Octogenarians from opposite ends of Myanmar’s religious divide offer a progressive example with their friendship
SPECIAL TO THE NATION – May 9, 2014
YANGON—In Myanmar these days, it is often said that the only obstacle to genuine democracy is the older generation: those who remember the 1962 coup, served under the military dictatorship, and continue to cling to old ways of thinking. Get the geriatrics out of the way, it is said, and real change will happen.
In Yangon’s Insein township, there is an octogenarian former army captain who openly defies this stereotype. For most of the year when it’s dry, this ethnic Rakhine retiree cooks his own meals using the heat of the sun. And the man who sends him some of the U.S.-made parts he uses for his solar energy equipment is an Arakanese Muslim he has known since 1950.
Today only an ocean divides the two friends, their relationship defying communal hostility that has recently caused international alarm over the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Since 2012, tribal prejudices reinforced by national policy have killed as many as 280 people, torched entire villages, and left more than 140,000 homeless, mostly Muslims. Although these two men have long since left Rakhine, their bond of more than sixty-three years is its own quiet statement against the politics of hate.
Saw Hla Pru, 80, not only remembers the 1962 coup. He served in the tatmadaw, or armed forces, as a mechanical engineer from 1960 until 1986. Luckily, he secured an early retirement deal two years before the regime’s brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. Since then, Pru and his wife have quietly forged a peaceful life with the support of their children.
Pru’s home garden, located a few minutes’ drive from the infamous Insein Prison, is lush with greenery, its verdant lime and pomello trees supplying fruit for much of the neighbourhood. It also features a couple of New Age contraptions that send out a blinding flash with the sun. The first, a ten-foot solar cooker shaped like a satellite dish, uses one-inch shards of broken mirror to produce the 400 degrees of heat necessary to bake meat and vegetables. The second is a three-foot version that instead uses two-by-four reflective sheets (US$ 28 each) made in North America.
Pru’s good friend in Vancouver, Maung Tin, 81, needed someone to bring those sheets to Pru in Myanmar because the mail is so unreliable. Since I was heading there last fall—and knew Maung Tin through our involvement in the Pacific Burma Roundtable—I was happy to serve as courier.
Born in Kyauktaw, a rural area of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State close to the border with what is now Bangladesh, Pru and his family were forced to evacuate shortly after the Japanese invasion in World War II. Two years after independence in 1948, a Communist insurgency sent them fleeing once again, this time to Akyab, the capital of Arakan now known as Sittwe. It was here that Pru met Maung Tin, an Arakanese Muslim who was in the same eighth grade class. They quickly became friends.
“We were like brothers from the same mother,” Maung Tin recalls. “As I was a son to his mother, he was a son to mine. Sometimes we’d go to his house on our lunch break. His mother was very warm. She said to me, ‘You friends always share when you eat something. You will never forget this when you grow up.’”
Pru, the country boy Baptist, had his eyes opened to a much larger world when he met the city boy Muslim. Coming from rural Kyauktaw, where access to telephones was almost non-existent, Pru was amazed by Maung Tin’s high-tech gadgetry.
“He let me use his camera, his box camera. I didn’t even know cameras existed,” recalls Pru, breaking into a large, toothy grin at the memory.
No one was prouder than Maung Tin when Saw Hla Pru won a government scholarship to study engineering at the University of Missouri. “I was buoyantly happy,” he recalls, “as students from Arakan seldom got this opportunity. But I was also sorry that he would be away for at least five years.”
When Pru returned to Burma with a bachelor’s degree in 1960, he was planning to go into engineering as a professor at Rangoon University.
“I wasn’t going to go into the army,” he recalls, “but the military needed engineers. So they transferred me from RU’s engineering department to the military engineering corps.” There he obtained two more degrees, in mechanical and automotive engineering and metallurgy, while serving the dictatorship.
After his retirement in 1986, Pru was looking for a hobby. While listening to Voice of America one morning, he heard a report about solar energy and learned of group called Solar Cookers International. A generation later, his hobby has become a habit: in Yangon, where the average family income is US $200 a month and electricity fees have just gone up, the alternative to electricity, firewood, and fuel that Pru demonstrates through solar cooking seems like an idea whose time has come.
Tun Lwin, former director-general of the government’s Department for Meteorology and Hydrology, thinks that Pru is onto something.
“I really believe in his work,” says Dr. Tun, who was part of a joint project with Thailand in 2009 to study the potential for solar energy use in Myanmar. “I would like to see more of this. We really shouldn’t be relying so much on our national resources, [and] Myanmar has a lot of potential to use solar energy.”
In the spring of 1980, Maung Tin—by then general secretary of the Arakanese Muslim Association—was arrested for criticizing the Ne Win regime. Detained at Sittwe Central Jail, he was placed in solitary confinement. Military Intelligence, which had ransacked his home searching for documents, issued strict orders for no one—not even his jailers—to speak to Maung Tin. Saw Hla Pru, not realizing that his friend was in prison, drove up to his house one day to see him.
“My wife told him the situation, that I was detained in a solitary cell,” recalls Maung Tin. “He said he would go to see me. My wife had to tell him not to go because MI might create problems for him.” She finally convinced him to stay away.
Two years later, dictator Ne Win rewrote Burma’s constitution so that 1.5 million Muslims in the state lost their citizenship. Maung Tin and his family fled to Canada, where he would become a leading overseas advocate for the rights of Arakanese Muslims in Rakhine.
Apart from the time Pru had spent in the U.S. as a student, it was the first time that he and Maung Tin had ever been separated. They would not see each other again until last spring, when Maung Tin visited Myanmar for the first time in 31 years.
“He brought me gifts and medicine,” Pru recalls. “He has always been kind to me.”
Daniel Gawthrop is a Canadian author, journalist and communications specialist whose most recent book is The Trial of Pope Benedict (Arsenal Pulp Press).