Meet Mawlaik’s ‘colonial relic’

In a town on the Chindwin River lives an octogenarian who enjoys conversation with visitors and has some grim memories from World War II.

By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

SAY WHAT you like about U Thant Zin, but he tells a good story.

Soon after meeting him for the first time at Mawlaik, his hometown in Sagaing Region on the Chindwin River, I had just completed nine holes on the town’s golf course, one of the oldest in the country.

It was, to say the least, a unique experience. As reported by Frontier in late July, the tee boxes were piles of mud covered in rubbish, cows were a hazard on the muddy fairways, and the greens were sandpits.

It came as a surprise when Thant Zin, 80, said the course was modelled on the Old Course at St Andrew’s, the famed Scottish links that is regarded as the Home of Golf.

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“It’s the same layout, and if a Mawlaik member goes there, they get a discount,” he said. I contacted St Andrew’s for confirmation, but didn’t receive a response.

During several hours of enjoyable conversation with Thant Zin over tea, snacks and beer in Mawlaik, I wasn’t sure whether or not to take him at his word. Was he being serious? Or was the octogenarian just having a bit of fun in his old age?

I had learned about Thant Zin while researching Mawlaik, a little-known town on the western bank of the Chindwin River. In an article published by Yangon-based lifestyle website Myanmore, Thant Zin was described as “a colonial relic” keen to recount his memories of World War II, which included a bloody, drawn-out campaign between Allied forces and the Japanese that was fought in the dense jungles near Mawlaik. Thant Zin’s shocking claim in the report was that during the war, he and his friends had played football with the heads of dead Japanese soldiers.

Naturally, I was keen to meet him.

Accompanied by U Kyaw Khaing, the guide for our trip down the Chindwin, and Ko Arkar, from Yangon-based Sampan Travel, Frontier met Thant Zin soon after his mid-afternoon nap.

“Sorry for making you wait,” he said, emerging from his home. “I’m old these days, and need my sleep.”

Dressed in a faded white T-shirt and a blue, Kayah-style longyi, Thant Zin wheeled out a creaking trishaw from beside his home and rode it slowly towards a small restaurant on the banks of the Chindwin, as we followed behind on foot.

Thant Zin was born in 1939 in Mawlaik, where his parents worked for the government. He spent most of his life in the town, interspersed with stints in other parts of the country, including working for General Ne Win’s post-coup Burma Socialist Programme Party, and running for the National League for Democracy in the annulled 1990 general election.

He was immediately likeable. Speaking with an impeccable English accent, Thant Zin was a kind, warm man who, despite his remarkable story-telling ability, took time to ask detailed questions of his guests.

Not long after our conversation began, the topic turned towards Thant Zin’s memories of the war, and the question of whether he had really played football with the heads of dead soldiers.

“It’s absolutely true,” he said, with what I regarded as a slightly mischievous smile. “When they arrived here, the Japanese were so depleted and tired, and so many died. Their bodies were lined up along this street.”

According to local legend, many of the exhausted Japanese soldiers hung themselves inside Mawlaik’s General Administration Department office, an attractive eggshell-coloured building that remains the town’s administrative centre.

After an enjoyable few hours of conversation by the river, Thant Zin excused himself and said he needed to return home to prepare for an English class he was teaching that evening.

“But let’s meet later for some beers,” he said. “I have many more stories to tell.”

Mawlaik played a small but important role during the war, particularly as Allied forces fought to retake Burma from the Japanese in 1944 and 1945. In his book Defeat into Victory, Field Marshall William Slim, who led the retreat and then the retaking of Burma, wrote that the plan was to drive the Japanese across the Chindwin and into the plains of central Burma, before surrounding them near Mandalay. If the plan was to succeed, the British had to capture Mawlaik, which Slim described as “a small but valuable river port on the Chindwin”.

In September 1944, a British army battalion attempted to capture Mawlaik but was repelled by enemy fire. Reinforcements were eventually brought in and it wasn’t until November 10 that Mawlaik was “finally in our hands”, Slim wrote.

Thant Zin was five years old at the time, and at a beer station near his house that evening he told us how he remembered British soldiers deployed on the other side of the river and shelling the town.

Our conversation then returned to his claim that he and his friends had played football with the heads of Japanese soldiers.

“I’m not joking,” he said. “You have to remember that we were very young, and that we had nothing. We had nothing, so we used their heads to play football.”

As evidence of resourcefulness during a time of chronic shortages, he said the town’s residents had used wire to create musical instruments and aluminium from downed planes to make cutlery.

As a young boy, he claimed to have seen the plane of Brigadier Orde Charles Wingate, creator of the famed British special operations group known as the Chindits, flying over Mawlaik, and he also fondly remembered the bravery of many of his town’s residents during the war.

“The Japanese treated us very badly during the war, and many people were angry,” he said, adding that the Burmese were keen to help the Allied forces. He recalled an incident in which a boatman ordered to ferry Japanese troops across the Chindwin had deliberately scuttled the boat, killing about a dozen of them.

“They had guns, but we didn’t. So, we had to find other ways to contribute to the war effort,” he said.

Thant Zin spent many of the post-war years in Mawlaik before graduating from Mandalay University with a degree in agriculture. He told me that he worked for Ne Win’s BSPP after the 1962 coup, but was eventually ousted for disagreeing with the government’s disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism economic policy, which plunged the nation into poverty.

“It was never going to work. I told [the government], ‘This isn’t the Burmese Way to Socialism, it’s the Burmese Way to Poverty.’ History has proven me correct,” he said.

In the 1990 general election, Thant Zin stood as an NLD candidate in southern Sagaing’s Kani constituency and won 83 percent of the vote, but the ruling military junta ignored the result after its preferred party suffered a crushing defeat. NLD members were harassed and persecuted after their party’s election triumph and Thant Zin said he was arrested several times for his involvement in the democracy movement.

After the 1990 election, he said many foreigners had come to Mawlaik to investigate allegations of forced labour by the military junta. When he met them, it was sometimes in the company of government officials.

“None of the officials could speak any English, so they listened to our conversations but had no idea what was going on,” he said. “When they asked what they were about, I just told them we were talking about the weather,” he said, laughing.

Thant Zin, who teaches occasional English classes, enjoys his quiet life. Life is easier in Mawlaik today, he said.

“Electricity has improved, communications have improved, and so has transport,” he said. “Now we don’t only have to use the river, but we can travel by road to Homalin, for example. It’s nice here; tell your friends to visit.”

By Oliver Slow

By Oliver Slow

Oliver Slow is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. He is a former Chief-of-Staff at Frontier, and is writing a book about Myanmar's transition.
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