The Woman Who Saved Burmese History

Monica Mya Maung was awarded the MBE in 1979 and died in 2008 at the age of 91 having worked at the British Council in Rangoon for 38 years. (Photo: British Council)

RANGOON — The British Council Library in Rangoon is Burma’s leading authority on history and culture, but one woman is owed a huge debt of gratitude for preserving its peerless collection.

Monica Mya Maung first arrived in Rangoon in October 1937 as the English wife of Burmese barrister Percy Mya Maung, the son of a judge who had graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge.

When the British Council library opened in 1947, “Auntie Monica,” as she was affectionately known, began helping out in her spare time. But when former dictator Gen Ne Win orchestrated a military coup in 1962, his troops overran the library, and ordered it closed and the books sold off.

A sharp-witted Auntie Monica quickly hid 500 Burmese history tomes under tables and in surreptitious cubbyholes inside the embassy to save them from the purge. She then kept the library running in secret until the British Council was finally allowed to reopen in Rangoon in 1973.

“She was so energetic, and such a wonderful woman—an example,” the current Library Information Manager Moe Moe Soe told The Irrawaddy. “She loved Burma and the Burmese people and she always felt like this was her home. She continued to work part-time here even after she retired.”

And it is thanks to Auntie Monica’s daring actions that such irreplaceable titles such as: “Burma Past and Present, Journal of a Residence in the Burnham Empire” and “The Economics of the Central Chin Tribe” remain available to scholars today.

However, not everyone took to Auntie’s Monica’s iron-willed approach and for a time she remained ostracized in the stuffy colonial circles of her British countrymen. But she cared little for such pretensions and threw herself headfirst into her new Burmese kinfolk.

On her first day in Rangoon, Monica was pictured in the newspaper in Burmese silk attire praying barefoot at the Shwedagon Pagoda, ostensibly to placate her in-laws who did not approve of their son’s choice of wife.
The alliteration-brimming headline, “Burmese Barrister Brings Back Beautiful Buddhist British Bride!” caused scandal amongst her jingoistic compatriots when it appeared in the next day’s newspaper. In the unenlightened 1930s, no Burmese person, not even the acting governor Sir Joseph Maung Gyi, was permitted to be a member of an English club. But it was not long before Monica, born June 5, 1914, became a stalwart of Rangoon society, cutting through even the ruthless military hierarchy of the day.

“She taught all the ambassadors wives English as there were lots of them from all over the world,” said Moe Moe Soe. “She even taught English to the three grandsons of Ne Win as well.”

Auntie Monica never had any children of her own but adopted with her husband instead. She stayed in the same low teak house in Rangoon even when he died in 1987. Although she attempted to move back to England, Auntie Monica quickly returned to Burma knowing finally where her true home was.

“I remember just once when she watched the year 2000 celebrations in London on the television she turned to us and asked ‘why am I here?’ as if she was missing out not being there with her relatives,” recalled Moe Moe Soe.

Monica Mya Maung was awarded an MBE [Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] in 1979 and died in 2008 at the age of 91 having worked at the British Council for 38 years. She had lived through Japanese bombings, occupation, house arrest, and plague outbreaks, and had continued teaching into her 90s.

“I’ve never known an English lady like her. She saw people as human beings, and loved books and loved to read,” added Moe Moe Soe.

And Moe Moe Soe is already living up to her legendary predecessor and has herself become a celebrity of the institution. Similarly known as “Auntie Moe,” under her stewardship the library has continued to flourish.

Each day around 1,200 visitors come to the British Council in Rangoon to develop their knowledge and skills and it remains the country’s sole uncensored reading facility. When Auntie Moe admits to thoughts of retirement a nearby colleague immediately chimes in with, “Oh no you’re not!”

Clearly the spirit of Auntie Monica lives on.

10 Responses to The Woman Who Saved Burmese History

  1. May grandma Monica Mya Maung goes to heaven. Amen.

  2. Growing up in Burma during the 50’s and the 60’s (and not having rich upper-class parents), I remember borrowing and reading books from the libraries run by the British Council and the USIS (now defunct, I believe). Of course, I’m not sure how much my pea-brain was able to learn (unlike some “brilliant and famous younger historians” like Thant Myint-U) but I owe these libraries a lot. I hope young Burmese will not be brainwashed by the “ubiquitous” Chinese Confucius Institutes and use the internet (Wikipedia) wisely to obtain a more balanced knowledge about the world.
    By the way, I am a bit sick and tired of these side-comments (or shall I say snide-comments) about perception of race/ethnicity in Burma (even Thant Myint-U’s books contain that kind of rubbish). Would it be different if Monica is a black lady from Nigeria?

  3. What an adorable lady with all the passions and affections towards Myanmar. Shame on previous dictators who did not value to their own country. A history is something you cannot change though you can destroy the materials.

    When we were in school we have learned about three Anglo Burmese wars and then the annexation of Burma into British colony then the attempts to get independence by BIA in early 1900 then parliamentary government and finally Socialist government.

    I think some parts of the history are missing for us.

    I am curious on the social and economy of Myanmar people under the British. Undeniably Burma was one of top countries in the South East Asia but it was left out.

    I think it is not shameful to say Burma was doing very well under the British during that time and how the country was flourished and people were happy.

    With best wishes to Auntie Monica.

  4. What a great story! Thank you for capturing this sort of story for future generations.

  5. With due respect and the late Aunty Monica Mya Maung,
    Almost all the religions say that there is a final judgement after the death but the history will judge by all the good and bad deeds before and after, so let there be no questions on escapees, you will be surely caught with the truth and facts in history.

  6. Aunty Monica was like a mum to me, it was an honor to know her. I have so many fond memories of growing up in Burma and Aunty Monica was very often with us. Subsequently we stayed in touch after I left Burma in 1965. I visited her12 times after that and we spent days and many hours discussing past stories. She was a fascinating, lovely, sweet lady. She was a treasure. Always fondly remembered by all who knew her.

    • I do remember Brigadier T. Clift (your father?) and the role he played in post-war Burmese History (sic). Monica Mya Maung might be “The woman who saved Burmese History” but I believe Brigadier Clift (then a Major?) played an important role as the commanding officer of the fledgling Burmese Air Force during the the critical “six-mile government of U Nu” period of Burmese History in 1949, when the KNDO troops were closing in on Rangoon.
      Irrawaddy had an article about this a while ago:
      Incidentally, you can see there that the Mujahadeen were already active in Arakan in 1949 fighting the Burmese government. These ethnic conflicts in “Burmese History” are in fact very “messy”, to say the least.
      I hope Burma can get over that part of Burmese History and join the 21st century soon!

  7. Percy Mya Maung, was admired in his day as *Burma’s Perry Mason*– a defence attorney who was the main character in works of detective fiction authored by Erle Stanley Gardner.

    It’s a fitting tribute to a great lawyer who performed brilliantly in the courts of the then democratic nation.

    Percy and Monica will never be forgotten. Their legacy will live on.

  8. I would only like to pay tribute to another great woman who played a role in Burmese History. We were just kids in the 50’s and 60’s and used to visit the British Council and the USIS freely, to borrow books and listen to all the Top Ten hits of that time

  9. Thanks, Irrawaddy for featuring this article.
    As I was one of the victims of the dark days of Burma’s education system I wish brighter future will come for the future generations.
    I was so young and I didn’t understand why I was stop taking to the library by my mom all of a sudden during those days. After all these years I didn’t know why. Now, I know who had done this to us so cruel!!!!
    It was one of the innumerable black satins of our country, or can say the beginning of downfall of our education system, and everything, until now.
    Nipping all the fresh flower buds, let withering the already blooming ones, stomping on flower beds, systematically destroy the future of nation’s education sector.
    With shock capable gardeners had moved some plants and flowers in time to foreign soil. Brain Drain!!
    The country is still suffering consequences from all these irresponsibilities.
    My salute to “Monica Mya Maung”, a brave grand ma, and, thanks to the arthur Charlie Campbell, and thanks again to Irrawaddy for this inspiring article.

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