A Burmese Tycoon You Can’t Find Today

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 17 May 2013

As far as tycoons go, Nar Auk was one of a kind in Burma.

A cattle boy turned entrepreneur during British colonial days, he used his wealth to fight against Britain’s powerful Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and to help the country’s poor avoid exploitation by British and Indian businessmen. In the process, he became a hero to the Burmese people of the era by accomplishing what most of his contemporaries could not: slashing the profit margins of foreign businesses.

Born in 1832 to farming parents, Nar Auk, ethnic Mon, got his entrepreneurial start by launching a timber business with the help of a local boss, and he later expanded to the paddy trade, the steamship industry and money lending. Nobody would have imagined that the boy from Khare village, about 10 miles from the Mon State capital Moulmein, would earn a reputation as a national patriot, but he moved quickly, with his fight against giant British companies earning him a spot in the history textbooks of government elementary schools.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Nar Auk’s passing, but the temple he built in Kawhnat village still glows, and people there continue to sing praises to his efforts.

“U Nar Auk’s goal was to liberate poor people from the exploitation of British and Indian businessmen,” said Aye Cho, who oversees the temple, adding that the Burmese entrepreneur represented not only his village in Mon State, but also the entire country, as a patriot.

Years after accumulating wealth through his timber business in Burma and neighboring Thailand, Nar Auk entered the money-lending business and paddy trading. He knew that foreign businessmen charged excessive interest on loans to local people and paid low prices to purchase farm land, and he wanted to operate differently. He pulled many customers away from Chinese and Indian businessmen by offering low interest rates to farmers and buying paddy fields for higher prices. The money lending business was not profitable for Nar Auk, but given his family’s background, he empathized with local farmers and wanted to help break their cycle of poverty.

In 1910, he pioneered a new business by establishing the Burmese Steam Navigation and Trading Company. He sent his educated shareholder, Shwe Hlay, to buy nine ships—eight double deckers and one single decker—from McKie & Baxter Company of Glasgow, Scotland. He also built a dock for the ships in the town of Mottama, opposite Moulmein.

Nar Auk’s steamship company started plying the lower Thanlwin, Attaran and Gyaing rivers, routes previously used by the British-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which operated passenger and cargo ferries.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla was threatened by Nar Auk’s new company. Nar Auk charged the same fare, but he allowed monks, nuns, the elderly and children to ride for free. As a devout Buddhist, it was merit for him. But for the British, it meant a huge loss of customers.

A sort of fare warfare then ensued. The Irrawaddy Flotilla cut its fare by half in a bid to win back passengers. In response, Nar Auk reduced his prices more, prompting the British company to slash its fares again, until both sides decided to let everyone ride for free.

Later, ferry customers were offered gifts, in addition to the free ride. The competition also affected other areas of business, with “dock warfare” developing as both sides went to court for rights to embark and disembark from the main jetties.

In the end, however, Nar Auk could not overpower the giant British company. After years of competition, he was forced to give way and sell his ships to the Irrawaddy Flotilla.

His biographer, Kalyana, wrote: “The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, with a capital of 200 million pounds, was able to exert tremendous and sustained pressure on U Nar Auk’s company, which had limited resources (capital of 1 million rupees).”

Still, Nar Auk’s intentions were clear. In a notice released to advertise his company in 1910, he wrote: “The present enterprise will, it is hoped, show to the world at large that in this direction and others, the Burman is quite capable of holding his own with other races.”

Kalyana wrote in the biography that the Burmese businessman won his fame not because of his abundant wealth, but because of his benevolence and patriotic spirit. Now, his reputation may be spreading not only among the Burmese, but also among foreigners, as the biography was translated into English for the first time last year.

Sitting inside Nar Auk’s temple, Aye Cho said more foreign tourists had started to visit, although the site is not listed in tourist guidebooks. Local guides tend to bring foreigners as a bonus during more established tours, he said.

Looking at the temple’s guest book, the ethnic Mon said that in January alone, about 400 tourists from Germany, Switzerland, France and other countries stopped by. Many tourists were so impressed, he said, that “some visited here twice.”