Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Second Lt. Hnin Aung and Uneaten Chicken Curry


State High School No-1 Latha.

Hnin Aung and I were together at the Central Boys High (State High School No-1 Latha) in Rangoon in 1971-72. We were in our year 10 the last year of High School and he was in Class B and I was in Class A. He was small built and reserved and extremely polite but genuinely friendly and a decent boy. I was rude and rough and violent and totally opposite to him. And we were both just fifteen.

He and I were new arrivals as I the bad boy was just kicked out of Aung San Thuria Hla Thaung Army High School in Mingaladon for assaulting the Boarders-Master RSM and he was transferring from another army high school somewhere in the country as his father an army officer was just transferred into the War Office in Rangoon.

In Rangoon these colonial-era big high schools had many thousands of students coming through the local primary schools and only the best students performing well through out their previous year 8 and year 9 in the same high school were placed in the top classes like Class A and Class B. In our year the school had at least twenty Year 10 classes. If a boy was in the last class forget about his chance to get into a good university like Medicine or Engineering.

Even though he and I were new arrivals we were placed among mainly Chinese and Indian students in the top classes. The reasons were that my father knew the colonel husband of the School Headmistress Daw Hla Nu, and his father a senior army major was just transferred to Rangoon as a military judge. And later I discovered our fathers had graduated together from the wartime Japanese Military Academy and served together as officers in General Aung San’s BNA (Burma National Army) during the Second World War.

We became good friends as our family were then living in the same Panbedan Township and their house on the Konezaydan St. was only a couple of blocks away from our house on the Dalhousie Road. Young Min Aung Hlaing, now the Commander-in-Chief of Burmese Army, was his classmate and he and some other Burmese boys from our school also hanged out with us. So we all became very good friends.

Map of Central Rangoon (2005).
The school was on the border of Rangoon’s China Town and the massive Indian Town and most students in the school were Indian and Chinese boys. So we the Burmese minority hanged out together. We were soccer-mad and we played soccer almost every weekend in the playing fields next to the Convoy Hall on the U Wisara Road.

We would play soccer topless in the heavy rain till we were stone-cold and dead-exhausted. The massive D-block of Thein-Gyi Bazaar on the Pagoda Road was on our way home and whenever there was a heavy rain the rainwater collected on the bazaar’s vast roof would  come down through the gutter holes like huge waterfalls.

I would take off my shorts and try to stand completely naked under the heavy waterfall and challenge everyone to do the same. Hnin Aung always refused to do that stupid stunt as it could hurt our thin bodies badly. We also learned and practiced Judo together at the Judo Club in Aung San Stadium. We were really close.

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But I soon discovered that our families were worlds apart from each other. My father was a surrendered Communist who didn’t believe in a religion while his father was a devout Buddhist. Most of his free time at home he meditated in the Lord’s Room of his house and it extremely amazed me.

And he maintained a loving but very strict discipline over his four boys. My dear friend Hnin Aung was the eldest of the four boys and one lovely youngest girl. They were not allowed to go out at night and all their friends were carefully screened so that they wouldn’t fall in with a wrong crowd.

Hnin Aung's mother who was much younger than her husband was a very good cook and most of the time she invited us to stay inside the whole day at their house and fed us all sorts of delicious snacks and lunch. I had a feeling then that she rather kept the boys at home than letting them go out and do the stuff boys normally do.

For a free-spirited wild boy like me it was quite depressing staying inside the whole day some weekends but I still enjoyed visiting their spacious house as the food was good and they had a stereo cassette. In our house we had only a radio and at that time in Socialist Burma only rich or powerful families could afford a luxury item like a stereo cassette recorder. Television came to Burma only in 1980.

Singer Sai Htee Saing.
If I wanted to listen to some popular music I had to spend some money that I hardly had at the neighborhood teashop to listen whatever crap the shop owner was playing. Late Sai Htee Saing was really popular that time and somehow Hnin Aung’s religious father knew it and bought the expensive tapes just for his boys and their friends so that we stayed inside. Their parents loved them so much they wanted to keep their kids in their sights as much as humanely possible.

I was amazed at them since my father would just let me go wherever I bloody wanted than going into that much trouble to keep me at home. He even abandoned me in that brutal Army boarding school for five years since I was ten.

Anyway cut the story short we passed our matriculation together in early 1972 and got into the universities. I was in RIT (Rangoon Institute of Technology) after being rejected from MC (Medical College) first and then Dental. He was in the Chemistry major at RASU (Rangoon Arts and Science University) and Min Aung Hlaing was in the Law major at RASU too. And my troubles began.

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I was a DSA-mad boy and as soon as I passed my matriculation I tried to apply for DSA (Defense Services Academy) together with Min Aung Hlaing while deeply religious Hnin Aung had no intention to become an officer and go fight in the brutal Burmese Civil War.

But my father wouldn’t let me and finally I decided to join the army as a private and ended up in an infantry battalion in Myitkyinar. I was a mad boy.

While Min Aung Hlaing was repeatedly trying to get into DSA I was foolishly risking my pathetic life on the Ledo Road in Kachin State first and later on the Chinese border. I deserted the army in early 1974 and came back home as I didn’t want to die so young and also didn’t want to kill anymore.

During my almost two years away on the front line things back in Rangoon had changed. Finally Min Aung Hlaing got into DSA on his third attempt while Hnin Aung’s youngest baby brother Toe Aung had passed his matriculation and ended up with me in the same year in RIT as I had to restart from the first year.

Two of Hnin Aung’s younger brothers Aung Gyi and Aung Kyu were twins and they both applied for DSA that year as they also finished their matriculation previous year. They are identical twins but with totally different personalities.

Aung Gyi was a happy-go-lucky guy always smiling and laughing and cracking jokes to us while Aung Kyu was a dead serious one without a smile since he was very young. As we all knew the DSA wouldn’t take both twin brothers I was guessing that only Aung Kyu would get in. And I was right as only Aung Kyu was selected and he eventually became an army officer like his father Major Than Lwin.

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Even though he was somehow stuck at a low rank of Major, Hnin Aung’s father Major Than Lwin was a very senior and a very stern officer. He was also extremely decent and deeply religious. He hardly talked to us and intentionally ignored us whenever we were at his house. What I still remember is there were only two occasions he talked to me in countless times I’d been to their house during those years.

Once we were sitting in his lounge room and he suddenly came out of his room, the Lord’s Room where he meditates, and excitingly showed me a very old note book. It was full of autographs and he explained to me that the signatures were of his fellow officers from BNA while they were demobilized in Pyinmanar in 1946 or 47 just after the Second World War.

And one of the signatures was my own father’s. It appears that General Aung San had basically surrendered his Japanese-established BNA to the Sir William Slim of British 14th Army and the whole army of 20 odd thousands was marched to Pyimanar and dismantled there by the British.

He and my father were basically blood brothers of Burmese Army. That was the reason he acknowledged and talked to me very first time. Many years later he wrote the story of his note book in a Government magazine called Myawaddy.

After telling me the story of his old note book he basically disappeared back into his room and wouldn’t say a thing to me again for a few years till the time he retired from the army and was transferred into the Civil Service and appointed the Managing Director of the Film Corporation.

As part of his job he became the Chairman or Secretary of the Burma’s Film Censor Board and no film, foreign or domestic, was allowed to screen in Burma unless he saw it and signed the censor permit. That duty to watch every film imported or made locally was simply a hell for him as he hardly watched a film in his life before.

And one day we ran into him when he came back home tired and exhausted from the screening of one very long Hollywood film called “Harold Robin’s The Adventurers” at his office. He stared at me and voluntarily said that he might have done something really bad in previous life to be suffering in this life like being forced to watch that movie and we all laughed heartily at him, including Hnin Aung who wouldn’t dare laugh at his father in normal circumstances. And we discovered later that film was filled with extreme violence and explicit sex scenes.

And the Censor Permit with his name and signature has to be shown at the very beginning of every film shown in the cinemas and we all cheered loudly whenever we saw his name on the screen and always made Hnin Aung and his brothers slightly mad at us.

Back in Burma those days the naked scenes from the foreign movies were always censored and if we caught a glimpse of naked white woman on the screen we always cracked a joke that Hnin Aung’s dad was asleep in his chair and missed to cut the scene. And the joke made Hinin Aung madder. I still fondly remember.


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By 1976 Hnin Aung had graduated from RASU and continued on to pursue his master degree in the same university as his dream was to become a university lecturer. One day Aung Kyu came back from DSA as his annual leave and the brothers and other friends visited me in our family orchard in Aung San Town on the outskirt of Rangoon beyond Insein.

My father had had a grand dream of creating a self-sufficient farm and so he’d bought a large block of hilly land there and dug a fish pond and started growing hundreds of mango trees and raising chickens for eggs and meat. But he fell sick and I ended up staying there to take care of the trees and the fish pond and the bloody chickens during my university holidays. And I ended up killing chicken regularly for myself and my family back in Rangoon.

So that day when they visited me I planned to cook chicken curry as a picnic lunch for my dear friends. The hike along the bush track from the nearest bus stop on the highway to our orchard was almost 5 miles and once they arrived they were hungry and exhausted. I told them I was going to cook a super-tasty chicken curry and Hnin Aung asked me where the chicken was. The chickens were all over the place.

What he meant was the chicken meat bought from the wet market ready to be cooked. I laughed at him, grabbed a sharp knife from the kitchen, calmly walked out of the house to the chickens pecking on the grassy ground nearby, grabbed one by the neck, forced it onto the ground by stepping my right foot on the body, cut the throat half way, and threw it onto the ground away from me. I didn’t want the blood spatter on me while the almost headless chicken was dying violently on the ground.

I thought I saw slight disapproval on Hnin Aung’s face but I was so insensitive I didn’t give much thought to it. While the poor chicken was bleeding to death on the grass I boiled a large pot of water. When the water started boiling I picked the dead chicken up, dipped the whole chicken into the boiling water, and started plucking the feather. Within half an hour the nice-smelling chicken curry was simmering on the charcoal stove and I was so proud of my killing skill acquired during my two years in the army.

Only problem was Hnin Aung had refused to eat my deliciously sweet chicken curry and also his brothers when the lunch time came. They all just ate the rice with salted-fish-paste the side dish and didn’t touch my chicken curry at all without saying a thing to me. I learned a horrible lesson there and since that day I haven’t killed a single chicken in my life again.

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A few months later I was back in our Rangoon house as the universities were reopened. One night Hnin Aung came to my house and we went and saw a James Bond movie and there he told me that he was going to OTS (Officer Training School) in Hmaw-bee. I was shocked. How was he gonna kill a man on the faraway front line if he couldn’t even force himself to eat my chicken curry just because that poor chicken was killed right in front of him?

He was aware of it and comforted me by saying that he wouldn’t be serving in an infantry battalion where he had to fight. He would go straight to the DSA after OTS and become a lecturer there and that was the signed-and-sealed deal his father had with the War Office.

But that night was the very last time I saw him. Few days later he went to OTS for the nine-months training to become an army officer, and just a week immediately after his graduation from OTS he was killed by a CPB artillery barrage on the front-line in Shan State.

I didn’t hear his death from his family as they were so distraught to see any of Hnin Aung’s friends. I heard the bad news and the date of funeral from a mutual friend who lived on the same street as them.

On the day of funeral I went to their house and his brother Aung Gyi told me the whole sad story. According to tearful Aung Gyi, there was a slight change in Hnin Aung’s plan to become a lecturer in DSA as the Army suddenly required him to serve at least a few months in a safe infantry battalion stationed in the quiet Irrawaddy Delta before he could be re-posted to DSA.

So he went to report to the battalion in a big Delta town which name I couldn’t recall now. Unfortunately for Hnin Aung the supposedly safe battalion was suddenly sent to the front line in Shan States just before his arrival. So our brand new Second Lt. Hnin Aung had no choice but to follow the battalion alone wherever it was to report to his Commanding Officer.

When he arrived the battalion HQ camp was on a hill not far from the Chinese Border. As soon as he arrived he went into the command tent to see the CO Colonel. At that instance the CPB artillery on the borderline unleashed a massive bombardment on the hill and annihilated everyone including poor Hnin Aung in the command tent.

My dear friend Hnin Aung didn’t even have his 9mm Browning pistol, the standard Burmese Army-issued, on him as he wasn’t even issued one yet, Aung Gyi said weeping. His mother  was crying and fainted a few times that day when she saw the familiar faces of  her son’s dear friends. 

I saw his father kept on wiping the tears off his cheeks but I knew he forced himself not to cry in public.

Inside the coffin was not Hnin Aung's whole body but just a small blood-stained box  containing his one arm as his battalion could locate only his left arm with the OTS ringed-finger still attached as the only identifiable body part among the scattered bits and pieces of collective flesh and guts on the devastated command hill of his battalion.

I didn’t cry at his funeral that day. That night I couldn’t sleep at all. After midnight I got out of my bed and left the house and sat  down on the kerb of the quiet Dalhousie Road. A couple of blocks away a group of boys I knew were playing guitars and singing a sad song of Sai Htee Sai.

They made me remember the time we boys listened to Sai Htee Sai's tapes together at Hnin Aung’s house. I tried to redraw his smiling face in my mind but somehow I couldn’t recall his exact face and strangely it was just a blur.

Suddenly I felt sad and tears began to fall onto my cold cheeks. I cried quietly for my friend Hnin Aung. I never cried before for my many other childhood friends who were also killed in this civil war. Now I remembered all of them and felt like crying for their deaths.

And I did cry a very long time for all of them that cold night!

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video
(You tube video of Hnin Aung's most favourite Sai Htee Sai's song "Sin Zar Bar Ohn")