U Thaw Kaung is the former President of the Myanmar Libraries Association and remains its special adviser. He continues to be closely associated with the University of Yangon, where he set up the faculty of library studies and taught for almost three decades. He has a long connection with the UK.
I was born in Yangon in 1937, in a clinic on the site where the American Centre is now. My father was the headmaster of the Yangon colonial government high school, at the time the best government school in Myanmar. He was close friends with U Nu and U Thant, both also headmasters at the time.
We spent the war years in Shan State, where my father had been appointed chief education officer. He was friendly with the local sawbwa, who helped us hide from the invading Japanese in huts in the forest.
In 1943, still during the Japanese occupation, we moved back to Yangon. We stayed near the Shwedagon pagoda because we knew the British would not bomb that area. We built a little bamboo hut to live in, in the compound of a house occupied by my father’s boss, the Director of Education.
I first travelled to the UK in 1947, when I was nine years old. My father’s main task was to look after all the state scholars that were being sent to study in British universities following independence. In 1948 he opened the Myanmar embassy to London.
In England I would listen to schools programmes broadcast on BBC radio, and I started to read. My father would bring me many books, which have stayed with me throughout my life.
Of the scholars that my father found places for in the UK, many went on to become well known doctors, engineers and lawyers back here in Myanmar. One that I knew very well went on to become a pilot for a civilian airline, and another became Myanmar's first national librarian. Later, after Ne Win came to power in 1962, I found out that most of his generals had trained at Sandhurst.
I would listen to schools programmes broadcast on BBC radio, and I started to read. My father would bring me many books, which have stayed with me throughout my life.
We returned to Myanmar in 1950 and my father was appointed Director of Education. I went to the Methodist High School (now Dagon no.1), along with other children of prominent families. My youngest sister became very close to Aung San Suu Kyi.
The first contact I had with the British Council was in 1951, when I joined the library. It was one of the most modern libraries in Yangon at that time, and I became very close friends with one of the assistant librarians. He later became my deputy and then chief librarian in Mandalay.
My father died suddenly in a car accident in 1957 in Calcutta, where he was printing exam papers. His body was brought back to Myanmar and he had a state funeral. I was 19.
In 1960 I was sent to University College London as a state scholar. I came back at the end of 1961 with a lot of ideas to modernise the university library but within a few months everything changed.
In March 1962 Ne Win seized power. He made a speech reassuring university students that nothing would happen to them and telling them to concentrate on their upcoming exams. In June there were riots on campus and the military cracked down. By July, the students’ union was blown up and the university closed for the next two years.
When it reopened in 1964, all the faculties had been split up into separate institutes, each with its own rector and staff. A ‘new system of education’ was proclaimed and English was downgraded. But the riots persisted and there were regular closures.
For the first 15 years after the coup I was unable to leave Myanmar. Very few foreigners would come, in fact at one point Ne Win banned foreigners from coming at all. But by the early 1970s his mind was already changing. He realised that the policy of teaching all subjects in Myanmar was not working. We didn’t even have scientific terms.
Before the war, Yangon University had been one of the best in Southeast Asia. By the time I retired in 1997 there were only 6,000 students and this number then fell further to just 2,000.
In 1976 I was sent to Australia for three months’ training in teaching library studies. Everything had changed since my last trip abroad. I discovered automatic doors for the first time, and central heating. Then in 1983-84 I was sent to London for a further three months, with support from the British Council and British Library.
I share my father’s strong regard for the British system. The University of Yangon was modelled on it. In addition to our studies we had a lot of clubs, such as painting and music, and a very good rowing club, all started by the British. I think it’s a good model.
Before the war, Yangon University had been one of the best in Southeast Asia. When I first went in 1954 it was already regaining its pre-war standards and by the 1960s it had 60,000 students on three campuses. By the time I retired in 1997 there were only 6,000 and this number then fell further to just 2,000.
I came back in 1961 with ideas to modernise the university library, but within a few months everything changed.
I once did some research on the overseas Chinese in Penang and Singapore and their connection with the Myanmar. One old man told me that during the colonial times if you could afford it you sent your children to England but if you didn’t have that much money you sent them to Yangon. Our graduates used to be easily accepted to universities in the UK or US for postgraduate studies.
Now we would like to upgrade the teaching and library facilities and rekindle our relationships with universities overseas. We had a very good connection with the British Library but the people I worked with have all retired. They helped us a lot in the old days and now we would like to start these connections again.