43 years since the death of Burma’s foremost man of letters

Kodaw Hmaing

Kodaw Hmaing, one of the most influential literary figures in modern Burmese history, died on this day in 1964. His life is worthy of being known. Ba Zan Lin has a wonderfully detailed post on Kodaw Hmaing’s life, although it is in Burmese. In the introduction, he describes Kodaw Hmaing as “the foremost literati and poet in Burmese history to whom the country owes thanks.”

Similar to how Ernest Hemingway is an iconic figure of the ‘lost generation’ and the modernist movement, Kodaw Hmaing embodied the spirit of Burmese nationalism. He was a master of wordplay and a very talented poet, able to compose in several poetic forms. Kodaw Hmaing was born Maung Lun, but adopted several names throughout the course of his life, to poke fun at and sarcastically mock others. Kodaw is a Burmese term used by Burmese royalty or the monkhood in olden days, and Kodaw Hmaing used this to show his disdain for British rule, similar to how the nationalistic We Burmans Association (Dobama Asiayone) adopted the usage of ‘Thakin’ (Burmese for master), a term that the Burmese had to use when addressing the British (basically the Burmese equivalent of sahib) for an ironic effect.

Although the Burmese nationalist movement is not without faults–it called for complete assimilation of ethnic minorities, an impossibility in such a diverse country–it helped set Burma free from colonial rule. Kodaw Hmaing was essentially an icon and remains one of Burma’s most eminent figures. He used his talent in writing to journalism, writing for the The Sun (Thuriya) newspaper, and as The Irrawaddy put it, brining respectability to the We Burmans Association. After Burma achieved independence, Kodaw Hmaing dedicated his life to bringing peace, because of the civil war that erupted in Burma.

It is interesting how history seems to repeat. Many of Kodaw Hmaing’s poems remain relevant in Burma–in recent years, the Burmese government has censored or removed many traces of Kodaw Hmaing’s works and life in an effort to prevent modern-day Burmese from gaining inspiration from modern history. Just in late March this year, the Ministry of Information banned a front-cover portrait of Kodaw Hmaing from being used in the New Padauk Blossom (Padauk Pwint Thit) magazine, even though the portrait passed the Press Scrutiny Board, Burma’s primary censorship entity.

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