By Dr Myint Zan
In this article I would like to present a personal profile and tribute of Sayagyi Uncle U Tha Hto (6 June 1919-4 February 2011), an economist who is a University of Rangoon (as it was then formally named) and University of California (at Berkeley) alumnus.
Sayagyi Uncle U Tha Hto was born in Thin Phyu Bin village သင်ဖြူးပင်ရွာ near Nga Thaing Gyaung township ငါးသိုင်းချောင်း မြို့နယ် in what was then Irrawaddy Division in lower Burma. He attended University of Rangoon perhaps starting from the academic year 1936-37 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in the year 1940 and another Bachelor degree in 1942. Both those Bachelor degrees were obtained just before or soon after the winds of the (Second World) War reached our shores and our land.
This writer has learned that Uncle U Tha Hto during the war years and Japanese occupation (or is it at least initially liberation?) was involved in the activities of ‘young Asians associations’ အာရှလူငယ်အသင်း for which he was awarded the Naing Ngant Gon Yi (2nd class) နိုင်ငံ့ဂုဏ်ရည် ဒုတိယအဆင့် sometime in 1980 by the then Council of State. (Professor of Economics U Tha Hto was a different person from Saya Tha Hto who wrote school text books regarding among others Burmese poetry).
The Missed Seaplane Flight
From my conversations with Uncle U Tha Hto sometime in September 2010 (less than 4 months before he passed away in February 2011) he told me that he was supposed to leave by seaplane from Rangoon port on 23 August 1947 to study in the United States.
After he arrived at seaport the gathered Burmese state scholars were informed that the seaplane’s arrival was delayed and they had either wait or they could come back to the seaport later. Uncle U Tha Hto decided to go back to his hostel to have a meal or to do other chores.
While he was away from the seaport the seaplane (perhaps earlier than expected) arrived and the concerned persons tried to contact him through perhaps his Rangoon University halls of residence phone number to no avail but in a more important sense (soon to be explained) to great good fortune for him and his future family, students and friends. (Incidentally the use of mobile phones with its attendant applications such as Viber and WhatsApp were, in 1947, quite far in the ‘misty future’).
When ‘Maung Tha Hto’ (or M. T. Hto as named when he graduated at University of California at Berkeley several years later) arrived at the seaport the plane had left with a few other Burmese state scholars on board. Among those on the flight were the late Dr Hla Shwe (also known during the pre-war Years as ‘dictator Hla Shwe’) အာဏာရှင် လှရွှေ.
Sayagyi U Tha Hto told me that those who boarded the seaplane had to sign the passenger list so that the airline could charge the then British government as all the students travelled on British passports and he recalled seeing a ‘big’ signature of Dr Hla Shwe on the passenger manifest.
Uncle U Tha Hto had missed the flight of 23 August 1947 which probably saved his life. The wonders of the world wide web are such that on 25 October 2020 I was able to search what happened on 23 August 1947 to the British Airways Overseas Corporation (BOAC) plane. The information from the web site is that there were a total of ‘10 fatalities’ among 26 occupants of the BOAC plane which crashed or had a mishap on landing at the Bahrain marine air base. https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19470823-1 (accessed 25 October 2020)
And when U Tha Hto boarded the seaplane that would took him to the United States (initially, I think, to New York) perhaps the next day (24 August 1947) he apparently was not aware of the disaster that had befallen the earlier flight which he missed. Only when he arrived in the Gulf state of Bahrain marine base he knew what had happened to the earlier flight. The seaplane that he had missed was in a nose-dived position in the sea off the coast of Bahrain. Though I am not sure how many Burmese state scholars were on that ill-fated flight at least one of them Dr Hla Shwe – scheduled for post graduate study in medicine at the University of Minnesota — was among those who perished in the disaster.
Enrollment at and Graduation from Berkeley
U Tha Hto arrived (perhaps) in New York by seaplane via Rangoon, Karachi and Bahrain sometime in late August 1947. I attach a photo which I kindly obtained from his widow the late Daw Khin Myint Myint (‘Aunty Lay’) taken at registration of Burmese state scholars in late August 1947 presumably in New York. In the photo where Burmese state scholars were in the ‘queue’ to register before they were sent to various Universities across the United States the person in front was (as he was known then) ‘Maung Tha Hto (M.T. Hto)’ and behind him would be (I think) ‘Ma Thin Kyi’ (later Professor of Geography the late Dr Daw Thin Kyi) who obtained her doctorate in Geography at Clarke University in 1950.
Study at University of California at Berkeley (1947- 1951)
In response to my query around February 1974 I recall Uncle U Tha Hto telling me that since his ‘school’ University of California, Berkeley will only start classes at ‘September 18, ’ ကျောင်းက September 18 မှ ဖွင့်မှာဆိုတော့ he took a train from New York (perhaps) to San Francisco which took two weeks! (I checked on line just now and the train journey from San Francisco to New York on Amtrak would take around 80 hours – over three days – in the year 2020. In 1947 it could have arguably taken slightly longer but Uncle U Tha Hto perhaps took a break in Chicago or elsewhere to do some sightseeing on his way to Berkeley which is near San Francisco.)
My fairly firm memory is that Uncle U Tha Hto mentioned to me that (in 1947) fall semester at Berkeley started on ‘September 18’. I was able to verify, on line, a few years ago when I saw on the ‘1947 Fall semester timetable’ that the dates ‘September 16 and 17,  were stated as ‘orientation days at Berkeley’ and perhaps classes would start on ‘September 18’!
Teaching at Mandalay University Economics Department (from around) 1952 to 1964
Uncle U Tha Hto returned to Burma perhaps in latter part of 1951. From what I gathered at least part of his return journey (unlike his visit to the United States for the first time in 1947) was by ship. I recall grandmother Daw Sein Oke, late mother- in-law of Uncle U Tha Hto telling me around 1974 that when she saw Uncle U Tha Hto (as the then prospective mother-in -law I might cheerily add) his complexion was somewhat dark brown. Grandma Daw Sein Oke told me that Maung Tha Hto was apparently playing football on the ship’s deck (apparently some of the time on his return journey) that was why his skin was darkened! မောင်သာထို အသားတွေ မည်းလာတယ်ဆိုတော့ သင်္ဘောပေါ် ဘော(လုံး)ကန်လာတယ်ဆိုပဲ
Several months after his return to Burma Uncle U Tha Hto was appointed as a Lecturer in the Economics Department of the University of Mandalay. He and his family was given a double storey building in University of Mandalay compound academic staff quarters. My late parents Dr U San Baw (29 June 1922-7 December 1984) and Dr Daw Myint Myint Khin (15 December 1923-19 June 2014) in the early 1960s were also given a ‘quarters’ (a house) in Mandalay University compound as my late father, chief of orthopaedic surgery at Mandalay General hospital was then also affiliated with the University of Mandalay hospital. It was then that I, as a child, became acquainted with Uncle U Tha Hto as well as his eldest son the late Ko Khaing Soe (May 1953-October?1972).
When the Institute of Economics was established around September 1964 Uncle U Tha Hto was appointed as a Professor in the Institute of Economics and was transferred to Rangoon. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 1980.
Master Thesis Submission at Berkeley and Presentation of copies to him 49 years later in 2010
But back, briefly, to his Berkeley days and the scholarly work that he had done there.
U Tha Hto (‘M.T. Hto’) submitted his thesis entitled ‘The Readjustment of Malaya to the Great Depression of the 1930s’ on 20 April 1951 in partial fulfillment for the Master of Arts (Economics) degree at the University of California (Berkeley). (His signature and agreement that he gave permission for reproduction for research purposes reproduced by him was signed by M T Hto on that date). Three examiners approved the thesis and it was deposited in University of California, Berkeley on ‘August 9, 1951’.
Yours truly take some pride that he had arranged to ‘deposit’ (or donate) a copy of the MA thesis of Uncle U Tha Hto (at University of California, Berkeley) with the Universities Central (or) Yangon University library in 2010.
Around mid-2010 I discovered on line U Tha Hto’s thesis title. I wrote to the library personnel at Berkeley and queried whether I can obtain a copy of his thesis. On payment of 45 US dollars the librarian sent me a PDF version of U Tha Hto’s thesis. I printed it, make several copies and presented a copy to the library of Multimedia University in Malacca, Malaysia, where I was working then.
In my visit to Yangon in September 2010 I brought 3 or 4 copies of Uncle U Tha Hto’s thesis with me and read parts of it on the aeroplane from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon.
When I visited Uncle U Tha Hto’s house in September 2010 I told him that I had a present and surprise for him and then showed him a copy of his thesis (submitted April 1951) of more than 59 years ago. He looked at it for about half a minute or more and then in great astonishment proclaimed ‘Ah that is my thesis!’ ငါ့ thesis ပါလား
‘The Najdorf surprise’ and exclamation
Just before I write these words I am reminded of the late Polish-Argentinian Chess Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf (15 April 1910 – 4 July 1997) apparent exclamation as reported by Newsweek magazine in one of its August 1972 issues. In August 1972 there was a world chess championship match between then world chess champion Boris Spassky (born 30 January 1937) and the late Bobby Fisher (9 March 1943-17 January 2008). Apparently, one of the players opened one of the games with what was known as the ‘Najdorf opening’ (in full ‘Najdorf variation on the Sicilian defence’). Newsweek reported that the chess Grandmaster Najdorf who was watching the game live (perhaps in the game venue itself) where the chess moves were displayed on the board exclaimed ‘It’s the Najdorf! It’s the Najdorf!’ Taking a little poetic and personal licence Uncle U Tha Hto’s pleasant surprise and delight might have been somewhat like that of Grandmaster Najdorf. ‘It’s the Najdorf!’ to ‘That’s my thesis’!
U Tha Hto then went to search for his thesis in the upstairs of his house. After about 15 minutes or so he came back with a worn out copy of his thesis which he said he had arranged to bind it during his Mandalay days i.e. the binding of his thesis copy was made in Mandalay sometime before he transferred to Rangoon in 1964.
I presented two copies of PDF version of the thesis to Uncle U Tha Hto, a copy to Yangon University (or) Universities Central Library and a copy to Saya U Thaw Kaung, former librarian of University of Yangon library.
Ko Myo Thant Tun who occasionally writes articles for magazines was for several years U Tha Hto’s neighbour. Myo Thant Tun quite frequently visited Uncle U Tha Hto’s house. He told me that Uncle U Tha Hto did not quite understand how I was able to obtain a copy of his MA thesis!
In April 1951 when he submitted his thesis U Tha Hto had a choice whether to prohibit production of his thesis or to put a ‘time limit’ for such productions (for future scholars). The liberality of spirit by U Tha Hto in giving permission for reproduction and systematic ‘storage’ of it all these years by the University of California had made it possible for me to ‘deposit’ or donate his thesis to two other Universities around the world (Multimedia University in Malaysia and Yangon University).
U Tha Hto’s family and a family tragedy
As stated, I was first acquainted with Uncle U Tha Hto during his Mandalay days in the early 1960s. His eldest son was Ko Khaing Soe. When he passed away he was only about 19 years old and the circumstances of Khaing Soe’s passing away was tragic.
Sometime around October 1972 Khaing Soe, then a second year (2nd MB junior) medical student influenced by a person (may be one of his class mates) decided to join the (former overthrown Prime Minister) U Nu’s resistance movement then stationed in parts of the Burma-Thai order. (I recall that in October 1969 Bagyi — elder Uncle — U Nu declared and as reported in official Burmese newspapers then that ‘he would return to Burma within a year’ that is by October 1970. IF, if U Nu had returned to Burma as he had declared in October 1969 ‘in victory’ then there was no need for my friend Ko Khaing Soe to ran across the border to join his ‘forces’ in October 1972).
Sadly, Khaing Soe passed away of malaria perhaps even before he reached the border. I met the person who induced or persuaded him to ran to the border, by chance, in a Rangoon street (he had returned and surrendered to the then Burmese authorities when I accidentally met him in the street) perhaps in the late 1970s. That person informed me that Khaing Soe had died ‘on his lap’. As this was an unfortunate family tragedy I rarely mentioned this unpleasant event to Uncle U Tha Hto, later his widow Daw Khin Myint Myint and his two younger brothers the late singer Khaing Htoo (1958-2017) and Dr Khaing Moe (now residing in New York state).
‘Singer Khaing Htoo is U Tha Hto’s son’
When I talked on the phone querying the Chief Editor whether a profile of U Tha Hto would be of interest to him (and the Board which decides ultimately) the Chief Editor queried whether U Tha Hto was the ‘father of singer Khaing Htoo’. I responded as I had also done to a few persons who asked me that question with the answer that’ Khaing Htoo was U Tha Hto’s son’. Neither of U Tha Hto’s surviving sons were able to attend the funeral of their father on 5 February 2011 since Dr Khaing Moe was in America and Ko Khaing Htoo was then on a tour in Singapore.
The Last Day of Uncle U Tha Hto (as narrated by neighbour and writer Ko Myo Than Tun)
According to a neighbour of Uncle U Tha Hto (as narrated above) Ko Myo Thant Tun, (his neighbour and frequent almost daily conversationalist in U Tha Hto’s last months) was with Uncle U Tha Hto on the day U Tha Hto passed away, 4 February 2011.
Myo Thant Tun bought some medicines for him and U Tha Hto insisted on paying him and despite Myo Thant Tun’s protests he paid for it. Myo Thant Tun said he had lunch with him at U Tha Hto’s house that day. Around 5 pm or so U Tha Hto felt unwell and went upstairs to his bed and covered himself with a blanket to ‘sweat it out’. Concernedly, he told Myo Than Tun to go back to his house as he had family members to look after. Myo Thant Tun did and was having dinner at his house when a phone call from Aunty Lay (Daw Khin Myint Myint) came which informed him that your Saya was very ill. When he arrived back at U Tha Hto’s house which he had left no more than 2 hours ago U Tha Hto’s widow informed him that his Saya was no more.
I recall reading the late junior (in age) economist U Thet Tun’s short tribute in Burmese soon after Uncle U Tha Hto passed away. (U Thet Tun was a semi-regular contributor to the GNLM’s predecessor The Working People’s Daily in the years 1973 to 1975). There must have been other tributes too but perhaps not in English and not as extensively as this one.
Unpublished? Obituary in California (Alumni) Magazine
Around mid-2011 I sent a 3 to 5 sentence obituary of U Tha Hto to a contact person (then student Editor from what I recall) of California magazine which is an alumni magazine of University of California (Berkeley). (The instructions regarding obituaries sent to them specifically states that they be no longer than 4 or 5 sentences). I then lost contact with the student Editor and did not know whether it was published or not. On 24 October 2020 I searched on line the California magazine website but under both ‘Tha Hto’ and ‘M. T. Hto’ nothing turned up. Perhaps the obituary of U Tha Hto that I sent to the magazine was not published or perhaps it was published in ‘hard copy’ but not ‘on line’.
Three Bachelor Degrees, a Master Degree holder and a Personalized Tribute
As stated above U Tha Hto obtained two Bachelor degrees (A.B. as written in the front page of his Berkeley thesis) in 1940 and 1942 respectively from the University of Rangoon. He obtained another A. B. (Bachelor degree) from Berkeley in 1949 and a MA in Economics in 1951. Ko Myo Thant Tun informed me that U Tha Hto initially specialized in history and then later in economics. Perhaps his first Bachelor degree from University of Rangoon was in history.
The year 2020 marks not only the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the University of Rangoon (now University of Yangon) but also the 80th anniversary of the first degree Professor Uncle U Tha Hto earned from one of his alma maters. It is a honour to record some of U Tha Hto’s accomplishments and a few aspects of his personality in this personalized tribute.