Ludu Daw Amar: A Burmese Literary Figure of Conviction and Courage

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  • July 4, 2008
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By Myint Zan

Daw Amar born 29 November 1915, Mandalay, Burma

Died 7 April 2008, Mandalay, Burma

Ludu (‘The People’) Daw Amar a revered and eminent Burmese author died in Mandalay, Burma at the age of 92. She was respected throughout the country by people from all walks of life. They loved and respected Daw Amar not only for her writings but also for her courageous stand regarding a variety of causes, literary, political and cultural from what she believed to be the people’s stand point.

Daw Amar (roughly translatable as Ms Firm, ‘Daw’ being an honorific for Burmese women) made her mark on the Burmese literary –and political- scene at a very young age. While still studying at Rangoon University she was one of the leading students who spearheaded what is now known as the second student strike of February 1936 against the University and British colonial authorities. In 1938, two years after the strike she published her first book a translation of Maurice Collis’ Trials in Burma. During her University days she met a journalist by the name of Maung (an honorific meaning ‘lad’) later U (‘Mr.’) Hla (‘Mr. Handsome’). They married in 1939 and soon thereafter U Hla (a native of Lower Burma) shifted to Mandalay, Burma’s cultural capital and home town of Daw Amar. Except during the War years and the years they have spent on various occasions in prison the couple lived and worked in Mandalay for about forty years till Ludu U Hla’s death in August 1982.

Starting from the early 1950s both Hla and Amar were known by the honorific Ludu (the People). For that was the name of the journal –and later a separate daily newspaper was also established-that U Hla and Daw Amar co-founded in 1945 soon after the war ended. Ludu has been translated into English as ‘The People’ but the usual term that used was (and is) Pyithu retranslatable as ‘citizens of the country’. The term Ludu has a more colloquial and in some sense more militant term roughly meaning ‘masses of the people’. In 1946 the couple founded the Ludu daily newspaper which as its terms suggest took a left-wing editorial stance concerning both national and international affairs. It was the premier –later sole- private newspaper in Mandalay until it was shut down permanently by the then Revolutionary government in July 1967.

Ludu Daw Amar had borne out with courage and fortitude more than her fair share of the slings and arrows of (mis)fortune. In the mid-1950s her husband U Hla was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment for sedition. During the period she mainly ran the Ludu daily newspaper as well as looking after her children who were growing up.

It would seem that the firm leftist views of the Ludu couple passed down to at least two of their offspring in an even more radical way. Daw Amar’s eldest son Soe Win while studying at Rangoon University ‘went under ground’ in 1963 to join the Communist rebels. (The Communist Party of Burma –CPB- was established in 1939. Soon After independence the CPB went underground and was outlawed in March 1948 and it still is to this day). Sadly during its ‘internal purges’ in the Pegu mountain ranges in then CPB’s jungle headquarters, during the year 1968 Soe Win was killed. Her second son Pho Than Jaung (‘buddy steel’) was imprisoned (without charge or trial) for nearly six years from July 1966 to May 1972. On the verge of being rearrested in August 1976 Pho Than Jaung managed to escape to join the CPB rebels and mother and son never met again. On suspicion of being in contact with Pho Than Jaung both the Ludu couple were imprisoned and in the case of Daw Amar – as she had told me- for ‘one year, one month and one day’ in 1978-79. Her youngest son Nyein Chan (writer Nyipulay) was convicted, like his late father, of sedition charges. Nyein Chan spent more than twice the amount of time that his father spent in jail and Nyein Chan spent his prison years under a much more authoritarian regime and much harsher conditions than his father did in the mid-1950s.

When Ludu newspaper was in publication both husband and wife had their own separate columns. U Hla’s columns entitled (in translation) ‘Motley of things that [I] want to write about’ was less ideological and softer in both substance and tone than the columns Daw Amar authored under the heading ‘Comments on the Moving World Events’. During the mid-1960s the Ludu editorials and especially Daw Amar’s columns were scathing in their condemnation of the Johnson administration’s policies in Vietnam. Daw Amar did not ‘spare’ even her fellow country-man and then UN Secretary-General U Thant: accusing Thant of ‘bias’ (in favour of the Americans of course) in U Thant’s efforts to mediate the Vietnam conflict.

Daw Amar’s literary contributions extended far beyond political matters. In 1964 she won the national literary prize for her book Artistes Loved by the People– a meticulous and informative study of Burmese musicians and artistes, mainly those from Upper Burma which is the country’s cultural heartland. After the Ludu newspaper was closed down in July 1967 the orientation of her books shifted from the earlier concentration on political matters to topics concerning Burmese culture and later starting when she was in her seventies and eighties on social issues. Though she had made many significant contributions in her subsequent writings and publications about various aspects of Burmese culture in the books published after 1964 she never won any more national literary prizes awarded by the government elites. Apart from the fact that most of her family’s, including her own political views and stand were unpalatable to the authorities the primary reason for this was due to her principled stand where she started writing around 1967 in direct, highly accessible ‘colloquial style’ rather than the –at least at times- contrived and –in some sense- elitist literary or formal style.

In the past quarter century or so before her death hundreds of persons from all over the country gathered on November 29 each year in a monastery near Mandalay to pay tribute to Daw Amar. (Her last -92nd– birthday though was held in her eldest daughter’s house in Mandalay due to the fact that the authorities were imposing difficulties in the birthday arrangements at the particular public place so it has to be done at a private home). In her later years Daw Amar was affectionately and reverentially known simply known as Amei: The Mother. Notwithstanding the adulation or -perhaps at times and at least by a few- of what she probably would have considered to be over-adulation she can be disarming and self-effacing. I read over ten years ago a probably apocryphal story that after the then Secretary- 1 of the State Law and Order Restoration Council of Burma in one of her birthday ceremonies presented her (through a proxy and not in person) with an expensive pen she threw it away. When I met her – after not seeing her for about fifteen years- in early 2004 I mentioned that comment to her. She stated unselfconsciously and disarmingly that it was not true and that she ‘dared not do it’. But dared she did in many other areas: always speaking her mind on a variety of matters through print-media (she continued to write into her nineties by dictating) and in broadcast interviews with foreign radio stations up until virtually the last few weeks of her life.

Living as long as she did Amei Daw Amar had had many of her friends, contemporaries and even (considerably) much younger colleagues passed away during her long, productive and inspiring life. Throughout the years she had written various obituary-tributes about many of her elders, contemporaries including well-known international figures as well as about those who were junior to her in age. Among the world-figures she had written obituary-tributes were those of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Italo Calvino (1923-1985) Around 2003 her friends and colleagues collected and published her obituaries-tributes under the title roughly translatable as ‘Essays in Memories of (and nostalgia for) those (who have departed)’ (lun-thu-sar).

When the late Burmese poet Tin Moe (1933-2007) died in exile in Los Angeles on 22 January 2007 Daw Amar expressed –in an interview with the Burmese language service of either Voice of America or the British Broadcasting Cooperation- her regrets and sorrow that Tin Moe –who according to her was ‘in his prime’- ‘had to die at the age of 73’ when she (according to her own description) ‘useless old woman’ that she was ‘did not die’. She implied that she is now ‘useless’ because she could not write any more. (Even though in the last few years of her life she continued to ‘write’ by dictating to her granddaughters perhaps in the last several months of her life she might have some difficulty doing even that.)

But for once Amei Daw Amar might have been too self-deprecating when she said that she had become a ‘useless old woman’. Reverential age (rather than old) yes but never –we can firmly and unequivocally assert- ‘useless’. Indeed her life was nothing short of inspiring for all of us she had left behind and we will dearly miss her.

At what can be considered at the start of Daw Amar’s literary and political career more than seventy years ago during the February 1936 Rangoon University student’s strike another prominent Burmese literary figure the late Minthuwun (1909-2004) gave her a poem, in his own hand writing, part of which read, in my adapted translation, as follows.: (The poem used her name ‘Amar’ firmness as a starting point and as an exhortation)

The crooked (way) is not the ‘straight’ (up right) way

Supine-ness is not firmness

Don’t let the crookedness prevail over that of uprightness

Don’t let firmness become supine-ness

Amei Daw Amar’s life is an ample testament that the Mother lived up to her name of principled firmness: a life indeed of kindness as well as conviction which can only be a source of inspiration and a well-spring for courage for all those who mourn her passing.

Address

Dr. Myint Zan

Senior Lecturer, School of Law

Multimedia University Malacca

Malaysia

(987)

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