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U Ottama- Mahatma of Burma

Posted by Arakan Indobhasa Monday, September 6, 2010

Aung Kyaw

In the beginning of twentieth century, nationalism swept across Asian countries to free colonized countries from the oppressive colonial nations. Colonialism produced nationalists such as Mahatma Gandhi in India, San Yet San in China, and U Ottama in Burma. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, moderate nationalist, led the Indian National Congress to free India. In Burma, U Ottama introduced radical nationalism that provoked the passive Burmese to fight for their freedom. Maung (1980), a Burmese diplomat, characterized U Ottama as “Mahatma of Burma” who flamed nationalism in every town and village.

In the early twentieth century, nationalism in Burma was planted by young educated Burmese and monks. Many scholars such as Mendelson (1975), Maung (1980) suggest that Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA) was the first organization that initiated political movement in Burma. However, it does not mean that there were no freedom movements in Burma. Prior to the formation of YMBA and political awakening led by educated young monks and lay peaple, there were pongyis and other lay people who fought against the British colonial government. In 1930s, there were outbreak against the British colonial power in Arakan and Tenasserim (Mendelson, 1975). then, in 1886, U Ottama (Not to be confused with U Ottama, twentieth century nationalist), a pongyi, attacked British government with three thousand men in Minbu district. He was hanged by the British government in 1889 (Mendelson, 1975), which could be counted as the on going armed resistance against the British. The systematic political awakening occurred in Burma after educated monks started attacking the British government from constitutional framework.

U Ottama started his political-nationalism movement by writing for the Thuriya (the Sun), which was one of the only few pro-nationalist papers. According to Maung (1980), U Ottama was not admitted to monastery because of his involvement in politics and not observing vinayas, but the Sun installed him and supported his nationalistic views. As he had political experiences by associating with Indian National Congress, Japanese and traveling extensively, he turned political problems into religious problems. Meldelson (1975) quoted Cady, "U Ottama did for nationalism in Burma part of what Ghandhi did for it in India by transforming an essentially political problem into religious one...turned the hatred of the people against the foreign government, the police and courts, tax collector and even the village headman. The weapon of boycott was widely advocated." Since Burma has been literally Buddhist country, it was easy to instill nationalism in people mind by turning political problem into religious problem. After First World War, urban population was more pro-democracy and independence and the rural population valued the pre-colonial institution and practices (Silverstein, 1996). The urban educated young people were more supportive to the British. As a result, instilling nationalism in rural population and conservative Burmese was the best tool for U Ottama and many other pongyis.

U Ottama was born in 1897 in Rupa village in Arakan State in western Burma. His childhood name was Paw Htun Aung, and he had one brother and one sister. He studied at Anglo-Burmese primary school at Sittwe. He was brilliant and extraordinary student. According to Mendelson (1975), he passed fifth standard within two years. Mendelson further stated that U Ottama torned up his second prize for not getting the first prize. The school official gave him second prize because he visited to restroom during the examination (1975). He was selected to be educated in England. The English clergyman wanted to adopt U Ottama and educated him in Calcutta and England. However, His parents pulled him and his brother out of school because his parents regarded western education as the skill to serve the government. According to Mendelson (1975), his mother had a dream in which U Ottama would become monk.

At the age of 15, U Ottama became a novice. He studied in different places in Burma, and then he went to Calcutta with the help of a wealthy Shan Woman. He studied three years in Calcutta until he passed tenth-standard examination (Mendelson, 1975). After studying at Calcutta, he returned to Burma. However, he went back to Calcutta, and he later became lecturer of Pali at the Bengal National College in Calcutta (Mendelson, 1975). At that time, Calcutta was the destination for education, and administrative capital of British. Moreover, it was also the epicenter of national movement because many nationalist Bengalis were based in Calcutta. Moreover, the anti-British agitation was going on in West Bengal that made the best place to horn his political skills. It was through U Ottama that Bengali nationalists and Burmese nationalists kept close contact (Bhattacharya, 2004).

He planned to go to Tibet after he heard of rahant yet he could not get contact with any of them. Then, he toured India, Egypt, France and other European countries (Mendelson, 1975). Mendelson further stated that U Ottama returned to Burma for short stay in 1907 and went to Japan via Singapore after hearing Japan victory over Russia at the Russo-Japan War. Mendelson (1975) also quoted one of U Ottama biography as stating, “The Japanese were smaller in stature than the Russians, they ate rice instead of wheat, and they were Buddhists, a religion, according to Europeans, of the lower rung of humanity.” In Japan, he faced hardship in getting alms food. Thus, he wrote to chaplain of Buddhist College in Tokyo, who told him to learn Japanese (Mendelson, 1975). In the same year, he taught Pali and Sanskrit at the Academy of Buddhist Science in Tokyo without any pay (Mehden, 1968). According to mehden, he was impressed by the unity of Japan, and the role the emperor played. He became respected leader of Indian community in Japan (1975). While he was in Japan, he made arrangement for the Maharajah of Baroda of India to meet with the Japanese government. According to Mendelson (1975), U Ottama persuaded the Ministry of Industry to hold royal party for the maharajah of Baroda.

After living in Japan for three years, he toured Korea, Manchuria, Port Arthur, China, Annam, combodia, Siam (Thailand), Ceylon and India (Mendelson, 1975). While in India, he alluded polices who were looking for him. When he reached Burma, no monastery would not admitted him or welcome him. He was rejected by monks. But, U Ba Pe, a nationalist, let U Ottama stayed at the Sun newspaper office (Mehden, 1968), and made him wrote views on patriotism at his newspaper. At the same time, U Kyaw Yan from Mandalay also supported U Ottama and let him spread nationalism through his newspaper called the Burma Star (Mendelson, 1975). He wrote patriotism and nationalism at various papers such as Thuriya, Myanma Alin, and Pyinna Alin. According to Mendelson, “he wrote and spoke about the wanthanu rekhita taya-the points of law to be observed by nationalists-including the wearing of homemade cloth and boycott the tinned and other foreign foods” (Mendelson, 1975). Then, he fired the British government with his open letter to the governor. “Graddock Go Home” was published by the Sun. Maung (1980) stated, “From the day he became a national hero, he was invited out to various towns and even villages, to address gatherings organized by the YMBA to inspire the people to protest against the Craddock scheme and demand more extensive reforms.” YMBA was founded by Rangoon College students such as Maung Ba Pe, Maung Maung Gyi in 1906 (Maung, 1980) that became platform for U Ottama to lunch his political career. Moreover, the Thuriya was founded by Maung Ba pe, owning to no nationalist newspaper that could publish people agitation against the British colonial power. In 1921, he was arrested for one of his many speeches, and he was sentenced for 18 months in prison. Moreover, he was the first one in British Burma to get imprisonment by making political speech. According to Maung (1980), between 1921 and 1927, U Ottama spent more time in prison than outside.

Many pongyis gradually took up nationalism. U Ottama pleaded the sangha not to keep aside the problems faced by people. As Buddhism was not recognized by the British, it became the tool to inspire pongyis and many others. According to Mendelson (1975), Sir Edward Sladen, a resident of Mandalay, proposed to the then Chief Commissioner not to interfere with religion in Burma. Mendelson (1975) further quoted Sladen as saying that Burmese would welcome British “if only we did not interfere with religion so seriously as we have done since we took possession of [Lower] Burma. We have studiously refused to recognize the Buddhist ecclesiastical code…The result…is that the power of the priesthood to regulate church affairs is almost nil, their influence for good has vastly deteriorated.” It was necessary to unite and involve pongyis in politics to awaken nationalism. U Ottama advised Sangha:

Sanghas in Burma as members or as non-members of sanghas Samaggi (Sangha Associations) are found trying their outmost to become renowned preachers or to specialize on the three Pitakas, namely, suttanta (Discourses of the Buddha), Vinaya (Code of monastic regulations) and Abhidhamma (Psycho-ethical-philosophy). Some sanghas with the ulterior motive of receiving offerings of Kyaungs, Zayuts (preaching halls) and other properties of value, polish their skill as vocalists or singers. To rival these artists they (sanghas) with great enthusiasm get their sermons rhymed into melodious tune. Likewise and no less determination, sanghas should study the histories of Konbaung, Talaing and Arakanese dynasties. Attemps should be made to become conversant with the Indian Penal Code and British Administration so that the (sagha) may teach these to laymen….Rural administration Acts and the like should be thoroughly mastered and such knowledge should be communicated to the peasants so that they may be enlightened upon the fact that their labors are lsot and abused by irresponsible government officials. Sanghas should do research in comparative studyof government, such as the extent and amount collected on land tax, poll tax, municipal tax and other taxes. They should record how much government enjoys from the Excise Department yearly (on controlled drugs) as against the increase of opium and alcoholic addicts each year and what amount the government collects in taxes on fisheries and meat vendors every years, on the tons of rice and timber, liters of crude oil, kerosene, and petroleum and loads of ores like silver and other precious stones that are exported;…etc” (Mehden, 1968).

He was good orator.. Maung (1980) says, “U U Ottama had in his public speaking a very direct, forthright, and powerful style. He could make difficult ideas easy for simple country folk to grasp.”

U Ottama was the leader behind the curtain in formation of the General Council of theSangha Samettgyi (GCSS). There was Young Men’s Buddhists Association in which majority of its members was laymen. Thus, the GCSS was the parallel association for the monks. In 1920s, the members were estimated to be 60,000 (Houtart, 1976). It would not be wrong to say that the GCSS brought unity among pongyis. Mendelson (1975) quoted Sladen as saying, “Buddhism…is broken up into numerous sects and schisms, without and beyond all ecclesiastical control. The worst of it is, that the members of all these sects divided themselves socially as well as religiously, and the domestic relations of life have in many cases been materially disconcerted.” Under the guidance of U Ottama, pongyis got influences over Burmese. People looked up at pongyis for guidance. He also founded Wunthanu Athins at every place he visited (Maung, 1980). Wunthanu means protector of national interest or family, race and lineage. The Wunthanu Athins were led by pongyis. Unfortunately, Wunthanu Athins were the target of government because it instilled nationalism in people mind. Maung further stated that police officers would lecture villagers in order to dissuade them from participation in Wunthanu Athins. In addition to ordinary people, pongyis were influential in political arena. Politicians needed pongyis for elections. Pongyis were used as propagandists. Without any support from pongyis, no candidate would win an election. Mehden (1963) says, “The pongyis operated on both the local and national level. In the villages, where their influence was strongest, they often endorsed nominees, supported favored politicians, attended and spoke at political rallies, published propaganda, directed agitation…” During colonial era, all of the three prime ministers had to have supports from pongyis. Hobbs (1947) quoted Dr. Ba Maw, the prime minister of British Burma: “Sanghas can best serve the State in the field of propaganda. Sanghas make very good propagandists as all of us know.”

During the British colonial era, laws and orders were maintained by suppressing outspoken nationalists or politicians. Radical nationalists were more likely to keep in prisons or hang until death. For instance, Saya San, a radical ex-pongyi, who led the 1930 rebellion were captured and hanged (Solomon, 1969). Saya San was influenced by U Ottama. U Ottama, though he was not hanged for any of his political speeches, he was kept in prisons for many of his times. The imprisonment of U Ottama caused the involvement of pongyis in politics less influential until his release from prison in 1929 ( Mendelson, 1975).

U Ottama was not only inspirer and torch bearer of nationalism for pongyis and ordinary citizens, but he was also the inspirer for students’ community. In 1920, the British Burma government planned to establish a university of elite type that could be used as recruitment center for civil services (Silverstein & Wohl, 1964). As a result, many students were displeased with the government, and they were on the strike. As soon as he heard of the strike, U Ottama sent telegram, which was suppressed. The strikes of students in Rangoon were published in newspapers and Calcutta, and U Ottama rushed to Rangoon to inspire students (Mendelson, 1975).

Although he was the breeder of nationalism in Burma, there was less evidence to show him of holding any top post in any organization. Following the foot step of Mahatma Gandhi, U Ottama did not hold any post in any organization. However, he would lead any agitation, strike or rebellion to awaken nationalism in Burma. He represented India National Congress at the funeral of Dr. San Yet Sun. The only time he held the post was leading the All India Hindu Mahasabhas as president in 1935 (Maung, 1980).

He started his life with full of light- from brilliant students to national leader of Burma. He got respect from every walk of life- from ordinary and elite citizens of Burma to the Maharaja of Baroda, politicians and leaders from across Asia. However, he died as a poor man who had no family and no well-wishers. Maung, former Burmese diplomat and politician, concluded the semi-biography of U Ottama in his book:

“He lived in great penury, begging for food…rejected by his old colleagues in politics, who had brought him back from Calcutta to garner votes for them in the 1936 elections… it can truly be said that Burmese politics was fathered by U Ba Pe, but then inspired and led by Sayadaw U Ottama… His personal example alone was enough to inspire the people, no matter whom they were, peasant, intellectual, student or sangha, into great sacrifices” (Maung, 1980).

The great hero who sacrificed his life to Burma died in 1939. Although many scholars characterized him as the “the first martyr of Burmese nationalism” (Solomon, 1969) and “Mahatma of Burma” (Maung, 1980), U Ottama had not got his due recognition. U Ottama surely deserves recognition from the government of Burma and its people for his great contribution to Burma.


* Bhattacharya, S. (1994, July). A close view of encounter between British Burma and British Bengal. Paper presented at the 18th European Conference on Modern South
* Asian Studies, Lund, Sweden.
* Hobbs, C. (1947). Nationalism in British colonial Burma. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 6(2), 112-121.
* Houtart, F. (1976). Buddhism and politics in South-East Asia: Part One. Social Scientist, 5(3), 3-23.
* Maung, M. (1980). From sangha to laity. Columbia, MO: South Asia Books.
* Mehden, F.R. (1963). Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
* Mendelson, E.M. (1975). Sangha and state in Burma: A study f monastic sectarianism and leadership. London: Cornell University Press Ltd.
* Silverstein, J. (1996). The idea of freedom in Burma and the political thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Pacific Affairs, 69(2), 211-228.
* Silverstein, J., & Wohl, J. (1964). University students and politics in Burma. Pacific Affairs, 37(1), 50-65.
* Solomon, R.L. (1969). Saya San and the Burmese rebellion. Modern Asian Studies, 3(3), 209-223.


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