Sein Bo Tint (1938-1994)

Daphne Wolf

Introduction

Sein Bo Tint was regarded as a leading Burmese musician. He was renowned for his virtuosity in playing the hsaing-waing (also called pat-waing), a set of 21 drums arranged in a circle, for which this traditional Burmese ensemble of instruments is named, and also for his compositions and his innovations in Myanmar’s traditional music, despite the restrictions imposed on the Burmese cultural scene in the socialist period between 1962 and 1988. He can be regarded as a musician who linked the traditional Burmese music of royal times with “modern” elements and as an artist integrating different segments of Myanmar society. He was also one of the three favourite musicians of Ne Win.

Biographical Sketch

He was born in 1938 as Maung Tint, the fifth of ten children in Kyaik-lat, a town in the Ayeyawadi Division some 120 km southwest of Yangon. His father was a hsaing-waing (drum circle) player. At the age of seven, the family moved to a western Yangon township where he lived until the end of his life. As a young boy, he learned – in addition to his father’s instrument – to play patala (a bamboo xylophon), mandolin, flute and hne, a reed instrument. His talent was noticed early. Shortly after having moved to Rangoon, when playing at the Shwedagon Pagoda, he attracted the attention of the national hero and general (Burmese bo-gyoke) Aung San. For that reason, the word “Bo” (commander) was later prefixed to his name. The third part of his name – Sein – was added later, after he had become famous as a hsaing saya, a master of the instrument, like many other Burmese orchestra musicians who had been named “Sein”.

He left school after finishing grade seven at the age of 14; after that he became a full-time musician. It is reported that he composed his first song at the age of 16 or 17, showing his talent to write song texts. Sein Bo Tint was the student of a number of renowned musicians who had been students of musicians who had played at the last royal court in Mandalay. He became famous nationwide after his performances were broadcast via radio and TV, and he was active in a number of state organisations aiming to preserve the traditions of court music. Furthermore, he was member of the board of the Cultural University, engaged in reviving music and dance competitions and promoting the exchange of musicians from different ethnic groups. From time to time he was invited by the country’s Number One, Ne Win, to perform at meetings in his home on Ady Road.

He had to support a large family with his performances – reportedly he had eight children, among them only one who stepped into his shoes by becoming a musician. He was a chain smoker and died in 1994 from lung cancer.

Aims and Objectives

During royal times, until the end of the Burmese monarchy in 1885, a canon of songs called maha-gita (great music) was established, performed by a variety of ensembles and singers. After the British conquest of Burma in 1885, the traditional canon lost its importance due to the abolishment of the royal court and its dominating influence on the country’s culture. New types of songs arose, influenced by the attempts of the British administration and missionaries to adapt Burma to modern times. Of the music ensembles only the orchestras around the hsaing-waing survived. However, one crucial characteristic element of Burmese music did not fundamentally change: the close teacher-student relationship. Students repeated what their teachers played, but at the same time were encouraged to find their own style by inventing ornaments and other variations added to the basic tunes.

Sein Bo Tint received his basic education at a time of great cultural variety after independence during the premiership of U Nu, who had wanted to become a playwright in his early days. U Nu was called thabin-wun – “theatre minister” – because of his affinity with the fine arts. This period, in which musical elements from abroad like swing and other jazz genres became popular, influenced the young musician and contributed to his ability in combining the tradition rooted in royal times and adapted elements coming from abroad, for which he became famous.

When the military took over power after the coup of March 1962, Sein Bo Tint was able to cope with the new situation of Burma’s isolationist policies that also affected culture. Culture was regulated and the old traditions originating in royal times were revived at the expense of foreign influences. Sein Bo Tint adapted to these conditions and contributed to the new ideal of unity under Burmese domination by creating a song in which rhythmic elements of the main ethnic groups of Burma varied the tune invented by the musician. Here the official ideal of ethnic harmony and integration under a dominating force was musically represented. However, this political ideal never matched the political realities.

On the other hand, Sein Bo Tint introduced a number of innovations to traditional Burmese music and the instruments on which it is performed. He introduced a new order and an enlargement of the hsaing-waing ensemble – sometimes up to seven hne-players were included – in addition to a new design of the whole ensemble, positioned within a great carved frame on a variety of levels. The name of the orchestra alluded to a king of old times who used to play the harp so beautifully that even elephants peacefully came to him to listen to the music. Carved elephant figures served as a visual illustration of this historical reminiscence. On the other hand, the artist from time to time gave solo performances.

Instruments of a Hsaing Waing Ensemble (Khon Tin Soe)

Another innovation was the invention of chromatic instruments that could help to bridge the gap between Burmese and western tonalities. The kyi waing was extended to 29 gongs. One of his pupils was trained to tune the gongs with the assistance of 12 European fifes. Later electronic tuners were used. This innovation contributed to a broadening of the repertoire of the music groups and their ability to play with western musicians while not giving up their traditional acoustic colour. He finally invented a simple bass instrument, not known before in Burma, just one string placed using a washtub as resonator, that is known as a “washtub bass” in American folk music.

Sein Bo Tint thus balanced traditional music with introducing new and even “western” elements that were otherwise shunned by the socialist government’s cultural policies, which emphasised the preservation of traditional arts by way of simply “freezing them”. The fact that Ne Win liked his music, and might have used its public fame to make the socialist system gain some popularity, was helpful to preserve this balance.

Assessment

Sein Po Tint was a musical practitioner, not a theorist who talked or wrote about what the music he performed was about. He communicated through his music and through his students who carried on what they had learned from him. He himself had carried on by balancing what he had been taught and inventing something new throughout the succession of his teachers. He might be called a “traditional reformer” who excelled because of his special talents.

With regard to the cultural-political context of his life and work, one may say that he helped to bridge the 26 years of Burmese socialist isolation between the Nu-era and the opening of the country after 1988 when – somewhat ironically – western countries did not fully use the opportunities offered by the military junta for opening the country to foreign influences. In a way, it was Sein Bo Tint’s students who benefited from his innovations, both inside the country and in the exchange with foreign musicians.

Inside Myanmar, the economic and cultural opening up of the country was used by some of his students to become successful “band leaders” of hsaing-waing ensembles, producing CDs that sold well and received prestigious awards. These students concentrated on using one of his innovations and developed it further.

Other students used the adaption of the western musical traditions and techniques. This way the door was opened to playing together with jazz musicians at festivals in Europe as well as in Myanmar. As adults, his students had developed an affinity with western musical culture without abandoning the traditional concepts of Burmese music. Such blending of different musical traditions was well-received by various audiences and very much enjoyed by the musicians on both sides. This developed into a series of meetings of the two sides under the heading “Myanmar meets Europe”.1

It was Sein Bo Tint’s – as well as some other musicians’ – popularity during the Ne Win era that paved the way for such new encounters between different musical cultures. He did not fight the conservatism of the Burmese cultural bureaucracy in the socialist period, but used free space to introduce new ways that he found worthwhile after his experiences under U Nu. He and his students further benefited from the traditional personal way of passing on knowledge in Burmese society. He was an individualist like his students and therefore not interested in founding any kind of “movement” that could be regarded as a threat to the state. However, it remains to be seen how the music of his students will cope with the trends in Myanmar to copy western pop culture, which had been strictly prohibited during the socialist period.

Sources

No literature on Sein Bo Tint is available in a western language. The biography is based on the research of the author in Myanmar.

The biography was edited by Hans-Bernd Zöllner

1For some youtube videos about the project see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCg0ztXHWao; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpdnQQvB70Y; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSWYLBUlMDM.

Htein Win (born 1946) – Photoshooting the Truth

Johanna Kuchel

Introduction

In the past decades, Myanmar has seen many rebellions against the government. The U Thant Crisis of 1974 showed people’s disagreement with the handling of the former UN General Secretary’s  funeral by Ne Win’s socialist administration. The protestors of the 8888 Uprising demanded democracy and freedom.

Htein Win is a photographer and was one of the few who had the opportunity and the courage to take photos of these events. Thanks to him there now is evidence of the events, which helps to understand what was happening and why it was and is important.

The mission Htein Win follows with his photography is to capture the truth of the present. With his photos, he wants to show reality and truth and to convey that to people.

Biography

In 1946 Htein Win was born in Bassein (today Pathein) in the Irrawaddy Region. At the age of 11 he was sent for four years to St. Joseph’s College, a boarding school in North Point, Darjeeling (India), in order to learn English. After finishing his basic education, he wanted to study English at the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University. However, as this degree was not offered at that time he started studies at the Institute of Medicine 1  in Rangoon. While not being very passionate about medicine, he became seriously interested in photography there. Borrowing cameras from the medical labs, where photos were taken for teaching purposes, he started to take photos of people and their lives, university events, etc.

In 1974, he photographed the student demonstrations triggered by the death of U Thant. It was aimed at the Burmese military government’s refusal to give U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, a state funeral. Because of political censorship, Htein Win could only publish his photos 40 years later in a book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims, Achievements and Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

Htein Win’s photos serve as evidence for some of Myanmar’s most important historical turning points and steps towards democracy in recent history. In his photos, the longing for freedom and democracy, and also the will with which the protesters fought for these values, can be seen and better understood. According to Htein Win, photos can touch and affect people more than words; being touched and moved is surely necessary to create a bond to history.

Thus his photos can help people (especially younger generations) understand the relevance these events had and have for Myanmar, its people and its development to the present day. It surely is  important for society in Myanmar to deal with the past decades; they are connected to and affecting Myanmar’s political situation and conflicts today. It seems that dealing with current challenges and making progress can perhaps only be achieved if the past and the larger picture of Myanmar are taken into consideration.

Despite not considering himself as a political person, the topics his photos deal with are highly political. His photos concern Myanmar’s people, challenges, progress and, of course, history and politics. However, his aim is not to convey political attitudes but to convey truth and to inform. Whether or not there is a truth, especially concerning historiography, and in how far it is possible to convey an objective truth through photos can be questioned, of course. By deciding to take photos of certain political events, he judges them to be important and relevant. One could say that by presenting photos that depict certain political attitudes, he directs the viewers’ opinion and thus actually is being political.

Either way, Htein Win’s photos are a record of important events in Myanmar’s recent history and provide a perspective on them which helps come closer to the truth. By making his photos accessible to the public, Htein Win has a crucial role in conveying knowledge of historical and current challenges and thereby reinforcing a knowledgeable and responsible society in Myanmar.

Sources

This biography is based on an interview with Htein Win in January 2019 and on material that he provided.

For further information influding some of his pictures on Htein Win including some photos see https://kite-tales.org/en/article/life-behind-lens and https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/historic-88-uprising-photos-on-display-30-years-later.html


Aung Soe Min (born 1970)

Lilly Seiler

Introduction

On May 1, 2018, a new shop, Matika, opened in the middle block of Yangon’s 37th Street, replacing a restaurant that had been offering traditional Myanmar food. The new shop offered a “window in the past” as the Myanmar Times titled an article about the new establishment from which the above picture is taken.1 The title, however, covers only a part of what was displayed in the small shop in an old building from the country’s colonial period. Besides old books on Burma, magazines, film posters, and badges from the socialist period, the visitor can see and buy modern paintings hung on the walls, also clothes, and silver or bronze jewelry – all made in Myanmar and designed by the owner Aung Soe Min, as the article states. A visitor to the new shop some time later could see a craftsman working on a bracelet in a room behind the shop. 

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. At an early age he was interested in poetry, painting and especially writing. During the socialist era many families in Burma, including Aung Soe Min’s, were struggling. This was due to the country’s economic depression which peaked in 1987, that resulted partly from the planned economic system enforced by the socialist government. In addition to that, the youth of that time did not have many educational opportunities. This is why Aung Soe Min studied engineering in 1987 at the Government Technical Institute of Chauk, a centre of Burma’s oil industry close to Kyaukpadaung. To continue pursuing his goal of becoming an artist, Aung Soe Min started to befriend several artists, booksellers and intellectuals, and started to read and collect books himself . This was not an easy thing to do due to the socialist government’s restrictive censorship policies prohibiting a wide variety of books and forms of art.

While he was still studying, the student movement of 1988 arose and students, as well as monks, started to demonstrate, not only in Yangon but all over the country. Even in Kyaukpadaung several political groups were formed. Aung Soe Min and his brothers participated in producing „underground“ pamphlets and papers with information about the bad ways of the socialist government and how to oppose it. They took part in several strikes and demonstrations as well. On the “Four 8 Day”, 8.8.88, young Aung Soe Min spent one night in a cell at the local police station.

At first he wasn’t sure whether or not he would ever be allowed to go back to study after his involvement in the protests. When he was, he had to pause in studying several times, because the school was closed due to different strikes and governmental counter measures,like the closures of schools after the 8888 uprising. Finally he finished his studies in 1992. Afterwards Aung Soe Min moved to Yangon in 1993, where he had some small jobs as an engineer to earn some money. More importantly he started his career as an entrepreneur in the field of bookshops and publishing. Besides getting involved with several bookshops and libraries, he started writing and publishing himself.

In 1995 Aung Soe Min was called to go back to Kyaukpadaung to support his family, that was still struggling with money problems related to the current political situation. There Aung Soe Min helped found the first bookshop and the first library Kyaukpadaung had had in over 30 years. Both are still being run by Aung Soe Min’s  co-founders. According to his own account, this method of starting a cultural business has been employed some 30 times since then.

The method includes having an idea, the knowledge to implement it, establishing a social network and in some cases one to provide the money needed to get a small business going. This happened not only in Kyaukpadaung but also in Yangon and other regions of the country later. The businesses he founded and co-founded range from bookshops and libraries to hairdressers and even the production of LED lamps.

While staying in Kyaukpadaung Aung Soe Min also met his future wife Nance Cunningham, a Canadian who was working on public health projects in Burma at that time. Nance has migrated to Myanmar permanently but still must leave the country and renew her Visa every three months, since it is not possible for a foreigner to become a citizen of Myanmar. She is able to speak Burmese and other ethnic languages of the country, such as Shan, and also speaks Thai, French and even some German. Because of her openly voiced criticism of Myanmar’s military government, the authorities put her name on the “black list“. As a consequence, she could not enter Myanmar for some years and lived in Chiang Mai. There she managed an art gallery plus café. Apart from her work in Yangon with Aung Soe Min, Nance is involved with several international projects in the public health sector. In 2018, for example, she lived in Pakistan for nine months, working on a project supported by the Canadian government.

Shortly after Aung Soe Min went back to Yangon in 1999, he and Nance moved into an old downtown flat on the eighth floor – without an elevator –in Seikkantha Street. From the beginning, the place was partly living space and partly treasure trove for everyone interested in Burmese history and culture. The flat hosted a huge and varied archive, with stamps, coins, books, paintings and other pieces of art, postcards, newspapers, books, historical films, colonial files and even some archaeological pieces. From that point on the two of them started to invent cultural projects and to invest in them. Many of these pieces are still at the couple’s flat; many others have been moved to other places – some of them in 2018 to the Matika shop.

The somewhat chaotic archive was a first step to becoming prominent in Yangon’s emerging lively and diverse history, culture and art scene. Besides being a collector, Aung Soe Min is an artist (painting and music), film maker, writer and publisher.

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

In August 2008, the couple opened the Pansodan Art Gallery “in order to provide a possibility to Myanmar artists to present their works both to the local and international scene” as Aung Soe Min worded it. This so called art space holds paintings of over 200 Myanmar artists, many of them are contemporary but due to the hand in hand development of archive and gallery one can also find many older and rare pieces of artists like Khin Maung Yin or Bagyi Aung Soe. The thought behind initiating the gallery was to provide a space for any kind of Myanmar painter to show his or her art and providing an opportunity to sell it.

alIn June 2013, another enterprise was opened in the middle block of Pansodan Street – Pansodan Scene. In another colonial building, public events take place and people are invited to enjoy the paintings on the walls and having a chat over a coffee or a soft drink. Later, around 2016 the restaurant Anya Atha was opened in 37th Street, offering traditional food from central Myanmar where Aung Soe Mins is from, was opened, different to some of his other places this restaurant was frequented by many Myanmar people enjoying the excellent traditional and yet cheap food. This restaurant was than in 2018 converted into the (book) shop Matika.

Social and cultural entrepreneurship

Being born in the socialist era, participating – albeit not in a leading role – in the country’s popular revolution of 1988 and seeing the country being drawn into yet another military dictatorship, Aung Soe Min developed his ideas to contribute to an animated political culture supporting a democratic government fin in a bottom-up manner. In his view, a stable society of the country has to rest upon the awareness of the country’s history in its manifold forms instead of the respective government’s propaganda. Aung Soe Min knows that this is a rather ambitious program that seems impossible to achieve in Myanmar – still this idea set the spark for building up a collection that by now might be the countries biggest private archive that is meant to serve the public interest.

According to Aung Soe Min, the idea behind his above described model of entrepreneurship is and was to carry out a certain kind of development work mainly for friends and family but also for people that just consulted him with their problems and ideas. As soon as a project idea had grown and become stable enough to stand on its own feet and other people were confident to carry on themselves, Aung Soe Min would retreat from the business. It seems that this concept worked out not because he was able to provide the money one would need, he mentions that he started some businesses with not much more than 500 kyats, but because Aung Soe Min was brave enough to try things out.

However, some basic enterprises like the two Pansodan places are still directly supervised by him and Nance. Art galleries have a long tradition in Burma but due to censorship restrictions the art shown there was purely traditional in the past and exhibitions showing “modern art” were almost impossible for a long time. All works exhibited had to be checked by a government official. That resulted in the prohibition of displaying any piece of work that according to the government’s ideology was regarded as nonconformist and displaying “western” culture. Pansodan Gallery opened in 2008 shortly after the censorship restrictions had been eased and was one of the first galleries in Myanmar to show works by a wide range of contemporary Myanmar artists.

Aung Soe Min says, that through both the gallery and the archive he tries to continue his own interpretation of the 8888 uprisings idea of freedom of art and freedom and expression and tries to support and contribute to building and engaging an intellectual and creative society. He himself is also still engaged in painting, sculpture making, poetry writing, screen writing, making and producing music and shooting feature length movies.

Besides his many selfless activities, Aung Soe Min and his wife obviously have a hand for entrepreneurship. They managed to build up a small empire and a much bigger network within and outside of Yangon. He doesn’t like to talk about money and about how all his ideas are being financed but one can assume that some money comes in from all the different ventures he has founded and in some cases abandoned later. Aung Soe Min can probably be seen as both an important collector and artist that with his ideas has and will contribute to an uprising scene of culture and intellectuals in Yangon and Myanmar and as a clever Myanmar businessman that knows how to use the unique opportunities that old Burma and current Myanmar offer.

Intercultural exchange

By now, Pansodan Gallery has developed to become a meeting space for Myanmar artists and intellectuals as well as for foreigners, both tourists and expats. One reason for this development were the weekly Tuesday night parties hosted by Nance and Aung Soe Min. Here foreigners and Burmese met and had the opportunity to chat and drink. Very quickly, this jour fixe became very well known all over Yangon. In 2018 however this tradition was terminated, another sign of the mobility of the “project designer”

The two “Pansodan places” offer special ways of cultural exchange that Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham have established. People who are attending the events offered here via Facebook and other media can get explanations and information on Myanmar’s history, current issues and – of course – the artists. Many prominent western scientists doing research on Myanmar gave talks at Pansodan Scene. In addition to that Nance and Aung Soe Min published an English-Burmese dictionary that holds a separate chapter on how to pronounce every single Burmese word featured. In addition, weekly meetings to practice Burmese language are offered, initiated by Nance who participates herself when she is in town. These meetings however took place at the Pansuriya, another cultural establishment founded with Aung Soe Min’s assistance in Bo Galay Zay Street near the Secretariat building offering food, art and historical pictures hanging at the walls that is much frequented by foreigners. Another evidence of the flexibility of the enterprises under the guidance of the artist cum entrepreneur cum cultural cum social activist is the transformation of the Pansodan Scene into an Art Café offering food and drinks as well in early 2019. Chairs and tables have been moved from the restaurant in 37 Street that is now the art and book shop Matika.

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.