British Burma - The Thenkin Movement
The Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) had emerged in 1930-31 during the Saya San Rebellion, in part as an urban response to that village phenomenon. Its members drew attention to themselves by calling each other thakin, or master. This was taboo in polite colonial society, because the word was customarily used by Burmese as a respectful term of address to the British, like the term sahib in India. The founders of the society claimed that the Burmese must develop a "master mentality" and reject the "slave mentality" that the British had imposed. Their appropriation of the term thakin was seen as a first step in this direction, and they were soon known to the general public as Thakins.
The Thakins gained national prominence through the medium of Rangoon University. After the student strike of 190-21 the institution had become quiescent. Students, obliged to study subjects in an alien language, English, and preoccupied with passing examinations and gaining good positions after graduation, had little interest in politics. Discontent over the competitive examination system and the hardship of the depression began to change these attitudes. In the autumn of 1935 Maung Nu was elected president of the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU) and Aung San the secretary. Both men, who were later to play the central roles in Burma's struggle for independence, were polically conscious and used the RUSU as aforum for the discussion of national issues. Maung Nu, who as a member of the Dobama Asunyone assumed the name Thakin Nu, got into trouble for publishing an article in the union's newspaper calling for the dismissal of a Burmese member of the faculty for alleged moral improprieties. Thakin Nu was expelled along with Thakin Aung San, the editor. Although this was purely a university issue, it provoked a student strike in February 1936, which quicky focused on a wider political context. As in 1920, strike headquarters were established at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Demonstrations closed down the campus, and forced the authorities to postpone the examinations. The RUSU gained the support of Banoo-ae high wiool stents through the AMI-Burma Student Unmio. Thakin Nu and Thakin Aung Son were readmitted to the unbiry but by this tUnie had coemmitted themselves to full-time political careers.
The Thakins succeeded in having two of their members elected to the legislature in the 1936 election. They attempted to organize dockworkers and oil field workers, leading a march of striking oil refinery workers from Syriamn to Rangoon in 19,38. When, in connection with this, a student was killed by police during a demonstration, a second university strike was called. Tensions escalated still further when, in February 1939, some 17 students and monks were killed during a large protest in Mandalay. In the eyes of the public, the Thakins were pushing parliamentary political leaders, such as Ba Maw and U Saw, and the more traditionally oriented nationalists out of the center of the political stage.
The Thakins had no single, consistent political ideology. They were greatly influenced by socialist thought, particularly welfare state "Fabian" socialism of the variety introduced to them by Furnivall. After the first university strike, Thakin Nu established the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club in 1937 in order to publish and distribute socialist and Marxist literature. Other influences included Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen), the Indian National Congress, European and Japanese fascism, and the Irish Sinn Fein movement. Overall, their thought was highly syncretic.
The Thakins were among the first to bring the demand for complete independence, expressed by the rural followers of Saya San, into the urban and university context. Politicians like Ba Maw, though not enamored of the British, had some stake in the political system established by the 1937 constitution. The students, however, operated largely outside the established political process. Unlike the political monks, who entered politics in order to defend the religion, the Thakins were primarily secular and non-communal in their orientation. This was particularly true of Aung San, who defined independence in terms of Burmese rather than Burman nationalism. The Thakins retained close relations with the Indian National Congress and attempted to defuse communal tensions after the anti-Indian riot of 1938.
They did not, however, abandon tradition. One of the founders and guiding lights of the Dobama Aduyome had been Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, a former Buddhist monk and write who at the age of 10 had witnessed the exile of the king and queen from Mandalay. Described by one scholar as "a living historical link between the Burmese revolution and the cultund traditions of the pre-British Burmese kingdom," he combined Western democratic and socialist thought with Buddhist themes. He wrote that in the earliest times there had been an "earthly nirvana," or paradise; but that men becoae greedy and acquisitive and were no longer capable of governing themselves; so they elected a "future Buddha" to be their sovereign. Thakin Nu argued tha capitalism, engendering greed, precluded the attainment of salvation. In a socialist sociey the promotion of the people's welfare was not only a meritorious act for the ruler but it also enabled the masses to turn from material concerns to the attainment of their own spiritual enlightenment. Even the left wing of the Thakin movement, led by Thakin Soe and Thakin Than Tun, drew on Buddhist concepts and Pali terminology to introduce Marxist ideas to the Burmese. Although there were direct links with the ideas of U Ottama and the "political" monks, socialist concepts and a commitment to independence gave them the basis for a more positive program.
In February 1939 Ba Maw was replaced as prime minister by Tharrawaddy U Pu. In September of that year, as war broke out in Europe, Ba Maw's Sinyetha Party joined forces with the Burma Revolutionary Party, a Thakin group formed by Kodaw Hmaing and Aung San, to form the Freedom Bloc, a coalition committed to full independence. In September 1940 U Pu's government was replaced by one formed by U Saw, head of the Myochit (Patriot) Party. Described by historian Frank Trager as a "strange, self-educated, uncouth leader, who had won a following among the peasant masses," U Saw attempted to suppress Freedom Bloc activity and persuade the British to grant Burma full selfgoverning or dominion status.
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