U Thuzana (1948-2018)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Introduction – Difficulties in Properly Approaching a Monk’s Life

U Thuzana made headlines because of his role in the split of the Kayin National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) in late 1994.1 He is one of the many so-called “political monks” who have become famous as well as infamous in Burma’s recent political history. Describing his career can contribute to understanding the complex relationship of the mundane and the spiritual spheres in Myanmar’s society.

The western biographer, however, faces some special challenges in finding and evaluating the data of a monk’s life. In the eyes of the laypeople he is regarded a “son of the Buddha”. The life of the Buddha is thus the yardstick to measure a monk’s lifetime achievement. An individual monk’s level of enlightenment as assessed by his lay followers determines the spiritual value of the material support given to him. The more merit the layperson achieves through a gift to a member of the community, the Sangha, the greater is her or his chance of progressing towards the ultimate goal of life, the escape from all suffering in saṃsāra, the cycles of rebirth.

Therefore, the ‘biography’ of a monk written by one of his followers tends to be a hagiography. It makes no sense to write about a monk who failed, because he missed his vocation and must be classified as a pretender. In other words, from a consistent Buddhist perspective the term “political monk” is a self-contradiction, since politics belong to the mundane sphere of loka, but a monk to the supra-mundane sphere, lokuttara.2

This attitude is expressed in one of the epithets conferred on U Thuzana by his followers on the occasion of his cremation in late 2018: “sainted grandfather”.3 Such a saint cannot be “controversial”, another frequent attribute used to characterise U Thuzana. A headline like “A Saint in Command”, used by a western observer4 to describe his role, is a contradiction that is rooted in the different world-views of Buddhists and non-Buddhists, with their different understandings of a term like “politics”.

As a result of these cardinal problems in depicting a revered monk’s life, a “neutral narration” of U Thuzana’s life is almost impossible. As with many other prominent Buddhist monks, the data available are meagre and almost buried under the many and mostly controversial appraisals of the various manifestations emanating from his words and actions.

Until now, only one text exists that can be termed a biography of U Thuzana. It was written by one of his close followers who describes it as “no biography” but a “personal record of Sayadaw’s life experiences”.5 The foreword indicates that the book comes close to an autobiography of the monk written down by a “bosom friend”6 of his.7 Most western authors who try to make sense of the monk’s life make use of the work, published in 1999, that contains a number of documents, most related to the events of 1994 and 1995 and dealing with the conflict between Buddhist and Christian members of Kayin organisations that resulted in the split of the KNLA. For the monk’s life after 1999 comparatively few reports about his activities exist, many of them just mentioning his name in connection with descriptions of misdeeds by the DKBA and his initiatives of building pagodas in compounds of religious buildings of Christian and Muslim communities.

As a consequence, the following biographical sketch, based on sources that mostly must be regarded as biased in favour or against the monk, can just offer facts about U Thuzana’s life that cannot be neatly separated from the various interpretations connected to them. U Thuzana’s life story oscillates between often contradicting poles – and thus is rather typical for the recent history of Buddhist Myanmar.

Biographical Sketch

The future U Thuzana was born on August 1, 1948,8 in a village situated at the eastern bank of the Thanlwin (Salween) river as the eighth of twelve children. The village, located some 70 km north of Hpa-an, today’s capital of Kayin State, is not far from Myaing Gyi Ngu, the centre of the monk’s later activities. He was given the name of Than Sein. He attended an elementary school and at the age of eight became a novice at a nearby monastery. After finishing elementary school he continued his monastic education in Mawlamyine, Thaton and Mudon (all in Mon State). Here he received his Pali monk name U Thuzana (meaning virtuous and upright) and passed the lowest examination within the system. Around the age of 17 he left the monastery and on the advice of his abbot became Than Sein again because his father and his younger brother fell ill. He worked in the family’s rice fields for some time before being called to do military service for the KNLA as a courier. According to his biography, on his travels through Kayin land he saw ruins of many Buddhist religious buildings and got the idea of rebuilding them.9

After the end of his military service and of the health and economic problems of his family, U Thuzana was ordained as a monk at the age of 20 on April 5, 1968.10 After that he continued his religious studies in Mudon, but soon turned to practise Vipassana meditation, thus following the emphasis of the leading monk on patipatti, practising the Buddha’s teaching instead of studying the theory (pariyatti). After practising meditation for some time and consulting his teacher, he decided to become a forest monk. At the age of 24 he went to the Myaing Gyi Ngu hill near his birthplace to settle down there. He met a hermit, an experienced practitioner of meditation, learned from him and – as was handed down – resisted the temptation of lust, survived the encounter with a boa constrictor and was cured from arthritis , which had not been cured before even by use of traditional methods.“

However, other health problems continued to afflict him.

After these experiences, clearly modelled on the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment in his biography, he set out on the next stage of following the Buddha’s path. He untertook a journey through the wilderness of Kayin country before starting to renovate the ruined pagoda of Myaing Gyi Ngu with the assistance of a number of followers. The foundation stone was laid in November 1975, the umbrella (hti) was hoisted half a year later on Thingyan, Burmese New Year. Reportedly 20,000 people attended the ceremony.11 From now on U Thuzana became known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw (abbot) and his career as a pagoda builder started, albeit not immediately.

The monastery on teh Banl of the Thanlwin River (Photo: G. Baumgard)

The biography records that between 1982 and 1984 seven pagodas were built on his initiative12 and that the number increased to 53, plus 28 ordination halls, by 1990.13 One of these caused problems because it was located at a strategically important place some 40 km away from Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU on the confluence of the Thanlwin and Moei rivers. The KNU leadership argued that the construction of the building might negatively effect the security of the opposition’s headquarters. The long controversy about the construction work finally contributed to the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) by a number of Buddhist soldiers14 formerly under command of the KNLA in late 1994, and thus to the split of the armed organisation that had started fighting the Burmese army in 1949. Most observers agree that a long- standing dissatisfaction among the Buddhist rank and file of the army and the Christian leadership played a crucial role. Personal talks between KNU leader Bo Mya and U Thuzana about the pagoda building issue did not lead to a compromise.

KNU Heaquarters at Manerplw around 1992 (Phto: Richard Humphries)

In early 1995 U Thuzana became the most prominent patron of the new organisation as one of six Sayadaws. From then on he was regarded as controversial. His followers stress his main aim of promoting Buddhism; his critics regard him as a pawn of the military junta in its fight against the KNU.

After 1995 not much biographical information exists about U Thuzana. He is generally called “chairman” or “leader” of the DKBA without any further specification. Most likely the monk concentrated on supervising the community that had assembled at Myaing Gyi Ngu, many of them being people who had fled their homes to avoid the fighting between the KNU, the Burmese army and other armed groups, among them the DKBA. Furthermore, the monk had invited refugees living in Thailand to return. A set of strict rules was proclaimed that made the “camp” a place in which a peaceful and just order based on Buddhist principles as articulated by the abbot was practised.15 Religious as well as political diversity was thus excluded.

Besides such actions, the monk gave sermons based on the Buddhist scriptures, like other monks, that were recorded and distributed to the public free of charge. One such sermon, explaining the often recited Mangala Sutta dealing with the prerequisites for a good and blessed life, was even translated into English. This is in a question-and-answer style and gives a completely orthodox interpretation of the text.

According to a report of the German NGO “People In Need, Gerhard Baumgard Stiftung” which supported the settlement under the governance of the monk, some 20,000 people (4,000 families) lived in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area in 2004. The report illustrates the connections of the settlement, which was at the same time regarded as the headquarter of the DKBA by the military government. A Government Basic Education High School (BEHS) had been founded in 1996, attended by about 1500 to 1700 students. While the primary school students came mostly from the village itself, the middle and high school students had to travel long hours to get to the school. Therefore a boarding house was needed that was to be constructed with the financial assistance of the NGO in the absence of other support.16 The school was just one of many projects to develop the region under the monk’s supervision with the support of the Buddhist Kayin and the leadership of the Burmese army. The ‘town’ had a power station and a hospital as well.

As a later report of the German NGO shows, the monk enjoyed the special patronage of Khin Nyunt, the long-time Secretary No. 1 of the ruling junta and Prime Minister between 2003 and his fall from power in 2004.17 The former leading official of the junta visited the place quite often and was depicted on murals in the position of paying respect to U Thuzana. He further attended the funeral ceremonies of the monk in 2018. U Thuzana’s followers were issued special documents allowing them to move in areas controlled by the Myanmar military without being forced to serve as porters. On the other hand, the monk refused to accept rewards for his religious activities offered to him by the military government.18

Khin Nyunt at the funeral of U Thuzana (Photos: Mikael Gravers)

From 1995 on, it is reported that the DKBA on order or with the consent of U Thuzana attacked Christian and Muslim settlements and constructed pagodas on the compounds of the other religious communities.19

In 2010 the political environment changed again. In order to bring the armed rebel groups in Myanmar under the control of the military of the state, the government requested that they become Border Guard Forces (BGFs). Thus the armed groups could retain a certain degree of self-administration, but were formally made part of the government’s security forces. A majority of the DKBA units, among them those controlling Myaing Gyi Ngu, accepted the offer, while others did not. A commander of a new army called Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army summarised the difference between the two groups thus: “If you stand for your religion, join the BGF, if for your nation, like the KNLA, then join with us.”20 The splits caused new fights between the different factions, resulting in the emergence of new camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) close to Myaing Gyi Ngu that were supported by U Thuzana.21

For some years, U Thuzana did not attract much public attention. From 2015 on, however, the building of pagodas on Christian and Muslim compounds initiated by him made headlines. Interventions from different organisations to stop the construction failed because U Thuzana claimed that the pagodas were built on sites where formerly Buddhist religious buildings had existed and that it was necessary to protect the ancient Buddhist heritage.

During the last years, U Thuzana’s voice was less often to be heard. He had suffered from a lung problem and breathing difficulties for a long time. When travelling he carried an oxygen tank. Before he died on October 13, 2018, in a Bangkok hospital he had spent 10 months there. From the beginning of his career he had had many followers in Thailand who supported his activities.

Aims and Objectives

There is no doubt that U Thuzana’s eagerness to build pagodas contributed to the split of the KNLA and the fall of Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU administration and its multi-ethnic allies that were determined to crush the military junta. But it seems clear as well that this was not the only reason. The question of whether the monk intentionally supported the formation of the Buddhist Kayin army remains a matter of controversy. But the victory of the forces of the Burmese Tatmadaw and their new ally, the DKBA, was a milestone in the junta’s first aim of restoring law and order in the country before concentrating on promoting peace and development, as indicated by the name change from SLORC to SPDC in late 1997. Aung San Suu Kyi was released some months after the conquest of the opposition’s capital, which had forced the “alternative government” National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), formed in December 1990 in Manerplaw and headed by her cousin Sein Win, to become a “government in exile”, no longer residing on Burmese soil but in the United States.

U Thuzana’s biography stresses his determination to stay aloof from politics.22 However, he is described as a Kayin “nationalist” who – like the political and military leader Bo Mya – wants “peace” for the Kayin people.23 Their means, however, were different and led to a rivalry between the two. The biography explains U Thuzana’s position thus:

He is free and stays away from politics. Sayadaw’s main thing in life is to propagate and perpetuate Buddha Sasana. In truth Sayadaw is imbued with nationalism. His nationalism is not what they say. His nationalism is that Kayin national were once a highly cultured people. They built zedis, stupas, shrines and pagodas in the wildernesses of the State. These religious edifices were now ruined in the wildernesses. Sayadaw has to shine the Light which had been flickered or extinguished in the past. In present, there should be a Light that flames, and in future there will be a Light which will shine all over Kayin State. – This is Myaing-Gwe: Ngu’s nationalism.

This is a program of a religious-cultural revival that aims at bringing back the glory of the past, overgrown in the course of time by – natural and cultural – “wildernesses”. One effect of this process of decline was the loss of a Kayin script which the monk re-invented24 – as an indigenous alternative to the letters borrowed from the Burmese language used by the Christian missionaries to give the Kayin back the ability to read, that according to a Kayin myth was once lost. This detail accents the cultural-religious focus of the monk’s controversy with the Christian KNU leader Bo Mya. This fills most of the space in the second part of the quoted biography, supporting the biographer’s point of view with documents from followers who took over posts in the new army.

With regard to U Thuzana’s actions towards non-Buddhists living in the so-called “Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Zone”, a letter he wrote to a Muslim community living nearby is telling.25 The monk explains the reasons he ordered the Muslims to move to another place: their habits of eating fish and meat and slaughtering cows. The Myaing Gyi Ngu area was reserved for Buddhists and members of other religions as well as “kalas”, people of Indian descent, were not allowed to enter according to signposts set at the entrance of U Thuyana’s realm.

After informing them about the reasons for his decision, the monk writes to the “Mosque leaders and villagers”:

You and I as religious leaders know each other personally very well. Although we have mutual understanding and forgiveness, our respective youth and our followers are bound to come into conflict with one another in due course.

That’s why you should relocate peacefully and without resistance to the new designated place where you build a village which will be named „Nyinyar Aye Chan“ (Unity and Peace) and live accordingly peacefully.

Near Ta Khwet Hpoe Village, Buddhists will move in and build a new village named Nan Hay Myaing. This is a win-win situation.

During the immediate period of relocation you will hold resentment towards me, the Abbot. In due course, you will come to appreciate my good intentions.

Out of compassion, I am donating to your relocation efforts, out of my meagre savings, the amount of 20,000,000 Kyat (500,000 is earmarked for the building a mosque and the rest is for the villagers).

I heard some of your villagers thought it was too little a compensation and they wanted to refuse the offer. If that is the case, I will happily rescind the offer.

I am not a narrow-minded bigot. If I were, I would have barred Kalars from walking on any road that I paved, by erecting „no Kalars may walk on this road“ signs.

I extend my metta to all. In this life we are different peoples as Kalar, Bama, Kayin, etc. But in the cycle of lives we are all relatives! I hope that you will understand me and that you will forgive me for this action.

With much loving kindness for all, …

The language of the letter clearly shows that U Thuzana regards himself as the highest authority of the “special zone” built up under his patronage since he took his residence there. In his eyes, the “Shining Light of the Dhamma” has to be employed as the fundamental principle governing the coexistence of the people. To secure peace, measures must be taken to separate the communities, a measure for which the abbot pays some money following the traditional supreme virtue of a traditional Buddhist ruler, practising generosity (dāna).

In this “dhammacracy”, the teaching of the Buddha, the dhamma, is placed above all other laws and the monk who ignites this supreme illumination for a particular community tops the mundane hierarchy under his supervision. The religious leaders of the Muslim community will be able to understand this and will accept the decision as a “win-win situation”. According to the law of kamma, the different status of people of different ethnic and religious affiliation cannot be changed immediately. Only when the cycle of rebirths is considered are all people relatives. For the time being hierarchies exist and must be handled wisely and with good intentions.

The role of U Thuzana in the “special zone” of Myaing Gyi Ngu was that of a patron whose authority was respected in such a way that he did not exercise any executive power to implement what he regarded to be appropriate. The contract between the German NGO and the monastery was concluded between the monk and the chairman of the foreign organisation; it was, however, signed by an executive administrating the special zone. The principle of traditional Buddhist practice that a monk must stay away from getting directly involved in financial affairs was thus observed.

Seen in this perspective, the building of pagodas on the compounds of other religious communities is not an attempt to replace the church or mosque or even to extinguish the “other” community, but as an attempt to remind the people of what the monk regarded to be the historically justified priority of a Buddhist-Kayin culture in this region. Such a view, however, severely contradicts norms that are generally supposed to govern the co-existence of different communities.

Assessment

These basics of a benevolent Kayin Buddhist nationalism do not meet the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contradict the Western understanding of democracy, where all people are regarded as equal before the law enacted by the consent of the people in a certain nation state. The “special zone” administered by U Thuzana was – and still is – a small state within the state of Myanmar and it is not the only one. Several other Buddhist saints established their “states within the state”26 that have interacted in various ways with the Burmese/Myanmar governmental institutions trying to administer the whole country. U Thuzana’s rival, Bo Mya, represents another type of leader of an ethnic-centred state-like entity that is still mushrooming in Myanmar, challenging the monopoly of the central government in terms of the use of force, cultural rights and other functions of a nation.

The challenge brought forward by U Thuzana was special because it was inextricably connected to his life story. It might be argued that he became a “political monk” only by accident. The wilderness of Kayin Land that he discovered on his way to become a forest monk made him discover relicts that he regarded as testimonies of an old Kayin civilisation based on Buddhist spirituality. The many pagodas, ordination halls and other religious edifices he restored or built with the assistance of his followers, as well as his activities to better the lives of his Buddhist fellow-Kayins, were just material results of his vision to revive this civilisation by building up an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson). The high value ascribed to vegetarian food, even for the dogs, is an example of the logical execution of the Buddhist precept not to kill any living being within the borders of a model Buddhist community.

Such a community depends on the spiritual qualities ascribed to its leader by the people who follow him. Therefore, the death of the founder might be the beginning of the community’s end as a place of sanctity since this sainthood depends on the living saint. Religious as well as political charisma cannot be institutionalised.

What might be telling for the future of the Myaing Gyi Ngu “special zone” is the career of the Thamanya Sayadaw (1912-2003) under whose guidance another Buddhist “model community” was established around another hill in Kayin State.27 Here, donations of pilgrims visiting the site were the economic base of the settlement. After the death of the monk, his four monk-disciples could not agree on a successor and the government took back some of the privileges enjoyed by the people who had settled on the “holy place”. The example is also instructive for the variety of assessments of the work of socially engaged monks. The Thamanya Sayadaw was lauded as “progressive” because he was visited by Aung San Suu Kyi and thus seen as an opponent of the military regime. In fact, he tried to keep the same distance from the state authorities as U Thuzana did.28

Both U Thuzana as well as the Thamanya Sayadaw can be called “socially engaged monks” – albeit in a different sense than the usual cosmopolitan understanding of the term – who were drawn into the controversies of Myanmar politics and thus were assigned the status of “political monks”. This somewhat arbitrary labelling can be further illustrated by a comparison with the Sitagu Sayadaw, who for some time was perceived as one of the most respected religious leaders in Myanmar because of his teaching and philanthropic work, which included the establishment of a Buddhist University in Sagaing. After a sermon given at a military training school in Kayin State in September 2017 he became “controversial”, too. His talk, televised nationwide, was interpreted as a justification for the killing of people from other faiths by Buddhist soldiers.29 In June 1999 the monk gave a talk at Nyaing Gyi Ngu entitled “The River of Peace”.30 U Thuzana advertised the sermon as ”suitable for the DKBA and return to the legal fold to take an example”. The guest speaker stated in the foreword to the publication of his speech that he “had long been desirous to make a Dhamma trip to Myaing Gyi Ngu.”

The cover of the book documenting the visit of the Sitagu Sayadaw and some pictures

The episode shows that U Thuzana can be regarded as a representative of the Sangha in Myanmar whose publicity exceeded the local sphere. He stood not just for a narrow Kayin Buddhist-cultural nationalism but for a “Buddhist ecumene” that transcended ethnic boundaries. However, such a concept contradicts enlightened “modern” political thought. To this extent U Thuzana is a personification of Myanmar’s uneasy relationship with the international community.

Bibliography

Equality Myanmar 2016 Situation of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Myanmar. (http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs22/FoRB%20situation%20briefer%20Full%20Report%20(Eng).pdf; accessed 25.9.2019)

Gravers, Mikael 2015 Religious Imaginary as an Alternative Social and Moral Order – Kayin Buddhism across the Thai-Burma Border. Jung, Jin-Heong and Alexander Horstmann (eds.) 2015 Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees and Religious Communities. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 45-67.

– 2018 A Saint in Command? Spiritual protection, justice, and religious tensions in the Kayin State. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship 1, 2: 87-119 (https://journalofburmesescholarship.org/issues/v1n2/04Gravers.pdf; accessed 259.2019).

Jolliffe, Kim 2016 Ceasefire, Governance, Development: The Kayin National Union in Times of Change. The Asia Foundation.

Keenan, Paul 2016 The Formation of the DKBA. (https://paullkeenan.net/2016/05/06/the-formation-of-the-dkba/; accessed 18.4.2019).

Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw 2002 Questions and Answers on Mingala Sutta. English version by U Than Htun,(Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Myaing Nan Swe 1999 Myaing Gye: Ngu Sayadaw. A Jahan who Shines the light of Dhamma. Translated by Shin Khay Meinda. (www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/U_Thuzana’s_Book-red.pdf; accessed 29.5.2019).

People in Need – Gerhard-Baumgard Stiftung 2004 Report on the Foundation, December 1004 (https://peopleinneed.de/pdf/PIN-Annual_Report-2004.pdf; accessed 28.5.2019).

Rozenberg, Guillaume 2010 Renunciation and Power. The Quest for Sainthood in Contemporary Burma. New Haven, Ct. Yale Southeast Asian Studies.

Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 2001 The Sermon on “The River of Peace”. (A Journey of Dhamma to Myaing Gyi Ngu). Recorded by Myaing Nann Swe. English translation by U Than Hzun (Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Toza, Keiko 2009 The Cult of Thamanya Sayadaw. The Social Dimension of a Formulating Pilgramage Site. Asian Ethnology 68,2: 230-264 (https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/830; accessed 25.9.2019)

The author thanks Gerhard Baumgard for the information provided by him.

Footnotes

1Like most other groups involved in Myanmar’s civil war, the new Buddhist organisations emerging in late 1994 distinguished between a political organisation and its armed wing. The acronym DKBA first designated a political “association” that however was closely tied to the “army”. The political significance of the movement is denoted by the acronym DKBO – O standing for “organisation”.

2 For further reading: Mathew J. Walton: Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

3https://www.mmtimes.com/news/last-journey-kayins-most-revered-monk.html (accessed 15.3.2019).

4Gravers 2018.

5Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 1.

6Ibid.: 2.

7To write an autobiography in the third person is not unusual for a Buddhist author. The autobiography of U Nu (“Saturday’s Son” published in 1976) is written in the third person. This style allowing avoidance of the word “I” is in line with the Buddhist principle of anatta, no-self.

812th waning day of Second Waso 1310 BE.

9Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 15.

10Burmese calendar: 8th day of the waxing moon 1330 BE.

11Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 62.

12Ibid.: 73.

13Ibid.: 109.

14According to various reports, the number might have been between 200 and 300.

15The rules were: “To remain vegetarian forever inside and outside the camp. – No one is to argue or to cause trouble outside the camp. – There is to be no division between races. – Everybody must keep the 5th Commandment of the Gautama Buddha (Do not kill). – Do not gossip or use slander that will cause harm to anybody in the compound. – No political discussions or arguments are allowed to disturb the people in the compound. – No religion apart from Buddhism is allowed to be discussed in the compound.” (Keenan 2016). According to a report of a German foundation building a school in Myaing Gyi Ngu, the vegetarian policy of the place even included the dogs that lived there. They were fed rice and vegetables (People in Need 2004: 5).

16Ibid.

17The support of the NGO came to an end after Khin Nyunt lost his post in October 2004. The boarding house for 200 students was finished on a smaller scale than originally planned (https://peopleinneed.de/pdf/PIN-Annual_Report-2006.pdf: 11; accessed 28.5.2019).

18Rozenberg 2010: 136.

19A report of the Bangkok Post of March 1996 reports about attacks on villages inhabited by Seventh Day Adventists, the religious community to which the leader of the KNU Bo Mya (1927-2006) belonged.

20Jolliffe 2016: 7.

21For a report on the situation in 2016 see https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/myaing-gyi-ngus-uneasy-peace-in-kayin-state (accessed 30.5.2019).

22Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 133; 136; 137.

23Ibid.: 109-113.

24Gravers 2015: 60.

25http://permanentpeoplestribunal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PPT-on-Myanmar-Judgment-FINAL.pdf. (accessed 30.5.2019): Annex 8 (pp. 68 and 69). The letter is included in a documentation of a “Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal” on “State Crimes Allegedly Committed in Myanmar” held in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur.

26See Rozenberg 2010.

27For details see Tosa 2009. The Thamanya Hill is located south-east of Hpa-An near the road linking the capital of Kayin State to the border town Myawaddi.

28Rozenberg 2010: 135-147.

29https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/tatmadaw-sangha-and-government-must-work-together-sitagu-sayadaw-says-in-sermon-to-officers (accessed 30.8.2019).

30Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 1999.

Pe Maung Tin (1888 – 1973)

Gerhard Köberlin

1 Introduction

Pe Maung Tin is one of those rare Burmese scholars, who reached recognition beyond his own country. His work and personality have often received appreciation, also in English literature. It was in the 1920ies and 1930ies when he made his great contributions to Burmese society. His aim was, together with some Burmese and British friends, to make Burmese traditions meet the challenges of contemporary international modernity.

2 Biographical sketch

Pe Maung Tin was born on 24. April 1888, at Insein. His father, U Pe was superintendent of Insein Veterinary Department and his mother was Daw Myaing, both Baptist Christians from central Burma. U Tun Nyein, who compiled the well-known first English – Myanmar Dictionary and tramslated the Bible from English into Burmese, was his uncle from his father’s side. His maternal grandfather was the Taunghkwin (highest patriarch) of the Buddhist sangha of Upper Burma. He was known as “Maung Tin” during the first years of his life and added his father’s name later.

Despite coming from a Christian family, he received his primary education from 1893 to 1896 at a private school where he was taught classical Buddhist texts. In 1896 he changed to a government high school in Rangoon where he won his first prize at the age of 14. More prizes followed after he entered college. At the age of 15 he led a boycott at his school to protest the custom of joining hands in a prayer gesture when addressing foreign teachers. The order was revoked afterwards. In 1906 he entered Rangoon College and studied Pali and finished his M.A. in 1911. Only one year later, he became professor after his teacher, a European, had been promoted to another post.

From the beginning of his academic career Pe Maung Tin associated himself with other scholars both from Burma and abroad. He was a founding member of the Burmese Research Society in 1910 and contributed many articles to its journal. His first article entitled “Missionary Burmese”, a critique of the linguistic skills of foreign missionaries, appeared in its first issue in 1911. He acted as the first editor of the journal and became treasurer of the society in 1912. As professor of Pali, he had contacts with Pali Text Society based in London and from 1916 on he started to translate canonical Pali texts into English as well as Burmese. 

In 1920, the year of the founding of Rangoon University, he went to London and studied in Oxford and London until 1924. His contacts with the Pali Text Society and its presidents, Thomas (until his death in 1922) and Caroline Rhys Davies, intensified. During the time he spent in England he compiled a ground breaking translation of a historical Burmese work, the Glass Palace Chronicle. The chronicle was compiled in the first half of the 19th century at the royal court in Amarapura. Pe Maung Tin’s translation was published in 1923. The work was a joint venture with Gordon C. Luce (1889-1978), professor of English literature in Rangoon since 1911 who had married Pe Maung Tin’s younger sister in 1915. It was a translation that showed Pe Maung Tin’s qualities as a historian as well. Luce and Pe Maung Tin became lifelong friends. Their cooperation helped the British professor to become a leading expert on Burmese ancient history. With regard to the translation of the Pali text, Pe Maung Tin laid the fundement and his brother-in-law polished the English style.

After his return to Burma, he continued his work as a professor and laid the foundations for the university’s “Oriental Department”, comprising Pali und Burmese studies. One main impact of his teaching was the emergence of a new literary movement in Burma called khit-san (“testing the age”) that started with articles, short stories and poems written by some of his students in a “modern” style.

On the other hand, Pe Maung Tin supported John S. Furnivall, the co-founder of the Burma Research Society, in his efforts to promote the intellectual advancement of the country by educational means. One instrument to achieve this aim was the bilingual monthly periodical The World of Books published from 1925 on, another one was the Burma Education Extension Education Association established in 1928 promoting reading circles and encouraging people to contribute to the monthly periodical.

In 1928, he married Daw Kyi Kyi, called Edith, in an Anglican church. The couple had two daughters.

In 1937, Pe Maung Tin was the first Burmese to be appointed principal of University College and during the Japanese occupation he had to serve as the chairman of the university’s advisory board. In 1946, he retired. After he continued to write articles on a variety of topics in the field of linguistics, literature and history. The bibliography of his works contains 227 entries.

In 1957-58 Pe Maung Tin visited the United States to lecture on Buddhism at the University of Chicago which awarded him an honorary doctorate.  In Kuala Lumpur in May 1959 he attended the inaugural assembly of the East Asia Christian Conference. The Burmese U Kyaw Than was elected general secretary at the meeting. Today, the organisation, renamed Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in 1973, represents more than 100 member from Asian countries.  Pe Maung Tin later went to China as a member of a cultural exchange delegation. In 1961 he contributed to the first Buddhist-Christian dialogue of South East Asia, which was held by the East Asia Christian Conference under U Kyaw Than at Holy Cross College, Yangon. He made a critical comment on the cultural approach of Western missionaries. This dialogue proved to be an important Asian input to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Asia in New Delhi 1961.

From 1960 to 1964, Pe Maung Tin served as chairman of the Burma Historical Commission. He led the Burma Translation Society in compiling the Burmese Encyclopedia. In 1968 the Burmese Research Society marked his 80th birthday with a special celebration. During his retirement he served as professor of the Holy Cross College, Yangon, one of the leading theological seminaries of Burma affiliated to the Anglican Church. As a practising Christian, he was as a founding member of the Burma Christian Council, and took charge of the Christian Literature Society. He was the chairman of the Study Commission on Buddhism of the Burma Council of Churches.

Pe Maung Tin died on 22 March 1973.                                  

 3 Aims and Achievements

U Pe Maung Tin was keenly aware of the “clash of cultures” – the political confrontation with European colonialism and culture, and the religious encounter with Christianity, mainly from US-American background. His response was the profound study of history and culture of his own country. At the same time, he reflected his personal position at the cultural crossroads, being a Christian in a Buddhist country. His answer was to support a natural patriotic spirit vis-a-vis the colonial presence, together with his great effort of deep reciprocal respect, understanding, trustfulness and reconciliation.

His response to the cultural challenges by colonialism was to emphasise the importance of Myanmar language (b’ma) for the cultural development of Myanmar as a nation, and also the importance  of the establishment of a literary and intellectual climate in Myanmar that would combine the traditions of the country with those coming from abroad. That is why he made strenuous efforts for the higher qualification of Myanmar language and literature in his life time. One of his achievements was that all schools whether government or missionary, were required to teach compulsory Myanmar language in their studies. At the same time, he sharply criticized his fellow Christians, for not studying Pali and Myanmar language and Buddhist culture. He was interested in the two cultures to meet, despite the colonial context of the time favouring anti-western sentiments.

He later extended his insights in the fundamental role of language as a medium of intercultural exchange. In March 1954, a three-day seminar on linguistics was held in Rangoon which aimed as using this academic discipline as a tool to bridge the cultural differences between Burma and the English speaking world as well as between the different linguistic and ethnic groups. A newspaper article that possibly was written by Pe Maung Tin but certainly was inspired by his intentions, summarised the intentions of the seminar thus.

We in Burma are very much concerned at the present time with the findings of linguistics because they can be of immense help to us in certain entirely new tasks which we have undertaken. One of these is the teaching of English as a foreign language. […] We need […] to find the most efficient means of teaching English to our people so that they gain a working knowledge of the language in a relatively short space of time. […] Besides this, linguistics can help us in the study and classification of the indigenous languages of the country, a task which becomes increasingly important […]. Linguistics is an important key to  efficiency in all these tasks since it provides an understanding of one of the most complex, yet most basic activities of any group of people, their language, which means their method of communication with one another.1

Here, linguistic research is linked to the necessity of meaningful communication inside Myanmara multi-ethnic mulit-lingual country, and at the same time the necessity of using English as a second language taught in the schools besides Burmese.

4 Assessment

U Pe Maung Tin was an intellectual and a reformer who tried to use his great talents to reconcile Burmese traditions and western modernity. As an outstanding scholar in the late colonial period he exerted some influence on the literary scene of the country that tried to connect Burma to the world without losing its cultural identity.

Pe Maung Tin’s attempt to combine Burmese traditions with western modernity was only partly welcomed by the young revolutionaries who became the leaders towards independence. The cultural revolution on which their political activities was based, was not a dialogue between the Burmese and the western “world of books”, but a “Burmanisation” of the contemporary knowledge and literature. The young members from the Thakin movement – Nu,  Soe, Than Tun and Aung San – founded the Nagani  (Red Dragon) Book Club that published books in Burmese language only in the interest of supporting a political revolution by cultural means.2 After the war had started in Europe, this group exchanged the pen with the sword and finally achieved independence with the help of a national army.

Compared to the literal and political nationalism of the Thakins and their mass followers, the cultural reform that Pe Maung Tin wanted to support could be termed “cosmopolitan”. Looking for a sound cultural base for Myanmar citizens, Pe Maung Tin advocated making use of a blend of cultures to be comprised in the texts of national textbooks as well as in the sermons of Christian preachers.

This attitude is founded in his love of the literature and culture of Myanmar, accompanied by an estimation of European traditions of academic enquiry. This attitude did never represent the mainstream of Burma’s political culture. It was rather characterised by external and internal confrontation due to the memories of colonial rule and ongoing civil war that commenced shortly after independence.

After the military coup of 1962, Burma became a secular “hermit country” under general Ne Win’s  leadership. The “Burmese Way to Socialism” which was implemented, dramatically affected not only Burma’s cultural climate, but also all other segments of Burmese life. Pe Maung Tin was not directly affected by the „climate change“ during which a Burmese “union culture” was promoted corresponding to a strict political neutrality and economic self-reliance. Cultural exchanges with neighbouring countries and as well with the West, were no longer encouraged.

It were others that felt the consequences of the new order. Gordon Luce, Pe Maung Tin’s brother-in-law, was ordered to leave the country in 1964. His wife was asked by the top leader to stay, but she accompanied her husband. His huge library was impounded by the authorities and Daw Tee Tee, Pe Maung Tin’s sister, was even stripped of her wedding ring because no  jewellery was  allowed to leave the country.3 It is not known how Pe Maung Tin reacted to such harsh treatment of his friend and his sister. He did not witness the end of the Burma Research Society and its journal that was terminated by the government in 1977.

Today, Pe Maung Tin is still admired as an intellectual genius in Myanmar but as a rather singular one. Not many contemporaries follow his approach today in the present climate of a new Myanmar nationalism and massive Western criticism of consecutive Myanmar governments. Pe Maung Tin’s cosmopolitan” approach to reconcile Burmese and western cultures ist still not realised.

5 Sources

Anna Allott 2004 Professor Pe Maung Tin (1888-1973). The Life and Work of an Outstanding Burmese Scholar. In: The Journal of Burma Studies 9, 11-34.

D.G.E. Hall 1979 Obituary. George Hannington Luce (https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0041977X00137498)

Khin Htwe Yi 2016, Biography of Pe Maung Tin (http://www.emw-d.de/fix/files/37%20biographies_myanmar.pdf).

1Allott 2004: 29-30.

2For more details see the Myanmar Literature Project that published a number of working papers on the Nagani Book Club: http://www.phil.uni-passau.de/suedostasien/wissenschaftsnetzwerke/wissenschaftsforum-myanmar/myanmar-literature-project/.

3Hall 1979: 585.

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

Naw Ah Loh Wah Paw (born 1988)

Gerhard Köberlin

1 Introduction

Naw Ah Loh Wah Paw is on the national Myanmar women football team since 2007. She is the only Christian in the team, coming from the Kayah state. When moving from the strongly Christian village background to the national Training Centre for Myanmar in Yangon, she underwent a big personal change. She moved from her village to urban life. Her ethnic identity as a Kayah was confronted with the foreign dominant culture of a national majority, and with the plurality of cultures and religions, and with her own role as a football striker on the national level. Her biography shows the opening up towards trust in people who are different, by means of her role as team in the national team. The biography sheds some light on the role of sports in Myanmar.

2 Biographical sketch

Ah Loh Wah Paw was born on August 1, 1988 in the Demawhsoe Township of Kayah state, to her parents Saw Moody and Naw Yuti and their eight children. In her village she is brought up as a Christian child. At the age of 15 she moves to the big city of Yangon for physical education, and four years later she is made a Myanmar selected women football player.

This school and physical education is very hard, football training every afternoon 3:30- 5:30 PM, individual study in the morning (8:00 – 12:00 noon), lunch and break time between 12:00 and 3:30 PM, and in the evening from 7:00 – 9:00 PM again individual study.

When she was a child she had already been selected as a volleyball player of her school. Her teachers were impressed with her volleyball skills so they sent her on her career to education on the national level, with a government scholarship. Then she undergoes a heavy training schedule. In 2011, they are being trained by a Japanese coach. Her national team is now qualified for many Asian regional contests.

When moving onto the national level she follows one conviction: “to do her best for her country”. Every aspect of daily life is subordinate to this aim. When doing her physical training she used to get discouraged because she is the only Christian, and there is some discrimination against her because of her religion. But, as she says, by the grace of God, she gets a chance to go to church on Sunday. So she looked for a Baptist Church in Yangon which suited her local upbringing.

On the one hand she learns how to cope with this new pluralistic life within the framework of her religious tradition. Although she has to live among non-Christians, she never forgets God. She manages to overcome all difficulties she is facing with the courage and strength given by God. So in the end she no longer has problems in dealing with non-Christians, because since the time of her baptism, she has learned how to forgive. In this way, she says, she can proclaim the love of God.

On the other hand she makes the new experience of a team spirit in the national football team. They learn together on the pitch. Her experience is the unity and harmony among the players. Now she knows how to live peacefully and amicably with other people. There is mutual respect and mutual understanding between her and her non–Christian friends. They help each other when one is in need. She learns her lesson: Her friends are also loving, compassionate and helpful although they are not Christians.

3 Aims and Achievements

Ah Lo Wah Paw is exposed to a world very different from her childhood in a Kayah village. Her biography is a model for developing an approach to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The isolation of a closely knit community, and culture, is being opened up in an individual life span of a girl. As a young adult she can say: I am proud to serve my nation, on the football pitch. All this happens within the framework of military rule at that time.

The training makes a very remarkable contribution to her national identity. She learns the conviction that she is working not only for herself but also for her people and her country. When reflecting upon her career she realizes: She was born and bred in a small village in Kayah state, but she has managed to bring glory to her country Myanmar. She says: It is really praiseworthy. By scoring the only goal against the Laos team in 2011, Ah Lo Wah Paw helped the Myanmar team to to finish the ASEAN Football Federation’schampionship in 2011 as runner-up.

But at the same time she is loyal to her ethnic identity. She says: I will never forget Kayah State and Kayah people that I love very much. She is determined to help Kayah young people become good sports men and women, when she will have to retire from sports in the years to come.

4 Assessment

This biography shows an impressive personal development within few years of one’s life. As a European, one can feel distanced by the black and white perception – there are either Christians, or there are non-Christians, there is the minority of the Kayah people, and there is the large country of Myanmar, member of the ASEAN. But at the same time one can feel the miracle of the British team spirit on the playground: the team spirit opens up the black and white world view. It is now possible to live in peace and friendship with people who are very different from me, even though they are Buddhists and Burmese, not Christian and Kayah. This is very moving.

5 Sources

This text is based on the short biography written by Thuzar Thein for a collection of life stories of Burmese Protestant Christians, see http://www.emw-d.de/fix/files/37%20biographies_myanmar.pdf.