Historical Gway Chaung fort: Myanmar’s model of reflective patriotism

  • By Uncle Pyinnya

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Gazing at motorized boats and small ships moving downstream and upstream along the mighty Ayeyawaddy, me and my better half sat down under the shade of a typical spiky tree of dry regions (hta-hnaung….Acacia leucophloea) inside the fort on a hillock. Our three loving daughters were taking photographs in turns with the backgrounds of the brick walls of the forgotten military stronghold.
Unlike the previous forts that we have studied earlier, this “Gway Chaung Fort” is an underground fort constructed with grandeur, which our girls studied with much interest.
After taking tons of photographs with much content, they came to us. I asked whether they have put on records the obelisk of the fort, the girls replied that they had already taken photos at two inscriptions of the fort. Raising a question, the youngest wanted to know whether “Gway Chaung” is correct or “Kway Chaung” is accurate.
Whatever the correct name may be, I told them that the most important part is the history of the military strongholds.
When I asked the year that the fortress was built, the middle girl checked with her photo in the camera and replied that it was built in 1860 and completed in 1863.
Suggesting them to review the “Min Hla Fort” at the north-west on the west bank of the Ayeyawaddy, they replied that it was recorded to have built in 1861.
I told them to check the military strongholds namely “Sin Kyone Fort” at old Ava; “Thabyaytan Fort” at old Sagaing Bridge east; and “Asaykhan Fort” at Sagaing. They were built in 1874 and 1875 respectively. I asked them which one is the earliest.
The eldest replied that the “Gway Chaung Fort” is the earliest. I told her that she was right and told them that Rakhine and Tanintharyi were annexed in 1824 and the whole of lower Myanmar was subjugated in 1852.
With a view to protecting the remaining lands, King Mindon Min had ordered to build the military strongholds.
“Min Hla Fort” was built in Myanmar Era (1223), and the year had been put on record with a special Myanmar verse about the fort.
At that juncture, I explained my daughters how our ancestors fought back with bravery and courage against the imperialists from this Gway Chaung military stronghold in defence not to lose the whole country.
My youngest daughter remembered what I had told them earlier about the stories that happened at other forts where Myanmar warriors were not permitted to fight back the aggressors at the directive of the King’s Palace.
When the British imperialist annexed lower Myanmar, they smuggled teak logs out of the country and were fined with cash as punishment, for that in reprisal they had conspired to take possession of the whole country. On 14 November 1885, British Army Officer John Prendergast and his ten thousand soldiers with full arms and ammunition started the offensive on warships of Naval Brigade from Thayetmyo Township to upper Myanmar along the Ayeyawaddy River.
They arrived at Gway Chaung Fort on 17 November. Even before arriving at the fortress, Myanmar warriors defended and fought back for many days from both sides of the Ayeyawaddy.
Heavy cannon balls and assorted gun fires were targeted at the fort, and that Myanmar patriots responded with cannons and available weapons in bravery.
Other British infantry troops approached the Gway Chaung Fort from the back of the hillock and surrounded the area, and they signaled the warships in the river to stop firing in maneuvering the warfare. Taking by surprise, the British soldiers broke up the fortress gate and entered inside, while other soldiers climbed up using ladders from the eastern wall.
When I explained these events of heroic defence to my daughters, they imagined, checked and gestured to the river as well as the back of the fort with much interest. They gazed at the fort wall in the east that the enemies climbed up through the ladders during the attack.
I told them that the fight was enraged and furious in close combat such as face to face and men to men, and that the British used the bayonets while Myanmar warriors fight back with all sorts of swords. The battle lasting three and half hours was so fierce and violent that both sides sustained heavy casualties.
Due to imbalance of strength in forces, Myanmar warriors retreated from Gway Chaung Fort at 1:00 pm in the afternoon.
On the same day, “Min Hla Fort” on the western bank of Ayeyawaddy was attacked by the invaders, in the same war tactic of offensive from land and river. The patriots from “Min Hla Fort” also retreated from the fort at about 3:30 pm in the afternoon. 17 November was a distressing day as both the “Min Hla Fort” and the “Gway Chaung Fort” were abandoned.
The British forces moved along the river upstream facing resistance from Myanmar soldiers, and finally arrived and covered Myingyan Township on 25 November and stopped over at Yandabo Village. On 26 November, a peace mission team dispatched from the King’s Palace was responded in high arrogance by British Captain that they came there not for peace treaty but to conquer Mandalay. The British demanded the total surrender and to reply the final decision on whether to surrender or not by 4:00 am early morning on the 27 November.
I told my daughters that the harsh demand of the British was so belligerent and loud-mouthed to the extent of aching breaking hearts to the King and even the pauper as well as the whole people.
When there is no alternative due to powerlessness, Myanmar surrendered.The King’s Palace sent royal order in which no Myanmar forces were to make defensive and fight back, resulting with the “Sin Kyone Fort”, “Asay Khan Fort”, and “Sagaing Fort” remained completely powerless, although they had eight thousand strong warriors ready to fight back.
Around this time, a telegram from the Royal Palace had arrived at Min Hla. It read: “Do not defend against the British. Defenders will be noted as rebels.”
Receiving the royal order not to engage and fight back the British, mixed feeling and responses exploded among the Myanmar patriots such as that of close fists in strong anger; that of bursting out in dismay; that of knocking head against the fort wall in anguish; that of breaking the guns and weapons; that of retreating elsewhere leaving the arms behind; that of taking the arms and ammunition with the intent to fight back at an appropriate time in future and stayed with the close relatives; that of broken hearts among the patriots.
The British troops left Thayetmyo Township and arrived at Mandalay after two weeks on 28 November, and King Tibaw Min and family were taken away on 29 November. Perhaps, the month of December on that particular year witnessed the intangible Christmas gift to Her Majesty the Queen of England.
On 1 January 1886, the British made Myanmar a province of India, and Myanmar became a colony after the Third Anglo-Burmese War. From that day on, Myanmar was subjugated with diverse events including disunity among the nationals in the chronicle, making things difficult in escaping from Colonial rule.
Taking this opportunity, I told my daughters that the main reason for bringing them to this (150) years old “Gway Chaung Fort” is to instill and inspire them with patriotism by citing efforts of our ancestors in the defending the country and self-scarifies of our predecessors.
I told them that losing independence is simple compared with regaining it, which involves great sacrifice and struggle for hundreds of years; that weakness of the country and lack of development are due to loss of independence; that of many factors in disadvantages the country has to embrace; that of the need to protect independence and making the country strong; that of striving for development to come on a par with other foreign countries; that of the importance of patriotism; and that of visiting historical places to arouse patriotic spirit.
Convincing my daughters, that the feeling and outlook that they have before visiting the Gway Chaung Fort and the sense of attitude and mind-sets being changed after the first-hand experience of visiting the fortress. My daughter answered, “The Gway Chaung Fort looks the same in my eyes, but now my perspective and viewpoint has changed”.
I replied that I am very happy to hear their correct sentiments towards the independence.
Candidly, I told them that first and foremost I thought they are taking photographs with the background of the fort just to upload on the Facebook for fun.
They responded that their snapshots with the backdrops of the Gway Chaung Fort could edge over other normal photographs of beauty as they have historical value on patriotism.
I told them, “Let’s go back to Magway as the Granny is waiting for the loving granddaughters for lunch at home.”
Offering my hand to my better-half, she stood up and said, “Ko Ko!!! Your talks have activated the life of this Gway Chaung Fort.”
She softly murmured, “Let them know about Patriotism”.

Translated by UMT (Ahlon)

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