I loved an Englishman once

  • (Phoehlaing)

Recently while in Mandalay for the ceremony of homage to teachers of Mandalay University, I got a chance to visit my old school, the Royal Diocesan High School. Nationalized in 1965, its name changed to No. 10 Basic Education High School. U Htay Kywe, chairman of old students group contacted me, and he and two others took me out for monti breakfast in a decent shop, and one hour spent recalling long past events, and enquiring who’s who and where now. Then they proposed a visit to the school, and we did. To my knowledge this is the only school in the country that boasted relation to royalty, although the royal honor has been dropped in favor of the State. But the school’s history beginning with the King Mindon ought to be revived.
In 1969 King Mindon asked Rev. E.B. Marks, of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) in London, to open an English school in Mandalay. Four years earlier Dr. Marks had successfully founded St. Johns School in Yangon. In addition to financially supporting the Christian missionary, the King donated the school compound, a church and buildings for the school. And he sent his sons to the school, including Prince Thebaw, the future king. Thanks to King Mindon, today the former royal school, now No. 10 B.E.H.S. is one of the very few schools in Mandalay to own a football field, in addition to a spacious compound.
The school has been known by various names: Saya Hmat Kyee Kyaung (Great Teacher Marks’ School), the Royal School, S.P.G. School (because of its affiliation with S.P.G., London), Thande Kyaung (because of its location in the diplomatic quarters, thande being Myanmar word for diplomatic compound).
As our car entered the school gate, fascinating memories flashed in haphazard sequence. First came the elephant post, close to the gate. It was a sort of parking spot; the elephant being the princes’ Mercedes; after they got off, the creature was chained to the big teak post. “Is the elephant post still there?” I queried my friend Hla Baw. “Oh, it’s there”, he replied pointing at it. It is decaying, a lot of it eaten away by time. Delightfully I saw the elephant post protected by a roof. But it still needs better conservation.
Marvelous religious harmony in Mandalay
As is well known, Mindon was a deeply religious king who sponsored the Fifth Buddhist Council to recite and review the whole set of Tipitaka. The edited version is recorded on 729 big stone slabs, separately housed near Mandalay Hill. These stone pages of Tipitaka which still stand and, which many tourists care to visit, constitute ‘the world’s biggest book’. Apart from his lavish support for Buddhist Sasana, the king also showed big heartedness in matters of worship. He built mosques for Panthay Muslim Chinese, and also for Sunnis and Shiites.
Contemporary with Dr. Marks, there was also Bishop Bigandet, the Catholic missionary. Unlike their Churches, the two were never at odds, but rather friendly and cooperative. Dr. Marks’ book, Forty Years in Burma, contains interesting recounts of his friendly relations with the king. In it he wrote about one amusing meeting he and the Bishop had with the king. It was an unofficial private meeting. At one point King Mindon asked, “Khingyis (his term for religious men) you are both Christians, yet you belong to different Orders. What really is the difference between your faiths?” For a while the missionaries kept silent, but looked at each other, meaning to say, “you answer”. Dr. Marks broke the silence, “Great King, Bishop Bigandet cannot marry, but I can!” The polygamous King burst with laughter and made a big offer for Dr. Marks, a bachelor. “Oh, I have a number of surplus queens, and I can spare you one or two, Khingyi Marks”.
I once loved an Englishman
I came from a remote village of an almost hundred percent Myanmar township, Ayadaw. With early education in the monastery and village life, I felt I loved my country and race. By 1951, when I joined the Royal School, only eleven years old then, the country had been independent just over two years, but there were only very few Englishmen, the master race, left in the country.
From Dr. Marks, my memory shifted to an Englishman. His name was Khin Nyunt Maung. Yes, an Englishman with a Myanmar name! I confirmed it with my friend Ko Hla Baw. He said I was right. But Khin Nyunt Maung was a pathetic man. He was mad man, a beggar. Sayagyi U Ba Than, our principal, told us his story. He was his former student, an old boy of the school, and during World War II, he saw his wife and three children die brutally under Japanese bombs. The shock left KNM deranged and he never recovered. With no relatives and no friend, KNM made his former school his haunt, and earned his living begging from young students. He had some talents. He could crack a few jokes, and he was good at sketching nude pictures (in our exercise books, with red and blue pencil). We young boys loved him, or sympathized him. We used to give him five or ten pyas out of our pocket money. It wasn’t difficult for him to collect 50 pyas, and in those days it was enough to make a meal. So our rapport with KNM continued.
I remember one morning when KNM came into our classroom where Principal U Ba Than was giving moral instruction. Disregarding the master, KNM begged for money. U Ba Than told him not to disturb and to go away. “They are willing to give me, sir,” he insisted. “KNM, I have been good to you in many ways, but this is a classroom. Just go away,” said the master. KNM did not move. He must be desperate for his meal. “Please take him away,” the principal demanded. A senior boy took him by the arm and pulled out from the classroom. We were left in silence, full of sympathy for KNM.
We, the students, were unanimous with kindness for KNM, an Englishman.

Did KNM have a British passport, or Myanmar Nationality ID?
This was what came to my mind next. National ID cards were not introduced then. And no one appeared to check KNM’s legal status. The country had been independent just a few years. Wasn’t it time for KNM, the Englishman, to leave the country? Why did young Myanmar boys accept him, or befriend him? Well, I concluded that he was an Englishman and thus irrelevant; there was unseen humanity at work. KNM the human being, insane and destitute he was though!
I am proud that Myanmar boys of the Royal School acted with humanity.

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