On This Day

‘Shoe Thein Maung’ Fought to Stop Colonists Trampling on Buddhist Customs

By Wei Yan Aung 11 March 2019

On this day in 1975, U Thein Maung, who fought successfully under colonial rule to require Westerners to remove their shoes at Buddhist religious sites, died at the age of 85.

Shoe-wearing at pagodas is traditionally prohibited in Myanmar and viewed as sacrilege in the Buddhist-majority country. After the British annexation, pagoda trustees put up signs reading, “No shoes except for Europeans and Americans.”

Cambridge-educated barrister U Thein Maung’s fight against shoe-wearing at pagodas started when he removed such a sign while serving as a member of the board of trustees of Shwesandaw Pagoda in Prome (Pyi).

U Thein Maung

During the visit of Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsford to Prome, he defied the local administrator’s instruction to remove a sign reading “Take off your shoes.” He was known thereafter as “Shoe Thein Maung”.

In 1917, Governor of British India Sir Archibald Douglas Cochrane kept his shoes on while visiting quake-hit Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Pegu. This upset local residents, who filed a complaint with the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. U Thein Maung, who was a member of the association, took up the fight and finally succeeded—two years later—in persuading the colonial government to issue an order prohibiting the wearing of shoes on the grounds of religious sites.

U Ba Kalay’s cartoon about foreigners wearing shoes on Shwedagon Pagoda. It originally ran in the February 1918 issue of Thuriya Magazine.

U Thein Maung served as education minister and attorney-general under the colonial government, as a judge under the Japanese government, and deputy chief minister of the pre-independence interim government. U Thein Maung is thus remembered as a man who opened a new chapter in the rise of Myanmar’s nationalist movement.