In Memory of Salai Tin Maung Oo

Last week marked the 41st anniversary of the death of student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo.

Though born in Taungoo, Bago Division (or possibly Rakhine State to the West), Salai Tin Maung Oo was ethnic Chin.  As General Secretary of Yangon university based Chin Culture and Literature Committee, he was active, both in his pro-democracy demonstrations and his vision for a unified Chin identity.  On December 5th 1974, he took part in the demonstrations/riots against the treatment of the body of former UN Secretary General, U Thant and formed an underground student union (a body banned by the Ne Win government) in areas of Myanmar outside of central government control.  Arrested on his return to Yangon he was charged with treason and sentenced to death.  His final words before he died have taken on a near-mythical resonance:

‘I shall never kneel down under your military boots!’

He was hanged in Insein prison on June 26th 1976.  The first – and possibly only – student leader to be hanged in fifty years of military rule.

In the years since, his name, life and sacrifice have been honoured.  Under the previous regimes, these remembrances have been held outside the country by the Chin diaspora. His family, now living in exile in Canada, published an an excellent account of his life and impact in 2011 titled, Tin Maung Oo: A Forgotten Hero of Asia

Since the transition, Chin communities across Myanmar have held commemoration ceremonies in churches, monasteries and universities.  The anniversary of his death is reported and eulogised in both the national newspapers and Chin language journals.

In recognition of his position on the Chin Culture and Literature Committee an annual, independent literary award is also given his name.  It is telling that forty years later, this committee is still the only pan-Chin organisation for Chin literature with all its many languages.  The Chin are the only one of the major 7 ethnic nationality groups in Myanmar to not have an official and registered culture and literature association beyond the academic institutions (another irony considering Chin State is the only one of the 7 states in Myanmar to not have an institution of higher education).  Chin literature and culture organisations have instead riven along religious and linguistic divides.  The death of those like Salai Tin Maung Oo understandably give cause for reflection on what they achieved in life, but it also serves to highlight the difference of what may have become if they had survived.

(Image credit@The Chin Journal)

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