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.
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 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 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.
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.
3For some datails see Wintle 112-114.
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.
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.
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).
16Maung Maung: 120.