The Sorrows of U Shwe Zan

BIO_01_MajorBefore he retired from the army, my Grandfather was the Recruiting Officer for the Military Police for all Burma. In this capacity he came in close and personal contact with the different races and tribes of Burma. In every part of the country he met with village elders and their families, selecting candidates for training in the army and forming strong friendships with the people—listening to the fascinating stories they had to tell. The following story is just one of the strange but true tales that was recounted to him as he journeyed around the country.


Tucked away amidst the Karen Hills of Burma, lies the small village of Loi Sang and the Gaungto tribe who live there. The world knows little of Loi Sang, and the only significance World War II had on U Shwe Zan, who lived in Loi Sang, was that he could no longer buy bulls-eyes [a peppermint flavored hard boiled candy popular in England].

The Gaungto tribe is closely related to the Padaung tribe, whose women are known to the rest of the world as “giraffe ladies”. The Gaungto do not follow the custom of elongating their necks, but they do have strange marriage customs, which strictly limit their field of selection. The shyness of the lads and maids is such that they will not even look at each other, and if by chance illicit love should arise they are invited to hang themselves with rope—which they gladly do. Consequently the Gaungto are a dwindling community with the shadow of extinction hanging over them.

It was one of these matrimonial problems that U Shwe Zan considered as he sat in the sunny porch of his house sucking a mint chewing gum which for some reason he could not swallow. His teeth were pretty poor certainly. He had to admit at last that age was creeping upon him. Actually he was only 102, but the events of the past week had tired him, and troubles never come singly. Not since he was a mere youth of eighty had he ever been so upset. His youngest daughter, a poor child of 62, had been wounded—had in fact lost two fingers just at the age when she should begin to think of matrimony. His eldest daughter who had married last year at the age of 68, had received two slugs in her chest, and her husband (he was fifteen) had been hurt too. His second daughter 66, was too incorrigibly shy ever to marry. This is essentially a true story and the ages are all as given.
There was also U Shwe Zan’s sister who is hardly worth mentioning since she was a mere baby of 25. Nevertheless we cannot entirely overlook little Ma Hley, young as she was. There was something disturbing about her. She had been to the Mission School in the nearby town of Loikaw, and the wild ideas she had picked up from the American missionaries there were shocking and scandalous. Not only had she assumed Burmese dress, but she actually proposed marrying a man from a different tribe, thus flouting the Gaungto tradition of centuries which prescribed minutely the families into which marriage was permissible. It was indeed these customs which made matches difficult, with the result that a lusty lad of 15 might, as we have seen, have to content himself with a bride of 68.

In his angst U Shwe Zan attacked the chewing gum fiercely in an attempt to dissolve it. In the good old days before the war and before the Americans came and spoiled everything, sweets used to dissolve. As if all this was not enough, a dreadful roaring bird with smoke coming out of his tail passed overhead. Little Ma Hley declared that she had seen heaps of them at Loikaw, where it seems they laid their eggs in the air. The child had an unhealthy imagination, and you never could tell what she would say next. Those Americans! Well their sweets were no good anyway.

Following the bird of ill-omen, had come the bandit incident. They attacked when it was dark and they had fired a shot, as is their way, to show that they were armed, and to warn the villagers to run away.

Now U Shwe Zan was too obstinate to run away. Further, it was unseemly for his daughters to be out at night at their tender age. And so, instead of fleeing, the family bolted the front door, retired to the sleeping room and bolted that door too. In the sleeping room U Shwe Zan kept fifteen rupees in his mattress, while beams and rafters were used for banking other more substantial sums of money. So there, in the bedroom, the family gathered with spears in their palsied hands, while the bandits, of whom there were five, smashed in the front door with a hatchet. Having demolished it, they rushed into the dark house, and came stumbling up the bedroom steps. Evidently they were aware that the treasure was stored in the sleeping apartment.

The bedroom door was made of good stout teak, and for a time resisted. U Shwe Zan and his three aged daughters stood before it, and as soon as a panel gave way they thrust their spears through the opening. There was a howl of pain on the other side of the door, and some solid swearing. Following up this advantage, U Shwe Zan’s youngest daughter (inexperienced child) jabbed again, and a sweeping dah [sword] took off two of her pretty fingers. At the same time the muzzle of a gun was pushed into the room. There was a deafening roar from a blunderbuss. The room was filled with smoke, and when it cleared U Shwe Zan saw that his eldest girl was bleeding from pellet wounds in the face and chest, while her youthful husband was even more seriously hurt. Nothing daunted, the defenders lunged through the broken door again and again, while Ma Hley, whose arm was broken, banged vigorously on a gong to summon the villagers. As there were no signs of surrender, the bandits finally dispersed.

So that was that—and a pretty disturbing business too at the age of 102. Of course the girls, being young did not feel it so much, but they had had nasty wounds. And then on top of it all the Police (American GIs) came to make an enquiry. God only knows whether the Police were not really worse than the bandits. These ones didn’t seem really unfriendly, but they were all chewing this abominable gum, apparently as incapable of reducing it as U Shwe Zan himself. Perhaps that was why they gave him a lot of the stuff, knowing it was no good.

They seemed very inquisitive, and asked who was U Shwe Zan’s father? He told them. What was his age? “My father would be 117 if he was alive. Mother? She would be about 164. One of the Police nearly swallowed his gum, and said ‘Land sakes’, and wrote down “Mother 164”.

“No, I can’t remember my mother’s name. Yes, we drove off the bandits.”

“Oh that girl over there? She is Ma Hley, my small sister. Our father was 92 when she was born. Her mother? I don’t know.”

And so some stunned GIs stumbled back to Loikaw with these vital statistics and a blood stained shirt, which they duly handed over to the representatives of the newly installed Government of Burma.

U Shwe Zan, sitting on his sunny porch took the gum from his mouth and examined it curiously. Most extraordinary substance! There was little resistance left in the poor shaken old man. And on top of it all, there was still the unsolved problem of Ma Hley and her betrothed whom she was determined to marry. What was to be done about that? Well, there was plenty of rope in the house if they persisted. He had mentioned the rope to Ma Hley, but she only laughed. “And besides,” said Ma Hley, “who would go into Loikaw for you and buy bulls-eyes? Yes, bulls-eyes, real government ones, see I have brought you a dozen. Spit out  that nasty gum. Here are pre-war bulls-eyes.”

He clutched them greedily, the tears welling up in his old bleary eyes.

“And I have brought you something else besides. A letter, and not an ordinary letter, but a letter that comes along the wires.”

That was the final straw! First the smoke-tailed bird, then bandits, wounds, insoluble sweets, insoluble marriage tangles, and now, when he was 102, a telegram. He knew what the telegraph was—a lane that went up hill and down through the jungle in a dead straight line. He had seen the poles and wires, but it had never occurred to him to suppose they had any particular use. They were just some fad of the Government.

Ma Hley took the paper from him and unfolded it. “It is of great value,” she said. “You must always keep it. It is from the Government.”

“From the Government,” cried the old man anxiously. “Oh goodness, what does the Government want now. I knew only evil could follow a visit from the Police.”

“It is from the Governor.” U Shwe Zan could take no more. He closed his eyes and fell back against the wall. “Well? What does he want?”

And Ma Hley read: “I am directed to convey to U Shwe Zan of Loi Sang Village and to his family the congratulations of His Excellency the Governor in Council on the brave and successful resistance offered by them to a band of dangerous robbers thereby setting a courageous example to their fellow countrymen.”

“What does he mean? What is it all about? Sister, I am weak. I am tired. I have worries. I must sleep a little… Ma Hley, I tell you once more, there is rope in the grain shed.”

Putting her arm around the frail shoulders of her elderly brother Ma Hley laughed and told him everything was going to be alright.