RANGOON — Dagon Taya, one of Burma’s leading literary figures and an outspoken peace activist, has died at his home in Aung Ban, southern Shan State, at the age of 95.
Devi, one of his family members, confirmed Dagon Taya’s death to The Irrawaddy, saying he died of natural causes on Monday afternoon.
Best known for his literary works, which were inked under the pen name “Dagon Taya,” the man born Htay Myaing was perhaps equally renowned for his reserved and flexible personality, and for his life-long conviction to peace. He attended multiple World Peace Council meetings and worked actively on various on peace campaigns.
Two months after war between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke out in Kachin State in 2011, Dagon Taya delivered a message urging the government forces and ethnic armed rebels to stop their fighting and start a genuine dialogue to establish peace. “Bullets cannot provide security; only loving kindness can,” he said at the time.
In March 2013, Dagon Taya was awarded South Korea’s prestigious Manhae Grand Prize, which the Manhae Foundation gives annually to people honored for promoting peace across the world. The foundation was set up to commemorate the poet Han Yong-un (1879–1944), who was also known as Reverend Manhae.
Dagon Taya’s literary philosophy was “art for people’s sake,” and in the post-World War II years, Dagon Taya launched his New Literature movement, believing that literature could solve social problems and document the people’s struggle for freedom and peace.
He was not without critics, particularly among rival literary schools that accused him of writing in an overly stylized and unrealistic, even abstract, manner.
Hailing from the Irrawaddy Delta, Dagon Taya grew up with a strong interest in painting and music. When he was in college, he kept a piano in his room at the Rangoon University hostel.
He was a close friend of Burma’s independence hero, Gen Aung San, who in 1943 offered him a high-ranking position in the Japanese occupation government—an offer he refused. Before Aung San’s assassination in 1947, Htay Maying wrote an important critical essay about his friend’s personality, titled “Aung San the Untamed.”
Many Burmese of the time were shocked by his criticism of the country’s revered father of independence. Aung San himself told close friends, “I’m not so untamed as Htay Myaing has put it.”
But Dagon Taya merely smiled in response to the controversy generated by his essay.
He was subjected to political persecution following the successful military coup of 1962, after which he was arrested and imprisoned for four years on suspicion of being a communist. In fact, Dagon Taya called himself “the Liberator,” but never assumed an active role in any political party or governing regime.
“I have no foes, only friends,” he once said. “I have no hatred for any person,” he claimed on a separate occasion.
In a 2010 interview, Dagon Taya told The Irrawaddy that to his understanding, politics was about making friends of foes. “Some people came into power by arms, but we have to stage a coup by a free and fair election,” he said.
“Nothing but peace is democracy’s goal,” he continued. “Friendship is only possible through peace.”