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Than E (right) with writer Mi Mi Khaing
Ma Than E
16 February 1908
|Died||17 June 2007 (aged 99)|
|Other names||Bilat Pyan Than (ဘိလပ်ပြန်သန်း)|
|Alma mater||Rangoon University|
Teacher's Training College
|Occupation||Civil servant, broadcaster, educator and singer|
Ma Than E Fend (Burmese: မသန်းအေး, also known by her baptismal name Dora) was a prominent Burmese singer in the early 20th century, known by her stage name Bilat Pyan Than (ဘိလပ်ပြန်သန်း), and an international civil servant who spent a long career in the United Nations.
She married an Austrian documentary filmmaker, Warner Fend, and had a great influence on Aung San Suu Kyi. Than E, a family friend, persuaded Suu Kyi to relocate to New York City and work for the United Nations. Than E was born to a Baptist family and attended Rangoon University, before joining the Teacher's Training College.
Than E was born in Rangoon, Burma to U Po Mya and Daw Htoo. Her father worked for a European trading firm and later taught Burmese and Pali at St. Paul's School for Boys (now BEHS No. 6). He taught Britons who had to show the certificate of proficiency in Burmese for their government or commercial positions.
Her mother taught at the Boys Methodist School. Than E attended English Methodist Girls School (now BEHS No. 1 Dagon). When Than E was thirteen, her father suffered a stroke from stress and strain of unsuccessfully prospecting for tin and wolfram minerals in the malaria infested Tenasserim Division (now Taninthayi Region). He was bedridden for nearly two years before he died. Daw Htoo struggled under much hardship as a single mother to bring up her three children: Dora Than E and her brothers, Tommy Thaung Tin and John Than Tin.
At sixteen, Than E entered the Baptist-affiliated Judson College within the Rangoon University (now Yangon University) majoring in English Literature, Indian History and Philosophy. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 20.
Early singing career
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Than E sang in the Judson Church choir and also joined a singing club, called a Glee Club, at the Judson College. The governing body of the university launched an ambitious fundraising event to raise funds for the new university buildings. Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation" was selected for a fundraising performance at the great Jubilee Hall. All the church choirs in Rangoon and vicinity were recruited and the Rangoon Orchestral Society played the accompaniment. Than E was chosen to sing the duet with Hall.
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After the graduation from the Judson College, Than E taught English to 9th and 10th standard rowdy students at Cushing High School in Rangoon. The students were all around 17 and 19 years old, nearly the same age as Teacher Than E.
After two years of teaching she applied for a state scholarship and was selected to go to the Institute of Education at University College London. She fit into the new environment and made many friends. All the lectures were within the huge building attached to the hostel, but several times a week they had to attend classes in the buildings of the Institute of Education. During the summer holidays, all the students at the hostel went home. She stayed instead at the historic Crosby Hall, London in Chelsea.
One day, Than E got a call from the Education Officer in charge of foreign students at the India House. In 1931, Burma was still a province of India according to the British Rule in Burma. The officer told Than E that Gerald Kelly a famous painter from the Royal Academy of Arts was looking for a Burmese model. She contacted Kelly and he invited her to tea at his house at 117 Gloucester Place, Portman Square. London where she met him and his wife. Kelly said he had been to Burma and spent many months painting many pictures there, many still unfinished. He wanted to finish them from a suitable Burmese model.
Furthermore, he was commissioned by a Sawbwa of Hsipaw to do a portrait of the sister of the Mahadevi who was studying in London. The Sawbwa had later canceled his commission and the Mahadevi's sister had gone back to Burma, He wanted a Burmese art model to finish that portrait first and later continue with the other canvases he had begun in Burma.
Kelly looked over carefully and declared Than E had the right skin color, height and appearance. They agreed for her to come and sit for several hours every Saturday and Sunday. She would be paid 2 pounds per hour (a significant sum in those days for a young girl living on a meager scholarship in an expensive city). They would also give her lunch and tea. Than E had to make a tall zadone (a cylindrical topknot with tresses flowing down the side) which was the fashion then. Mahadevi's sister also had a zadone.
One day, she was invited to Kelly's house for dinner. There would be other very important guests who had either been to Burma or had keen interests for Burma. She was asked to dress formally as she did for the painting. Than E enjoyed answering all the questions and she was delighted about everything of that evening: a young girl at the center of attention amid the high society of the British Raj.
In late evening, as the guests were enjoying their after dinner liqueurs, Than E excused herself, went downstairs to the large studio, changed into street clothes and took down the "zadone". As she started putting on her shoes, a distinguished elderly gentleman came into the studio. Seeing a young maiden in distress struggling with her shoes, the over sixty-year-old gentleman went down on his knees and helped Than E to tie her shoe laces. The distinguished old gentleman was no other than Sir Harcourt Butler, Governor of the British Crown Colony of Burma (1923–27).
The portrait painted by Gerald Kelly was titled "Sao Ohn Kya" and was reproduced in prints and sold. Kelly was knighted in 1945. Sir Gerald Kelly was the President of the Royal Academy of Arts (1949–54).
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When Than E returned from England, the Great Depression that originated in the United States from 1929 stock market crash had spread all over the world and its ripple effect reached even to the shores of Burma. Many Burmese landowners lost their farms to the foreign creditors and, moreover, European plantations and mining operations were closed down. There were civil and racial unrest.
As a result, no government jobs were available even to someone with a London University diploma. However, Than E found a teaching job at ABM Karen School, a school ran by the American Baptist Mission) in Henzada (now Hinthada). She taught English to secondary and high school students. The students were always well behaved unlike the rowdy students at the Cushing School.
The next year, she got a teaching job at the Teachers' Training College of the Rangoon University (now Yangon Institute of Education). Her job was to teach English to those training to become teachers to get the Rangoon University Diploma of Teaching. Than E also taught English to pupils in classes at the attached TTC Practicing School.
After the death of her mother, Than E stayed in the Cushing compound in Ahlon Township with her elder brother Tommy Thaung Tin and his wife Aye Nu and younger brother John Than Tin. She commuted to TTC by bus. One day, Tommy Thaung Tin came with a proposal that she sing a Burmese song for a recording to be made by his good friend, Nyi Pu of the A-One Motion Picture Company. Tommy was very persistent, so Than E agreed, practiced the song on YouTube  and recorded it. It was an instant success.
There was a great department store named Rowe & Company in Rangoon. It had a music department where musical instruments as well as gramophones, English and Burmese records were sold. The manager of the department had a famous songwriter named Shwe Daing Nyunt as his right-hand man. Nyunt wrote both the lyrics and the music for the top singers of the day. The enterprising manager contacted Tommy Thaung Tin to ask if Than E would sing for Columbia Records (now owned by the Sony Music Entertainment) the kind of song like "Mya Pan Gway".
The contract was that Than E would record a certain number of songs a year and would be paid a certain amount lump sum. There would be no royalties on the sales of the records. She agreed to the terms, went ahead and recorded a large number of songs written by Shwe Daing Nyunt. The recordings were done, in those days, on large wax discs, taken to Calcutta, India (now Kolkata) and put on to vinyl. Than E used the stage name Bilat Pyan Than or "Than who returned from England."
World War II period broadcaster
In the Burma Campaign, Japanese Fifteenth Army launched in an attack into Tenasserim Division (now Thaninthayi Region) in January 1942. Rangoon was bombed by the Japanese warplanes. Than E joined the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) (known as WAS(B)), Than E was in motor unit and had to drive a jeep for some officers on official duty. On 22 February 1942, two retreating brigades of the 17th Indian Division were lost due to the premature demolition of the bridge at the Battle of Sittang Bridge.
Realizing Rangoon could not be defended, General Harold Alexander ordered the evacuation of Rangoon after the ports and oil refineries had been destroyed. Than E.'s unit was to retreat to Mandalay and Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin). Before they could go there, the Japanese bombers destroyed the trains bound for Taungoo. At the last minute, the high command decided the WAS(B) unit would leave for India on the latest troop ship that brought in reinforcements. Than E's friend Mi Mi Khaing, who had an officer rank, shared a cabin on the ship with Than E. The trip took much longer than usual due to threats of Japanese submarine attacks. They arrived in Calcutta.
Although they were still Wasbees and still under their strict orders, Than E and Mi Mi Khaing took the opportunity to contct the editor of The Statesman. At that time in India, everyone was eager to have a firsthand news about what was happening in Burma. The Scottish editor and his Bengali wife invited them to dinner at their house. Over dinner, they told the host and hostess that they were looking for jobs. The editor said that the All India Radio (AIR) was about to begin a new service called External Services to broadcast to countries outside of India. He gave the number of the official to contact. They were lucky to find such friendly and useful people at their first try. The Wasbees were supplied with warm clothes and sent to Delhi and then to Simla.
The Burmese government-in-exile was installed in Simla. The ranking Burmese members of Governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith's war time staff were: Sir Paw Tun (Prime Minister), U Htoon Aung Gyaw (Finance) and Tin Tut (Secretary to the Prime Minister.
The Wasbees were told that their group would be disbanded and that they would be given a choice of either joining the Women Auxiliary (India) or looking for a job for themselves. Than E and Mi Mi Khaing decided to look for jobs for themselves. Than E got a reply from All India Radio asking her to come for an interview in Delhi. Mi Mi Khaing also got a letter from the principal of the Lady Irwin College for Women in New Delhi. They took a train to New Delhi and went to their respective interviews. They both got job offers. Than E was engaged to start up the Burmese language service of the newly established External Services of All India Radio. Her task was to broadcast to territories under Japanese occupation, which included Burma.
Mi Mi Khaing, however, decided to work for the British Information Service instead of the lectureship offered by the Lady Irwin College. Mi Mi Khaing married Sao Saimong who spoke fluent Thai. He was appointed as the head of the Siamese (Thai) language unit in the External Services. Another evacuee, Khin Zaw, the Rangoon University librarian, was made the head of Burmese language unit. Another prominent Burmese evacuees from Rangoon, Mya Sein joined Mi Mi Khaing at the Office of the British Information. They monitored the Burmese broadcasts aired from Tokyo and from Japanese occupied Burma. U Ti Tut came to Delhi from time to time to meet the Burmese expatriates and urged them to take interest in political matters.
During the closing months of 1944, as the Burmese community in New Delhi started to think of returning to Burma, Than E got an offer from the United States Office of War Information (the predecessor of the Voice of America), which coordinated the release of war news for domestic purpose but also established an overseas branch which launched a large scale information campaign abroad. She was flown from Delhi to New York by military planes and then by trains to San Francisco. She worked there from September 1944 to 14 August 1945 (VJ Day, the Victory over Japan Day). The OWI was abolished effective 15 September 1945. According to the terms of the employment, Than E was to be given passage back to where she was recruited from, i.e. New Delhi.
She requested the manager to give her a ticket to London instead, but the manager refused her request saying he had to follow the rules. She did not know, at that time, that she could just take the air ticket and change it to where ever she wanted to go at the airline. She decided to stay at Palo Alto, California with a colleague and her family.Her friend introduced her to a lecture agent who booked her to speak at various places. Out of his fee of $100 for each talk, he took a cut of $25 leaving $75 for Than E.
International civil servant
While she was in the San Francisco Bay area, the big event was the gathering of delegates from over 50 countries to draft the United Nations charter. After about one year, she went to New York to prepare to go to London. She arrived in New York as the first General Assembly of the United Nations was about to meet. The headquarters offices at that time were in Lake Success, New York. She went to see some of her colleagues working there and asked how they had got their jobs. They directed her to the personnel officer. Burma was ineligible to be a member at that time but the personnel officer said that she was sure Burma would become a member soon and advised Than E to fill the application and leave it with her. She took the ship to Southampton, England, then a train to London, and went back to stay at the Crosby Hall. In January 1947, she found out that a delegation from Burma was in London to discuss the terms of Burma's independence with Clement Attlee's government.
She contacted Tin Tut at the Dorchester and he took her to meet the delegation. That was the first meeting of her with Bogyoke (General) Aung San. Than E later wrote in Freedom from Fear that Bogkyoke met a crowded assembly of Burmese students, expatriates and visitors in a Burmese restaurant and addressed to them and later talked to each of them informally. His unassuming friendliness won their hearts.
At the end of the mission, Bogyoke gave a reception to his English hosts, members of parliament of both parties, journalists, friends of Burma and the Burmese group. Bogyoke requested, in advance, Than E to sing at his reception. Than E sang three songs: one in English, one in French and one in Burmese. She was accompanied by a piano for the English and French songs.
But the Burmese song she selected was "Mo Nat Dewi", the lyrics of which were from a love poem written by the Burmese queen Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin. That Burmese classical music would have needed Burmese musical instruments. She sang viva voce, without any piano accompaniment. The mostly British guests applauded politely and Bogyoke came and let her down from the platform, telling her how much he enjoyed her singing. Bogyoke asked her to return to Burma with them saying he could always find her a job in Rangoon. Tin Tut thought he would be the first Burmese ambassador from Independent Burma to the United Kingdom. He said Than E would be more useful in London than in Rangoon. She decided to stay in London for a while and wait.
The turn of events in the following few months changed Than E's destiny. On 19 July 1947, Prime Minister Aung San and his six of his cabinet ministers, a cabinet secretary and a bodyguard were assassinated. U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Independent Burma, appointed U Tin Tut to be his Minister of Foreign Affairs. Tin Tut was assassinated in September 1948. She applied for the Information Officer job at the newly opened Burmese Embassy, but the ambassador deferred all the appointments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rangoon.
Than E found herself stranded in London and her little savings she earned from lecturing in San Francisco was dwindling fast. Than E then got a telegram from the personnel officer at the United Nations in New York asking her if she is still available. She reported promptly at the United Nations Information Center in Russell Square in London. All arrangements were made for her travel to New York and her career as an International Civil Servant began.
From May 1948 onward she worked at the United Nations Secretariat for 24 years. Her United Nations assignments took her to New Delhi, for an assignment at the United Nations Information Center. She was then transferred to Algiers in the newly independent Algeria to establish a similar center. While she was posted in Algiers, Aung San Suu Kyi visited and stayed with her on her summer vacation from her study at St Hugh's College, Oxford.
Than E was finally assigned at the Secretariat in New York City. When Aung San Suu Kyi worked at the United Nations at the suggestion of Than E, she stayed with Than E for three years, calling her "Auntie Dora" and would refer to her as "my emergency aunt".
After her retirement, Than E went to live in a small town in the Austrian Alps, Feldkirch, Vorarlberg. From there she relocated to an assisted living retirement home in Oxford, United Kingdom in 2001.
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