On This Day

The Day the Leader of a Historic Challenge to British Rule Died

By Wei Yan Aung 25 September 2020

YANGON—On this day in 1943, Thakin Pho Hla Gyi, who was best known for his leading role in an oil workers’ strike against British colonial rule, died of stomach cancer aged just 35.

At the time of his death, Dr. Ba Than (the father-in-law of future military dictator General Ne Win) was preparing to operate on Thakin Pho Hla Gyi at Yangon (then Rangoon) General Hospital.

Thakin Pho Hla Gyi was a tall, well-built, good-looking man. During his three years of military service in the Mesopotamia campaign in World War I, he often challenged British soldiers who discriminated on the grounds of color.

Later, he worked as an oil worker at the Chauk oil field in central Myanmar. Seeing the hard lives of the oil workers, he led strikes against the British-owned Burmah Oil Company (BOC), the biggest oil company in Myanmar at the time.

He led thousands of workers in a 650-km, 40-day march to Yangon, skipping sleep and meals. The movement was crucial as the first national uprising against colonial rule and became known as the Revolution of 1300, named after the traditional Burmese calendar.

It was during the strike that Thakin Pho Hla Gyi first developed the stomach problems that would eventually take his life.

The Myanmar Encyclopedia includes an entry on his life, and statues have been erected in Thakin Pho Hla Gyi’s honor. When it decided to remove independence leader General Aung San’s image from Myanmar’s banknotes, the military regime replaced it with portraits of Thakin Pho Hla Gyi on 45-kyat banknotes and peasant armed rebellion leader Saya San on 90-kyat notes.

Military dictator Ne Win, who vowed to build a socialist Myanmar with farmers and workers as its foundation, named his hall for labor seminars Thakin Pho Hla Gyi Hall.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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