Thursday, March 16, 2017

Obituary Dr Hla Myint--Burmese-born economist d. March 9, 2017

Obituary of Economist Dr. Hla Myint.

By Kyi May Kaung

I never had the good fortune to attend Dr. Hla Myint's classes as I was born "one year too late."

I always knew Saya Hla Myint was one of the generation of pre-World War II scholars such as Dr. Tha Hla (geologist) and Dr. Hla Pe (Burmese linguist) who were stuck in the UK due to the outbreak of the War.

And I always knew that with Sir Arthur Lewis, he was known as one of the co-founders of the discipline known as Development Economics.

In the 1950s, when he was Rector of Rangoon Univ. my friend who was in his class won a Colombo Plan Fellowship to study in Canada.

Yiyi Chit Maung was one of the blessed women who combined intelligence and beauty with a lovely nature, family background and wealth.  At the time she was in the Commerce Department of the Economics Institute. I am a little hazy on the official nomenclature.  Her family founded and owned several nylon lace factories and the family house was the only 4 story building on Sandwith Rd, and in Rangoon or Burma.

She had a thick braid of jet black hair, reaching almost to her knees which she wore either hanging down her back or rolled up in a bun.

Yiyi who spelled her name Yi Yi then, wanted me to come along with her on the short walk from Economics to Saya Hla Myint's house on Bagan Rd.  It was mid day and lunch time, but we were so well brought up, we usually did not walk alone on campus.  In my first 2 years in college, I had a hell of a time having to escort my attractive future sister in law, that I did not know would be my sister in law, around campus, with sometimes the young men attempting to hand her love notes on little bits of paper, which I would hand her and she would get scared with a big intake of breath and ask me to hand back.

Yiyi was more able to handle stuff like that on her own, I think.

She wanted to ask Saya what she should study in Canada.

We went along, me adjusting my aqua linen longyi that was too heavy for a wrap longyi.

When we got there, Saya Findlay was also visiting.

So it must have been before Ne Win's 1962 coup.  I do remember that the linen piece was one my mother had brought back from England, where she also ran into the Chit Maung sisters who were visiting London at the time.  So it had to have been before 1962, or no one would have gotten passports to travel overseas, and Yiyi's family and other entrepreneurs would already have had their factories and businesses confiscated and be in somewhat straitened circumstances.

Y. asked her question, and Saya smiled and said something like:  It doesn't really matter anyway, what you study.  You'll be lost to economics anyway.

Dr. Findlay laughed and Y blushed and we walked back to our mother department.

Poor naive beautiful Y did not understand and even when I explained, she still did not understand.

A week or so later she said:  You're right, that is what he meant.


I always knew Dr. Hla Myint favored an open, export-oriented economy for Burma.

But it was really hard for me to understand why Ne Win hated anglicized, Westernized, Western-educated intellectuals so.

He particularly hated mixed race people and high achieving academics, or Shan royalty, or people who "wore long strands of pearls" and liked hitting people either with his fists or with golf clubs, and I have still tons of quotes of his vulgar language, especially with regard to the pearls.

In any case, in 1998 or so, when expatriate Burma scholars compiled their ideas for Burmese development, we somehow did not include U Hla Myint.

But I heard several anecdotes about him and Ne Win, because when I first arrived in Philadelphia, one of my close friends was dating one of his nephews and so related several anecdotes to me and others.

This concerned the cruelty and power-boasting typical of NW and other dictators.

According to KN, Saya went back to see his aging mother, and the NW regime did not even allow him to enter the Rangoon airport lounge.  He had to talk to his mother looking up at her on the airport balcony, while he stood on the tarmac.

But I have never heard that Saya ever mentioned this himself.

I was "somewhat instrumental" in advising the powerful non-profit to invite Nobel Laureate Joseph Stitglitz, Dr. Ronald Findlay and Saya Hla Myint to visit Burma.

That is, about 2004, while I was at The Burma Fund, I suggested Prof. Stiglitz be drawn into advising Burma, and my immediate job supervisor Ko ZO relayed it to the "mover and shakers" and this very powerful non-profit arranged for a 3 day seminar in D.C. in the Reagan Building. 

-- In 2010, this was after I had compiled the 20 page A Plan for Democracy and Development for Burma for the Burmese democratic government in exile, I was in Thailand with Ko ZO's CDCE (Community Development and Civic Empowerment), I suggested through Ko Khine Win (nephew of Dr Sein Win, head of the Exile Govt and Daw Suu's nephew) 

that it might be a good idea to invite Dr. Hla Myint to Chiangmai to talk at CDCE.

I said, "Due to his advanced age, you might have to treat him better,"  (than putting me in a dorm), "but it is worth it so that young people can see and be inspired."

Then in 2010, in fact right on the day when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was most recently released from house arrest,

my sister and I went to see Saya Hla Myint and his sister Aunty Myint at their home.

It was a VERY long taxi ride, and during the ride Pu Soo said her cousin Delphine had said, "She said she hopes Ko Thaw (my brother) did not get into trouble because you (I) spoke to BBC (Hardtalk)."

I said:  I did not talk to BBC to get my brother into trouble,  It's not something where I can say No.  The interview request came to me via the Exile Government.

But I don't think people tuned to tunnel vision in Burma really hear me when I say things like this.

Just last Sept. my Karen friend said, as soon as she got to--she saw me on BBC Hardtalk, and her hosts wanted her to say something, but she said, she's not like her friend (me) she's going back to Burma.

To this I said nothing.

I had no gift for Saya H. Myint, not traveling with the Plan in my carry on baggage, so I gave him a book of my poems.

I tried to verbally run through some of the suggestions made in the Plan.

Saya said, "There are already SEZs (Special Economic Zones) in Burma."

We stepped out on the big balcony, but it was quite hot. The Chao Phra River glistened in the distance.

I don't remember what we talked about on the balcony.

When we came back in, Aunty Myint said, "We went searching for a tropical place to retire, so far, we got as far as New Zealand and Bali. We used to have orchids on the balcony, but they all died."

I used to think it was so strange Valdimir Nabokov and Vera lived in an hotel in Geneva, when they could afford a big house with a rose garden in upstate New York.

To Aunty M's remark, I said nothing, as I already scouted out Chiangmai and found it too like Rangoon in the way all the Burmese feud with each other. 

When I am in Thailand, the world seems to shrink.

Maybe it will shrink down south where I am retiring too.

When I was saying good bye to Saya Hla Myint, I said at the door, "Don't worry Saya, they (the big non-profits) will come for you.  They have come for everyone else already."

It turns out I was right.

At the end of the movie and story Woman in Gold, which is about a Gustav Klimpt painting that the Nazis stole from the Jewish family that owned it,

the German official says to Mrs. Altman (played by Helen Mirren)

"Won't you reconsider leaving the painting where it is in Germany" in a big museum.  This after she'd gone as far as the U.S. Supreme Court to get the painting back.

To this Maria Altman responded sharply, "Oh No.  She is going to live overseas now, as many of us (Jews) have been obliged to do."

My family friend Joe  K.H. always used to say, "Living well is the best revenge."

His wife baked not one loaf of bread, but 20 to give as Christmas gifts.

He also loved to tell his favorite story, Ma Thay Thay Kyay Zuu Tin.

Ma Thay Thay, Ms. Small like her name, jilted the young man, who went on to become the literary luminary Sardone Sayadaw.

Many of us have been obliged to live overseas.

I am glad  both Dr. Hla Myint and Aunty Myint, who passed away a few years ago, got to live their last years in comfort overseas, and in Freedom.

And that Saya had the last trip, for Closure, as they say.

I am told his gave his speech from a wheelchair, it was standing room only, and there was a standing ovation.

There really was, I saw the photos.

Dr. Findlay said that China is an economic miracle by following the H. Myint Model.


I think when people give well considered, well meant and well intentioned advice which is good advice, when that advice is not taken, it does not hurt the advisor/s so much as the would be advisee/s.

Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)

Political economist, writer, dissenting artist.


Kyi May Kaung
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