Serge Pun (born 1953)

Alexander Zimmermann

Serge Pun with the Shwedagon Pagoda in the background

Introduction

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

Biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elmar Busch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success, Business Philosophy, Critique

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

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

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

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

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

Pun Hlaing Golf Cluc, Yangon

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

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

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

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

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

Assessments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aung Soe Min (born 1970)

Lilly Seiler

Introduction

On May 1, 2018 a new shop opened in Yangon’s  37th Street’s middle block replacing a restaurant that had been offering traditional Myanmar food  there before: Matika. 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 constructed in the country’s colonial period. Besides old books on Burma, magazines, posters advertising films, badges from the socialist period the visitor can see and buy modern paintings hung up on the walls,  clothes and silver and bronze jewelry – all made in Myanmar and designed by the owner Aung Soe Min, the article states. A visitor of the new shop some time later can see a craftsman working on a bracelet in a room behind the shop. 

Biography

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. In his early age he was interested in poetry, painting and especially writing. During the socialist era many families in Burma including Aung Soe Mins struggled due to the country’s economic depression which peaked in 1987 resulting partly from the planned economy system enforced by the socialist government. In addition to that, the youth of that time didn’t have many educational opportunities which 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, book sellers and intellectuals and started to read and collect books himself which wasn’t an easy thing to do due to the restrictive censorship policies of the socialist government prohibiting a wide variety of books and forms of art.

While still in his studies, the student movement of 1988 aroused 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 informing 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.

Even though at first he wasn’t sure whether or not he would ever be allowed to go back to school after his involvements in the protests, when he was he had to pause studying several times because the school was closed due to different strikes and governmental counter measures as 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 did some petty jobs as an engineer to earn some money but more than that started his career as an entrepreneur in the field of book shops 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. Back there, Aung Soe Min helped founding 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. By his own account, this method of starting a cultural business has been employed some 30 times since then.

The method includes to have an idea, the knowledge to implement it, establishing a social network and in some cases to provide the money one needs 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 mostly founded and co-founded range from book shops and libraries to hair dressers 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 has to fly out and renew her Visa every three months since it is not possible for a foreigner to become a Myanmar citizen. She is able to speak Burmese and other ethnic languages of the country 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 moved in with Nance into an old down-town flat – no elevator – at the 8th floor in Seikkantha Street. From the beginning, the place was partly a living space and partly a treasure trove for everyone interested in Burmese history and culture. The flat hosted a huge archive of almost everything – 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.

In 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 tradition 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 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.

Assessment

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.

Sources

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.

1https://www.mmtimes.com/news/something-everyone-myanmar-matika.html (accessed 25.2.2019).

Pe Maung Tin (1888 – 1973)

Gerhard Köberlin

1 Introduction

Pe Maung Tin is one of those rare Burmese scholars, who reached recognition beyond his own country. His work and personality have often received appreciation, also in English literature. It was in the 1920ies and 1930ies when he made his great contributions to Burmese society. His aim was, together with some Burmese and British friends, to make Burmese traditions meet the challenges of contemporary international modernity.

2 Biographical sketch

Pe Maung Tin was born on 24. April 1888, at Insein. His father, U Pe was superintendent of Insein Veterinary Department and his mother was Daw Myaing, both Baptist Christians from central Burma. U Tun Nyein, who compiled the well-known first English – Myanmar Dictionary and tramslated the Bible from English into Burmese, was his uncle from his father’s side. His maternal grandfather was the Taunghkwin (highest patriarch) of the Buddhist sangha of Upper Burma. He was known as “Maung Tin” during the first years of his life and added his father’s name later.

Despite coming from a Christian family, he received his primary education from 1893 to 1896 at a private school where he was taught classical Buddhist texts. In 1896 he changed to a government high school in Rangoon where he won his first prize at the age of 14. More prizes followed after he entered college. At the age of 15 he led a boycott at his school to protest the custom of joining hands in a prayer gesture when addressing foreign teachers. The order was revoked afterwards. In 1906 he entered Rangoon College and studied Pali and finished his M.A. in 1911. Only one year later, he became professor after his teacher, a European, had been promoted to another post.

From the beginning of his academic career Pe Maung Tin associated himself with other scholars both from Burma and abroad. He was a founding member of the Burmese Research Society in 1910 and contributed many articles to its journal. His first article entitled “Missionary Burmese”, a critique of the linguistic skills of foreign missionaries, appeared in its first issue in 1911. He acted as the first editor of the journal and became treasurer of the society in 1912. As professor of Pali, he had contacts with Pali Text Society based in London and from 1916 on he started to translate canonical Pali texts into English as well as Burmese. 

In 1920, the year of the founding of Rangoon University, he went to London and studied in Oxford and London until 1924. His contacts with the Pali Text Society and its presidents, Thomas (until his death in 1922) and Caroline Rhys Davies, intensified. During the time he spent in England he compiled a ground breaking translation of a historical Burmese work, the Glass Palace Chronicle. The chronicle was compiled in the first half of the 19th century at the royal court in Amarapura. Pe Maung Tin’s translation was published in 1923. The work was a joint venture with Gordon C. Luce (1889-1978), professor of English literature in Rangoon since 1911 who had married Pe Maung Tin’s younger sister in 1915. It was a translation that showed Pe Maung Tin’s qualities as a historian as well. Luce and Pe Maung Tin became lifelong friends. Their cooperation helped the British professor to become a leading expert on Burmese ancient history. With regard to the translation of the Pali text, Pe Maung Tin laid the fundement and his brother-in-law polished the English style.

After his return to Burma, he continued his work as a professor and laid the foundations for the university’s “Oriental Department”, comprising Pali und Burmese studies. One main impact of his teaching was the emergence of a new literary movement in Burma called khit-san (“testing the age”) that started with articles, short stories and poems written by some of his students in a “modern” style.

On the other hand, Pe Maung Tin supported John S. Furnivall, the co-founder of the Burma Research Society, in his efforts to promote the intellectual advancement of the country by educational means. One instrument to achieve this aim was the bilingual monthly periodical The World of Books published from 1925 on, another one was the Burma Education Extension Education Association established in 1928 promoting reading circles and encouraging people to contribute to the monthly periodical.

In 1928, he married Daw Kyi Kyi, called Edith, in an Anglican church. The couple had two daughters.

In 1937, Pe Maung Tin was the first Burmese to be appointed principal of University College and during the Japanese occupation he had to serve as the chairman of the university’s advisory board. In 1946, he retired. After he continued to write articles on a variety of topics in the field of linguistics, literature and history. The bibliography of his works contains 227 entries.

In 1957-58 Pe Maung Tin visited the United States to lecture on Buddhism at the University of Chicago which awarded him an honorary doctorate.  In Kuala Lumpur in May 1959 he attended the inaugural assembly of the East Asia Christian Conference. The Burmese U Kyaw Than was elected general secretary at the meeting. Today, the organisation, renamed Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in 1973, represents more than 100 member from Asian countries.  Pe Maung Tin later went to China as a member of a cultural exchange delegation. In 1961 he contributed to the first Buddhist-Christian dialogue of South East Asia, which was held by the East Asia Christian Conference under U Kyaw Than at Holy Cross College, Yangon. He made a critical comment on the cultural approach of Western missionaries. This dialogue proved to be an important Asian input to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Asia in New Delhi 1961.

From 1960 to 1964, Pe Maung Tin served as chairman of the Burma Historical Commission. He led the Burma Translation Society in compiling the Burmese Encyclopedia. In 1968 the Burmese Research Society marked his 80th birthday with a special celebration. During his retirement he served as professor of the Holy Cross College, Yangon, one of the leading theological seminaries of Burma affiliated to the Anglican Church. As a practising Christian, he was as a founding member of the Burma Christian Council, and took charge of the Christian Literature Society. He was the chairman of the Study Commission on Buddhism of the Burma Council of Churches.

Pe Maung Tin died on 22 March 1973.                                  

 3 Aims and Achievements

U Pe Maung Tin was keenly aware of the “clash of cultures” – the political confrontation with European colonialism and culture, and the religious encounter with Christianity, mainly from US-American background. His response was the profound study of history and culture of his own country. At the same time, he reflected his personal position at the cultural crossroads, being a Christian in a Buddhist country. His answer was to support a natural patriotic spirit vis-a-vis the colonial presence, together with his great effort of deep reciprocal respect, understanding, trustfulness and reconciliation.

His response to the cultural challenges by colonialism was to emphasise the importance of Myanmar language (b’ma) for the cultural development of Myanmar as a nation, and also the importance  of the establishment of a literary and intellectual climate in Myanmar that would combine the traditions of the country with those coming from abroad. That is why he made strenuous efforts for the higher qualification of Myanmar language and literature in his life time. One of his achievements was that all schools whether government or missionary, were required to teach compulsory Myanmar language in their studies. At the same time, he sharply criticized his fellow Christians, for not studying Pali and Myanmar language and Buddhist culture. He was interested in the two cultures to meet, despite the colonial context of the time favouring anti-western sentiments.

He later extended his insights in the fundamental role of language as a medium of intercultural exchange. In March 1954, a three-day seminar on linguistics was held in Rangoon which aimed as using this academic discipline as a tool to bridge the cultural differences between Burma and the English speaking world as well as between the different linguistic and ethnic groups. A newspaper article that possibly was written by Pe Maung Tin but certainly was inspired by his intentions, summarised the intentions of the seminar thus.

We in Burma are very much concerned at the present time with the findings of linguistics because they can be of immense help to us in certain entirely new tasks which we have undertaken. One of these is the teaching of English as a foreign language. […] We need […] to find the most efficient means of teaching English to our people so that they gain a working knowledge of the language in a relatively short space of time. […] Besides this, linguistics can help us in the study and classification of the indigenous languages of the country, a task which becomes increasingly important […]. Linguistics is an important key to  efficiency in all these tasks since it provides an understanding of one of the most complex, yet most basic activities of any group of people, their language, which means their method of communication with one another.1

Here, linguistic research is linked to the necessity of meaningful communication inside Myanmara multi-ethnic mulit-lingual country, and at the same time the necessity of using English as a second language taught in the schools besides Burmese.

4 Assessment

U Pe Maung Tin was an intellectual and a reformer who tried to use his great talents to reconcile Burmese traditions and western modernity. As an outstanding scholar in the late colonial period he exerted some influence on the literary scene of the country that tried to connect Burma to the world without losing its cultural identity.

Pe Maung Tin’s attempt to combine Burmese traditions with western modernity was only partly welcomed by the young revolutionaries who became the leaders towards independence. The cultural revolution on which their political activities was based, was not a dialogue between the Burmese and the western “world of books”, but a “Burmanisation” of the contemporary knowledge and literature. The young members from the Thakin movement – Nu,  Soe, Than Tun and Aung San – founded the Nagani  (Red Dragon) Book Club that published books in Burmese language only in the interest of supporting a political revolution by cultural means.2 After the war had started in Europe, this group exchanged the pen with the sword and finally achieved independence with the help of a national army.

Compared to the literal and political nationalism of the Thakins and their mass followers, the cultural reform that Pe Maung Tin wanted to support could be termed “cosmopolitan”. Looking for a sound cultural base for Myanmar citizens, Pe Maung Tin advocated making use of a blend of cultures to be comprised in the texts of national textbooks as well as in the sermons of Christian preachers.

This attitude is founded in his love of the literature and culture of Myanmar, accompanied by an estimation of European traditions of academic enquiry. This attitude did never represent the mainstream of Burma’s political culture. It was rather characterised by external and internal confrontation due to the memories of colonial rule and ongoing civil war that commenced shortly after independence.

After the military coup of 1962, Burma became a secular “hermit country” under general Ne Win’s  leadership. The “Burmese Way to Socialism” which was implemented, dramatically affected not only Burma’s cultural climate, but also all other segments of Burmese life. Pe Maung Tin was not directly affected by the „climate change“ during which a Burmese “union culture” was promoted corresponding to a strict political neutrality and economic self-reliance. Cultural exchanges with neighbouring countries and as well with the West, were no longer encouraged.

It were others that felt the consequences of the new order. Gordon Luce, Pe Maung Tin’s brother-in-law, was ordered to leave the country in 1964. His wife was asked by the top leader to stay, but she accompanied her husband. His huge library was impounded by the authorities and Daw Tee Tee, Pe Maung Tin’s sister, was even stripped of her wedding ring because no  jewellery was  allowed to leave the country.3 It is not known how Pe Maung Tin reacted to such harsh treatment of his friend and his sister. He did not witness the end of the Burma Research Society and its journal that was terminated by the government in 1977.

Today, Pe Maung Tin is still admired as an intellectual genius in Myanmar but as a rather singular one. Not many contemporaries follow his approach today in the present climate of a new Myanmar nationalism and massive Western criticism of consecutive Myanmar governments. Pe Maung Tin’s cosmopolitan” approach to reconcile Burmese and western cultures ist still not realised.

5 Sources

Anna Allott 2004 Professor Pe Maung Tin (1888-1973). The Life and Work of an Outstanding Burmese Scholar. In: The Journal of Burma Studies 9, 11-34.

D.G.E. Hall 1979 Obituary. George Hannington Luce (https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0041977X00137498)

Khin Htwe Yi 2016, Biography of Pe Maung Tin (http://www.emw-d.de/fix/files/37%20biographies_myanmar.pdf).

1Allott 2004: 29-30.

2For more details see the Myanmar Literature Project that published a number of working papers on the Nagani Book Club: http://www.phil.uni-passau.de/suedostasien/wissenschaftsnetzwerke/wissenschaftsforum-myanmar/myanmar-literature-project/.

3Hall 1979: 585.

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.

Naw Ah Loh Wah Paw (born 1988)

Gerhard Köberlin

1 Introduction

Naw Ah Loh Wah Paw is on the national Myanmar women football team since 2007. She is the only Christian in the team, coming from the Kayah state. When moving from the strongly Christian village background to the national Training Centre for Myanmar in Yangon, she underwent a big personal change. She moved from her village to urban life. Her ethnic identity as a Kayah was confronted with the foreign dominant culture of a national majority, and with the plurality of cultures and religions, and with her own role as a football striker on the national level. Her biography shows the opening up towards trust in people who are different, by means of her role as team in the national team. The biography sheds some light on the role of sports in Myanmar.

2 Biographical sketch

Ah Loh Wah Paw was born on August 1, 1988 in the Demawhsoe Township of Kayah state, to her parents Saw Moody and Naw Yuti and their eight children. In her village she is brought up as a Christian child. At the age of 15 she moves to the big city of Yangon for physical education, and four years later she is made a Myanmar selected women football player.

This school and physical education is very hard, football training every afternoon 3:30- 5:30 PM, individual study in the morning (8:00 – 12:00 noon), lunch and break time between 12:00 and 3:30 PM, and in the evening from 7:00 – 9:00 PM again individual study.

When she was a child she had already been selected as a volleyball player of her school. Her teachers were impressed with her volleyball skills so they sent her on her career to education on the national level, with a government scholarship. Then she undergoes a heavy training schedule. In 2011, they are being trained by a Japanese coach. Her national team is now qualified for many Asian regional contests.

When moving onto the national level she follows one conviction: “to do her best for her country”. Every aspect of daily life is subordinate to this aim. When doing her physical training she used to get discouraged because she is the only Christian, and there is some discrimination against her because of her religion. But, as she says, by the grace of God, she gets a chance to go to church on Sunday. So she looked for a Baptist Church in Yangon which suited her local upbringing.

On the one hand she learns how to cope with this new pluralistic life within the framework of her religious tradition. Although she has to live among non-Christians, she never forgets God. She manages to overcome all difficulties she is facing with the courage and strength given by God. So in the end she no longer has problems in dealing with non-Christians, because since the time of her baptism, she has learned how to forgive. In this way, she says, she can proclaim the love of God.

On the other hand she makes the new experience of a team spirit in the national football team. They learn together on the pitch. Her experience is the unity and harmony among the players. Now she knows how to live peacefully and amicably with other people. There is mutual respect and mutual understanding between her and her non–Christian friends. They help each other when one is in need. She learns her lesson: Her friends are also loving, compassionate and helpful although they are not Christians.

3 Aims and Achievements

Ah Lo Wah Paw is exposed to a world very different from her childhood in a Kayah village. Her biography is a model for developing an approach to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The isolation of a closely knit community, and culture, is being opened up in an individual life span of a girl. As a young adult she can say: I am proud to serve my nation, on the football pitch. All this happens within the framework of military rule at that time.

The training makes a very remarkable contribution to her national identity. She learns the conviction that she is working not only for herself but also for her people and her country. When reflecting upon her career she realizes: She was born and bred in a small village in Kayah state, but she has managed to bring glory to her country Myanmar. She says: It is really praiseworthy. By scoring the only goal against the Laos team in 2011, Ah Lo Wah Paw helped the Myanmar team to to finish the ASEAN Football Federation’schampionship in 2011 as runner-up.

But at the same time she is loyal to her ethnic identity. She says: I will never forget Kayah State and Kayah people that I love very much. She is determined to help Kayah young people become good sports men and women, when she will have to retire from sports in the years to come.

4 Assessment

This biography shows an impressive personal development within few years of one’s life. As a European, one can feel distanced by the black and white perception – there are either Christians, or there are non-Christians, there is the minority of the Kayah people, and there is the large country of Myanmar, member of the ASEAN. But at the same time one can feel the miracle of the British team spirit on the playground: the team spirit opens up the black and white world view. It is now possible to live in peace and friendship with people who are very different from me, even though they are Buddhists and Burmese, not Christian and Kayah. This is very moving.

5 Sources

This text is based on the short biography written by Thuzar Thein for a collection of life stories of Burmese Protestant Christians, see http://www.emw-d.de/fix/files/37%20biographies_myanmar.pdf.

Thakin Soe (1905-1989)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

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.