Saya San (1876-1931)

1 Introduction

Saya San is one of the great heroes of the Burmese independence struggle because of his role in the peasants’ uprising starting in late 1930 that is named after him albeit he acted only eight months as leader of the rebellion that continued for many more months in different parts of Burma. His short career as a rebel leader was followed by a great number of attempts to ascertain the significance of the rebellion in the anti-colonial struggle and Saya San’s role in it. The various views on the “Saya San uprising” therefore signify the many options of how to make sense of the driving forces behind Burmese history and politics until today.

2 Biographical Sketch

Saya San was born on October 24, 1876 as Yat Kyar in a village near Shwebo, the town from which King Alaungphaya, the founder of the last Burmese dynasty, originated. Ten years after his birth, the British put an end to royal rule in Burma. At that time, the boy received a traditional monastic education near his birthplace. As an adult, he moved to a village nearby producing and selling mats and baskets. He married and fathered two children, a son and a daughter. The family later moved to southern Burma near Mawlamyine (Moulmein) where he worked as a carpenter, and – more successfully – as a fortune teller and medical healer (se saya). He wrote two treatises on the subject in which he contrasted traditional Burmese and Western medicine highlighting the value of the former. Probably at this time he adopted the name Saya (“Teacher”) San. As a se saya, he was regarded as someone to have access to the special powers in the fields of astrology, alchemy and mantras.

Saya San etwa im Jahr 1927

In 1920, he joined the local branch of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), the nationwide nationalist organisation striving for an independent Burma. He first represented his village organisation and later the district branch of Mawlamyine. In 1924, he was elected chairman of a commission that looked into the grievances of peasants caused by the British system of tax collection. In 1929, he proposed to refuse paying capitation tax and establish defense organisations to protect villagers against abuses by the colonial government. His proposal was not adopted by the GCBA conference of 1929 whereupon Saya San formed his own organisation, the Galon Association (galon athin) named after the mythical bird Galon (Garuda) that according to popular belief was superior to the Naga (serpent/snake), representing earth and water and was associated at that time with the British.

Saya San recruited followers who took an oath of allegiance and were tattooed with the Galon emblem. On December 22, 1930, the rebellion started after its leader had adopted the title of “King of the Galons” and established his headquarters in Tharawaddy District, some 170 km north of the capital Rangoon; it erupted at the auspicious time of 11.33 pm on the day after the Acting Governor, Sir Joseph A. Aung Gyi, had categorically refused to consider a lightening of the hard-hit peasants’ tax burden. The attacks concentrated on government agents like village headmen four of whom were killed in the first 48 hours of the uprising, agencies such as police stations and symbols of British modernity like railway bridges and telegraph poles. On December 30, Saya San’s headquarters consisting of some huts located on a hill of the nearby Pegu Yoma, were taken by government troops. Saya San, at times in the disguise of a monk, traveled by train to Pyay (Prome) and in January 1931 moved – again partly by train – to the Southern Shan State where he set up another Galon force comprised of members of different ethnic groups helping the villagers to fight what was regarded unjust treatment by the authorities. Government forces broke up the rebel army and Saya San attempted to move to his native area near Shwebo but was held up by a thorn in the foot. A local guide informed the police and Saya San was arrested on August 2, 1931. He was brought back to Tharawaddy and tried by a special tribunal which sentenced him to death on August 28. An appeal was rejected and he was hanged on November 28 of the same year.

Before his death, Saya San had authorized two journalists to use the proceeds from the sale of his books on traditional medicine to buy books for a library to be set up in his memory. The first works acquired were works of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin. The rebellion Saya San had started continued  until early 1932.

3  Aims and Achievements

The aims of Saya San can be deduced from the two resolutions he proposed for the 16th conference of the GCBA in 1929:

1 To resist collection of capitation and thathameda[1] taxes by the colonial government;

2 to demand from government the right of free collection of forest products such as timber and bamboo for family use, and if government refused, the existing rules be defied by non-violent means.[2]

Both propositions were meant to alleviate the economic situation of the rural population harried by  the collapse of the international rice market after the global depression following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and at the same time extend their freedom from rules and regulations imposed by the British. The means to achieve this goal consisted in boycotting government policies in line with the policy of the wunthanu athins (our-race associations) which after 1920 had spread to all parts of central Burma as a parallel grassroots structure to the British administrative system, the latter severely restricting self-organisation of the villages as it had existed under the Burmese kings. Economic and political aims were thus inseparably linked together with elements of Buddhism and polular culture. Saya San had been a member of a wunthanu organisation which by 1925 existed in almost all villages of Burma and were connected through the GCBA from village to national level. The wunthanu athins constituted a village-based movement that effectively challenged the policies of the British administration by refusing to take part in elections and paying taxes. The success of such protests can be seen in the low percentage of votes cast in the first elections held by the British in 1922 when only 6.71 % of the electorate went to the polls. Other than this silent refusal of government procedures, the tax boycott and other forms of non-cooperation were punished by the government agencies. So as to become independent from the colonial economy, the associations set up retail shops recognisable by the wunthanu logo; Burmese working for the British administration were refused use of the shops and monks were asked – or even forced – not to dispense religious services to alleged collaborators. The British administration regarded this as “political terrorism and a negation of all independent political thought in the country”[3] and passed an Anti-Boycott Law to counter the attempts to ostracise the Burmese members of the British administration. Here, two antagonistic concepts of “independence” become visible.

Saya San was thus a member of a well organised movement that used Burmese traditions to resist British rule in a way similar to Gandhi – who visited Burma in 1929 – by establishing parallel structures of administering the country. The violent rebellion connected with his name was a consequence of the refusal of the GCBA to endorse the recommendations drawn up by Saya San after his investigation into the hardships caused by the existing tax system comprising 170 case studies. The umbrella organisation of the wunthanu athins broke up before the conference in 1929 due to factionalism both within the GCBA and the monks’ association that had supported it. Leading members of the GCBA had decided to participate in the elections and thus abandoning the previous boycott strategies. This, in return, resulted in a still stronger suppression of wunthanu activities. The galon athin founded by Saya San was a unit to defend the initiatives of grassroots boycotters against the harsh measures of the government to end the civil disobedience of the peasants and against the leaders of the Burmese organisations who had compromised their resistance in favour of participating in the British schemes to “modernise” Burma.

Saya San’s main achievement was to demonstrate that the protest of the Burmese peasants had to be taken seriously as  a mass movement. The revolt of December 1930 connected with his name was the beginning of a wildfire of revolts led by other “Saya Sans” as the many trials of rebel leaders show. Finally, his trial and execution made him a symbol of an independent Burma battling for the welfare of the peasant majority of Burma first instead of for a system of subjugating the people to serve foreign economic interests and its concomitant political system – be it defined by the colonial power or by (collaborating) fellow countrymen. The Saya San Rebellion can be regarded as an early case of protesting the consequences of globalisation in the wake of the imposition of colonialism and a capitalist economy inextricably tied to it.

4 Assessment(s)

Saya San and the rebellion that bears his name has been assessed very differently. A major interpretative scheme uses dichotomous categories like traditional vs. modern, rural vs. urban, superstitious vs. rational etc. Such classifications were employed in official reports of the British administration on the rebellion. In the eyes of the colonial administrators, the uprising was just a backward looking attempt to restore the glory of royal Burma. From this point of view, the “coronation” of Saya San and his “palace” on the hill played a central role that dominated the historiography of the events to a great extent. Here, the figure of a min-laung, a king-to-be, played a crucial role; many of the rebels who had fought the British after the removal of King Thibaw from the throne had adopted this title. The concept is based on the belief that a ruler needs to possess hpon – merit or glory.[4] Saya San in the eyes of his followers surely possessed this quality but that did not mean that his main aim was to restore the monarchy. He called himself thamada[5] (president) and held that the war against the British was necessary to protect the welfare of monks, laypeople and the Buddhist religion.

This change of the “min-laung motif” from a challenger to the throne of a current ruler to the legitimation of fighting the colonial power to protect the Burmese people is indicated by its continuing use during the Burmese independence struggle. Here, the coming of a future king to free Burma in the context of millenarian expectations helped Aung San to become regarded as the leader of a Burma free from foreign domination and – more importantly – from unjust foreign laws. Like Aung San, Saya San was a charismatic leader who saw himself forced by circumstances to resort to violent means to achieve their goals, and both represented the will and the wishes of the majority of the people. In Saya San’s case, this is illustrated by the fact that he only for very short periods of time and within very limited areas could directly lead the rebellion which spread to other parts of the country without his direct involvement soon after he had chosen to use violent means as an answer to the widespread frustration of the villagers.

The means Saya San employed to organise the movement were indeed traditional and linked to the belief in magic powers like tattooing and oath taking combined with drinking “oath water”. Both measures, however, served practical ends. They bound the rebel groups together and conveyed a feeling of security and fearlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken up the latter motif in her famous slogan “Freedom from Fear” substantiated by a “modern” interpretation of Buddhist thought whereas Saya San and his followers relied on “traditional” forms of Buddhist practices in their anti-colonial struggle.

Overall, Saya San’s aims and the means to achieve them represent a hybrid mix of traditional and modern forms of resisting British rule in Burma. He can be regarded as a paradigmatic figure of Burmese/Myanmar society because, other than many leaders from colonial times to today’s politics, he was not a member of the country’s elite but deeply rooted in the world views of the peasantry which until today forms the majority of Myanmar’s population. It is remarkable that two politicians who for some time dominated Burmese politics till independence used Saya San’s popularity after his death for their own career: Dr. Ba Maw, the first chief minister of Burma under the constitution of 1935 was his main defense lawyer. U Saw who held this office some years later and ordered the assassination of Aung San in 1947, participated in the defence as well and later adopted the name ‘Galon’ for himself and his private army.

Saya San has inspired a variety of researchers investigating Burma’s political culture and historiography to understand this crucial event in Burma’s colonial history. These studies show that concentrating on the rebellion named after the popular hero appears more important than focussing on Saya San’s life because many features of the uprising resurfaced in Burma’s/Myanmar’s modern history.

5 Bibliography

From the many books and articels dealing with the Saya San Rebellion, the following have been used for this biography:

Aung Thwin, Maitrii 2011 The Return of the Galon King. History, Law, and Rebellion in Colonial Burma. Athens, Ohio University Press.

Herbert, Particia 1982 The Hsaya San Rebellion (1930-1932) Reappraised. Melbourne, Monash University, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (Working Papers Nr. 27).

Maung Maung 1980 From Sangha to Laity. Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920-1940. New Delhi, Manohar.

Prager, Susanne 2003 Coming of the “Future King”: Burmese Minlaung Expectations Before and During the Second World War. Journal of Burma Studies 8:  1-32.

Salomon, Robert L. 1969 Saya San and the Burmese Rebellion. Modern Asian Studies 3, 3: 209-223.

[1]    Both were household taxes with different names in Upper (capitation) and Lower (thathameda) Burma.

[2]    Quotation taken from Maung Maung 1980: .

[3]             Statement of  Mr. Lewinson in his introduction of the Anti-Boycott Bill on 21. February 1922 (Proceedings of the Legislative Council p. 948).

[4]    The Burmese word for a monk – hpon-gyi – means “great merit”.

[5]    The title refers to the maha-thamada (Great President), the first ruler in the history of mankind according to an often quoted Buddhist text, the Aggañña Sutta. This president was unanimously elected by the people to care for law and order. Aung San Suu Kyi quoted the story as one of the Buddhist roots for the Burmese understanding of democracy.

Authors: Eileen Brandenburg / Hans-Bernd Zöllner

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

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. [ 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.

Author: Gertrud Wellmann-Hofmeier

Editing: Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Thakin Soe (1905-1989)

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

Titelbild von „socialit-wada“

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.

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, Soee 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. (

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 (

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.

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 ( 2).

[6]     Chit Hlaing 2008: 124.

Author: Hans-Bernd Zöllner