Burma in Limbo, Part 1, is available here

On 21 September 1946 an attempt was made on the life of former Prime Minister U Saw on a wide stretch of Prome Road in colonial Rangoon.

The pre-war PM of British Burma and the leader of the Myochit (Patriot’s) party, U Saw was the rightwing arch rival of General Aung San who was then the vice-chairman of the Executive Council (EC) chaired by the British Governor. The EC was the interim government of colonial Burma and Aung San was effectively the first post-war Prime Minister of Burma.

U Saw’s large black sedan was just after the Myenigone roundabout when an army Jeep overtook and two of the four men inside fired many shots at the black sedan and then sped away. All of the bullets missed the target but shattered the windows.

Some pieces of broken glass cut U Saw’s face and one of his eyes was seriously injured and he ended up in hospital. Later he went to India for specialist treatment and saved the almost blinded eye but he had to spend the remainder of his life with an always teary eye. He was frightened and he was angry all the time as the injured eye constantly reminded him of that terrifying moment.

U Saw himself clearly saw that all four men in the jeep were in the uniforms of the PVO (People Volunteer Organization). Called “Pyithuyebaw” in Burma the PVO was the private militia of Aung San who had left his army in Ne Win’s hands so that he could concentrate solely on the politics. After the war Aung San had formed the PVO militia with a core group of trusted officers and demobilized soldiers from his now disbanded Burma National Army (BNA).

Obeying Aung San’s orders my father had to refuse a commission as a junior officer in the newly-re-formed Burmese Army and stayed with the PVO as a commander in Rangoon. One of his main tasks was stashing away the massive amount of arms and ammunitions his battalion had captured from the Japanese Army in secret dumps for the looming civil war between the staunch anti-British Burmese nationalists and the pro-British paramilitary forces belonging to seasoned politicians like U Saw and the militant ethnic groups like the Karen.

Aung San had foreseen and definitely expected the eruption of civil war after independence. Otherwise what was the purpose of his large veteran militia and the massive arms stockpile? And there were deep ideological cracks appearing in his motley coalition of Communists and Socialists and PVOs.

Within two years after the big war my father Htun Hla and his former BNA men had built a 5,000 strong PVO division fully armed and ready for battle in the districts of Mandalay, Myingyan, and Meikhtila, the three M region of Middle Burma. His home village is in the Mahlaing township of Meikhtila District. His division later became the 3M (Ma-Thone-Lone) Division of CPB’s Red Army during the early years of civil war. There were other PVO divisions and the total strength of PVO militia swelled to almost 200,000 men nationwide in 1947.

General Aung San also knew that the rogue elements of the British army in Burma had been secretly transferring massive loads of their WW2 arms and ammunitions to the Karens’ KNDO and U Saw’s Galone (Garuda) militia.

Those guns are to kill us,” Aung San alarmingly remarked when he was told that the British Army had lost 200 Bren guns together with 200 spare barrels from its armament depot in Rangoon. Ever practical British army officers had the audacity to provide their thief not just the Brens but also the spare barrels, for without a spare barrel any machine gun is useless eventually.

Some of the reportedly stolen guns were later found in Inya Lake just behind U Saw’s large compound on AD Road. Most were recovered from the town of Kyaiklat the Myochit Party’s stronghold in the Delta. U Saw was quickly becoming a dangerous thorn under Aung San’s feet and he was to be removed.

According to my mother my father once told her that the assassination attempt was ordered by Thakhin Mya, the AFPFL leader responsible for the clandestine operations or the dirty works of AFPFL with the approval of Bogyoke, and he armed the men and provided the Jeep with a driver. He didn’t feel bad for his involvement but he regretted that his Bogyoke had stopped further attempts on U Saw’s life after worrying about the political fall-out immediately experienced after the failed attempt.

My father’s PVO men were then guarding Bogyoke all the time except at the Government Secretariat as Bogyoke himself didn’t want people to know that he was concerned about his own safety even on that sacred ground. “Affection of the people is enough to protect me,” Aung San proclaimed whenever serious concerns were raised about his security at the Government Secretariat.

My father really regretted that he followed his Bogyoke’s order strictly for that instance. He felt bad the rest of his life for that failed attempt resulting in U Saw’s daring revenge which killed both his Bogyoke and Thakhin Mya with many other members of the Executive Council on 19 July 1947, the date Burmese still mourn as Martyrs’ Day.

Historically U Saw has been made out completely as a vile villain and a hated traitor of the Burmese nationalist cause and then buried deep as the most notorious murderer into the dark history of Burma. The nagging question for me is if he was an insignificant man as portrayed later in our nationalist-written history textbooks why did Aung San and his nationalist followers try to assassinate him?

For the answer to that question we have to go back to the times of two Mon lords named Maung Htaw Lay and Maung Khaing back in the early years of the 19th century. Back to the beginning of the golden period of British rule for Burma especially the pro-British ruling class so that we can rediscover U Saw’s significant role in pre-war Burmese politics.

Pro-British Civil Society

The victorious British annexed lower Burma including the scarcely-populated vast delta and the small port town of Yangon in 1853 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. While the British forces strategically occupied the high hill of the Shwedagon Pagoda for many years to come, the British army engineers rebuilt Yangon into Rangoon, the modern capital city of British Burma.

With the ancient Sule Pagoda as the centre, downtown Rangoon was laid out on the northern bank of the Rangoon River by the British as a long rectangular strip with the five main roads namely, Montgomery, Frazer, Dalhousie, Merchant, and Strand Roads running parallel from West to East with the short and narrow cross streets, named in English numerals like 28th Street, connecting the main roads from South to North.

But two of the widest cross streets were named Maung Htaw Lay and Maung Khaing. I used to live in the old house on the corner of Mogul Street and Dalhousie Road just two blocks away from Maung Htaw Lay Street and sometimes I wondered who Maung Htaw Lay was. I knew nothing more than that they were two Mon lords on the British side and the British honored them by naming two streets after them. But now I know a lot more about them from the large exile clan of their descendants now living abroad.

Prior to the British annexation, lower Burma was basically a recently conquered land of the Burmese kings from upper Burma. The native Mon who had finally surrendered their ancient kingdom to the Burmese invaders after many hundreds of years of long and brutal civil war were stirred by the arrival of the British as the colonial government started recruiting the Mon lords as local administrators. British policy then was to utilize the indigenous Mon leadership in setting up their new administration in lower Burma mainly populated by the indigenous Mons.

Burmese settlers from ever-unstable Upper Burma rapidly outnumbered the Mons and eventually swallowed them up by cross marriages. Language similarity and common religion also accelerated the merging of the two rival races. My maternal grandfather was a Burmese settler and my grandmother was the only daughter of the Mon landowner he worked for as a surveyor in the Delta.

Serving the Burmese kings before as the Provincial Lord of Dala across the river from Yangon, Maung Htaw Lay became the Provincial Lord of Moulmein for the British colonial administration in 1838 as the British took possession of Tenasserim after the First Anglo-Burmese War. Called a “Sitke” in Burmese he was officially the Magistrate of the newly-formed Provincial Civil Service with police and judicial powers.

He was also responsible for the rebuilding of Moulmein town destroyed in the earlier wars. The prominent part of Moulmein where he used to live is still called “Sitke kone” today. He retired at the age of 77. This extract is from the book “A Twentieth Century Burmese Matriarch” written by his great-great-great grand-daughter Khin Thida.

“After retirement he moved back to Rangoon area still in Burmese hands but very soon destined for the next annexation. He was again caught up in war but this time he had a great fortune of supporting religious ventures and gaining tremendous merit. His good karma and leadership abilities led him to the task of saving the great Shwedagon Pagoda from imminent destruction and sacking of its treasures by British troops in the second Anglo-Burmese War.

The great Buddhist shrine had been fortified by the British troops in the 1824 war and was again used as a fort in 1852. When he heard of the fortification and sacking of the shrine, he sent a letter of appeal directly to the British India Office in London stopping the desecration. He then obtained compensation from the British Commissioner of Burma Mr. Phayre and began the renovations of the Pagoda in 1855 with public support and donations.

He became the founding trustee of the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust and he was awarded the title of KSM by the British Raj for his public service. He died at the age of 95, bequeathing his prestige and high repute to his large family and descendants.”

One of his daughters married a son of Shwekyin Mingyi U Myat Phyu and that son-in-law Maung Khaing was the Town Lord of Dala first and later the Sitke of Rangoon after the British annexation of Yangon in 1853. With his father-in-law, the two engaged actively in civic programs rebuilding and renovating the public building, monasteries, and pagodas in Rangoon.

When the colonial City of Rangoon was planned by the British and the roads named after famous British generals, two equally famous Mon were recognized by naming two wide streets in the center of City in their honor. Even when all streets bearing English names were renamed by the nationalist government after the independence the Sitke Maung Htaw Lay and Sitke Maung Khiang Streets were not touched.

They were the first prominent members of the Burmese civil society gradually developing under British rule. One of their descendants, Sir Maung Khin, KCIE (Knight Commander of the Indian Empire), became the first ever Home Member of the British colonial administration under the diarchy reforms in the 1920s. He was the first ever Burmese to be knighted.

British Political Reforms toward Self-Rule

The colonial reforms after World War I had resulted in the diarchy from of self-government in Burma. As a measure of home rule one Home Member and two ministers, all Burmese, were appointed to the Governor’s Executive Council, the colonial government of Burma.

Sir Maung Khin was the Home Member responsible for Home Affairs, M.A. Maung Gyi was the Minister for Education and Public Health, and J.A. Maung Gyi was the Minister for Agriculture and Forestry. The rest of the Council was still British but the pipe dream of Burmese self-rule was slowly getting closer within stable and progressive British rule.

After attending St. Paul’s High School and then Rangoon College, the first institution of higher education in Burma under Calcutta University, young Maung Khin went to the Inns of Court of London to study law. He became a barrister and then a High Court judge in Burma and later the first Home Member or the first unofficial Prime Minister of Burma.

When he suddenly passed away in October 1924 another prominent descendant of Maung Htaw Lay, another high court judge U May Aung was appointed as Home Member to replace Sir Maung Khin.

U May Aung’s son Htun Hla Aung had already graduated from Sandhurst and was serving in the British Indian Army as a young Lieutenant of the Madras Pioneers Regiment and he was married to a distant cousin, Khin Khin Aye, Sir Maung Khin’s only daughter. He would eventually become the chief of Burma Police and the second-most-senior commanding officer of Burmese security forces. Our writer Khin Thida is their only daughter and a blood mix of Mon, Burmese, and Arakanese.

“Even though western-educated and highly-westernized and holding the most powerful position for a Burmese in British Burma both Sir Maung Khin and U May Aung were devout Buddhists and they founded the YMBA, modeled on YMCA, in 1906 with the objective of refashioning the valuable elements of Buddhist tradition into an articulate movement in the new context of western concepts and learning,” Khin Thida wrote of her maternal and paternal grand fathers in her remarkable book.

They were the ruling class of a new civil society benefitting immensely from the British reforms modernizing the social and economic structures of an old feudal society. That peaceful and prosperous civil society would last for more than a century till the extreme nationalists forced the British out and turned Burma back into a primitive society ruled by men with guns.

“British educational reforms were to integrate the old monastic schools of the traditional system into a general program of secular education and so a second system of education along western lines was developed beside the traditional one, even completely displacing it in the urban areas. Government and government-aided schools were established, the better ones being run by the Christian missionaries.

Also a new money economy had taken hold of the country by 1890 and Burma became increasingly prosperous, experiencing considerable growth in trade and agricultural acreage and population. The last was due to the growth of then half a million strong Indian immigrants and a smaller but significant number of Chinese immigrants mainly from the British Malaya and Singapore,” Khin Thida also wrote.

British reforms had rapidly transformed Burma especially lower Burma with an originally uninhabited vast delta into the rice bowl of the British Empire. The vast, extremely fertile, and still southward-expanding Delta teeming with wildlife like elephants and tigers and pythons would soon be cleared and land reclaimed and transformed into vast tracts of highly productive paddy land.

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the export of Burmese rice grew many folds and to meet the ever-increasing demand of rice from continental Europe the colonial authorities opened the uninhabited delta of lower Burma to anyone willing to clear the thick forest and farm the virgin land normally roamed by mighty herds of wild elephants.

My Mon great-grandfather from crowded Blukyun near Moulmein was one of the village headmen who gladly took up the British challenge, relocated his whole village into the wild Delta, and became rich because of his vast land holding. With British support and Chittys’ [moneylenders’] money he and fellow Mon landowners built a rice-farming town called Moulmeingyun in the Myaungmya District of the Delta.

In the 1930s his only daughter, my grand-mother, was the elected head of the town’s pre-war Municipal Council. The rest of the council were a Scot (the police inspector), a Punjabi Sikh (the town’s only doctor), two Chinese (the rice miller and the fish monger), an Indian Chitty (the money lender), a Karen (the Baptist church leader), a Bengali Muslim (the managing agent of Irrawaddy Shipping), and another Mon landowner. By then Burmese settlers were the largest group in the township but not a single Burmese was on the Council. They were still tenant farmers and landless itinerant laborers.

Cheap money from the British banks like Chartered Bank flowed through Indian money lenders and the British trading companies to rapidly develop trade and commerce in lower Burma. The Irrawaddy Flotilla particularly was responsible for the introduction of the Indian Hundi system into the Delta.

Apart from rice, the Delta also became the main provider of freshwater fish and prawns and duck-eggs to the whole of Burma through the fish market and egg dealers in Rangoon mainly because of the Hundi system. No pesky banks, no cumbersome bills of lading, and no hard-to-get letters of credit were needed in that Hundi system of short-term trade finance.

Like the rest of the Delta our township has the criss-cross of interconnecting waterways from the nine major tributary rivers of Irrawaddy to produce plenty of fish and prawns and to raise thousands and thousands of free-range ducks that produce massive number of duck-eggs every single day. The Hundi system helped the merchants ship their excess produce into the hands of consumers nationwide.

For example the Chinese fish mongers and egg dealers in our little town shipped tens of tons of fish and prawns and hundreds of thousands of duck-eggs every day to Rangoon by the overnight ferry ships of the British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. And they didn’t need to wait to get paid for their shipment.

Once their cargo was on board the ship, a clerk would pay them the cash for the value of their cargo, already agreed between them and their buyers in Rangoon, minus 1% commission. In turn the town merchants could pay the fishermen and the duck-farmers daily for their goods. The Irrawaddy Flotilla would deliver the fish to the fishmongers in Rangoon Fish Market and the duck-eggs to the egg dealers in Rangoon’s Chinatown and at the end of every month settle the accounts with them.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla became not just a shipping company but also a short-term financier of trade and their resident agents in the Delta towns were the most influential in the towns’ civic affairs together with the money lender Chittys.

That system helped the trade grow many folds, eventually almost every village household in our township had at least 100 or 200 ducks under their houses on the stilts by the stream banks and the humble, white-colored duck-egg become a staple for Burmese consumers. Unlike in Thailand or Australia the common omelet in Burma is of duck-egg not chicken-egg. The Irrawaddy Flotilla also made huge amounts of money from the lucrative trade finance.

And the food was abundant not just in the fertile Delta but also the whole of British Burma. My father’s generation grew taller and bigger than their fathers; just like the first generation Aussies were to their scrawny English convict fathers. Our fathers used to call the Japanese “Ngapu” (Shorties). But the successive socialist governments have slowly strangled the food chain and we born in supposedly free Burma grew shorter and smaller than our fathers from British Burma and now the average Japanese is taller and bigger than the average Burmese.

Immediately after the 1948 Independence U Nu’s Socialist Government nationalized all the large British companies including the Irrawaddy Flotilla. That stupid nationalization almost destroyed the shipping industry and also killed overnight the massive trade of fish and duck-eggs, the second life-blood of our town and the whole Delta. The trading of fish and duck-eggs recovered partly a few years later only when the private individuals were allowed to operate small ships in competition to the government-owned ships from former Irrawaddy Flotilla and these entrepreneurs brought back the Hundi system.

By 1930 Burma was the biggest rice exporter in the world by shipping out more than 5 million tons of rice annually. Post-war Burma under successive Socialist governments could never reach that figure again. That fact alone is the solid proof of the prosperity of British Burma. We don’t even need to remember the fact that Rangoon Airport pre-war then had a properly built modern terminal while Bangkok Airport had just a corrugated iron shed as a terminal. To get to Bangkok from London in those days one had to fly the BOAC to Rangoon first. Now it is the reverse; as so the reversal of fortunes between Burma and Thailand.

Lasting for only a year and half in his new position U May Aung also passed away on June 1926. Less than two years after Sir Maung Khin’s death Burma unfortunately had lost another capable civil leader. The minister for Agriculture and Forestry, Sir JA Maung Gyi, succeeded U May Aung and later became the only Burmese Governor of British Burma in 1929.

Burmese civil leaders participated in the Burma Round Table Conference in London in 1931. Daw Mya Sein, the only daughter of U May Aun,g was one of them to discuss the future constitution of Burma. The Government of Burma Act (1935) by the British Parliament finally separated Burma from India and a new constitution (the very first constitution of Burma), providing for a fully elected legislative assembly and a responsible cabinet, was established in 1937.

Apart from the elected representatives from the Burmese majority the 132-seat Legislature also had seats reserved for significant minority and immigrant groups. Twelve seats were reserved for Karen, eight for Indians, two for Anglo-Burmese, and three for Europeans. In addition there were twelve seats set aside for various ethnic communities’ chamber of commerce, four for labour unions, and one for Rangoon University.

Even though dehumanized and vilified later by the nationalist Burmese writers and the successive nationalist governments these large communities of immigrants basically built the modern Burma together with the indigenous races under fair but firm and stable British rule. The rice bowl of Burma the Delta was basically uninhibited land before the British arrival. Burmese kings or Mon kings and queens didn’t build lower Burma.

British did build Lower Burma and Rangoon. And everybody came.

Everybody meant really everyone from all corners of the earth. English, Irish, Scottish, Germans, Jews, Indians, Chinese: almost every race. Rangoon quickly became an exciting melting pot of so many races.

A particularly nasty line in our nationalist-rewritten history of Burma described these immigrants and their descendants as British-sponsored greedy foreigners who sucked the blood out of us Burmese and almost destroyed our Burmese race, and if their growth was unchecked they would eventually swallow us to the point of extinction.

“Earth shall not swallow our race, only other races will swallow our race.” was the large slogan commonly mounted on the front office wall of every immigration office in modern Burma.

Whenever I saw the thriving communities of proud Indians in Singapore or Chinese in Kuala Lumpur or Penang I was convinced that the brutal racist treatment of Indians and Chinese in Burma was one of the main reasons British Burma failed after Independence while British Malaya prospered after independence.

Changing the name Burma to Myanmar and Rangoon back to Yangon were the basic acts to destroy our century long British colonial heritage. From day one of gaining power the extreme nationalists have tried to erase that heritage completely from our history and our collective memory. Smart Singaporeans or even Malaysians would never change the names of the likes of Si-Rangoon Road in Singapore to some old Chinese names like we Burmese had stupidly done to our British-built tree-lined wide boulevards in Rangoon.

Except us Burmese everybody else in this world value their colonial heritage. No wonder the wise man of Singapore, SM Lee Kwan Yew, called us Burmese the stupids. Now hundreds and hundreds of desperate Burmese doctors, engineers, and scientists fled Burma every year to work for the Singaporeans for a pittance and the glimmer of hope that they will in time receive PR and eventual citizenship of crowded tiny Singapore with no natural resources.

After forming a coalition government with the support of the minority groups in the Legislature Dr. Ba Maw, a noted lawyer with a PhD from the French University of Bordeaux, became the first official Prime Minister of Burma. This translated extract is what Thein Phe Myint, a typical leftwing nationalist writer of that time, wrote of Dr Ba Maw’s government.

“Though his party is called Sinyetha (The Poor) Party, Dr Ba Maw is just using the poor as a stepping stone. On the one hand he tricked the public especially the educated youth by issuing a policy directive declaring not to treat people purely based on their races as whether English or Burmese or Indian, while on the other hand he became a PM by forming the coalition government with the votes of English and Indians in the Legislature.”

For some strange reason even Burmese have trouble understanding almost all the popular writers then in Burma were lefties. Their enormous influence over the unsuspecting populace is one of the major reasons Socialism and Nationalization were widely accepted in postwar Burma while Capitalism and Private Enterprise were frowned upon as the tools of colonialists and imperialists. Even decades later, in the 1960s, Ne Win’s weird “Burmese Way to Socialism” was supported by the influential politician-cum-writers like Thein Phe Myint and welcomed by the gullible people of Burma.

Thein Phe Myint as a Communist intellectual who once declared that Parliamentary Democracy was not real politics couldn’t really understand the workings of a modern democratic government like Dr Ba Maw’s coalition government.

A serious anti-Indian riot broke out in Burma in March 1939 and hundreds of people were killed in Rangoon and Mandalay. And the Legislature concluded that Dr Ba Maw had failed to solve the problem of Indian minority and passed a motion of no-confidence. He was forced to resign and succeeded by U Pu another lawyer from Middle Burma.

World War II broke out in September 1939 as Hitler invaded Poland and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. In the Legislative Assembly U Pu’s stand was to help Britain but the Assembly passed a resolution demanding any assistance to Britain’s war effort should be conditional upon Britain’s promise to grant Burma dominium status within the British Commonwealth. U Pu rejected that popular demand and he was forced out in September 1940 and his Minister for Forestry U Saw became the Prime Minister.

A Mon-Burmese born in 1900 and also a noted lawyer, U Saw came to prominence by defending Saya-San, the ex-monk leader of 1930 peasant rebellion in court after he was finally captured by the British forces. Saya-San was hanged eventually for treason and sedition but U Saw became famous and won a seat in the Assembly in the 1936 general elections. He quickly became a minister in U Pu’s government and three years later the Prime Minister of Burma.

As an elected PM he regularly toured the countryside and his popularity rose sky-high at the grassroots level as the chaotic turbulence of World War II reached Burma when Japan entered the war by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. He also developed a good working relationship with the new British governor Sir Dorman Smith. Citing the war as a reason the governor extended U Saw’s tenure as prime minister for a further five year term by postponing the 1941 general elections.

Then was the time the left extremes of the nationalist movement became prominent through militant strikes and long marches. Well aware of the fledgling extreme nationalist movement among the left-leaning students from Rangoon University U Saw arrested many student leaders including Aung San and charged them with sedition.

The long rivalry between pro-British U Saw and staunch anti-British Aung San had started and they would eventually collide violently in July 1947 costing them both their lives together with the peaceful future and the prosperous past of their beloved Burma.

To be continued