In early 1942, as Japanese forces attacked Rangoon, a 34-year-old Ma Than E was forced to flee to India. At home in Burma, she was a prominent singer and a wartime volunteer. Across the border, in her temporary haven, she found an unlikely career: reading broadcasts in Burmese for All India Radio to counter Japanese propaganda and false news in the region.
In her long life of nearly 100 years, Than E witnessed many significant moments in history. She saw major shifts in the world, saw politics and technology change and even the two change each other.
Than E was born in Burma in 1908, when it was a part of British India. As is the tradition in Burma, the first name, Ma, was an honorary prefix, and she was known as Than E. Friends were also familiar with her baptismal name – Dora. Myanmar’s best-known political figure and present State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose family knew Than E from the 1940s, called her “aunty Dora”.
Than E’s parents were teachers in Rangoon. The family went through hard times when Than E lost her father early in her childhood. After college in Rangoon, where she excelled as a choir singer and solo performer, she moved to London to train as a teacher at University College.
During summer holidays, when she was a student boarder in Crosby Hall in London’s Chelsea district, an unexpected phone call led her to artist Gerald Kelly. Kelly was in desperate need of a Burmese model for a painting and Than E fit the bill. In Kelly’s well-known painting, Than E is dressed in a sarong, her hair arranged in a zadone – a traditional hairdo, with an elaborate high topknot, and tendrils carefully arranged over the forehead.
Than E returned to Burma in the early 1930s. On her brother’s suggestion, she recorded her first song for the well-known actor Nyi Pu, who had begun producing his own gramophone discs. She then recorded several songs for Shwe Daing Nyunt, who wrote, composed and produced for Columbia Records company that had entered Burma in the 1920s. Her songs that spoke of familiar themes and yet adapted freely from the new forms of entertainment in the West – jazz and vaudeville, for instance – became extremely popular.
This was a time of major changes in the music world. Burma’s music scene, too, was experiencing profound shifts with the advent of the gramophone. In 1902, Fred Gaisberg had first travelled eastward as part of the Gramophone Company in search of new music. Between 1900 and 1910, as the author Su Lin Lewis writes in Cities in Motion, the Gramophone Company had made nearly “4,410 recordings in India, 508 in Burma, 121 in Malaya, 97 in Siam, and 93 in Java”. After production, the recordings were shipped back to local agents like Solomon and Company in Rangoon, along with the company’s gramophones.
By the 1920s, besides Gramophone (His Master’s Voice from 1924 onwards), other companies like Columbia and RCA were involved in producing music. From the 1940s, independent labels began appearing as well.
Concomitant with this were changes in how traditional music was played in Burma. The traditional hsein waing (chamber) orchestra that performed with instruments like the gong circle, palwe (flute), the mi-gyaung (zither), the patala (xylophones) and the saung gauk (harp) now had western instruments like the piano, string guitar and violin. And while songs were set to western tunes, and some even copied them, they could be subversive or mocking of colonial culture.
In the early ’40s, Burma was at the crossroads during the Second World War. The last crucial battles of the war were fought here, between Japan and the Allied forces comprising the US, Britain, China and India. Than E and writer-scholar Mi Mi Khaing were part of the Women’s Auxiliary Services (Burma) called the Wasbees. Than E worked as a driver, ferrying soldiers across terrain they were unfamiliar with.
But when Rangoon was attacked and bombarded by Japanese airplanes, people had to be evacuated en masse. The Wasbees broke up – some moved by road toward North East India, where they manned the mobile canteens while the Stilwell Road was built to reach Burma’s interiors. Than E and Mi Khaing sailed under cover of darkness to Calcutta.
For a short while, Than E and Mi Khaing were in Shimla, where Burma’s government-in-exile, led by the British Governor Reginald Dorman-Smith, had based itself. The Burmese headquarters in Shimla is today the Akashvani (formerly All India Radio) office. In 1944, Than E moved to Delhi to broadcast in Burmese for the All India Radio, whose external services division had begun services on October 1, 1939 (a month after the war began). These Burmese broadcasts were aired in areas under Japanese occupation to counter propaganda and speak for the Allied war efforts.
In mid-1944, Than E was flown by a special military plane to New York and then to San Francisco, where the Office of War Information was based. The Office of War Information came up in the US only after the war was well underway. It proved vital for dissemination of aid and propaganda in South and South East Asia. As per a news report of July 20, 1944, its newsreels were widely viewed across British India. Besides developing a weekly 15-minute programme broadcast by the AIR, the Office of War Information supplied a third of the photos and news items to over 450 news publications in South Asia.
Than E continued making broadcasts in Burmese, as the Office of War Information became the Voice of America. She was in San Francisco when delegates from over 50 countries met in April 1945 to frame a charter for the United Nations. Little did she know then that only a few years later, she would be working for the same organisation.
Back in London, in January 1947, Than E met Aung San, informally called Bogyoke or major general, for the first time. As head of the Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation League in the War, and of Burma’s Executive Council, Aung San led the Burmese delegation to London to negotiate independence with the Clement Attlee government. Though Than E had dreams of returning to Burma to work for the government, they were dashed when barely six months later, in July 1947, Aung San and seven others, including six ministers, were shot. The assassination was viewed as the handiwork of a resentful colleague, though much of this horrific episode remains shrouded in mystery.
A year later, Than E was working for the UN’s Educational Division. She was responsible for producing the news bulletins and broadcasts on a weekly basis to India, Pakistan (in Hindi and Urdu), Burma and even Korea. During this time, she married Austrian-born teacher, writer and later wildlife filmmaker, Werner Fend. He had come as a student to the Teacher’s Institute, Columbia University, and later went on to be part of the Gustav Adolf Baron von Maydell 1955-1958 expedition to India to study the country’s wildlife habitats. Fend, who wrote a book on his hunt for a man-eating tiger, later became known for his documentaries on the Sundarbans tiger and the crocodiles in Bangladesh.
Than E was reticent about this aspect of her life. Since she left New York soon after for Delhi in 1960, and then for Algeria in 1965, it appears likely she married Fend around the late 1950s. There is again no mention of a divorce, though Fend did marry again.
In Delhi, Than E helped set up the United Nations Information Bureau. During this time, she renewed her friendship with Khin Kyi (Aung San’s wife) and her children. Khin Kyi, as Burma’s ambassador to India, lived at 24 Akbar Road (now the headquarters of the Indian National Congress). It was from here that Suu Kyi attended school and college, and took piano as well as horse-riding lessons (at Rashtrapati Bhavan) and flower-arrangement classes. The year Than E moved to Algeria, there was a revolution in the country, when the socialist leader Ahmed Ben Bella was ousted in a coup by his defence minister, Houari Boumedienne.
As a student at Oxford University, Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to Algiers during Than E’s time there. Suu Kyi worked with the local youth involved in community-building efforts, and would later stay with Than E in New York, when they both worked for the UN.
Than E died in 2007, aged 99. She was then living in Oxford, England. In 1995, when Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, Than E received it on her behalf. In her speech, Suu Kyi (read out by Than E) referred to Than E as “family, friend and honorary aunt. She was the first Burmese to become a member of the United Nations Secretariat”, and had always been “an ardent advocate and a practitioner of international understanding” – words borne out by Than E’s rich multiple-careered life.