The Political Footsteps of Arakan’s Sayargyi U Oo Tha Tun

The ALD held its first conference in October 1989 in Sittwe, during which a 15-member central executive committee was elected. The committee included U Oo Than Tun as patron, Dr. Saw Mya Aung as chairman, Dr. U Aye and U San Tun as vice chairs, U Aye Pe as general secretary, and U Aye Tha Aung as the joint general secretary.

12 Oct 2022

Written by Gaung

It has been 32 years since Sayargyi U Oo Tha Tun, who was respected as a political leader in Arakan State in the post-8888 Uprising period, passed away. It is important for modern Arakanese society to remember him. Trained as an archaeologist, U Oo Tha Tun was arrested for preaching Arakanese nationalism, and ultimately died in prison.

For many years in the pre-8888 Uprising period, Arakanese people engaged in armed revolution, operating underground. After 1988, they began making efforts to pursue their political goals within the legal framework.

When they were officially allowed again in Myanmar, political parties emerged in Arakan State to press their demands via parliamentary politics. Former Arakanese revolutionaries formed parties to contest the 1990 general election. Seven political parties emerged in Arakan State including Bon Pauk Thar Kyaw’s Arakan State Unity and Democracy Party, Kyaw Zan Shue’s Arakan People’s Party and U San Thar Aung’s Mro-Khami Unity Party.

After the ruling junta of the time in September 1989 promised to hold multi-party elections, the Arakan National Union and the Arakan Welfare Association joined hands to establish a national party that same month. They called it the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD).

The ALD and Sayargyi

With party politics gaining traction in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the respected archaeologist U Oo Tha Tun embarked on a political career.

U Oo Tha Tun’s political trajectory was closely intertwined with the founding of the ALD. The leadership consisted of 12 members including patron U Oo Tha Tun, chairman Dr. Saw Mya Aung, and Secretary U Aye Pe.

The ALD subsequently joined the United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD), an alliance of several political parties.

The ALD held its first conference in October 1989 in Sittwe, during which a 15-member central executive committee was elected. The committee included U Oo Than Tun as patron, Dr. Saw Mya Aung as chairman, Dr. U Aye and U San Tun as vice chairs, U Aye Pe as general secretary, and U Aye Tha Aung as the joint general secretary.

U Oo Tha Tun’s Life and Times

U Oo Tha Tun was born to U Kaung San Shue and Daw Aung Kywa Zan on November 23, 1917, in Mrauk-U. He was forced to drop out of school in ninth grade when his father died, but U Oo Tha Tun still managed to learn Sanskrit, history, astrology and archaeology from his grandfather and other informal teachers.

He worked as a primary school teacher from 1950 to 1955, and served in the archaeological department in Mrauk-U from 1955 to 1977. From 1977 to 1983, he acted as an advisor to the Mrauk-U archaeological department and was involved in excavation of the ancient city of Waithali.

The archaeological museum that exists today in Mrauk-U was the result of U Oo Tha Tun’s efforts. Over the course of his professional life, he took an active role in unearthing and preserving Arakanese heritage, culture, literature, history, customs, and stone inscriptions.But he left artefacts behind and joined party politics as he felt obliged to do his part to further the cause of Arakanese nationalism.

The ALD grew in popularity among the Arakanese people as U Oo Tha Tun travelled around Arakan State, reminding people about the golden age of the Arakanese Kingdom and unabashedly advocating for Arakanese nationalism. Young Arakanese people threw their support behind the party in large numbers and many middle-aged, educated men also joined the ALD.

People from both northern and southern Arakan State joined the ALD. Among the more well-known figures were U Aye from Kyaukphyu; Colonel San Aye from Thandwe; chief engineer U Aye Pe from Taungup; journalist U Tha Bann; Dr. U Kyaw Zan Hla; U Oo Tun Wai from the Education Department; Dr. Aung Zan; and lawyer U Maung Tha Zan.

U Oo Tha Tun travelled extensively for campaign trips ahead of the 1990 general election, including to Sittwe, Maungdaw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya towns, as well as making numerous visits to rural areas.

U Oo Tha Tun’s political philosophy was grounded in a belief that the country’s problems can only be solved if Myanmar is built as a genuine federal democratic union. He used to share this opinion at literary talks, adding that only the Arakanese people can improve Arakan State and that federalism is necessary for the socioeconomic development of the Arakanese people. In those days, during the military regime of the time, few people dared to express words advocating for equality, self-government and self-determination.

An Arakanese Political Leader

Sayargyi U Oo Tha Tun took the lead in the struggle for democracy and equal rights for ethnic groups, and in Myanmar’s 1990 general elections, he became a candidate for the Lower House in Kyauktaw Township representing the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) at the request of Kyauktaw residents.

But his lectures were being monitored by military authorities as growing public support in the Arakan political arena became apparent. Some of U Oo Thar Tun’s colleagues and members of the public advised him to flee to Bangladesh. Saying that such evasion was a cowardly act as a politician, he continued to preach his political philosophy fearlessly.

He was arrested at the home of U Lu Phyu, a Lower House candidate for No. 2 constituency in Sittwe’s Lanmadaw South Ward. He was sentenced to time behind bars in Sittwe Prison by local authorities under Section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act on May 22, 1990.

Section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act is a provision that has been frequently used to arrest and imprison political activists, critics of the government, writers and other advocates for equal ethnic rights. But at that time, U Oo Tha Tun is said to have been among the first people sentenced to prison in Arakan State for political activities.

He died in prison of high blood pressure and cerebral haemorrhage on August 14, 1990. His ashes were brought to his hometown of Mrauk-U and buried in the vicinity of Shitthaung Temple.

Kyauktaw residents voted for the Mro aka Khami National Unity Party in the 1990 general election, which became a member of the alliance after U Oo Tha Tun was arrested.

Election Voided, Pro-Democracy Forces Denied

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won 392 of the 492 seats up for grabs nationwide in the multi-party election held on May 27, 1990. However, the then military regime led by Senior General Saw Maung did not recognise the election results and failed to hold a parliamentary session.

The ALD won 11 out of 27 seats in Arakan State in the 1990 election. After the death of U Oo Tha Tun, the junta recognised only the 12 leaders of the ALD as it was initially constituted, and did not recognise new members who had bolstered the party’s strength in the months after its founding. Those 12 leaders were also pressured by the military to leave the ALD.

Less than two years later, with only four members of the ALD Central Committee remaining, the ALD was dissolved on March 6, 1992. The death of U Oo Tha Tun is viewed by many as the beginning of the end for that iteration of the ALD, which has since returned to the political arena as a registered political party.

Thirty-two years since his passing, however, U Oo Tha Tun’s untimely death has left a hole that continues to be felt by Arakan State and its people.