On This Day

The Day a British Benefactor of Myanmar Youth and Education Passed Away

By Wei Yan Aung 7 July 2020

YANGON—On this day in 1960, John Sydenham Furnivall, a pro-Burmese British ex-civil servant who dedicated himself to the educational development of Burmese youth during the colonial period, served as a national planning adviser to independent Myanmar, and loved to be addressed as “U Gyi” (“uncle” in Burmese), died at the age of 82 in Cambridge, England.

He arrived in Myanmar (then Burma) in 1902 as a public servant in the Indian Civil Service. He served as the Commissioner of Land Settlement and Records across Myanmar.

Furnivall, who married an ethnic Shan woman and could speak Burmese fluently, was upset by the oppression of the Burmese people. He boldly told his government that Burmese people deserved self-rule, and later retired from his position.

He founded the Burma Research Society, Burma Book Club, Burma Education Extension Association and the publication The World of Books (Ganda Lawka), which introduced Myanmar youth to the world’s literature and helped broaden their horizons. He also laid the foundation for the establishment of the Burmese Translation Society (now Sarpay Beikman) after independence.

Thakin Ba Thaung, the founder of the Doh Bamar Asiayone (We Burmans Association), served as an editor of The World of Books, and U Thant, the third United Nations secretary general, was a contributor to the publication.

Following his retirement, Furnivall served as a lecturer in Burmese language at Cambridge University. After World War II, at the request of General Aung San, he served as a planning adviser for the reconstruction of Myanmar. He continued to serve as a national planning adviser in then Prime Minister U Nu’s administration until he was expelled in 1959 along with other foreign residents by the caretaker government of General Ne Win.

However, after he was given permission to remain in the country, Furnivall completed a report titled “Social and Economic Development of Modern Burma (1862-1941)”, a task that had been assigned to him by Prime Minister U Nu in 1952.

He left Myanmar in April of 1960 for what was intended to be a brief residence in England, with the intention of returning to take up the newly created post of visiting professor of economics at Rangoon University. However, he passed away three months later in Cambridge as he was preparing to return to Myanmar, the country he loved. U Nu sent a message of condolence to Furnivall’s daughter in England.

In the Myanmar Encyclopedia, he is referred to as a “Benefactor of Myanmar.”

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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