By Dr. Myint Zan
The 120th birthday of the third Chief Justice of independent Burma (as it was officially called then) U Myint Thein (22 February 1900-3 October 1994) was on 22 January 2020.
The Four Distinguished Brothers and also Brothers in (the) Law
U Myint Thein was born at the turn of the 20th century on 22 February 1900 and he belonged to a distinguished family of among others, four brothers (as well as sisters). Like him, two his elder brothers U Tin Tut (1895-1948),U Kyaw Myint (1898-1988) and a younger brother Dr Htin Aung (1908-1978) were Barristers–at-law from the Inns of Courts in London and legal luminaries.
On the lighter side, Sayagyi(‘revered teacher’) Dr Htin Aung’s penchant or enthusiasm for academic pursuits was such that a nephew of Dr Htin Aung said the late U Kyaw Myint told him that he had ‘a dead Uncle’ (U Tin Htut), ‘bad Uncle’ (U Myint Thein) and ‘mad Uncle’ (Dr Htin Aung). Dr Htin Aung, among others, was Rector and later Vice-Chancellor of University of Rangoon from 1946 to 1959.
Coincidentally on 1 March 2020 the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Law Department what was then formally called University of Rangoon was commemorated. U Myint Thein’s elder brother U Kyaw Myint a Supreme Court Justice from the period of 1948 to 1950 was the Dean of the Law Department in the post-War years. In our criminal law and international law classes in the early 1970s at the Law Department of Rangoon Arts and Science University the judgment delivered in English by Chief Justice U Myint Thein in the case of E V Kovtunenko v U Law Yone 1960 Burma Law Reports(Supreme Court), p.51, on 18 March 1960 was taught (in Burmese).
U Myint Thein’s Life and Achievements till 2 March 1962
U Myint Thein, obtained an MA (Master of Arts) and LL.B (Bachelor of Laws) from the University of Cambridge, in England, around 1925. While studying at Cambridge he met and later married the late Daw Phwar Hmee (Daw Phwar Mee) (1902-1962). Daw Phwar Hmee was the first Burmese woman Barrister-at-law.
U Myint Thein was not merely a ‘legal eagle’ but a soldier (in the British Army at the rank of Colonel) and according to the late President Dr Maung Maung’s profile of U Myint Thein in The Guardian(Rangoon) magazine of October 1957 at great risk to himself U Myint Thein stayed on in Japanese-occupied Burma at times disguised as a mali(Hindi word for ‘gardener’). In his 1957 fulsome praise of U Myint Thein – slightly ironic based on later events in the 1960s – Dr Maung Maung wrote that U Myint Thein ‘could have died’ during those dangerous years.
Soon after independence U Myint Thein was appointed as the first Burmese Ambassador to what was then Nationalist China and when the People’s Republic of China was established in October 1949 U Myint Thein was appointed as the first Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.
Soon after his appointment as a Supreme Court Justice in March 1953 U Myint Thein went to the United Nations to complain about Kuomintang (white-nationalist- Chinese) troops incursion into Burma. Dr Maung Maung wrote (in 1957) that U Myint Thein’s ‘exposition in the debates in the UN General Assembly was brilliant … and a landmark in history’.
On or about 22 July 1957 the then President Mahn Win Maung appointed U Myint Thein as the 3rd Chief Justice of independent Burma. In September 1957 a joint session of Parliament unanimously approved his appointment. U Myint Thein succeeded in his own words (personal communication to the writer, 1978 by U Myint Thein) to the top judicial position held by his ‘illustrious predecessor’ U Thein Maung (1890-1975). As Chief Justice U Myint Thein wrote many rulings a few of which are landmarks in independent Burma’s legal history.
‘Lady Luck’ (or the Revolutionary Council) not being kind to U Myint Thein (March 1962 to February 1968)
Dr Maung Maung wrote in his 1957 profile of U Myint Thein that his life up till his appointment as Chief Justice of the Union was ‘both lucky and unlucky’. Lady luck (in fact it was the Revolutionary Council regime which took over State power in the early hours of 2 March 1962) was unkind to U Myint Thein from that date for the next six years. Soldiers entered his house at 48 Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, Rangoon at 2 am in the morning and arrested him (‘took into protective custody’ was the euphemism used in those days). U Myint Thein did mention to me that he asked that he be allowed to phone or least enquire ‘what was the matter’ with the Paleik Min Gyee(the Commissioner of Police) but he was politely told ma loke par net daut(not to indulge in such an activity) since all the phone lines have been cut.
On 30 March 1962 General Ne Win, (6 July 1910?-5 December 2002) then Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, issued an ‘order having the effect of law’ stating that U Myint Thein’s -and a few other Supreme and High Court Justices- services were terminated ‘with effect from noon on 31 March 1962’. ‘Indulgently’ General Ne Win also stated that these Justices were to have the privileges (their pensions) after the termination of their services albeit the word pension was not used in the ‘Order’.
U Myint Thein’s wife Daw Phwar Hmee was not in good health at the time of her beloved husband’s arrest and her health deteriorated thereafter. U Myint Thein was allowed to stay with Daw Phwar Hmee under strict guard. I also later learnt that U Myint Thein’s elder brother U Kyaw Myint had to ‘exchange’ places in ‘protective custody’ in order for U Myint Thein to be allowed to be with his wife at his home during her last days.
When Daw Phwar Hmee passed away on 26 June 1962 U Myint Thein decided not to attend her funeral and voluntarily went back to (in his words written to me in personal correspondence in 1980) to the ‘tender care’ of his minders. U Myint Thein might also have thought that the quicker he volunteered to return to his own detention the quicker his elder brother U Kyaw Myint can be released.
Release and Partial Honoring from the State Leader (1968-1980)
Among the three top State leaders at the time of the 1962 take over U Myint Thein spent the longest time in custody. Number one in the then State hierarchy President Mahn Win Maung spent 5 years and 8 months in detention before his release in October 1967.
Prime Minister U Nu (25 May 1907-14 February 1995) spent 4 years and over 7 months in detention was released on 27 October 1966 when he and the late U Ba Swe (another former Prime Minister, 1956-1957) was taken from custody straight to meet General Ne Win for more than 2 hours to ‘reminisce about the past’. U Myint Thein spent about 4 years and eight months at the apex judiciary of Burma- one of the most prestigious and respected judiciaries in Asia at that time- and nearly six years in custody before his release on or about 28 February 1968.
In June 1980 Naing Ngant Goan Yi(literally ‘jewel of the State’) awards were conferred to dozens of persons including quite a few former detainees under the Revolutionary Council regime. The sacked Chief Justice U Myint Thein received the first class Naing Ngant Goan Yi award and also a ‘political pension’ – in addition to his Chief Justice pension – for life. Around the same time after conferring this honour – ironically both the Order terminating U Myint Thein’s services in March 1962 and the announcement conferring the award to him in June 1980 was signed by General/ President Ne Win – invited him and other apex court judges whom he had previously incarcerated to dinner.
A (younger) close relative of U Myint Thein informed the writer that Ne Win tried to ‘explain’ the Revolutionary Council regime’s incarceration of U Myint Thein but the gentle Chief Justice and poet (more on that later) stopped him stating ‘ Bogyoke(General) it is past: We do not need to dwell on it’.
Largeness of heart and magnanimity of this great man, indeed.
U Myint Thein as Poet and Impish Humour in his last Days
While in custody U Myint Thein had the ‘privilege’ of listening on radio Burmese folk songs broadcast by Myanma Athan(Burma Broadcasting service) and he apparently wrote them down and translated them into English which came out as Burmese Folk Songs(published by Oxford University Press). And there are at least three other selection of his poems the more serious and reflective When at Nights I Strive to Sleepand poems suffused with cheery sense of humour Burmese Proverbs Explained in Verse and Burmese Nursery Songs.
In 1983 U Myint Thein fell seriously ill but recovered. He wrote me in his handwriting ‘please don’t worry too much, Only good people die young and I am only 83’. At the age of 83 he was ‘too old’ or ‘too bad’ to have died then.
He could have died around 1989 or 1990 when he fell seriously ill again: ill to the extent that (U Myint Thein narrated this to my late mother Professor Dr Daw Myint Myint Khin around 1990 or 1991) U Aung Gyi (ex Brigadier) apparently sat beside his bed and wept murmuring in Burmese thu kha myar democracy ya dar ko taung hma kyeit ma thwar ya boo‘Poor him, he does not live to see democracy takes root’). U Myint Thein narrated this story with his usual self-deprecating humour and with a chuckle. But when he passed away at the age of 94 in 1994 as I wrote in my tribute of U Myint Thein in The Australian Law Journal (March 1995) ‘Death takes away the ‘baddest’ indeed the best among us … and all of us are impoverished by his passing’.
It is a privilege and honour to give my tribute to Chief Justice U Myint Thein on the occasion of his 120th birthday.
Dr Maung Maung,’ U Myint Thein: Profile’, October 1957, The Guardian Magazine, Rangoon, Burma.
All Burmese and English language newspapers, 31 March 1962, (Burmese original and English translation of ‘Bo’ Ne Win’s Order terminating the services of U Myint Thein and other Justices of the Supreme and High Courts of Burma).
The Guardianand The Working People’s Daily (Rangoon, Burma), 28 October 1966 (News items concerning the release of former Prime Ministers U Nu and U Ba Swe and their meeting with General Ne Win)
The Guardian and The Working People’s Daily either 28 February 1968 or 1 March 1968 issue announcing the release of U Myint Thein and other political detainees
Myint Zan, ‘U Myint Thein, MA, LLB, LLD’ (March 1995), 69 The Australian Law Journal, pp. 225-227.