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.