Daw Khin Kyi (1912-1988)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner


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

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

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

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

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

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

Biographical Sketch

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

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

The official wedding photo

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

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

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

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

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

Khin Kyi had been a member of the AFPFL, that was chaired by U Nu after Aung San’s death. She accompanied the Premier on various visits and after the split of the League in October 1958 joined Nu’s “Clean AFPFL”. She supported him on various occasions during the 1960 election campaign that resulted in the resounding victory over the rival “Stable AFPFL” in April. She belonged to the inner circle of the party leadership. On May 19, 1960, she was appointed Burmese Ambassador to India and one month later for Nepal as well, the first woman of the country in such a position.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims and Achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



2Wintle, 111-112.

3For some datails see Wintle 112-114.

4Maung Maung119.

5Who’s Who in Burma: 71.

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

7The San Francisco Examiner 10.7.1952: 15.

8Clements: 79-80.

9Maung Maung 119.

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

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

12Clements: 67.

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

14Zöllner/Ebbighausen 83-89.

15Herridan: 305-308.

16Maung Maung: 120.

Htein Win (born 1946) – Photoshooting the Truth

Johanna Kuchel


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aims, Achievements and Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

For further information influding some of his pictures on Htein Win including some photos see 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

Chit Hlaing (1926-2018) – A Pioneer of Burmese Socialism

Rodion Ebbighausen


Socialism is dead in Myanmar. Whoever wants to meet socialists in the country today, has to pay a visit to the headquarters of the National Unity Party in Yangon’s Bahan Township.

There, around a dusty yard with a flagpole, are some wooden barracks in which the party leadership defends what is left of socialism.

Party members include older men such as U Khin Maung Gyi, former Minister of Commerce under Ne Win and a leading member of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). When the Burmese’s journey toward socialism ended in 1988, the BSPP was also dissolved. The term „socialism“ vanished more and more from the political landscape.

U Khin Maung Gyi lost his post, his party and for the moment his political home. But in the 1990 elections, the socialists had regrouped in the NUP. The NUP was founded on October 12, 1988. Chit Hlaing, the theorist of Burmese socialism, became part of the Central Executive Committee. Therefore, the NUP can be seen as the direct successor party of the BSPP.

The NUP regards itself, as the former Minister of Trade explained during our meeting in 2013, as a party that is left of the center. Despite abandoning the planned economy model, the party in principle adheres to the socialist tradition of the BSPP. In 2013, U Khin Maung Gyi was still optimistic about the future. He hoped to score victory in the 2015 general elections and enter all the parliaments. But things didn’t turn out that way. In 2015, the NUP won only one seat in the House of Nationalities. Socialism in Myanmar and its last adherents will most likely disappear in the coming years. For most people, particularly the younger generations, socialism today is synonymous with an obsolete failed ideology.

Socialist and communist ideas have played a major role since Myanmar’s independence movement of the 1930s and 40s. The independence hero Aung San himself was a founding member of the nation’s first communist cell. His speeches and writings are full of socialist ideas and Marxist terminology.

Chit Hlaings Early Years

One of the most important thought leaders of the second generation of Burmese socialists was U Chit Hlaing. He was born on March 15, 1926, in the district of Katha. Katha is located on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy in the Sagaing region. The just 16-year-old high school student joined the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in 1942 to fight against British colonial rule. After the expulsion of the British by the Japanese and reorganization of the BIA into the Burma Defense Army (BDA), he received a six-month officer training. During the occupation of Burma by the Japanese, he held the rank of sergeant.

In addition to his military education, Chit Hlaing, as a teenager, encountered communism and Marxism-Leninism. As a member of the Nagani Book Club, he also studied writings on left leaning nationalism. Chit Hlaing himself admitted that he was hugely influenced by Thakin Soe, who published the book Socialism in 1939, in which he first published texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin and others in Burmese language. Another influential figure was the socialist Thakin Tin Mya. Through his teachers, Chit Hlaing became a supporter of communism, joined the Burma Communist Party (BCP) and promoted communist cell members within the army.

At the start of his career, Chit Hlaing was in three camps, which would later go on to become bitter enemies. First, he was in the military, which cooperated with the Japanese under the leadership of Aung San. Second, he was among the communists, whose more radical representatives rejected cooperation with the Japanese military government. Third, he maintained good relations to Thakin Tin Mya’s socialists.

That he eventually opted for the camp of Aung San and his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) rather than the Red Flag Communists of his teacher Thakin Soe may be due to a personal encounter with Aung San, whose charisma and pragmatism had held the independence movement together for years. After meeting Aung San sometime between 1942 and 1943, when Chit Hlaing worked as the messenger between Aung San, Thakhin Soe, and other communist leaders, Chit Hlaing had to correct his ideas: „I had thought he was a fanatic militarist. Now I could believe he was a democrat. I had thought he was an enemy of Marxism. Now I respected him as a bona fide and true socialist.”[1]

When Aung San broke with the communists in 1946, Chit Hlaing renounced – at least verbally – the communists who had committed themselves to a global revolution under the leadership of the Soviet Union. Within the AFPFL, he became a member of the Socialist Party (SP). He bet on socialist evolution instead of communist revolution. In his own words, he exchanged the red for a pink ideology. Together with like-minded people, he founded the People’s Literature Company, in which he translated numerous texts of figures like Marx and Mao, which he also commented on under the pseudonym Maung Chit Gyi (later he used the pen name Ko Ko Maung Gyi).

In August 1951, Chit Hlaing traveled to East Berlin as an AFPFL representative for an international youth congress. The congress’ sponsor was the Soviet Union. He then hoped to continue his studies in the Soviet Union, but Htun Shein, a member of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), opposed Chit Hlaing’s attempt. One reason might have been that Chit Hlaing lacked genuine communist conviction. Finally, Chit Hlaing didn’t get the permission by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Instead of Moscow, he landed in Paris, where he lived until 1955 and studied philosophy. According to his own account, Chit Hlaing largely renounced political activity during his time in Paris, fearing that he would attract the attention of the secret police and possibly lose access to French universities.

At the same time, he came into contact with new socialist ideas. Through a friend he became aware of the special path taken by Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito. The communist Tito had defied Stalin in 1948, without joining the Western camp during the Cold War. Instead, he was a leading representative of the Non-Aligned Movement, founded in 1961 in Belgrade. The Non-Aligned Movement and its predecessor the Bandung-States of 1955 have been well received in Burma. The example of Tito showed that there was not just orthodox communism, and that the Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet Union could be criticized.

With this new perspective, Chit Hlaing returned to Burma in 1955 against his will and at the request of Colonel Aung Gyi. Colonel Aung Gyi was one of the most important figures in post-colonial Burma. Together with Maung Maung he held the reins of leadership within the Tatmadaw in the 1950s.

On the request of Colonel Aung Gyi, Chit Hlaing became a member of the Directorate of Psychological Warfare (DPW), whose central tasks included the drafting of a military doctrine and anti-communist propaganda. The objectives should be achieved by training the officer corps, producing propaganda material such as pamphlets, radio broadcasts, etc.

Aims and Achievements

One of the first key documents Chit Hlaing wrote in his new role for the Tatmadaw under the guidance of Maung Maung was titled The National Ideology and the Role of the Defense Services. The document defined the relationship between Tatmadaw and politics. Task of the Tatmadaw is the defense of the state ideology. The state ideology, in turn, formulated the goals of peace, the rule of law, democracy and a socialist economic system.[2]

In addition to working for The National Ideology, Chit Hlaing was a diligent writer in the military-published magazine Myawaddy , which appeared since 1952 and had a circulation of 18,000 copies in 1956. In his articles, Chit Hlaing criticized Stalinism, the Communist Party of Burma (BCP) and developed the outlines of his own political philosophy namarupa wada. To do so, Chit Hlaing used traditional Buddhist terms and tried to give them a different or new meaning. Given the lack of not yet existing terms for core concepts of Marxism and Socialism a natural approach (Thakin Soe’s approach was quite similar).

Namarupa is a composite of the Pali terms namà and rupà. Namà stands for psychic in the broadest sense, rupá for physical. Chit Hlaing uses the word pair in a variation on „consciousness“ and „matter.“[3]

Wada, on the other hand, indicates that the phrase is an -ism (as in communism, capitalism). Namarupa is therefore an abstraction.[4]

In Chit Hlaying’s conception, Namarupa Wada was to lay a philosophical foundation for a future socialist state. His hope was to promote the unity of the country by mixing Marx’s materialism with Buddhist elements so that the new ideology would be acceptable to Buddhists as well. Namarupa Wada was decidedly anti-communist and nationalist. From the perspective of Western philosophy, Chit Hlaing’s philosophical concept was abstract and overly complex; a paper overloaded with jargon and ambiguous Pali terms, as Nakanishi criticizes.

At the end of 1957, Chit Hlaing took on a position as a lecturer in political thought at the Directorate of Psychological Warfare. He summarized his articles and his ideology in the handbook Ideology Critical for the Development of Human Nature and Democracy. These theoretical writings were, however, only ever known to a handful of officers or intellectuals.[5]

In the power struggles of the subsequent years, which fell in the same time period as the splitting of the AFPFL in 1957, within the Tatmadaw, the Socialists prevailed against the rather moderate representatives Aung Gyi and Maung Maung. However, Chit Hlaing played only a minor role in all of this. His big moment came only in March 1962 with the coup and the establishment of the Revolutionary Council (RC).

The new rulers lacked a political ideology. Ne Win quickly roped in Chit Hlaing and two of his comrades to work out the new ideology. Chit Hlaing was one of the few in the ranks of the military who had the necessary knowledge and writing skills. The ideology should also give the RC legitimacy. Ne Win called for an ideological superstructure that emphasized the special status of Burma and held the country in equidistance to the political blocs of the Cold War.[6]

That’s how Chit Hlaing got the opportunity to write the policy declaration for the RC (The Burmese Way to Socialism) and later the official ideology of the BSPP (The System of Correlation between Man and His Environment). In formulating the two ideological key texts of the Ne Win era, Chit Hlaing essentially drew on his preparatory work of the 1950s.

Main Work

When reading the texts, the mixture of Marxist terminology and theory with Buddhist beliefs and Pali vocabulary is striking. The System follows a step-by-step approach: First, the construction of nature is determined, then the nature of man, and finally, society.

The basic program begins with a description of the three worlds that make up nature as a whole: the material world, the living world, and finally what the text describes as phenomena. Phenomena are the processes and interactions between mind and matter. Chit Hlaing uses terms from the Buddhist tradition to define the three worlds. He uses terms like okasaloka (material world), sattaloka (animal world), „Law of Impermanence“ or the „Wheel of Change.“

Then man is identified as the crown of creation, the first mover and the measure of all things: „Man matters most.“ Man creates and transforms the social system, since he is an image of all three worlds. Man is finally defined as a social animal that knows both selfishness and altruism and shapes society.

In the section on the formation and laws of society, Chit Hlaing increasingly uses Marxist terminology. Capitalism is criticized, it is about productive forces and the laws of dialectical materialism, but without the use of this term. Chit Hlaing speaks of the dialectical method or the dialectical law that he defines with the Pali term Paticccsamuppada (the conditionality of all beings). The revolution also occurs. At the end of this section, he defines the philosophical program of the BSPP and six economic laws for the Burmese way to socialism.

It concludes with a reflection on the determining role of the workers in the new Burma and the role of the party or its behavior in its own ideology, which was expected to be neither complete nor conclusive with this program. The text outlines a kind of a Buddist-socialist utopia. Both texts were submitted to the RC. He let them pass without extensive changes.

The impact of the two policy texts is difficult to assess, but it was probably not very large, although Chit Hlaing, in retrospect, judges that the day the RC adopted The System was crucial to the country: „To my mind, April 25, 1962 was a landmark, a major turning point in the political history of Burma.“[7]

That the influence was not very large is due to the abstract nature of Chit Hlaing’s remarks. Even Colonel Khin Nyo, who was training at the DPW, said of the philosophical foundations of Burmese socialism: „As for me, I must admit, I cannot understand how or why mind and matter are related to politics.”[8] When even an insider couldn’t understand the connections, it is to be assumed that the general population, to whom the text of The System was broadcast via radio on January 17, 1963, would not have become much wiser by it. Maybe it was not about the content, as Nakanishi suspects. „The establishment of a state ideology is more significant than its content.“[9]

Former President Dr. Ba Maw published a commentary in the British newspaper The Guardian on January 23, 1963, in which he rubs his finger on the wound: „Basically, the [Revolutionary] Council has done the right thing. But what, as I see it, is wrong about this is that the common error has been repeated of confusing race with religion and religion with society, and so turning religio-metaphysical speculations into social truths and laws. In this way, a social philosophy based upon laws and conditions which are continually changing has been kept tied to religious dogmas which claim to be absolute and unchanging and go centuries back to an age immeasurably different from today.“[10] A problem which is virulent down to the present day.

The fundamental texts of the socialist era are hardly comprehensible and often operate with contradictory concepts and ideas. One major issue is the fact that ideology and religion are different. Nevertheless, Chit Hlaing tried to reconcile incommensurate thoughts, religious beliefs and terms on the one hand, and ideology on the other, but Marxism and Buddhism have no common denominator. In the end, nothing remains but an accumulation of supposedly profound concepts that stand side by side without a mental connection.

The conceptual blurring of the basic program does not provide a comprehensive explanation for the collapse of socialism in Myanmar; but it is at least an indication that there was a lack of clarity and consistency even at the beginning of the social experiment.

The elaboration of the socialist principles was the culmination and at the same time the last highlight in Chit Hlaing’s career. He was no longer responsible for translating his theory into concrete politics. The next eight years Chit Hlaing spent as a lecturer for party cadres, before he left the BSPP in 1970 and retired in 1971.

He became once again member of a political party after the National Unity Party (NUP) in 1988 was formed to replace the BSPP in the next elections. But his role in post-88 Burma was that of a commentator and well respected intellectual and not that of an influential politician. He died of natural causes on March 26, 2018 in Yangon General Hospital – aged 92.[11]


Overall, Chit Hlaing can be said to have been an influential theorist but not a doer.  Insofar perhaps it is not entirely wrong what he says about himself: „On my part, I had only to accept the duty entrusted upon me.“[12]

However, it should be remembered that Chit Hlaing educated and trained generations of officers, some of whom later went on to even become ministers or in the case of Than Shwe heads of state. Although socialism in Myanmar has been discredited as a political ideology and within the party landscape since 1988, Chit Hlaing’s philosophical ideas continue to thrive in the minds of Myanmar’s elites and military.


[1] Quoted from Nakanishi (2013), 64 f.

[2] In terms of content and form, The National Ideology remained very close to the constitution of 1947. Yoshihiro Nakanishi sees in the document, contrary to the prevailing interpretation, less the claim of the military to dominate the political agenda of the country (Nakanishis 2013, p. 76). It’s more of an attempt to create a loyal, united and centralized military. At that time, Chit Hlaing argued that officers of the army should engage in politics but stay as far removed from party politics as possible. The slogan of the military was understood to be something like: understand politics but don’t engage in politics.

[3] Nakanishi (2013), 80.

[4] Walton (2017), 27.

[5] Nakanishi (2013), 84.

[6] Taylor (2016).

[7] Working Paper 10, 146.

[8] Working Paper 10, 153.

[9] Nakanishi (2013), 96.

[10] The Guardian, 23 January 1963; quoters after Nakanishi (2013), 62 f.

[11] See Obituary: „Obituary: Junta Insider Dies at 92“, The Irrawaddy, March 26, 2018,  https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/obituary-junta-insider-dies-92.html. Accessed October 23, 2018.

[12] Working Paper 10, 125.


Callahan, Mary P. 2003 Making enemies. War and state building in Burma. Ithaca [et.al.]: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Chit Hlaing 1963 The System of Correlation of Man and his Environment. The Philosophy of the Burma Socialist Programme Party.

Nakanishi, Yoshihiro 2013 Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution. The State and Military in Burma. Singapore: NUS Press.

Taylor,  Robert H. 2015 General Ne Win. A Political Biography. Singapore ISEAS.

Walton, Matthew J. 2017 Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zöllner, Hans-Bernd (Hrsg.) 2008 Myanmar literature project. Working paper number 10:10. Soe, Socialism and Chit Hlaing, Memories. Introduction by Robert H. Taylor.

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (Irene Po) (1905-1994)

Getrud Wellmann-Hofmeier

1 Introduction

San C. Po

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (called Irene Po as well) was the daughter of the Kayin physician and politician San C. Po who in a book published in 1928 had advocated a separate administrations for Burmans and Karens. [http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0800051h.html) After independence, she held a political office for a short time as a minister in one of U Nu’s cabinet. She was the first and only female cabinet member until 2012 after a formally civil government under ex-general Thein Sein had taken over the government from the previous military junta.[1] Her main interest, however, was to promote education and social services. Being a Christian, she used the organisation of the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) to accomplish these objectives and to represent Burma internationally. She is a representative of the Anglophile Christian Karen elite of the country and the attempts of members of this elite to hold the country together.

2 Biographical Sketch

Claribel Ba Maung Chain was born on 1 June 1905 in Pathein. Both her parents were members of the Kayin elite and had studied in the United States and England respectively. Her mother was the daughter of a co-founder of the Karen National Association that in 1884 became the first native political organisation in Burma. Like her father, she wanted to studied medicine, but was not able to do so because of poor health. After studying English literature at Rangoon University and the Judson college, she worked as a teacher in her home town from 1928 until her marriage in 1935 to an engineer who had studied in England. The couple moved to Rangoon. She gave birth to two daughters. Both of them studied medicine.
After the war and the beginning of the civil war, she was part of a delegation of the government trying to negotiate a peace settlement with the Karen National Union (KNU). In 1951, she was part of a committee working on a bill to create a separate Karen State within the Union of Burma. Before the elections held in 1951/52, she joined one of the Kayin parties, the Union Karen League that had decided to join the AFPFL and was elected as a member of parliament in Hanthawaddy District. After a Ministry for Karen Affairs was established in 1952, she became the first head of the new ministry and was sworn in on March 18, 1952. One of her main initiatives was to persuade young rebel soldiers to stop fighting the government and start a civilian career. She resigned from her post on March 4, 1953 after having participated in a parliamentary delegation to Britain in 1952. Later, she was offered the post of ambassador to England but declined, allegedly because of objection of her husband.
Already in 1951, she had become the first native President of the YWCA and a member of the Executive Committee of the world’s YWCA. In the following years, she became the association’s Vice President for Asia and was responsible for one of the “Y#s” committees. She was re-elected in 1959. She travelled widely and represented her country at various conferences and church meetings around the world. Her last reported participation in such a meeting took place in 1961 at a conference of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi. In the same year, she became president of the Burma Council of Churches.
Nothing is known about her last years. She died on February 24, 1994.

Birmas Kabinett von 1952

3 Aims and Objectives

Claribel Ba Maung Chain has not written any book and none of her many speeches that she must have delivered has been recorded. It is however quite clear from her biography that she was dedicated to serve the “social gospel” emphasising the practical dimension of the Christian faith. She was thus rooted in the tradition of what many Karen women were renowned for serving others in the field of education and medicine. In this way, she was a “minister”, a servant in the literal sense of the word, but never a politician. “Politics is a dirty job – but can be made clean” she is reported to have said. She tried to perform “clean politics” during her short time as a politician, a task she had taken over because she had been asked by members of the Karen community and Premier Nu.
In an interview given to an American journalist in 1952 after her appointment as minister, she explained about pragmatic attitudes towards those parts of the Karen community fighting the government. “One hope we have is that the Karen parents are getting tired of their children missing education just as they did under the Japs [Japanese]. They want peace, we think.” She further went to the edges of the regions held by the rebels and talked to some leaders and helped to severe ties between the rebels and British supporters that had been established during the fight against the Japanese.3 Ain a newspaper report, she she was quoted thus: “Since we have rooted out a certain Seven Day Adventist missionary, a London newspaperman and a British major who kept a rebel headquarters at Calcutta, we feel that the British are staying out of the Karen troubles.”4 Accordings to the same article, she added that she was worried about a possible communist influence on Kayin leadership.
Another anecdote shows that she was not just critical to direct foreign interference in Burmese affairs but to other impacts of the West as well. She told another journalist about a conversation with a young Karen rebel fighter shortly before her resignation whom she had asked: “Why must you carry on this senseless fight? What is the future of us Karens if young men like you never go to school, never learn anything how to use a gun?” The answer: “You don’t need education to be successful. Look at Henry Ford.”5
Claribel Ba Maung Chain was in no way an “ethno-nationalist” but somebody who – differently from her father – believed in the cooperation between the Burmese and Kayin people to establish an independent nation of Burma. Furthermore, she sregarded education as a key to make the Burma a peaceful place.
One might suspect that her experiences as an “amateur” politician trying to help solving political problems at the grassroots level were frustrating and she thought it more rewarding to use her talents to help the people of her country as a community worker and somebody establishing ties between Burma and the world. Her “second love” as she called the YWCA – second after her husband – provided this opportunity.

4 Assessment

Claribel Ba Maung Chain is one of the many Burmese persons about whom we know too little to assess their contribution to the society of her country in an adequate way. She grew up in a multicultural Karen-Christian-Anglicised context strongly influence by the missionaries’ emphasis on medical care and education.
Her to speak many languages and thus be qualified to mediate between different cultures. She possessed all these qualities and was therefore chosen to represent the people of Burma in a variety of national and international contexts.
Her function as the first and for a very long time the only female minister of Burma is almost stereotypically repeated both by western and Burmese media. Such highlighting stresses the lack of representation of women in Burmese politics and tends to downplay her achievements as an “ordinary citizen” of Burma. Such way of looking at things concentrates on the quantity of women known as political and societal leaders and neglects the quality of women’s contributions to uplift the welfare of the people. As a consequence, Claribel Ba Maung Chain might be regarded as a representative of the many Burmese women who worked in certain sectors of Burmese society in order to maintain the social balance despite the many catastrophes happening in Burma/Myanmar in recent history. She was a very responsible person but at the same time a very independent one. She followed her father in getting engaged in the political affairs of the country but quit office after she had realised that she could serve the people better in other ways. She was educated as a member of a Christian-Karen elite, but was highly critical of any attempt top play off the different ethnic groups in Burma against each other.
On this background, Claribel Ba Maung Chain’s life might be seen as an indication that the course of Myanmar history would have been different if the pragmatic approach taken by her and many other women to serve their country would prevail. The few quotations recorded from her demonstrate that she was an intelligent and witty speaker whose assessments were based on a down-to earth analysis of the situation. She was thus a good ambassador for her country as well of the Kayin community she represented without carrying an official title. She did a lot of networking as well as inspiring other women to follow her footsteps. One of her granddaughters is stepping into her shoes by working as an YWCA executive.

5 Sources

This text is based on the short biography written by Saw Nathanayla for a collection of  life stories of Burmese Protestant Christians.6 Besides a number of internet sources, the following publications were consulted as well:
Tinker, Hugh 1957 The Union of Burma. A Study of the First Years of Independence. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Who’s Who in Burma 1961 Rangoon, People‘s Literature Committee and House.

[1] Myat Myat Ohn Khin was appointed as Minister for Social Welfare in September 2012.

Editing: Hans-Bernd Zöllner

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.