Rangoon’s Arakanese Gather to Honor U Ottama for the First Time in Decades

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 9 September 2013

RANGOON — The ethnic Arakanese community of Rangoon gathered on Monday to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the death of U Ottama, a Buddhist monk who played a leading role in Burma’s independence struggle.

It was the first time that they were able to publicly honor the Sittwe-born leader, as any expressions of Arakanese national pride were not tolerated under the previous military governments that ruled Burma for decades.

The event, called ‘Venerable Ashin Ottama Day’, was organized by Arakanese Affairs Ministry of Rangoon Division and Arakanese civil society groups in Rangoon.

Minister of Arakanese Affairs Zaw Aye Maung said during his opening speech that the public celebration of U Ottama’s achievements heralded a new era for Arakanese people in Burma.

“Until the 1962 military government came to power, the day was celebrated quite openly on such a grand scale,” he said. “We always remembered venerable U Ottama for his initiative to educate the whole country to ‘say no’ to the British colonialism.”

The commemorative ceremony in Rangoon’s Myanmar Convention Center was joined by several thousands of Arakanese people and leading national politicians and activists. Among the audience were many Buddhist monks, including ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu, while Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, 88 Students leader Min Ko Naing and foreign diplomats were also in attendance.

U Ottama, a globe-trotting, widely respected monk was ethnic Arakanese, a popular author and one of the intellectual leaders of Burma’s Independence Movement. He was renowned for opposing British colonial rule since 1911, famously writing an open letter to the then British governor, Sir Reginald Henry Craddock, in 1921 in which he bluntly stated: “Craddock Get Out!”

“It was a very shocking for the Burmese at that time to address a governor like this for they were sort of slaves to the British masters,” writes Bamakhit U Ba Yin in a Burmese-language biography of the monk. “At the same time, it enlightened the Burmese that they had a right oppose the British.”

U Ottama was one of the first Burmese monks to study abroad. He taught Pali and Sanskrit at the Academy of Buddhist Science in Tokyo. Under the British colonial rule, he had been imprisoned three times, becoming the first Buddhist monk in Burma to be jailed for political activism.

“I’m very proud of him, for he is the very first Buddhist monk to join the politics for the country’s independence,” U Wirathu said during a speech at the event. “We Buddhist monks entered politics before Burma’s national hero Gen. Aung San was born,” he said.

U Wirathu has made international headlines as the leader of the influential, nationalist 969 movement, which calls on Buddhist communities to shun Muslim-owned businesses. His rhetoric has been condemned by human rights groups who say it contributes to inter-communal tensions between Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Dr San Hla Kyaw of Arakanese Literature and Culture Association, one of the co-organizers of the event, said the ceremony is aimed at raising awareness about U Ottama’s historic political struggle for independence, adding that previous military government had sought to downplay the monk’s achievements.

“In Arakan state, he is still quite well known but it’s not the case in other parts of the country,” he said.

Before 1962, the Burmese government named a park near Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda ‘U Ottama Park’ to honor him. But since then, it has been renamed ‘Kantaw Mingalar Park.’ During today’s celebration, the attendants of the event agreed that the government should take steps to restore the park’s former name in honor of the pro-independence leader.

“As a leading monk who opened the eyes of the Burmese on activism against the British, I believe he deserves that kind of state-level treatment because what he had done was not only for we Arakanese but for the whole country,” said Kyaw Myat Tha, an ethnic Arakanese who attended the event.