As I opened up my Facebook on Friday 25 September, the passing away of Sara (Saya in Burmese) Sai Aung Tun were sporadically posted which quickly became widespread during the day. While at the age of nearly 90, this has to be expected, a wave of sorrowful feelings inside me still cannot be averted. And with it my past relationship with him, who had been my first political teacher and mentor, were played back is if they just happened yesterday.
I remembered when I visited him frequently in history department, in Taunggyi Arts and Science College in mid 1960s, of which he was the department head. His subordinate Daw Ni Ni Myint also my history tutor, was mostly there in a rather small office, right behind the Shan Parliament House, which was converted to a lecture hall. She was later married to the late General Ne Win that ended in divorced and later remarried again.
The reason of my frequent visit were to get back our then rudimentary Tai (Shan) writings which he had corrected for us. He had been teaching and coaching us to become proficient in our own language. We, Khuensai, me and Sai Hong Kham of Kengtung, were teaching Tai night classes in Wapya Shan village about a kilometer or two from State High School (2), the former Kambawza College or Shan Chiefs’ School, which is opposite the Shan Parliament House. It was a sort of Tai literacy campaign, while we ourselves were also learning, as we never had a chance to learn Tai in school because there was no such program in normal school curriculum.
I never become proficient in my own language but just passable as I migrated to Germany after a few year of stint in Thailand. But my brother Khuensai become a news editor of Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) which he founded in 1991 featuring Shan, Burmese and English languages during his revolutionary career. And in process, he became a sort of an expert in Shan language, as well.
I am not sure if our pioneer or pilot project was the forerunner of the broader literacy campaign to follow which was dubbed “Ma Ha To,” meaning “the Five knowings” of how to write, read, calculate, theorize and administer, which was recently explained to my query by Sai Hsang Aik, a notable self-taught historian and Shan language expert. But somehow, the Tai literacy campaign became very widespread across Shan State and even to other Shan populated areas across Burma and with it the uplifting of Shan culture and Shan nationalism.
Many of the young Shan activists and teachers were regularly harassed and jailed by the military authorities, as they were not happy with the reemerging rising tide of increased Shan identity awareness tied to the rights of self-determination.
To this literacy movement, Sara Sai Aung Tun seemed to have taken his cue from his childhood idol, Dr Ba Nyan, founder and leader of the White Cap Organization launched in northern Shan State, Hsipaw during the end of World War 2, as he often mentioned to us now and then in many of our conversations.
Another episode I could recall was the 1967 anti-Chinese riots, on the eve of cultural revolution in China, which also hit our Taunggyi College, like all the higher learning facilities. We were also pulled into the protest march like everywhere across Burma for the Chinese heavy-handedness. Our march going through the town happened to pass Sara Sai Aung Tun’s house and he had a clear view of who were participating. I was also a participant with one of my friend, Nang Nyunt May from Laikha. He later told me that I should have stayed out of it as it wasn’t in our interest. I reasoned that this was a sort of tactical maneuver to hoodwink the enemy from believing our real intention. He grudgingly agreed to my argument.
During my university days, there was a controversial issue of “Shan old style and new style writings”. We were for new style as it was systematic and had exact five tonal pronunciation to go with the writing, but the then Shan government under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) regime was for the old style, which was hard to learn for non-Shan. Beside, it accused the university student, who spearheaded the campaign, of using the insurgent’s way of writing, as it was used by the Shan resistance movements widely. In other words, if one used new style of writing you could be accused of having sympathy for the Shan insurgents.
We made use of Sara Sai Aung Tun’s house to hold meetings and prepare booklets to campaign for new Shan writing, which he willingly made it available for us. Our compatriots were Sai Kyaw Aye (cousin of Sara Sai Aung Tun, deceased), Sai Tun Aye, Sai Mao Lin, Khuensai, me and Sulamani Mengrai in this undertaking. We even took the case down to Rangoon to the concerned BSPP functionaries’ attention who were responsible for such matters, which resulted into a seminar later in Taunggyi between us and the BSPP-backed Shan government.
The dispute was not clearly resolved but somehow we managed to teach the new writing style without much restriction later on.
With Chao Tzang Yawnghwe who was then head of the Shan State Army asking us to join the movement, due to the complex resistance situation with the Communist Party of Burma influence on the march and resistance armies changing side to become home guard or Ka Kwe Yaye, my brother Khuensai and I went to him to say good bye. I remembered very clearly that he was very concerned and emotional. He said something like that he respected our decision and that he was determined to try his own track.
Again, when we were in custody in military intelligence services lock up in Taunggyi, for our involvement with the Shan State Army, he was so worried that he told us to have prayed to Lord Buddha and also to the spirits for our early released. It might have been because of his caring prayers, we were freed within a short span of time.
Later in late 2005, I met him again in Bangkok Don Muang airport when he came back from Vietnam, on his way back to Burma. Sai Tun Aye, a friend and comrade who graduated from Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) now living in Canada, informed me of his journey and that was why I was able to see him again.
I remembered we talk about the Shan declaration of independence by Tiger Yawnghwe on April 17 2005 and other political issues surrounding the matter. When we were about to part, I paid reverence to him together with an envelope, to which he teasingly said: “Make sure that there is enough money inside.” And that was the last time I met him.
I still have a lot of other memories but these are the ones that are fresh in my mind. My only consolation is that he had left us a lot of his valuable scholarly works, which we all can make use and refer to them for the times to come. The one that I kept within the reach of my bed is “History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962.”
May my teacher and mentor find happiness in the next life according to his belief in Buddhism and may he reborn into a higher realm.