Updated on January 24, 2019
By Des Rodgers
On the lighter side
I need to linger awhile and talk a bit about some delightful and noteworthy events and persons. On the lighter side, I couldn’t help but chortle at Ko Ohn Khine’s and Ko Zaw Min’s reference to their pastime of ogling the your lady-students passing by the canteen on their way to G Hall at the lunch breaks and after classes.
Let it be known that Sayas Tony, U Khin, U Kyaw Lwin Hla and myself, no strangers to the female attractions of either the sayamas or the students, would lunch almost daily in the canteen seeking out the fringe benefits attached to our jobs, and to having lunch in that ideally situated viewpoint location. Sayas Joe Ba Maung and U Win Mra graced these occasions with their presence from time to time, and while waiting for our htamin net hin or si kyet khauk swe, we always amused ourselves watching Saya Kyaw Lwin Hla go through his ritual of asking for hot water to wash his plate, spoon and fork before eating. His explanation was that his 5 years of living in Australia (his father had been Burma’s ambassador to Australia) had more or less robbed him of his immunity to gastrointestinal bacterial attacks, and he feared developing ailments resulting from his use of non-sterilized utensils. We laughed then, but I later understood his apprehension after my son fell sick from the same kind of problem in Mandalay during our trip to Burma in 2007.
Our wait for the food was well worth it though, especially as we could enjoy the spectacle of watching Saya U Khin “wolfing down” 3 to 4 helpings of Si Kyet Khauk Swe in double quick time. Given his slim build, I could never figure out where he stored all the food that he ate.
During these waits, we also utilized our time well by discreetly “monitoring” the flow of traffic to and from G Hall, the ladies’ residence. It was our way of recharging our energy and relaxing our minds before returning to the heavy duty of teaching Reading, Writing, and Speaking. This practice of traffic observation got to be quite addictive, for when I played soccer on the sayas’ team, I’m sure while Sayas U Maung Maung Win, U Soe Paing, and the rest of the team were practically dripping ‘blood, sweat and tears’ in their effort to get a win, I was nonchalantly content to “play for the pleasure of the game” (read) the cheers and applause coming from G Hall, which overlooked the football field. Life, you understand, requires a balance in all things.
Saya Win Mra and I
On a more serious note, Saya U Win Mra and I, from early on, were earnestly determined to make something of our lives by eventually serving in the Burmese Foreign Service. I was, at that time, reasonably steeped in the knowledge of politics, history, and economics, and as he was a product of a career service family with a father enjoying the position of Secretary to the Prime Minister, it was quite natural that we would find common ground in purpose, and a meeting of the minds.
Our RIT discussion and debate locale was Ma Tin Aye’s shop just outside the RIT premises, where we would spend a great deal of time over dinner discussing world affairs, historic events, and foreign policy of the more powerful countries in the world. My younger friend (Mra) flattered me by according me the position of mentor, as we prepared ourselves for the forthcoming FS exams.
To trim this story, as the day of the exams approached, I discovered some disturbing trends in my thinking. Something had not been sitting well with me and had been bothering me for some time. I agonized over this unknown factor for about 10 days before the exams. As the exams drew nearer, I slowly realized that I was not sure I wanted to take the them, or to join the Foreign Service. I was slowly becoming convinced that I could not serve a calling in which I had lost my faith in the system, and my ability to give of myself 100%. After more soul-searching, I told Saya Win Mra that I wasn’t going to go through with our plan, and that I was seriously making up my mind to leave the country. To his credit, he stayed the course, disciplinarian that he is, exercising far more determination and an unshakeable grip on his dream, for which I’ve complimented him over the years.
With my major decision out of the way, Saya Win Mra and I decided it would be a good idea to make a final journey to Pagan for posterity. We prepared ourselves well for the trip, reading up on all we could about this historic abode of early Burmese royalty. We decided to backpack our way through this emotional journey to make it more meaningful, which would not only cement our close friendship, but tie us more closely in spirit to the land of our mother country. We tramped around on foot for miles, taking in all the major historical sites, and shared information and knowledge about each edifice over our evening meals. These discussions continued after our evening bath in the Irrawaddy and our preparation for our night’s rest, which often took the form of spending the night in any one of the neglected and untended pagodas. The spectacular sunsets and the cool quiet dawns were surreal and created an unforgettable canvas in which these memorable events have been indelibly etched for us.
My trip to Pagan in 2007 brought mist to my eyes, and that wasn’t just because of Mother Nature’s cool mornings and evenings. It would have been difficult to remain unemotional on seeing the shimmering rays of a setting sun on the mighty Irrawaddy. I’ve often asked myself if it has been worth leaving my homeland, and I don’t doubt that every Burmese expat living in foreign lands is constantly reminded of the price he has had to pay in giving up his country on principle.
My former colleagues
Well, where are all my English Department colleagues now?
In 2000, my family and were invited to visit and spend time with Saya U Win Mra and his wife in the Burmese Embassy in Westchester, New York. After 30 long years, I was delighted to see my closest friend who was then Burma’s Ambassador or Permanent Representative to the United Nations. They welcomed us joyously, and the first words U Win Mra uttered were: “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be here today”. I took this as a compliment, not knowing if there was a downside to this comment. We spent time going over our memorable moments over traditional Burmese dinners and complemented by one of my favorite Bordeaux French red wines – Saint Emilion! During my stay, I must have depleted the embassy’s stock considerably, as this happened to be my favorite week-end dinner Merlot. We chatted about how he had risen in the Foreign Service ranks, and in which countries he had served as ambassador. I had occasion to read some of his speeches, but I could find no grammar errors as they had all been impeccably written. This memorable trip culminated in lunch at the UN, where he introduced me to a few other foreign emissaries.
Our meeting up in Rangoon in 2007 was no less momentous, with dinner at his residence, followed by a jam session of playing and singing some of our favs of times gone by when we did the BBS and Rangoon nightclub circuit. After a good stint at the Foreign Ministry as Director General, U Win Mra is currently heading Burma’s Human Rights Commission as its new Chairman. Much water it seems, has flowed under the bridge.
Sayama Muriel is happily married to a Mr. [Alphonso] Rivers, and teaches English in Cheng Mai, Thailand.
Saya U Khin left Burma after being transferred to Mandalay University, and is now engaged in freelance work as a legal consultant in Taipei, Taiwan. He’s still a bachelor, and for the rest, you can fill in the blanks.
Saya Joe Ba Maung is retired, having left RIT while I was still there, to work for the Burma Railways. He married his ever loyal lady love Nyi Ma Lay, and looked a healthy, happy man in 2007.
Sayama Toni, unfortunately lost her husband – Burma’s ambassador to S. Korea early in the last decade, and returned to Burma, where she teaches, along with her daughter Aye Aye – U Win Mra’s daughter-in-law, at a private school in Rangoon. She is still very attractive and has the same walking or gliding gait that one usually associates with a model – or a very graceful bird.
Sayama Daw Khin Saw Tint was widowed some years ago, and lives in retirement in Rangoon. All my attempts to see her in 2007 failed, but I still hope to see her one day.
Saya U Kyaw Lwin Hla, who made most of my entertainment arrangements, and arm-twisted my friends to attend my brunch at Traders in Rangoon in 2007, is well and working as a Director for the Myanmar Investment Bank (name ?) on Merchant Street in Rangoon. He also took me and my family to a sumptuous Thai dinner at a restaurant on the Royal Lakes. His previous work at the UN has not only enhanced his resumé but also showcases his smooth interactive skills with people.
Since 1967, I have lived a successful life in Canada, one beyond my expectations, and one that has brought me recognition by the Canadian government, industry, and the field of education for my contributions to specialized language training for professionals. For all my flashy style of dressing and high aspirations, I’ve never been materialistic, my main priorities in life now being the welfare and safety of my wife and son, closely followed by a tantalizing glass of red wine and stimulating conversation. Writing my book was very rewarding, and took the better part of my last 2 years. May yet author a few more, time permitting.
I did not come out to the west for educational or financial reasons, but along the way, I‘ve improved on my earlier status in Burma. Freedom to think as I desire, and to act as my mind dictates, were primary motivating factors in my decision to leave Burma, and I am strongly convinced that my years of study at St. Peter’s, Mandalay U., RASU, and RIT contributed immeasurably to molding me and giving me direction to succeed in life.
In my quiet moments of reflection though, my heart always returns to the fun-filled halls of RIT, echoing the sound of familiar voices, and t other moments I drift back to the hot, humid, and dusty streets of Mandalay, where I got my first beginning in life. For this anyatha, that’s where home is, and always was ever since my first ancestor from England set foot on Burmese soil in 1825, and married a fair Burmese maiden, an event repeated by my maternal Portuguese ancestors, ultimately planting roots in the upper Burma regions favored by Burma’s mightiest kings. I may never see my homeland again, but the memories and feelings can never be erased. In closing, let me give you my slightly modified version of what some writer once said:
“You can take the man out of the country (taing pyi), but you can’t take the country out of the man.”
Thank you all for sharing these nostalgic moments with me, and for having played a crucial role in helping give me a more rounded identity that has made me proud to be called an RIT alumni, and a Burmese national. I’d like to wish each and every Saya, Sayama, my former students, and alumni my very best in your quest for a long, happy, healthy, and successful life, wherever and however you have chosen to follow your star.
May Burma and RIT rise again to recapture their true glory!
Received New Year’s greetings from Saya U Khin (Lucien Chen, Taiwan) a few years back. Saya also wrote again in August 2016. I posted his correspondence in “RIT Alumni International Newsletter”.
Saya “Tony” Sao Kan Gyi’s pen name was Khemarat. Saya passed away. Saya’s younger brother rowed at RUBC.
Saya Joe Ba Maung was national tennis champion in singles and doubles. He was succeeded as singles champion by his doubles partner U Than Lwin. Saya passed away.
Saya U Win Mra was national pole vault champion, but the doctors requested him to rest. He was winner [or runner-up] of the “Elvis Presley songs” contest. He showed up at my uncle’s birthday party dressed in G. I. Blues (or similar). U Khin Maung Lay (Mutu) works with Saya for the Myanmar Human Rights Commission.
Saya U Kyaw Lwin Hla was a staff member of UNDP. He was succeeded by his brother U Kyaw Zin Hla. U Zaw Min Nawaday did not recognize Saya when they met in New York.
I called Saya Des several times. I had a conversation with Sayagadaw. They have a son, who works as a physical trainer.
Sayama Naw Charity Sein U retired as Professor and Head of RIT English department. She attended one or more SPZPs.
Sayama “Toni” is a cousin of Ko “Henry” Thet Tun (M75, Sydney, Australia). Their youngest aunt is the spouse of Saya U Tin U.
Sayama Muriel’s spouse is Saya U Aung (U Nge, Mr. Alphonso Rivers). U Aung’s father was H.E. U Than Aung, Minister of Education in the AFPFL Governemtn. I met them when they visited Saya U Tin Maung Nyunt in Milpitas, California, USA.
Sayama Anne (Daw Khin Saw Tint) is an accomplished bi-lingual writer. Her mother Daw Khin Saw Mu, her four uncles (U Tin Tut, U Kyaw Myint, U Myint Thein and Dr. Htin Aung) and her two aunts (Daw Khin Mya Mu and Daw Tin Saw Mu) are well known scholars and diplomats. She donated part of her “Sar Mu Ga” — K5 Lakhs — for the YTU Library Modernization Project.
Since I write notes for the different posts, the contents, level of coverage and style for a topic may vary.