Colonial Burma’s Only Local Governor Dies
By Wei Yan Aung 9 March 2019
On this day in 1955, Sir Joseph Augustus Maung Gyi, the only Burmese to serve as governor of British Burma, died.
Maung Gyi (b. 1871) was an Oxford-educated barrister and a leading political figure in the 1920s and 1930s. He served as a minister and later a Home Member in the dyarchy government introduced by the British to allow for a measure of self-rule. He was also a judge of the High Court and the leader of the conservative Independent Party (also known as the “Golden Valley Party” after the neighborhood in Rangoon that was home to most of its leaders).
He was knighted by the colonial government in 1927, and served as acting governor for several months in 1930-31 when Governor Sir Charles Innes was on sick leave in the U.K. During his tenure as acting governor, Saya San led an uprising against the colonial government by Burman peasants who were frustrated by high land taxes. Saya San was hanged the following year, though the popular rebellion is now recognized as one of the earliest nationalist movements leading to independence.
Dr. Maung Maung, Myanmar’s seventh president and a prolific author, would later write that “Sir J. A. Maung Gyi is honest and dares to take on tasks. But he does not know well about Myanmar’s affairs, not to mention farmers’ affairs. He was not close to the people as he got high positions without the vote.”
However, in his autobiography “My Burma”, Dr. Ba Oo, the country’s second president, defended Maung Gyi, saying he had no choice but to refuse the call for lower taxes. He called Maung Gyi “a strong patriot” who was not in a position to defy the British.
Had he been free to act, Dr. Ba Oo wrote, Maung Gyi would have done anything within his power for Myanmar citizens.
On the other hand, Maung Gyi is remembered positively for his lead role in establishing Rangoon University, his research on traditional Myanmar drama and his efforts to publish the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures.
Maung Gyi died at the age of 83 at his residence in Golden Valley.