Daw Than E- Burmese woman for all seasons
By Kyi May Kaung
June 19, 2007 - Daw Than E or Ma Than E Fend, as she called herself (Daw is the Ms. prefix for mature women, Ma is more like Miss, Fend was her married name), popular singer known in the 1930s as Beelat Pyan Than, "Than who returned from England" died on June 17 at a retirement home in Oxford, UK. She was 99 and friends were looking forward to celebrating her 100th birthday in February, 2008.
Daw Than E was a close family friend of Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Suu's parents, Bogyoke Aung San and Daw Khin Kyi, and Suu's late husband Michael Aris, as well as her sons Alexander and Kim. Living as she did for so long a period of time, her friendships spanned at least three generations. She saw a lot of Burmese political history first hand, almost from the eye of the storm, as part of and close to the Burmese intellectual elite.
I grew up on scratchy 78 rpm records played on a His Master's Voice player that had to be cranked by hand. Among these was Daw Than E singing her songs in Burmese to the tune of English popular music of the time. Then when I was about 10, I met the owner of the famous voice, when she came to visit Burma, about twice, from her job at the U.N. in New York. When she visited, Aunty Dora was an ebullient presence, very glamorous, who one time flipped up her jacket at the waist to show us her bare midriff, that she was wearing a bra. Before that Burmese women wore full bodices that came down to their waists, under their (at one time transparent "glass nylon") jackets. What I liked about Aunty Ma Than E was her jackets were translucent, not transparent and she spoke directly at you, not in a condescending manner or patting your head in a patronizing way, but looking at you as at an equal, even if you were only 10 at the time. We did not see her often, being as it was that she had to fly from America on Pan Am – air travel was not as convenient nor safe as it is now. Another friend of my parents, an American woman, died in a plane crash; another couple was in a hijacked plane. I only saw her briefly twice in Burma. I got the impression she was more my father's friend than my mother's. After her second visit, we learnt she was getting married, to a gentleman 20 years younger who also worked at the U.N. She was at the time in her 50s, which in Rangoon society sounded scandalously old.
After my father died we did not see her any more, but my mother often said that if father had not died, he might have gone to work at UNESCO in Paris. Daw Than E had brought an application form already. But at the time, I remember mother saying she didn't want to live in Paris, it was "such a fleshpot of a city, full of vices."
Years always overseas
Daw Than E lived almost her whole adult life overseas, working for All India Radio as well as the U.N., where she also had a radio job, I found out later. In her essay in Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear, she described her work for All India Radio during World War II as broadcasting to territories under Japanese Occupation, which included Burma. After the war, she went to San Francisco and worked on the same broadcasting assignment for The U.S. Office of War Information, now the VOA.
She describes her four years in Algiers, transferred from New Delhi's U.N. Information Centre, to establish such a centre in newly independent Algeria. The more I find out about Daw Than E, the more she fits my role model of the "thoroughly modern Burmese woman", well educated, worldly, able to work shoulder to shoulder with the men, exemplary in dress and comportment. She describes Aung San Suu Kyi in almost the same terms in her essay.
I thought in later years that Aunty Dora was like the Irish poet William Butler Yeats' great love, Maud Gonne, who always lived away from Ireland in France, and always declined Yeats' offers of marriage. Gonne even got married to someone else and had a child, after which Yeats tired of asking her, and asked her daughter, who also declined his offer of marriage.
Ties with the Aung San Family.
In the first and second edition (1996) of Freedom from Fear, Daw Than E wrote an informative and affectionate portrait of Suu, going back to her first contacts with the family. She wrote that she met up with General (Bogyoke) Aung San and his entourage in London in January 1947, when he was there to discuss Burma's Independence with the Atlee government. The war had just ended and it was cold, there was no central heating and food was still rationed in London. We see Aung San as he was in his great coat with the collar spreading like wings. Aung San wanted to meet all the Burmese in London and the dinner was at the famous Dorchestor Hotel, where the rich and famous such as Liz Taylor have stayed. Daw Than E wrote of how she bought gifts for the family at Aung San's request, including a doll for Suu Kyi. A few months later he and his entire cabinet and one personal assistant, altogether nine were killed in a mass assassination attempt on 19th July 1947, now known as Martyr's Day.
Daw Than E attributes all the shining qualities we find in Daw Suu, to the example of her parents and the stellar education her mother Daw Khin Kyi was able to give her, as a single mother and widow, and Burmese Ambassador to India. Suu Kyi visited Daw Than E when she was in Algiers, and she describes Suu's summer spent reading, travelling and doing volunteer work. Clearly, to use Daw Than E's words, the chrysalis was preparing to emerge.
Ties with Suu herself.
During the time that Suu Kyi worked for three years at the U.N. she stayed in Aunty Daw Than E's apartment in Manhattan. Daw Than E describes a particular incident at the house of U.N. Burma Representative U Soe Tin's house, which I want to quote in some detail because it shows the ugly side of the military government which had come into power in 1962 and has been in power since, under different names. The incident also shows Suu's grace under pressure, not to say revealing some of Daw Than E's political ideas – which Daw Than E did not talk about overtly.
Invitations from U Soe Tin. . . were a little different. . . . He was a liberal type who did not divide us into sheep and goats. The goats were those suspected of being critical of what was happening in Burma during the Ne Win regime.
She then goes on to describe the unpleasant experience.
The large living room (with) an excess of black and gold Burmese lacquer had been re-arranged so that sofas and chairs were against the walls On those sofas and chairs was ranged a whole battery of Burmese ambassadors attending the current General Assembly.
U Soe Tin was smiling politely but looking uneasy. . . . the company was preparing to sit in judgement on Suu. But for what? . . . The chief delegate led the attack. How was it that Suu was working for the U.N. What passport was she using? (and so on).
The whole company listened to this tirade with a sort of sycophantic deference, turning their eyes on Suu and murmuring agreement. Suu's calm composure was very reassuring. She replied with great dignity and in very quiet tones.
. . . She was sure all the uncles in the room would understand. . . .
These were Suu's elders, but not necessarily her betters, I thought."
In the years I was not in touch with her, I saw Daw Than E's photograph once. She looked just as beautiful, if not more so. The friend who brought the photographs to "show and tell" to the office, said, "Well, she has good cheekbones."
When I came to the United States on a Fulbright, I linked up again with friends of my childhood, and Princess Sao Ying Sita of Yawngwe gave me Aunty Ma Than E's address in Feldkirch, Austria . She had gone there to live, in this small town in the Alps, with her husband after retiring from the U.N. As she handed me the small slip of paper with the address on it, Ying said in her usual brusque manner, "If you are going to contact her, don't procrastinate, do it fast. She's about 100 years old."
"She doesn't like to be called 'Aunty Dora'" Ying said. I asked why, but Ying had no answer. I've noticed since that friends from those days, now settled in the West, don't like to be called by those names, but by their Burmese names. I don't know why. "What should I call her then?"
Now I know she was not a hundred then, only about 80.
This was the start of a delightful correspondence, me writing to her on blue air letters and she writing back on proper notepaper in an envelope. I always experienced a feeling of joy when I recognized her sloping handwriting, what used to be called "a good hand." One time she sent me a Christmas card she had made herself, with a photograph of roses in a glass vase she had taken herself. It wasn't that the letters were long, chatty or gossipy. They were in fact, quite reserved. Nor did she talk of politics. Nor did she gossip about others. I concluded that despite the racy image most people seemed to have of her, Aunty Ma Than E was in fact quite the Victorian to suit the age, before World War II, when she had grown up in colonial Burma under the British. She never spoke about her own personal life, nor mentioned her husband. I tried coaxing her into talking about all the people she had known in Burma in the 30s. Her reply was a model of propriety and goodwill. When my mother died I wrote to tell her about it. She said she remembered my mother as the loving wife and mother that she was.
All Aunty Ma Than E's letters were one or two paragraphs long. They were all in English. Her thoughts were always clear and her handwriting always firm. I've kept all of them.
When I was desperately searching for a job after obtaining my doctorate, Aunty Ma Than E said she too, had not been able to figure out what to do before she got the U.N. job. I asked her in 1997 for an interview for radio and a recent photo. She declined the interview, but sent a photo of herself with a scarf around her head, tied at her chin, against a backdrop of the Alps. She looked about age 35, younger than she looked in the first Freedom from Fear edition, where there's a picture of her and Suu in Algiers, and a portrait of her from the 1930s by Sir Gerald Kelly.
When Prof. Michael Aris died in 2000, Daw Than E sent me a copy of the memorial programme in the mail. The management at the radio station where I worked was inexplicably saying "No obits," but I made and broadcast an obit with sound bites from about ten people anyway. Daw Than E asked for her programme back, so I quickly made a Xerox copy and posted the original back to her.
A lovely phone conversation
In 2001, Daw Than E made an amazing relocation. At this advanced age, when she was already in her 90s, she moved, not to the house next door, but to a retirement home in Oxford, UK, from Austria. Fortunately, I learnt of her move and received her new address, typed on a tiny slip of paper as the fortunes in fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants. When I remarked about the remarkable move, Aunty was quite blasé. She said it took some planning, especially the financial side.
In the 90s, I had tried calling her in Feldkirch once, but she was out and I did not understand her answering machine message, which was in German. In 2003, I was in London in connection with my work and research, and had the chance to call her.
"Herself," she said sharply into the phone when she picked it up. She knew at once who I was when I said "Kyi Kyi." She had told me earlier in a letter that these days, "like all elderly people, I sleep a lot." But she was very alert when I called her. With my feet propped against the wall while I sat on my bed in my hotel room, I listened mostly as she told me where to send articles I wrote about Burma. She then said thoughtfully, "It's good you are traveling while you can."
"If you are walking in the concourse at the airport and your bag feels so heavy, I'll tell you what to do –"
"Look for a young man and ask him to help you."
"Good idea," I say, laughing.
"If you are walking and your feet hurt and you can't walk any more –"
"I know, I know," I interrupt impatiently, "Look for a young man, right?"
"No!" she says, so sharply I almost jump off the bed.
"What then, I don't know what I should look for?"
I am genuinely nonplussed.
"Look for a cart!"
I almost die laughing.
Well-known Burmese dissident, now turned anti-sanctions advocate and constructive engage-ist Dr. Zarni, once said, as if as an afterthought, "What people discount is love." It seems to me Daw Than E's life shows an exemplary abundance of love, in the subliminal sense of Buddhist metta, often translated as Loving Kindness. Such longevity presupposes the sense of knowing how to live well. "At least do no harm," as someone once said of hospitals.
A mutual friend, also the age of a nephew of Daw Than E said, "She has no known living relatives on her side." She always did, however, tell me how much her Austrian in laws had helped her. I don't know anything about her religious beliefs, as she never wrote nor talked to me about religion. And it does not really matter.
Dear Aunty Ma Than E, we will all follow you one day on life's last journey. The important thing is that we live according to our beliefs and by our own lights.
--- KMK 6-18-07