Unfolding Scenes Behind the Curtain

Daw Htay Htay Win describes the history behind the distribution of Bogyoke Aung Gyi’s letter.

It took many people from all walks of life, taking part in all kinds of roles, to break the chains of military oppression and dictatorship in Myanmar and to take us to where we are today.

Reflecting on this, the following article will be presented in two parts. The first part will delve into my thoughts on why it is important to recognize the efforts of those who struggle for freedom from dictatorship, even if they are not placed under the lime-light as a result. The second part is the transcription from U Maung Maung Tun Shwe’s original voice-recorded telling of the story of U Aung Gyi’s “41 page letter.”

Part I: Reflecting the history

The reason why I wanted to share the following story was to be true to history. Some figures in history may be favored or some disliked by the majority of the population. But to be able to learn something from a true history, we must accept the facts from an objective perspective, regardless of prejudice regarding the particular players in that history. In today’s society, when political activities are talked about, it is a shame to see the growing possessiveness over who should wear the crown as THE political activist or hero— an entitlement or acknowledgement that is often reserved for those considered to have sacrificed most in life. Of course, it is undeniable that most activists had to spend their time behind bars during the military dictatorship. On par with them, however, there also existed another group of people who would be seen in everyday life, and who dedicated themselves to supporting roles, for the sake of freedom from dictatorship. In Burmese terms, they would be suitably referred to as “a slab of brick or a crystal of sand.”

Another point I would like to emphasize is that it would not be wrong to say that Aung Gyi’s letter sheds light on the actual situation of the country, isolated from the world since 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup d’etat and founded the Revolutionary Council. We might say that U Aung Gyi’s letter tells a true history of what came of the country after Independence in 1948, and the end of the democratic government. After suffering demonetization in two consecutive years, Burma was listed as a Least Developed Country in 1987, and it was soon after this designation that Aung Gyi’s letters were published, explaining why the country reached this rock-bottom status, leaving behind its once glorious past. Because of this, the letter enhanced people’s relative frustrations and bitterness over military rule, which would finally meet the 1988 uprisings in the later part of that year.

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Aung Gyi was a family friend. In addition to ill credits he earned in political scenarios after 1988, it remains a mystery as to why he took with him to the grave the allegations that he was one of the culprits who gave the orders to detonate the Rangoon University Student Union building in July 1962. What I had learnt from my mother was that she raced to the BBS (Burma Broadcasting Station) as soon as she heard the announcement about the Student Union’s destruction and met Aung Gyi, the then-Vice Chief of Staff there. She accused him, in tears of anger, asking him why he did it, but all she got back was a plain denial from him. Actually, it was Dictator Ne Win himself who challenged the students through his violent speech from the state-owned radio, after the aggressive suppression in the University Compound. A year later U Aung Gyi was forced to resign from service. He was imprisoned from 1965 to 1968 and again from 1973 to 1974.

A few years before 1988, U Aung Gyi came down from May Myo (Pyin Oo Lwin) and visited our family home. He brought with him a few thousand kyats, but expressed that he wanted to set up a tea shop. With the help of his old colleagues and friends, including my parents, the tea shop was opened on Pyay Road, Myenigone (at a building next to where the City Mart supermarket stands today). A special contribution from my mother was the name chosen for its signboard (in lucky astrological order): “Shwe La Min Tea House.” Gradually the place became a thriving “Tea Circle” itself, with customers exchanging political dialogues or setting up rendezvous to share the political information of the era over a cup of tea.

DS shinpyu
Aung Gyi and wife seen at the novitiation of Alexander and Kim, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s sons. Photo courtesy of author.

The true story below was transcribed from what was told by U Maung Maung Tun Shwe, who passed away 7 years ago on July 17th, 2011. It was during his last days that he voice-recorded himself telling of the experience he went through during 1988, while printing and distributing Aung Gyi’s “41 page letter.” Soon after her final release from house arrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi paid several visits to Asia Royal Hospital where her nephew U Maung Maung Tun Shwe, had undergone medical treatment






Part II: The Making of 41 Pages:
As told by U Maung Maung Tun Shwe and translated by Daw Htay Htay Win

The story I will tell you this week is about the “41 page letter”  by Bogyoke Aung Gyi (ex-Brig. Gen.). It’s about how I printed and distributed his 41 page letter. Yesterday, when I met Ma Ma Suu (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) she told me in front of everyone that we should not fade out the role played by Bogyoke Aung Gyi during 1988 crisis, but appreciate how these letters contribute a strong support to the 88 uprising.

And I agreed with what she said because I personally printed them!

The government (Burma Socialist Programme Party) announced the demonetization of bank notes twice during 1986 and 1987. It made people march on the streets, destroy traffic lamp posts in showing their frustrations. The situation worsened when Taunggyi started to be stirred up with commotion, spreading as far as Mandalay. I even heard that a police colonel died during the upheaval. When the calendar turned to March 1988, Yangon also saw more severe political turbulence with public demonstrations and processions in several places of the city.

My father was a junior officer to Bogyoke Aung Gyi during his army days. He would go and see Bogyoke Aung Gyi almost every day, together with (ex.) Major Ba Shwe and (ex.) Colonel Kyi Han. I would just serve as a chauffeur to my father, following his orders to send him there or to pick him up. I enjoyed it because I was also fond of Bogyoke Aung Gyi. Sometimes I would not go into the main house but to the annexed kitchen where Aunty Mu (Mrs. Aung Gyi) would offer me her special Nan-Gyee-Thote (rice noodle salad), the best in town then.

It seemed the nation’s turmoil had no link to Aung Gyi’s group but I would notice a gray Hilux parked at some distance from Aung Gyi’s house, watching everyone.

I knew that Bogyoke Aung Gyi wrote a letter, addressed to U Ne Win… I even saw it. He had a talent in writing without ever having to erase or review but would just pen down the words straight away. One day my father called me and said, “Maung Maung… Bogyoke Aung Gyi has finished writing. I want you to have it printed by Gestener and you have to distribute them. Will you do that?”

I thought to myself, “Wow…this is a very risky job… it’s like literally walking along the prison fence…Aung Gyi had his brothers-in-law or his nephews or son-in-law to ask and yet I am the one chosen to accomplish this task.” But when I read his papers, I had already made up my mind: the letter should be distributed to the entire nation!

Next, I was already on my way to take the original hand-written version from Bogyoke Aung Gyi and took the direction to a printing press in Barr Street (Maha Bandoola Garden Street). It took 2 days to finish the printing. I was surprised that the press did not pay much attention to the content of the text, although it was clear that the letter was addressed to U Ne Win.

Bogyoke Aung Gyi asked me to make 100 copies in clean papers and 600 copies in Sittaung paper (a brownish coloured, inferior quality paper). So the letters were rolled out by Gestener and stapled, clean copies were sent by post to the State Council Members, addressed individually. I placed them all neatly in each envelope and wrote the addressee’s name, such as, “Party Chairman U Ne Win.” The post clerk demanded the sender’s name and ID number so I pointed out Bogyoke Aung Gyi’s name and his ID number written in the letter only to convince him. I thought I emptied almost all the clean copies I had made by sending them from the post office but I kept a few dozens to re-distribute and finally returned to Aung Gyi’s house. The next day I went to New Yangon General Hospital to give a clean copy of the letter to Ma Ma Suu (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) in the midst of her busy days looking after her hospitalized mother.

From the 600 copies in Sittaung paper, people such as Maung Maung (son of ex. Major Tin Tun) asked me to give him one. With permission from Aung Gyi he rushed out to make more copies and distributed them from his side as well.

Since that risky mission was accomplished, I avoided going into Aung Gyi’s house, but stayed near my car when I had to pick up my father there. I knew that the military intelligence was watching me. I would just pretend to check the tyres, open the engine bonnet, trying to look like a mere naïve driver in the eyes of military intelligence.

As I had guessed, the arrests came along… my father, Bogyoke Aung Gyi and his old colleagues were all detained. In Aung Gyi’s household, there lived a young doctor by the name of Zaw Win Oo, a close friend of Aung Gyi’s sons. (He left for Australia afterwards.) He was also arrested although he didn’t have to spend much time in prison. The military intelligence must have miscalculated that Zaw Win Oo was the one who printed and distributed the papers. Following his release after 7 days in prison, he told me that he confessed to the military intelligence about the real person behind the curtain who printed and distributed the papers. What else could I do? I just had to stay in suspense and wait for the moment. But miraculously I was not arrested. Now throwing back the memories, I realized that any misfortune could have happened during that crucial time…the printing press could have refused to do the work but informed the military intelligence…???

The 41 page letter spread to the whole country from one hand to another. My contribution in this event may not be a large-scale adventure, but a political movement within my own capacity, to the path for a change in the country.

U Maung Maung Tun Shwe( before 1988). Photo courtesy of author.

From 1984 until her early retirement in 2013, Htay Htay Win spent 30 years of her career in the diplomatic world based in Yangon, as Press Officer at the Singaporean Embassy, Liaison Officer at the French Embassy, and as the first pioneer staff in setting up the Canadian Embassy. Her exceptional service to French diplomacy helped establish and strengthen ties between France and Myanmar throughout the military junta years. Htay Htay Win’s mother, Daw Hla Than was also the first female pilot of the Burmese Air Force, and her grandfather U Thein Pe was a celebrated 7-cup winning jockey. Htay Htay Win has also assisted Burmese language classes alongside Prof. John Okell and Prof. Justin Watkins of SOAS, and as a volunteer English teacher at the Monastic Education School in Yangon, to various NGO and civil society groups. Her students included NLD members who later went on to become MPs in the 2015 general election. Since late 2013, Htay Htay Win continues to work as freelance cross-culture trainer, liaison and interpreter for many international organizations and foreign delegations, most notably The Elders group led by ex-President Jimmy Carter, and former High Representative Baroness Ashton of the European Commission during their visits.