By Myint Zan
Sayagyi Dr Aung Than Batu (21 June 1931 – 7 October 2020) passed away on 7 October 2020.
Professor Dr Aung Than Batu had a varied career and made contributions specifically to medical research and generally to the medical field and they are very significant. He was among many others a Professor of Medicine, Director-General of Research in Burma and served at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office in New Delhi for many years
It is not for me to recount the achievements and contributions of Sayagyi Uncle Aung Than Batu (hereafter in respectful tone ‘Uncle ATBT’) but I may be allowed in a personal manner to show my appreciation and tribute to him.
Uncle ATBT (as I used to call him) was a (slightly junior colleague) of my late mother Professor Dr Myint Myint Khin (15 December 1923-19 June 2014). According to an article written in Burmese by Dr Aung Gyi, a former student of my late mother and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Medicine in Mandalay (UMM) Uncle ATBT was among a few persons whom my mother was ‘afraid of’.
In an article published within a few days of my mother’s passing away Dr Aung Gyi wrote to the effect that my mother was usually ‘unafraid’ of many persons and (according to Dr Aung Gyi) was the only person to respond to the then powerful Chairman U Ne Win (6 July 1910-5 December 2002) when perhaps a few decades ago in a meeting with medical doctors of UMM, U Ne Win suggested to the gathering of medical doctors to study the cultural aspects of Mandalay. Dr Aung Gyi wrote that none of the other medical doctors present dared make a comment or responded to U Ne Win. U Ne Win was astonished and pleasantly surprised that my mother, a lady doctor, responded him to the effect that (without your exhortation) ‘we have done so’ and ‘talked him back’ about the cultural places and cultural aspects of Mandalay and environs. Yet, wrote Dr Aung Gyi, among the persons my late mother was ‘afraid of’ was Uncle Dr ATBT. He was very meticulous in his medical research and writings and my late mother had to be ‘wary’ of what she affectionately called ‘ATBT’s rigorousness’ regarding medical research and medical research papers.
I should add that the late Uncle ATBT, together with my late mother and the late Dr U Ko Ko former (retired) Regional Director of the World Health Organization Southeast Asia Regional Office (WHO SEARO based in New Delhi, India), since about the year 2007, had made concerted efforts to publish a book History of Medical Education in Myanmar.
My late mother and Uncle ATBT had to persuade, urge at time perhaps cajole the medical educationists inside and outside the country to contribute articles for the book. My late mother did not live to see the publication of the book. In around December 2015 there was a book launch of History of Medical Education in Myanmar 1886-2010 (in English). I was one of the speakers (by invitation) at the book launch.
Perhaps (arguably) immodestly I am not adhering to the Biblical exhortation that when one gives donations ‘do not let your left hand knows what your right hand is doing’: I have contributed about 60,000,000 (six million) Kyats towards the production, printing and circulation of the book. The hardcover book is over 450 pages and has 32 articles from 32 educationists including by my mother, late Uncle Dr ATBT, late Uncle U Ko Ko and others. Subject to correction I understand that the book is sold in some ‘outlets’ for a mere 5,000 Kyats!
When my late mother passed away on 19 June 2014 within hours Uncle ATBT wrote a tribute of my late mother in English which was published in the Support Group for Elderly Doctors (SGED) newsletter of July 2014. Perhaps it never crossed Uncle ATBT’s mind to send his tribute to The Global New Light of Myanmar or Myanmar Times or Mizzima!
I am also grateful to Uncle ATBT for among others (1) serving as Chair of my late father the Dr San Baw Research Prize Committee from about 1985 to 1994 (2) for being one of the speakers in the inaugural Myint Myint Khin prize for scientific literacy held at the Myanmar Medical Association on 19 March 2014 where, at the suggestions of yours truly, the award of 1 million kyats each was given to the families of the late Sayagyi U Aye Maung (Sarpay Beikman (2 February 1914-11 May 2002) and Saya Bhamo Tin Aung (9 June 1920-23 October 1978) (3) for being one of the speakers again, where at my initiative, the second Myint Myint Khin scientific literacy award ceremony was held in May 2017. The second Myint Myint Khin literary prize was given to the founders of the Curiosity Science Magazine website namely Ko Thar Htet Aung, Dr Kyaw Swar Linn and Ko Nyan Hein Aung (as the Curiosity Magazine organizers then were).
These youngsters wrote articles on general science topics in Burmese language for the Curiosity Science Magazine web site and it is gratifying to note that (in a sense) the ‘torch’ of scientific literacy has been passed down from those of U Aye Maung and Bhamo Tin Aung (born in the second decade of the 20th century) to the second, if not third generation of young persons born in the last decade of the 20th century. Uncle ATBT was an octogenarian at that time who with his speech honoured those who were around 60 years junior to him. I have read only a few parts of The History of Medical Education in Myanma. But I have read in its entirety the memoirs of ATBT entitled Reflections of a Director-General (Medical Research) which was published in December 2016 in both its English and Myanmar versions (in the same book). I attended the book launch in December 2016 where Uncle ATBT presented to me a signed copy of the book. Within a few days I have finished reading it. When I phoned Uncle ATBT’s residence to tell him that I have read the book he was not there in his house (now Uncle ATBT is, sadly, gone) and his widow Aunty Dr Daw Khin Khin Htwe answered the phone. . I told Aunty Htwe that I have read Uncle ATBT’s memoirs in its entirety.
Aunty Htwe told me on the phone that she herself had not read her husband’s memoirs in its entirety (at that time). I had intended to write a review of Uncle ATBT’s memoirs and so far, this has not come to pass. Instead, if this tribute ‘sees the light of day’ it would constitute an appreciation and a tribute to one of the torch bearers of Myanmar medical education. Dr Aung Than Batu is no more but the light from his torch is not extinguished and would continue to guide medical doctors and researchers.
I have learnt that Uncle ATBT’s memoirs (2016) as well as the History of Medical Education in Myanmar (2015) were considered for the National literary prize (English language in the general knowledge category) in those years but they both missed receiving the laurels so to speak. It is gratifying though that Uncle ATBT’s memoirs received a gold medal and prize from the Tun Foundation in 2019. I attended the prize-giving ceremony where I met him probably for the last time.
In his memoirs, among many others, Uncle ATBT mentioned that after retirement as Director-General of the Department of Medical Research (DMRI) he had visited his daughter and her family in the United States as much as 25 times! And in the Bibliography of his memoirs he mentioned non-medical books written by the late Carl Sagan, the late Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins as well as the Dalai Lama.
These two anecdotes gleaned from his memoirs stated how he had enjoyed his life extensively travelling even in his sunset years so to speak. On his passing away this is one of the reasons (in a sense) to rejoice at his good luck and good fortune. And among the persons whose books he had read and who arguably had inspired him the late Carl Sagan (9 November 1934-20 December 1996) and the late Stephen Hawking (8 January 1942-14 March 2018) did not live as long as Uncle ATBT.
As the English poet John Donne (22 January 1572-31 March 1631) wrote ‘any man death diminishes me’. John Donne’s beautiful, affecting if idealistic sentiments and words have reverberated (at least among poetry lovers) throughout the centuries. Sayagyi Uncle Aung Than Batu’s death certainly diminishes not only his family, friends, colleagues and students but also the entire Myanmar medical community. Yet we can take solace –indeed we can celebrate- such a well-lived life and the contributions that he had made towards society.