause you the greatest suffering. It is never what other people do to you. Perhaps is due to the way in which I was brought up. My mother instilled in me the principle that wrongdoing never pays, and my own experience has proved that to be true. Also, if you have positive feelings towards other people, they can’t do anything to you – they can’t frighten you. I think when you stop loving other people then you really suffer.12

Here, Buddhist thinking relates to a Christian idea, both of which influenced Khin Kyi, who had a Buddhist mother and a Christian father. The quote draws on the teachings of karma or kamma. According to this, individual deeds set off a sequence of cause and effect in the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Suffering (dukkha) is thus always self-caused. The effect of the actions of others on oneself is to be accepted with a stance of compassion (karuna), which in the language of Christianity is referred to as loving one’s neighbour. The Christian term does carry an emotional tone that is missing from the Buddhist counterpart. Khin Kyi passed on a blend of Buddhist and Christian ideas to her daughter.

Khin Kyi’s principled way of being, which she also instilled in her children, can be said to have made the personal misfortunes dealt to the family bearable. This demanded a high degree of self-discipline, inner strength and a sense of duty. Khin Kyi possessed all of this, aided by an amicable way of dealing with others that very much impressed her American hosts in 1952. They were impressed by her “Burmese charm”, amazed that she was able to make use of “American slang” on her first journey to the States and informed their readers of her ability to socialise with her partners by talking about her children.

Assessment

On the 30th anniversary of Khin Kyi’s death, the Irrawaddy republished an article on her written in 2006 entitled “The Overlooked Mother”.13 It states the obvious fact, that the mother influenced the daughter more than the father who died when Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old. The article however does not give details about the contents of this influence besides speculating that Aung San Suu Kyi might have obtained her mother’s consent in 1998 before entering the political arena. Generally speaking, what Khin Kyi exemplified and conveyed to her daughter can be described as follows: In the private sphere, one had to practice self-discipline for protecting oneself from the vicissitudes of life. In the public sphere, one had to give selfless service to the nation in Aung San’s footsteps.

In terms of realpolitik, one may argue that Khin Kyi’s close ties with U Nu were coupled with a rejection of Ne Win. The latter put an end to Nu’s democratically elected government for which Aung San’s widow had campaigned. Her negative assessment of Ne Win, who had U Nu and many other politicians put into „protective custody“, very likely had an effect on her daughter. Ne Win’s attitude towards Buddhism was more distant than U Nu’s and the general had the reputation of not being stirred by morals. Such negative assessments have might influenced Aung San Suu Kyi’s strong condemnation of Ne Win and her appeal to the army to choose between following the path of Ne Win or that of her father.1 Such remarks contributed to the confrontation between the “democratic forces” and the military from 1989 onwards.

In any case, Khin Kyi’s life is an interesting example of the traditional power of Burmese women to indirectly influence politics through assistance of the governing men and family networks. 1 By accompanying her husband and later his successor on their campaigns, she contributed to their popularity. Furthermore, she shaped the later political career of her daughter through the sense of duty she instilled in her. Aung San Suu Kyi is now often called “Mother Suu” by her followers. Aung San’s soldiers reportedly called Khin Kyi the “Mother” of the army2 after she reluctantly accepted marriage to the man who until today is called the “Father” of the country and the military.

On the other hand, the many tragedies in her family, including the estrangement of her two remaining children which escalated into a fight about the house on University Avenue after her death, symbolise the unhappy history of post-independent Burma..

Bibliography

Clements, Alan 1996 The Voice of Hope. New York, Seven Stories Press.

Harridan, Jessica 2012 The Authority of Influence. Power and Women in Burmese History. Copenhagen, NIAS.

Kyaw Zwa Moe 2006 The Mother Who Was Overlooked. In: Irrawaddy Magazine. July 2006: 16-17.

Maung Maung 1960 Aung San’s Helpmate. In: Maung Maung (ed.) 1962 Aung San of Burma. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff: 117-129.

Who’s Who in Burma 1960. Rangoon, The Guardian Press.

Wintle, Justin 2007 Perfect Hostage. A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. London, Hutchinson.

Zöllner, Hans-Bernd/Rodion Ebbighausen 2015 The Daughter. A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. Chiang Mai, Silkworm.

Footnotes

1http://dawkhinkyifoundation.org/.

2Wintle, 111-112.

3For some datails see Wintle 112-114.

4Maung Maung119.

5Who’s Who in Burma: 71.

6 There is a lot of speculation about the reasons for the estrangement of the siblings. This thae headlines when Aung San Oo filed a legal suit against his sister to claim half of the property of the house oin Uiversity Avenue (see http://www.burmalibrary.org/reg.burma/archives/200101/msg00074.html).

7The San Francisco Examiner 10.7.1952: 15.

8Clements: 79-80.

9Maung Maung 119.

10New York Times 15.10.1991 (https://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/15/world/woman-in-the-news-burmese-whose-silenced-voice-echoes-aung-san-suu-kyi.html; accessed 15.4.2019).

11Maung Maung 120. – The scene happened in the hospital where she had met him. Her mentor Dr. Ba Than did the post mortem for Aung San and the other martyrs.

12Clements: 67.

13https://www.irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/the-overlooked-mother.html. The article was originally published under the title “The Mother Who Was Overlooked” (https://www.irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/mother-overlooked.html).

14Zöllner/Ebbighausen 83-89.

15Herridan: 305-308.

16Maung Maung: 120.

U Thuzana (1948-2018)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Introduction – Difficulties in Properly Approaching a Monk’s Life

U Thuzana made headlines because of his role in the split of the Kayin National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) in late 1994.1 He is one of the many so-called “political monks” who have become famous as well as infamous in Burma’s recent political history. Describing his career can contribute to understanding the complex relationship of the mundane and the spiritual spheres in Myanmar’s society.

The western biographer, however, faces some special challenges in finding and evaluating the data of a monk’s life. In the eyes of the laypeople he is regarded a “son of the Buddha”. The life of the Buddha is thus the yardstick to measure a monk’s lifetime achievement. An individual monk’s level of enlightenment as assessed by his lay followers determines the spiritual value of the material support given to him. The more merit the layperson achieves through a gift to a member of the community, the Sangha, the greater is her or his chance of progressing towards the ultimate goal of life, the escape from all suffering in saṃsāra, the cycles of rebirth.

Therefore, the ‘biography’ of a monk written by one of his followers tends to be a hagiography. It makes no sense to write about a monk who failed, because he missed his vocation and must be classified as a pretender. In other words, from a consistent Buddhist perspective the term “political monk” is a self-contradiction, since politics belong to the mundane sphere of loka, but a monk to the supra-mundane sphere, lokuttara.2

This attitude is expressed in one of the epithets conferred on U Thuzana by his followers on the occasion of his cremation in late 2018: “sainted grandfather”.3 Such a saint cannot be “controversial”, another frequent attribute used to characterise U Thuzana. A headline like “A Saint in Command”, used by a western observer4 to describe his role, is a contradiction that is rooted in the different world-views of Buddhists and non-Buddhists, with their different understandings of a term like “politics”.

As a result of these cardinal problems in depicting a revered monk’s life, a “neutral narration” of U Thuzana’s life is almost impossible. As with many other prominent Buddhist monks, the data available are meagre and almost buried under the many and mostly controversial appraisals of the various manifestations emanating from his words and actions.

Until now, only one text exists that can be termed a biography of U Thuzana. It was written by one of his close followers who describes it as “no biography” but a “personal record of Sayadaw’s life experiences”.5 The foreword indicates that the book comes close to an autobiography of the monk written down by a “bosom friend”6 of his.7 Most western authors who try to make sense of the monk’s life make use of the work, published in 1999, that contains a number of documents, most related to the events of 1994 and 1995 and dealing with the conflict between Buddhist and Christian members of Kayin organisations that resulted in the split of the KNLA. For the monk’s life after 1999 comparatively few reports about his activities exist, many of them just mentioning his name in connection with descriptions of misdeeds by the DKBA and his initiatives of building pagodas in compounds of religious buildings of Christian and Muslim communities.

As a consequence, the following biographical sketch, based on sources that mostly must be regarded as biased in favour or against the monk, can just offer facts about U Thuzana’s life that cannot be neatly separated from the various interpretations connected to them. U Thuzana’s life story oscillates between often contradicting poles – and thus is rather typical for the recent history of Buddhist Myanmar.

Biographical Sketch

The future U Thuzana was born on August 1, 1948,8 in a village situated at the eastern bank of the Thanlwin (Salween) river as the eighth of twelve children. The village, located some 70 km north of Hpa-an, today’s capital of Kayin State, is not far from Myaing Gyi Ngu, the centre of the monk’s later activities. He was given the name of Than Sein. He attended an elementary school and at the age of eight became a novice at a nearby monastery. After finishing elementary school he continued his monastic education in Mawlamyine, Thaton and Mudon (all in Mon State). Here he received his Pali monk name U Thuzana (meaning virtuous and upright) and passed the lowest examination within the system. Around the age of 17 he left the monastery and on the advice of his abbot became Than Sein again because his father and his younger brother fell ill. He worked in the family’s rice fields for some time before being called to do military service for the KNLA as a courier. According to his biography, on his travels through Kayin land he saw ruins of many Buddhist religious buildings and got the idea of rebuilding them.9

After the end of his military service and of the health and economic problems of his family, U Thuzana was ordained as a monk at the age of 20 on April 5, 1968.10 After that he continued his religious studies in Mudon, but soon turned to practise Vipassana meditation, thus following the emphasis of the leading monk on patipatti, practising the Buddha’s teaching instead of studying the theory (pariyatti). After practising meditation for some time and consulting his teacher, he decided to become a forest monk. At the age of 24 he went to the Myaing Gyi Ngu hill near his birthplace to settle down there. He met a hermit, an experienced practitioner of meditation, learned from him and – as was handed down – resisted the temptation of lust, survived the encounter with a boa constrictor and was cured from arthritis , which had not been cured before even by use of traditional methods.“

However, other health problems continued to afflict him.

After these experiences, clearly modelled on the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment in his biography, he set out on the next stage of following the Buddha’s path. He untertook a journey through the wilderness of Kayin country before starting to renovate the ruined pagoda of Myaing Gyi Ngu with the assistance of a number of followers. The foundation stone was laid in November 1975, the umbrella (hti) was hoisted half a year later on Thingyan, Burmese New Year. Reportedly 20,000 people attended the ceremony.11 From now on U Thuzana became known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw (abbot) and his career as a pagoda builder started, albeit not immediately.

The monastery on teh Banl of the Thanlwin River (Photo: G. Baumgard)

The biography records that between 1982 and 1984 seven pagodas were built on his initiative12 and that the number increased to 53, plus 28 ordination halls, by 1990.13 One of these caused problems because it was located at a strategically important place some 40 km away from Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU on the confluence of the Thanlwin and Moei rivers. The KNU leadership argued that the construction of the building might negatively effect the security of the opposition’s headquarters. The long controversy about the construction work finally contributed to the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) by a number of Buddhist soldiers14 formerly under command of the KNLA in late 1994, and thus to the split of the armed organisation that had started fighting the Burmese army in 1949. Most observers agree that a long- standing dissatisfaction among the Buddhist rank and file of the army and the Christian leadership played a crucial role. Personal talks between KNU leader Bo Mya and U Thuzana about the pagoda building issue did not lead to a compromise.

KNU Heaquarters at Manerplw around 1992 (Phto: Richard Humphries)

In early 1995 U Thuzana became the most prominent patron of the new organisation as one of six Sayadaws. From then on he was regarded as controversial. His followers stress his main aim of promoting Buddhism; his critics regard him as a pawn of the military junta in its fight against the KNU.

After 1995 not much biographical information exists about U Thuzana. He is generally called “chairman” or “leader” of the DKBA without any further specification. Most likely the monk concentrated on supervising the community that had assembled at Myaing Gyi Ngu, many of them being people who had fled their homes to avoid the fighting between the KNU, the Burmese army and other armed groups, among them the DKBA. Furthermore, the monk had invited refugees living in Thailand to return. A set of strict rules was proclaimed that made the “camp” a place in which a peaceful and just order based on Buddhist principles as articulated by the abbot was practised.15 Religious as well as political diversity was thus excluded.

Besides such actions, the monk gave sermons based on the Buddhist scriptures, like other monks, that were recorded and distributed to the public free of charge. One such sermon, explaining the often recited Mangala Sutta dealing with the prerequisites for a good and blessed life, was even translated into English. This is in a question-and-answer style and gives a completely orthodox interpretation of the text.

According to a report of the German NGO “People In Need, Gerhard Baumgard Stiftung” which supported the settlement under the governance of the monk, some 20,000 people (4,000 families) lived in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area in 2004. The report illustrates the connections of the settlement, which was at the same time regarded as the headquarter of the DKBA by the military government. A Government Basic Education High School (BEHS) had been founded in 1996, attended by about 1500 to 1700 students. While the primary school students came mostly from the village itself, the middle and high school students had to travel long hours to get to the school. Therefore a boarding house was needed that was to be constructed with the financial assistance of the NGO in the absence of other support.16 The school was just one of many projects to develop the region under the monk’s supervision with the support of the Buddhist Kayin and the leadership of the Burmese army. The ‘town’ had a power station and a hospital as well.

As a later report of the German NGO shows, the monk enjoyed the special patronage of Khin Nyunt, the long-time Secretary No. 1 of the ruling junta and Prime Minister between 2003 and his fall from power in 2004.17 The former leading official of the junta visited the place quite often and was depicted on murals in the position of paying respect to U Thuzana. He further attended the funeral ceremonies of the monk in 2018. U Thuzana’s followers were issued special documents allowing them to move in areas controlled by the Myanmar military without being forced to serve as porters. On the other hand, the monk refused to accept rewards for his religious activities offered to him by the military government.18

Khin Nyunt at the funeral of U Thuzana (Photos: Mikael Gravers)

From 1995 on, it is reported that the DKBA on order or with the consent of U Thuzana attacked Christian and Muslim settlements and constructed pagodas on the compounds of the other religious communities.19

In 2010 the political environment changed again. In order to bring the armed rebel groups in Myanmar under the control of the military of the state, the government requested that they become Border Guard Forces (BGFs). Thus the armed groups could retain a certain degree of self-administration, but were formally made part of the government’s security forces. A majority of the DKBA units, among them those controlling Myaing Gyi Ngu, accepted the offer, while others did not. A commander of a new army called Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army summarised the difference between the two groups thus: “If you stand for your religion, join the BGF, if for your nation, like the KNLA, then join with us.”20 The splits caused new fights between the different factions, resulting in the emergence of new camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) close to Myaing Gyi Ngu that were supported by U Thuzana.21

For some years, U Thuzana did not attract much public attention. From 2015 on, however, the building of pagodas on Christian and Muslim compounds initiated by him made headlines. Interventions from different organisations to stop the construction failed because U Thuzana claimed that the pagodas were built on sites where formerly Buddhist religious buildings had existed and that it was necessary to protect the ancient Buddhist heritage.

During the last years, U Thuzana’s voice was less often to be heard. He had suffered from a lung problem and breathing difficulties for a long time. When travelling he carried an oxygen tank. Before he died on October 13, 2018, in a Bangkok hospital he had spent 10 months there. From the beginning of his career he had had many followers in Thailand who supported his activities.

Aims and Objectives

There is no doubt that U Thuzana’s eagerness to build pagodas contributed to the split of the KNLA and the fall of Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU administration and its multi-ethnic allies that were determined to crush the military junta. But it seems clear as well that this was not the only reason. The question of whether the monk intentionally supported the formation of the Buddhist Kayin army remains a matter of controversy. But the victory of the forces of the Burmese Tatmadaw and their new ally, the DKBA, was a milestone in the junta’s first aim of restoring law and order in the country before concentrating on promoting peace and development, as indicated by the name change from SLORC to SPDC in late 1997. Aung San Suu Kyi was released some months after the conquest of the opposition’s capital, which had forced the “alternative government” National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), formed in December 1990 in Manerplaw and headed by her cousin Sein Win, to become a “government in exile”, no longer residing on Burmese soil but in the United States.

U Thuzana’s biography stresses his determination to stay aloof from politics.22 However, he is described as a Kayin “nationalist” who – like the political and military leader Bo Mya – wants “peace” for the Kayin people.23 Their means, however, were different and led to a rivalry between the two. The biography explains U Thuzana’s position thus:

He is free and stays away from politics. Sayadaw’s main thing in life is to propagate and perpetuate Buddha Sasana. In truth Sayadaw is imbued with nationalism. His nationalism is not what they say. His nationalism is that Kayin national were once a highly cultured people. They built zedis, stupas, shrines and pagodas in the wildernesses of the State. These religious edifices were now ruined in the wildernesses. Sayadaw has to shine the Light which had been flickered or extinguished in the past. In present, there should be a Light that flames, and in future there will be a Light which will shine all over Kayin State. – This is Myaing-Gwe: Ngu’s nationalism.

This is a program of a religious-cultural revival that aims at bringing back the glory of the past, overgrown in the course of time by – natural and cultural – “wildernesses”. One effect of this process of decline was the loss of a Kayin script which the monk re-invented24 – as an indigenous alternative to the letters borrowed from the Burmese language used by the Christian missionaries to give the Kayin back the ability to read, that according to a Kayin myth was once lost. This detail accents the cultural-religious focus of the monk’s controversy with the Christian KNU leader Bo Mya. This fills most of the space in the second part of the quoted biography, supporting the biographer’s point of view with documents from followers who took over posts in the new army.

With regard to U Thuzana’s actions towards non-Buddhists living in the so-called “Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Zone”, a letter he wrote to a Muslim community living nearby is telling.25 The monk explains the reasons he ordered the Muslims to move to another place: their habits of eating fish and meat and slaughtering cows. The Myaing Gyi Ngu area was reserved for Buddhists and members of other religions as well as “kalas”, people of Indian descent, were not allowed to enter according to signposts set at the entrance of U Thuyana’s realm.

After informing them about the reasons for his decision, the monk writes to the “Mosque leaders and villagers”:

You and I as religious leaders know each other personally very well. Although we have mutual understanding and forgiveness, our respective youth and our followers are bound to come into conflict with one another in due course.

That’s why you should relocate peacefully and without resistance to the new designated place where you build a village which will be named „Nyinyar Aye Chan“ (Unity and Peace) and live accordingly peacefully.

Near Ta Khwet Hpoe Village, Buddhists will move in and build a new village named Nan Hay Myaing. This is a win-win situation.

During the immediate period of relocation you will hold resentment towards me, the Abbot. In due course, you will come to appreciate my good intentions.

Out of compassion, I am donating to your relocation efforts, out of my meagre savings, the amount of 20,000,000 Kyat (500,000 is earmarked for the building a mosque and the rest is for the villagers).

I heard some of your villagers thought it was too little a compensation and they wanted to refuse the offer. If that is the case, I will happily rescind the offer.

I am not a narrow-minded bigot. If I were, I would have barred Kalars from walking on any road that I paved, by erecting „no Kalars may walk on this road“ signs.

I extend my metta to all. In this life we are different peoples as Kalar, Bama, Kayin, etc. But in the cycle of lives we are all relatives! I hope that you will understand me and that you will forgive me for this action.

With much loving kindness for all, …

The language of the letter clearly shows that U Thuzana regards himself as the highest authority of the “special zone” built up under his patronage since he took his residence there. In his eyes, the “Shining Light of the Dhamma” has to be employed as the fundamental principle governing the coexistence of the people. To secure peace, measures must be taken to separate the communities, a measure for which the abbot pays some money following the traditional supreme virtue of a traditional Buddhist ruler, practising generosity (dāna).

In this “dhammacracy”, the teaching of the Buddha, the dhamma, is placed above all other laws and the monk who ignites this supreme illumination for a particular community tops the mundane hierarchy under his supervision. The religious leaders of the Muslim community will be able to understand this and will accept the decision as a “win-win situation”. According to the law of kamma, the different status of people of different ethnic and religious affiliation cannot be changed immediately. Only when the cycle of rebirths is considered are all people relatives. For the time being hierarchies exist and must be handled wisely and with good intentions.

The role of U Thuzana in the “special zone” of Myaing Gyi Ngu was that of a patron whose authority was respected in such a way that he did not exercise any executive power to implement what he regarded to be appropriate. The contract between the German NGO and the monastery was concluded between the monk and the chairman of the foreign organisation; it was, however, signed by an executive administrating the special zone. The principle of traditional Buddhist practice that a monk must stay away from getting directly involved in financial affairs was thus observed.

Seen in this perspective, the building of pagodas on the compounds of other religious communities is not an attempt to replace the church or mosque or even to extinguish the “other” community, but as an attempt to remind the people of what the monk regarded to be the historically justified priority of a Buddhist-Kayin culture in this region. Such a view, however, severely contradicts norms that are generally supposed to govern the co-existence of different communities.

Assessment

These basics of a benevolent Kayin Buddhist nationalism do not meet the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contradict the Western understanding of democracy, where all people are regarded as equal before the law enacted by the consent of the people in a certain nation state. The “special zone” administered by U Thuzana was – and still is – a small state within the state of Myanmar and it is not the only one. Several other Buddhist saints established their “states within the state”26 that have interacted in various ways with the Burmese/Myanmar governmental institutions trying to administer the whole country. U Thuzana’s rival, Bo Mya, represents another type of leader of an ethnic-centred state-like entity that is still mushrooming in Myanmar, challenging the monopoly of the central government in terms of the use of force, cultural rights and other functions of a nation.

The challenge brought forward by U Thuzana was special because it was inextricably connected to his life story. It might be argued that he became a “political monk” only by accident. The wilderness of Kayin Land that he discovered on his way to become a forest monk made him discover relicts that he regarded as testimonies of an old Kayin civilisation based on Buddhist spirituality. The many pagodas, ordination halls and other religious edifices he restored or built with the assistance of his followers, as well as his activities to better the lives of his Buddhist fellow-Kayins, were just material results of his vision to revive this civilisation by building up an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson). The high value ascribed to vegetarian food, even for the dogs, is an example of the logical execution of the Buddhist precept not to kill any living being within the borders of a model Buddhist community.

Such a community depends on the spiritual qualities ascribed to its leader by the people who follow him. Therefore, the death of the founder might be the beginning of the community’s end as a place of sanctity since this sainthood depends on the living saint. Religious as well as political charisma cannot be institutionalised.

What might be telling for the future of the Myaing Gyi Ngu “special zone” is the career of the Thamanya Sayadaw (1912-2003) under whose guidance another Buddhist “model community” was established around another hill in Kayin State.27 Here, donations of pilgrims visiting the site were the economic base of the settlement. After the death of the monk, his four monk-disciples could not agree on a successor and the government took back some of the privileges enjoyed by the people who had settled on the “holy place”. The example is also instructive for the variety of assessments of the work of socially engaged monks. The Thamanya Sayadaw was lauded as “progressive” because he was visited by Aung San Suu Kyi and thus seen as an opponent of the military regime. In fact, he tried to keep the same distance from the state authorities as U Thuzana did.28

Both U Thuzana as well as the Thamanya Sayadaw can be called “socially engaged monks” – albeit in a different sense than the usual cosmopolitan understanding of the term – who were drawn into the controversies of Myanmar politics and thus were assigned the status of “political monks”. This somewhat arbitrary labelling can be further illustrated by a comparison with the Sitagu Sayadaw, who for some time was perceived as one of the most respected religious leaders in Myanmar because of his teaching and philanthropic work, which included the establishment of a Buddhist University in Sagaing. After a sermon given at a military training school in Kayin State in September 2017 he became “controversial”, too. His talk, televised nationwide, was interpreted as a justification for the killing of people from other faiths by Buddhist soldiers.29 In June 1999 the monk gave a talk at Nyaing Gyi Ngu entitled “The River of Peace”.30 U Thuzana advertised the sermon as ”suitable for the DKBA and return to the legal fold to take an example”. The guest speaker stated in the foreword to the publication of his speech that he “had long been desirous to make a Dhamma trip to Myaing Gyi Ngu.”

The cover of the book documenting the visit of the Sitagu Sayadaw and some pictures

The episode shows that U Thuzana can be regarded as a representative of the Sangha in Myanmar whose publicity exceeded the local sphere. He stood not just for a narrow Kayin Buddhist-cultural nationalism but for a “Buddhist ecumene” that transcended ethnic boundaries. However, such a concept contradicts enlightened “modern” political thought. To this extent U Thuzana is a personification of Myanmar’s uneasy relationship with the international community.

Bibliography

Equality Myanmar 2016 Situation of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Myanmar. (http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs22/FoRB%20situation%20briefer%20Full%20Report%20(Eng).pdf; accessed 25.9.2019)

Gravers, Mikael 2015 Religious Imaginary as an Alternative Social and Moral Order – Kayin Buddhism across the Thai-Burma Border. Jung, Jin-Heong and Alexander Horstmann (eds.) 2015 Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees and Religious Communities. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 45-67.

– 2018 A Saint in Command? Spiritual protection, justice, and religious tensions in the Kayin State. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship 1, 2: 87-119 (https://journalofburmesescholarship.org/issues/v1n2/04Gravers.pdf; accessed 259.2019).

Jolliffe, Kim 2016 Ceasefire, Governance, Development: The Kayin National Union in Times of Change. The Asia Foundation.

Keenan, Paul 2016 The Formation of the DKBA. (https://paullkeenan.net/2016/05/06/the-formation-of-the-dkba/; accessed 18.4.2019).

Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw 2002 Questions and Answers on Mingala Sutta. English version by U Than Htun,(Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Myaing Nan Swe 1999 Myaing Gye: Ngu Sayadaw. A Jahan who Shines the light of Dhamma. Translated by Shin Khay Meinda. (www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/U_Thuzana’s_Book-red.pdf; accessed 29.5.2019).

People in Need – Gerhard-Baumgard Stiftung 2004 Report on the Foundation, December 1004 (https://peopleinneed.de/pdf/PIN-Annual_Report-2004.pdf; accessed 28.5.2019).

Rozenberg, Guillaume 2010 Renunciation and Power. The Quest for Sainthood in Contemporary Burma. New Haven, Ct. Yale Southeast Asian Studies.

Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 2001 The Sermon on “The River of Peace”. (A Journey of Dhamma to Myaing Gyi Ngu). Recorded by Myaing Nann Swe. English translation by U Than Hzun (Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Toza, Keiko 2009 The Cult of Thamanya Sayadaw. The Social Dimension of a Formulating Pilgramage Site. Asian Ethnology 68,2: 230-264 (https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/830; accessed 25.9.2019)

The author thanks Gerhard Baumgard for the information provided by him.

Footnotes

1Like most other groups involved in Myanmar’s civil war, the new Buddhist organisations emerging in late 1994 distinguished between a political organisation and its armed wing. The acronym DKBA first designated a political “association” that however was closely tied to the “army”. The political significance of the movement is denoted by the acronym DKBO – O standing for “organisation”.

2 For further reading: Mathew J. Walton: Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

3https://www.mmtimes.com/news/last-journey-kayins-most-revered-monk.html (accessed 15.3.2019).

4Gravers 2018.

5Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 1.

6Ibid.: 2.

7To write an autobiography in the third person is not unusual for a Buddhist author. The autobiography of U Nu (“Saturday’s Son” published in 1976) is written in the third person. This style allowing avoidance of the word “I” is in line with the Buddhist principle of anatta, no-self.

812th waning day of Second Waso 1310 BE.

9Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 15.

10Burmese calendar: 8th day of the waxing moon 1330 BE.

11Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 62.

12Ibid.: 73.

13Ibid.: 109.

14According to various reports, the number might have been between 200 and 300.

15The rules were: “To remain vegetarian forever inside and outside the camp. – No one is to argue or to cause trouble outside the camp. – There is to be no division between races. – Everybody must keep the 5th Commandment of the Gautama Buddha (Do not kill). – Do not gossip or use slander that will cause harm to anybody in the compound. – No political discussions or arguments are allowed to disturb the people in the compound. – No religion apart from Buddhism is allowed to be discussed in the compound.” (Keenan 2016). According to a report of a German foundation building a school in Myaing Gyi Ngu, the vegetarian policy of the place even included the dogs that lived there. They were fed rice and vegetables (People in Need 2004: 5).

16Ibid.

17The support of the NGO came to an end after Khin Nyunt lost his post in October 2004. The boarding house for 200 students was finished on a smaller scale than originally planned (https://peopleinneed.de/pdf/PIN-Annual_Report-2006.pdf: 11; accessed 28.5.2019).

18Rozenberg 2010: 136.

19A report of the Bangkok Post of March 1996 reports about attacks on villages inhabited by Seventh Day Adventists, the religious community to which the leader of the KNU Bo Mya (1927-2006) belonged.

20Jolliffe 2016: 7.

21For a report on the situation in 2016 see https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/myaing-gyi-ngus-uneasy-peace-in-kayin-state (accessed 30.5.2019).

22Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 133; 136; 137.

23Ibid.: 109-113.

24Gravers 2015: 60.

25http://permanentpeoplestribunal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PPT-on-Myanmar-Judgment-FINAL.pdf. (accessed 30.5.2019): Annex 8 (pp. 68 and 69). The letter is included in a documentation of a “Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal” on “State Crimes Allegedly Committed in Myanmar” held in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur.

26See Rozenberg 2010.

27For details see Tosa 2009. The Thamanya Hill is located south-east of Hpa-An near the road linking the capital of Kayin State to the border town Myawaddi.

28Rozenberg 2010: 135-147.

29https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/tatmadaw-sangha-and-government-must-work-together-sitagu-sayadaw-says-in-sermon-to-officers (accessed 30.8.2019).

30Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 1999.

Saya San (1876-1931)

Eileen Brandenburg / Hans-Bernd Zöllner

1 Introduction

Saya San is one of the great heroes of the Burmese independence struggle because of his role in the peasants’ uprising starting in late 1930 that is named after him albeit he acted only eight months as leader of the rebellion that continued for many more months in different parts of Burma. His short career as a rebel leader was followed by a great number of attempts to ascertain the significance of the rebellion in the anti-colonial struggle and Saya San’s role in it. The various views on the “Saya San uprising” therefore signify the many options of how to make sense of the driving forces behind Burmese history and politics until today.

2 Biographical Sketch

Saya San was born on October 24, 1876 as Yat Kyar in a village near Shwebo, the town from which King Alaungphaya, the founder of the last Burmese dynasty, originated. Ten years after his birth, the British put an end to royal rule in Burma. At that time, the boy received a traditional monastic education near his birthplace. As an adult, he moved to a village nearby producing and selling mats and baskets. He married and fathered two children, a son and a daughter. The family later moved to southern Burma near Mawlamyine (Moulmein) where he worked as a carpenter, and – more successfully – as a fortune teller and medical healer (se saya). He wrote two treatises on the subject in which he contrasted traditional Burmese and Western medicine highlighting the value of the former. Probably at this time he adopted the name Saya (“Teacher”) San. As a se saya, he was regarded as someone to have access to the special powers in the fields of astrology, alchemy and mantras.

Saya San etwa im Jahr 1927

In 1920, he joined the local branch of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), the nationwide nationalist organisation striving for an independent Burma. He first represented his village organisation and later the district branch of Mawlamyine. In 1924, he was elected chairman of a commission that looked into the grievances of peasants caused by the British system of tax collection. In 1929, he proposed to refuse paying capitation tax and establish defense organisations to protect villagers against abuses by the colonial government. His proposal was not adopted by the GCBA conference of 1929 whereupon Saya San formed his own organisation, the Galon Association (galon athin) named after the mythical bird Galon (Garuda) that according to popular belief was superior to the Naga (serpent/snake), representing earth and water and was associated at that time with the British.

Saya San recruited followers who took an oath of allegiance and were tattooed with the Galon emblem. On December 22, 1930, the rebellion started after its leader had adopted the title of “King of the Galons” and established his headquarters in Tharawaddy District, some 170 km north of the capital Rangoon; it erupted at the auspicious time of 11.33 pm on the day after the Acting Governor, Sir Joseph A. Aung Gyi, had categorically refused to consider a lightening of the hard-hit peasants’ tax burden. The attacks concentrated on government agents like village headmen four of whom were killed in the first 48 hours of the uprising, agencies such as police stations and symbols of British modernity like railway bridges and telegraph poles. On December 30, Saya San’s headquarters consisting of some huts located on a hill of the nearby Pegu Yoma, were taken by government troops. Saya San, at times in the disguise of a monk, traveled by train to Pyay (Prome) and in January 1931 moved – again partly by train – to the Southern Shan State where he set up another Galon force comprised of members of different ethnic groups helping the villagers to fight what was regarded unjust treatment by the authorities. Government forces broke up the rebel army and Saya San attempted to move to his native area near Shwebo but was held up by a thorn in the foot. A local guide informed the police and Saya San was arrested on August 2, 1931. He was brought back to Tharawaddy and tried by a special tribunal which sentenced him to death on August 28. An appeal was rejected and he was hanged on November 28 of the same year.

Before his death, Saya San had authorized two journalists to use the proceeds from the sale of his books on traditional medicine to buy books for a library to be set up in his memory. The first works acquired were works of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin. The rebellion Saya San had started continued  until early 1932.

3  Aims and Achievements

The aims of Saya San can be deduced from the two resolutions he proposed for the 16th conference of the GCBA in 1929:

1 To resist collection of capitation and thathameda[1] taxes by the colonial government;

2 to demand from government the right of free collection of forest products such as timber and bamboo for family use, and if government refused, the existing rules be defied by non-violent means.[2]

Both propositions were meant to alleviate the economic situation of the rural population harried by  the collapse of the international rice market after the global depression following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and at the same time extend their freedom from rules and regulations imposed by the British. The means to achieve this goal consisted in boycotting government policies in line with the policy of the wunthanu athins (our-race associations) which after 1920 had spread to all parts of central Burma as a parallel grassroots structure to the British administrative system, the latter severely restricting self-organisation of the villages as it had existed under the Burmese kings. Economic and political aims were thus inseparably linked together with elements of Buddhism and polular culture. Saya San had been a member of a wunthanu organisation which by 1925 existed in almost all villages of Burma and were connected through the GCBA from village to national level. The wunthanu athins constituted a village-based movement that effectively challenged the policies of the British administration by refusing to take part in elections and paying taxes. The success of such protests can be seen in the low percentage of votes cast in the first elections held by the British in 1922 when only 6.71 % of the electorate went to the polls. Other than this silent refusal of government procedures, the tax boycott and other forms of non-cooperation were punished by the government agencies. So as to become independent from the colonial economy, the associations set up retail shops recognisable by the wunthanu logo; Burmese working for the British administration were refused use of the shops and monks were asked – or even forced – not to dispense religious services to alleged collaborators. The British administration regarded this as “political terrorism and a negation of all independent political thought in the country”[3] and passed an Anti-Boycott Law to counter the attempts to ostracise the Burmese members of the British administration. Here, two antagonistic concepts of “independence” become visible.

Saya San was thus a member of a well organised movement that used Burmese traditions to resist British rule in a way similar to Gandhi – who visited Burma in 1929 – by establishing parallel structures of administering the country. The violent rebellion connected with his name was a consequence of the refusal of the GCBA to endorse the recommendations drawn up by Saya San after his investigation into the hardships caused by the existing tax system comprising 170 case studies. The umbrella organisation of the wunthanu athins broke up before the conference in 1929 due to factionalism both within the GCBA and the monks’ association that had supported it. Leading members of the GCBA had decided to participate in the elections and thus abandoning the previous boycott strategies. This, in return, resulted in a still stronger suppression of wunthanu activities. The galon athin founded by Saya San was a unit to defend the initiatives of grassroots boycotters against the harsh measures of the government to end the civil disobedience of the peasants and against the leaders of the Burmese organisations who had compromised their resistance in favour of participating in the British schemes to “modernise” Burma.

Saya San’s main achievement was to demonstrate that the protest of the Burmese peasants had to be taken seriously as  a mass movement. The revolt of December 1930 connected with his name was the beginning of a wildfire of revolts led by other “Saya Sans” as the many trials of rebel leaders show. Finally, his trial and execution made him a symbol of an independent Burma battling for the welfare of the peasant majority of Burma first instead of for a system of subjugating the people to serve foreign economic interests and its concomitant political system – be it defined by the colonial power or by (collaborating) fellow countrymen. The Saya San Rebellion can be regarded as an early case of protesting the consequences of globalisation in the wake of the imposition of colonialism and a capitalist economy inextricably tied to it.

4 Assessment(s)

Saya San and the rebellion that bears his name has been assessed very differently. A major interpretative scheme uses dichotomous categories like traditional vs. modern, rural vs. urban, superstitious vs. rational etc. Such classifications were employed in official reports of the British administration on the rebellion. In the eyes of the colonial administrators, the uprising was just a backward looking attempt to restore the glory of royal Burma. From this point of view, the “coronation” of Saya San and his “palace” on the hill played a central role that dominated the historiography of the events to a great extent. Here, the figure of a min-laung, a king-to-be, played a crucial role; many of the rebels who had fought the British after the removal of King Thibaw from the throne had adopted this title. The concept is based on the belief that a ruler needs to possess hpon – merit or glory.[4] Saya San in the eyes of his followers surely possessed this quality but that did not mean that his main aim was to restore the monarchy. He called himself thamada[5] (president) and held that the war against the British was necessary to protect the welfare of monks, laypeople and the Buddhist religion.

This change of the “min-laung motif” from a challenger to the throne of a current ruler to the legitimation of fighting the colonial power to protect the Burmese people is indicated by its continuing use during the Burmese independence struggle. Here, the coming of a future king to free Burma in the context of millenarian expectations helped Aung San to become regarded as the leader of a Burma free from foreign domination and – more importantly – from unjust foreign laws. Like Aung San, Saya San was a charismatic leader who saw himself forced by circumstances to resort to violent means to achieve their goals, and both represented the will and the wishes of the majority of the people. In Saya San’s case, this is illustrated by the fact that he only for very short periods of time and within very limited areas could directly lead the rebellion which spread to other parts of the country without his direct involvement soon after he had chosen to use violent means as an answer to the widespread frustration of the villagers.

The means Saya San employed to organise the movement were indeed traditional and linked to the belief in magic powers like tattooing and oath taking combined with drinking “oath water”. Both measures, however, served practical ends. They bound the rebel groups together and conveyed a feeling of security and fearlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken up the latter motif in her famous slogan “Freedom from Fear” substantiated by a “modern” interpretation of Buddhist thought whereas Saya San and his followers relied on “traditional” forms of Buddhist practices in their anti-colonial struggle.

Overall, Saya San’s aims and the means to achieve them represent a hybrid mix of traditional and modern forms of resisting British rule in Burma. He can be regarded as a paradigmatic figure of Burmese/Myanmar society because, other than many leaders from colonial times to today’s politics, he was not a member of the country’s elite but deeply rooted in the world views of the peasantry which until today forms the majority of Myanmar’s population. It is remarkable that two politicians who for some time dominated Burmese politics till independence used Saya San’s popularity after his death for their own career: Dr. Ba Maw, the first chief minister of Burma under the constitution of 1935 was his main defense lawyer. U Saw who held this office some years later and ordered the assassination of Aung San in 1947, participated in the defence as well and later adopted the name ‘Galon’ for himself and his private army.

Saya San has inspired a variety of researchers investigating Burma’s political culture and historiography to understand this crucial event in Burma’s colonial history. These studies show that concentrating on the rebellion named after the popular hero appears more important than focussing on Saya San’s life because many features of the uprising resurfaced in Burma’s/Myanmar’s modern history.

5 Bibliography

From the many books and articels dealing with the Saya San Rebellion, the following have been used for this biography:

Aung Thwin, Maitrii 2011 The Return of the Galon King. History, Law, and Rebellion in Colonial Burma. Athens, Ohio University Press.

Herbert, Particia 1982 The Hsaya San Rebellion (1930-1932) Reappraised. Melbourne, Monash University, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (Working Papers Nr. 27).

Maung Maung 1980 From Sangha to Laity. Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920-1940. New Delhi, Manohar.

Prager, Susanne 2003 Coming of the “Future King”: Burmese Minlaung Expectations Before and During the Second World War. Journal of Burma Studies 8:  1-32.

Salomon, Robert L. 1969 Saya San and the Burmese Rebellion. Modern Asian Studies 3, 3: 209-223.

[1]    Both were household taxes with different names in Upper (capitation) and Lower (thathameda) Burma.

[2]    Quotation taken from Maung Maung 1980: .

[3]             Statement of  Mr. Lewinson in his introduction of the Anti-Boycott Bill on 21. February 1922 (Proceedings of the Legislative Council p. 948).

[4]    The Burmese word for a monk – hpon-gyi – means “great merit”.

[5]    The title refers to the maha-thamada (Great President), the first ruler in the history of mankind according to an often quoted Buddhist text, the Aggañña Sutta. This president was unanimously elected by the people to care for law and order. Aung San Suu Kyi quoted the story as one of the Buddhist roots for the Burmese understanding of democracy.

Thakin Soe (1905-1989)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Burmese version of this article

1 Introduction

Thakin Soe was one of the most influential members of the Dobama Asiayone and the AFPFL in the fight for Burma’s independence from the late 1930s until the country’s independence in 1948.  Unlike Aung San and Nu, he did not attend  university but worked in a company before he got involved in politics. Being very much attracted by socialist ideas, he wrote books and articles in Burmese that introduced Socialism and Communism to a wider audience. Later, he was the leader of a small communist party that started an armed rebellion against the government. His colourful life and character have been widely neglected due to the shift of public and academic interest on Burma after 1988. They,  however, shed light on some core elements of Burmese politics.

2 Biographical Scetch

Soe was born in 1905[1] in Kyauktan, a village near Kyaikkami – known as Amherst in English – in today’s Mon State. From 1922 to 1937 he was employed by the Burmah Oil Company as laboratory assistant in the oil refinery in Thanlyin (Syriam) near Yangon.  He was an avid reader, particularly interested in books on socialism that were pouring into Burma at that time.

Title of „Socialism“ – The slogan on the red area means „May the revolution be victorious“

In June 1938 his book „Socialism“ (literally translated: “Socialist ideology”) was published by the Nagani („Red Dragon”) Book Club that he had co-founded together with Than Tun and Nu. Than Tun wrote the foreword. After he stopped working at the oil company, Nu supported him for some time. In 1938, he played a role in the strike of the workers on the oil fields and in Thanlyin, became a member of the Thakin movement, the Do-bama Asiayone and a member of its Central Committee, and worked as an honorary secretary at the book club, the intellectual centre of the association.

In August 1939, he was – together with Than Tun and Aung San – one of the 12 or 13 people who founded a communist party cell that later was regarded as the foundation of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). One year later, he was – as many other Thakins – imprisoned by the British because of the agitation against the refusal of the British to promise Burma’s independence in return to the Burmese support of the war against the European Fascist powers. He was freed when the Japanese entered Burma in 1942, but unlike Aung San, Nu and Than Tun, went underground in the Irrawaddy Delta to fight the Japanese instead of initially cooperating with them. At that time, he communicated both with the British authorities in India through Thein Pe, another communist leader, who had left Burma for India.  Meanwhile, most Thakins served in the Burmese government that had been set up after Japan had nominally granted independence to Burma in August 1943.

In December 1943, Soe was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of Burma. In August 1944, the foundation of a popular front against the Japanese named Anti-Fascist Organisation  (AFO), later renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) comprising of the Burmese army as well as the communist party and an emerging socialist group was discussed at Thakin Soe’s headquarters and shortly afterwards was formally enacted in Rangoon. Soe was regarded as the political leader whereas Aung San was in charge of the army. He then cooperated with Ne Win who commanded an army unit in the delta as a „political advisor“  looking after the correct political attitude of the soldiers.

After the victory of the Allies in the last months of the war with assistance of the Burmese army which Aung San had led in revolt agains the Japanes in March, and celebrated in Rangoon in June 1945, Soe lost his post as General Secretary of the communist party one month later but remained a member of the Central Committee. Accusations of his weakness for women and inclination to alcohol contributed to losing his post. With the assistance of a British Communist he then travelled to India in the plane of the Royal Air Force and had talks with Indian Communists. After his return, he was strongly convinced that any cooperation with the British was wrong and an armed revolution to liberate Burma immediately from British rule had to be started.[2] After a long debate in the party over Soe’s demand to lead the party alone, he left the CPB with seven other members of the Central Committee and formed the Communist Party (Burma) called Red Flag Communist Party. The main colour of its flag was red whereas that of the “White Flag Communists” under Than Tun’s leadership was white.

The new party was declared illegal in July 1946 by the British government and went underground. Soe continued an armed struggle against the governments led by Aung San (until his assassination in July 1947), Nu (1947-1958; 1960-1962) and Ne Win (1958-1960; from 1962 on) until 1970.[3] The rebellion of his party concentrated on the western part of Burma (Pakokku and later Rakhine and parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and was characterised by a constant decrease of followers due to his extremely authoritarian style of leadership. In 1970 he surrendered together with his fifth wife, his newly born son and 30 followers. He was tried for high treason in 1972, received a death sentence in 1973. His appeals and calls for pardon were rejected, but he was not executed. He was released in 1980 in course of an amnesty and – together with Nu, his former enemy – and received a state pension afterwards. In 1988 he played a minor role in the popular uprising by becoming patron of one of the parties founded after the military coup of September 1988. He died on May 6, 1989.

3  Aims, Achievements and Personality

Soe lived an underground life fighting different governments from 1942 when he was 37 years old for almost 30 years. Before that, he wrote at least three books[4] and many pamphlets and was therefore regarded as the communist sayagyi – great teacher. His comrade and later rival Than Tun who had helped him to write his book on socialism in “good Burmese” in contrast excelled as organiser and party manager and became a much greater threat to the government than Thakin Soe’s small group.[5] Almost nothing however is known in a foreign language about his writings and speeches except the translation of his book on socialism. His visions and political goals therefore up to now cannot be directly reconstructed by quoting him „in his own voice“.

Like Aung San, Than Tun and many other Burmese revolutionaries fighting for independence, Soe was a „political animal“ in his own right. He called himself a “professional revolutionary” in an interviews after his release. He might have regarded himself as a „Burmese Karl Marx“ by explaining his theory to his fellow countryman. In his book, he quotes Marx: „To devote myself to this work, I have sacrificed my well-being, my family life and everything.“ (Soe 1938: 54)   At the time of writing his book, he might have compared his life to that of his teacher. Later, he might have been inclined to compare himself with Lenin. In his autobiography, he commented on particular events happening during his life with lengthy excerpt from Marx’s Das Kapital. And he reported that at his birth a special omen had happened indicating that Soe was to become a great historic figure. (Taylor 2008: 11) During his revolutionary struggle, he did not compromise and lost the sympathies of many of his followers because he himself did not abide by the strict rules of party discipline that he had issued.

It is notable, however, that Soe did not share the fate of many other fighters who believed in the Marxist doctrine that the necessity of an armed struggle was a core element of the „science of revolution“. He was not „eaten by the revolution“ like Than Tun who was killed in 1968 by a follower after he himself had organised purges of the party in the wake of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Soe finally might have taken his lessons drawn from Marx and Engels seriously that nobody could predict the day when the complete liberation of people after the replacement of capitalism by socialism was achieved. (Soe 1938: 84). His surrender to the government was a mix of frustration about the failure of his revolutionary movement, old age and care for his last  wife and his newborn son he had fathered at the age of 64. During his trial, he tried everything to reject the responsibility for atrocities committed by his followers and stressed his sympathy with the aims of the Revolutionary Council headed by Ne Win.

It seems quite clear that Soe was a complex personality. He was known to be a good singer who fervently sung the Dobama song composed in 1930 – still Myanmar’s national anthem – at political gatherings and on other occasions entertained audiences with traditional songs. Furthermore, he played the violin.

The ambivalence of his character can be illustrated by the famous story that during his resistance activities against the Japanese in World War II he ordered lipsticks and nylons for his female followers to be parachuted down to the resistance headquarters in the Irrawaddy Delta. This could be regarded as a kind gesture to his female followers (Maung Maung 1959: 65) but Ne Win who commanded the troops of the resistance unit reprimanded Soe for playing war.

4 Assessment

Takhin Soe never held an influential political post. Nevertheless he had a great impact on the course of Myanmar ’s modern history. His role in the independence struggle during World War II was crucial for creating a delicate balance between the official cooperation of the Thakins with the Japanese intruders and the British who needed local support for their attempts to recapture the country. Furthermore, Soe had been the only prominent Thakin with clear „anti-fascist“ activities during the war within Myanmar and thus provided credibility to the first declaration of the AFPFL issued in August 1946 and entitled „Drive Away the Fascist Japanese Marauders“. It can be safely assumed that Soe was heavily involved in drafting the manifesto that included the guidelines of a future constitution and was distributed around the whole country.

At least equally important is Soe’s impact on shaping the Burmese understanding of socialism and communism that dominated the country’s history for many decates. As Robert Taylor notes:

Ten years after Socialism appeared, Myanmar received its independence before dawn on 4 January  1948. By then almost every articulate politician and nationalist in the country claimed to be a socialist, Marxist, or communist. (Taylor 2008: 6)

Soe’s work had not just explained socialism in a way that could be understood by Buddhists by linking Marxist dialectics with Buddhist philosophy. This explains why the book was reprinted in Myanmar in the 1960s and 1970s even at a time when the author still lived in his hideouts. One of Soe’s students, Chit Hlaing together with another student drafted the Philosophy of the Burma Socialist Programme Party „The Correlation Between Man and His Environment“ that took up Soe’s approach,[6] One may argue that Soe’s influence even extended beyond the end of the party’s rule. One of the students of Chit Hlaing at the military academy was Than Shwe who was instrumental in directing Myanmar’s politics towards a kind of democracy acceptable to the army, the leading founding member of the AFPFL. He did not forget his teacher but cared for his health when Chit Hlaing became blind.

His last political activity after accepting the post of the Unity and Development Party in September 1988 that got just 3.656 votes in the 1990 elections was a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi written in 1989 in which he warned her not to repeat his own mistake and try to work with the army (Taylor 2008: 11).

5 Sources

Note: The main source of this text is Klaus Fleischmann’s book published in German in 1989. References to this book are not given in the text. Fleischmann interviewed Soe after his release in 1980. It can be assumed that there are many more sources available in Myanmar that can help to paint a clearer picture of Soe and his legacy.

Chit Hlaing 2008 A Short Note on My Involvement in the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Hans-Bernd Zöllner (ed.) 2008 Thakin Soe, Socialism and Chit Hlaing, Memories. Myanmar Literature Project vol. 10. Passau, Lehrstuhl für Südostasienkunde: 114-162. (http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/mlp10.10-op.pdf).

Fleischmann, Klaus 1989. Die kommunistische Partei Birmas. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Hamburg, Institut für Asienkunde.

Fleischmann, Klaus 1989. Documents on Communism in Burma, 1945-1977. Hamburg, Institut für Asienkunde.

Lintner, Bertil 1990. The Rise and the Fall of the Communist Party in Burma. Ithaca, N.Y : Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University

Soe (Thakin) 1938 Socialism. Hans-Bernd Zöllner (Hrsg.) 2008 Thakin Soe, Socialism and Chit Hlaing, Memories. Myanmar Literature Project vol. 10.  Passau, Lehrstuhl für Südostasienkunde: 17-106 (http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/mlp10.10-op.pdf).

Taylor, Robert 2008. Introduction. Hans-Bernd Zöllner (ed.) 2008 Thakin Soe, Socialism and Chit Hlaing, Memories. Myanmar Literature Project vol. 10.  Passau, Lehrstuhl für Südostasienkunde:: 5-13. http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/mlp10.10-op.pdf.

Who’s Who in Burma 1961. Rangoon: People’s Literature Committee and House.

[1]     Who’s Who in Burma, 1961 (People’s Literature Commettee and House): 156. Dictionaries as well as Wikipedia give 1906 as his year of birth.

[2]     Soe objected to the “Browderist line” named after the leader of the communist party of the United States who advocated a peaceful development in – temporary – cooperation with ideological enemies.

[3]     Nu’s government offered a reward of 1000.Kyat – an enormous sum at that time – for his capture – „dead or alive“. (Who’s Wo in Burma 1961: 156).

[4]     Socialism (1938);  Resistence ion Burma (1939); Labour World (1940). The first was published by the Nagani Book Club, the two others by the Myanmar Publishing House established in 1939 by Tun Aye, a co-founder of Nagani who – being a staunch communist like Soe and Than Tun – left the publishing house because he regarded the issuing of shares supported by Nu too capitalist.

[5]     The CIA in a memorandum of 1971 guessed that his armed group consisted of not more than 200-300 fighters (https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/esau-52.pdf: 2).

[6]     Chit Hlaing 2008: 124.