“I have no foes, only friends,” the late Dagon Taya once famously said.
The literary giant died at the age of 95 last month, along with three other leading pro-democracy intellectuals who shone a bright light in Burma during the long, dark decades of repression.
Dagon Taya, born Htay Myaing, was the embodiment of Burma’s turbulent history in the 20th century. A friend of late independence hero Gen Aung San, he contributed to Burma’s independence movement. He witnessed the horrors of World War II, which turned the country into a battlefield, Aung San’s assassination, and the civil war and political turbulence that ensued after independence.
When Burma came under Japanese occupation, Aung San offered Dagon Taya a high-ranking position, but he turned it down. Although they were friends, the writer was at times critical of the Bogyoke.
During the pre-war years he once tried to reach China via Shan State, together with the young nationalist Ba Hein, in order to seek help for Burma’s independence struggle from Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists, as he did not want Aung San to make a deal with Japanese. They were detained for entering Shan State illegally and the mission was aborted.
He also wrote a critical short essay about his friend, called “Aung San the Untamed”. Not long after, on July 19, 1947, Dagon Taya was scheduled to meet Aung San, but he never saw him again. The Bogyoke and six of his cabinet members were killed that day by a group of gunmen acting on orders from a political rival.
Dagon Taya was a leading figure in Sar Pay Thit, or New Literature movement, which started in the early 20th century. It espoused the position that the arts could solve social problems and aid the people’s struggle for freedom and peace.
Throughout the decades of political turbulence that followed Aung San’s death and Burma’s independence, Dagon Taya stayed away from party politics, but he was still cast as a communist sympathizer. Soon after staging a coup in 1962, Gen Ne Win threw him in prison, only to later change the government’s attitude towards the writer, granting him national awards and titles.
Dagon Taya refused to accept the honors and went into self-imposed exile in Shan State. This time he didn’t need any permission to enter the region. Above all, he was an artist who wanted to stay out of politics. His world was one of abstract thought, color and music. He sometimes painted and played songs on his old piano.
Not surprisingly, he was seeking solitude in the decades after Burma’s independence, worn out by politics and infighting in the country, which had plunged into civil war. In the 1940s he had already written a famous poem—“Let’s Go to Tahiti”—about a poet’s desire to withdraw from ordinary society. He describes wanting to drink champagne under a palm tree with a girl, and longing for a simple peaceful life. Indeed, the poem was highly controversial in the strife-torn Burma at the time.
Despite his exile in the Shan hills, Dagon Taya remained an influential figure in Burmese literature and politics. He continued to write novels, poems and essays, and he followed politics from his home in Aung Ban. He regularly called for peace and reconciliation in his birthday messages and he would come down to meet fellow writers and followers every year.
Before I left Burma in 1988, I met him several times and I noticed that, despite his advanced age, his memory was sharp. At our last meeting, he learned I had joined the student protests in March and was tortured in Insein Prison. Then, he asked me to come closer to tell him my story. A decade later, I called him from abroad and to my astonishment, he still remembered my name.
Dagon Taya passed away last month and he will be dearly missed by many. Together with the great writer, Burma lost several other leading intellectual figures in August. Renowned journalist Maung Wun Tha, famous comedian Par Par Lay and humorist Min Lu also passed away. The country saw four funerals of renowned artists and writers in one month, prompting one Burmese observer to lament in a Facebook post “August is the cruelest month.”
On Aug. 8, many Burmese intellectuals and the general public commemorated the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown by the military government on the 8-8-88 pro-democracy movement. We have seen quiet funerals and sobbing parents of slain protesters, who still haven’t seen justice for the victims after all these years.
Maung Wun Tha was a journalist at the time of the uprising, but decided to join the movement and subsequently became a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He spent many years behind bars as a political prisoner for his actions.
During the political reforms in Burma over the past two years, Maung Wun Tha continued to write and fight for greater press freedom. We met several times in Rangoon after the country opened up. Although he had become more pragmatic and less idealistic, I could see that his heart was still in right place. He continued to fully support NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The humorist and poet Min Lu also experienced the 1988 bloodshed and its fallout first hand, but he managed to see the incompetent and thuggish generals that ran Burma in a more amusing light than most.
The late Snr-Gen Saw Maung came under heavy pressure following the crackdown and reportedly began drinking. He then started acting erratically, sometimes referring to himself as the reincarnation of an ancient Burmese king, Kyansittha, who founded the Pagan dynasty. At one point, Saw Maung was even seen waving his pistol in the air on a military golf course and screaming, “I am Kyansittha,” a reference meaning “the last remaining soldier” in Burmese.
Some Burmese who loathed the generals found Saw Maung, despite his threats and intimidation, at least entertaining. His long speeches, which sometime lasted hours, became the target for nationwide jokes, with people discreetly laughing as they watched him fumble his way through a speech on television, or when they read the transcripts in the newspapers.
Following these events, Min Lu distributed a satirical poem called “What Has Become of Us?” It mocked Saw Maung’s bizarre behavior and the rest of the clueless generals who were busy “saving the nation.”
It was a highly acclaimed poem and widely read among the Burmese, who found in it a rare opportunity to smile at events in those dark days. Min Lu made them smile and laugh—offering the public a psychological defense against the brutal dictatorship. But Burma’s infamous intelligence units soon tracked him down and put him behind bars for years.
Likewise, Par Par Lay and his troupe “The Moustache Brothers” showed no fear of mocking the regime. In the 1990s, their performance at an NLD event drew hearty laughter from the audience but clearly angered the regime’s leaders.
Par Par Lay and his troupe were sentenced to seven years hard labor. They subsequently spent years toiling in labor camps. Last year, I visited Mandalay to meet them, but I didn’t see any hint of bitterness or regret about what they had gone through. They were warm and happy to see exiles like me come back to the country.
They told me the authorities had still placed a ban on The Moustache Brothers performances, but they made fun of the measures in jokes during events organized at their homes. Organizing performances there did not violate the government ban, and it cleverly allowed tourists to watch their shows and donate money to support the troupe.
In all of these four Burmese intellectuals that left us this month, I found the same shared dream: to see a peaceful and democratic country that is full of courage to resist authoritarian rulers. It was no surprise that the generals were afraid of these strong and proud individuals. It’s only a pity that they weren’t able to stay longer to see their life-long dream come true.