Daw Moe Swe: Red matron

A large crowd followed and pressed around Jesus. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in crowd and kept looking to see who had touched his clothes. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and told him. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

CPB Central Committee on Pegu-Yoma Ranges (1956).
I was born in a jungle camp of CPB (Communist Party of Burma) HQ on the ranges of Pegu-Yoma in June 1956. My father then was a divisional military commander of CPB Peoples’ Army and my mother was a central committee member of CPB Women Congress. Before they joined the Party my father was an ex-army officer and my mother a young high school student. They met in the jungle and got married with approval of the Party.

Started in March 1949 the flames of Communist rebellion were still burning bright but the military situation in the mid 1950 was not in their favor like before in the beginning. Not only losing all their strongholds in the population centers of middle Burma the Communist were now being chased like the wild pigs in the jungle by the troops loyal to U Nu’s AFPFL Government while the pro-government militia kept them away from the towns and large villages.

In the beginning of 1956 a huge military operation named Aungmaga was launched against the CPB Central Committee HQ in the Pakoku District. Led by Colonel Kyi Win the Tenth Brigade of Burmese Army even captured the CPB HQ in early March 1956. When I was born the base military hospital was just a makeshift jungle camp comprising a couple of thatch-roofed bamboo huts in an abandoned teak plantation called Palway Kyowaing on the Pegu-yoma north west of Pyimanar.


There were male paramedics and a couple of midwives-cum-nurses and the matron was sister Daw Moe Swe, according to my mother. The camp basically had nothing decent to eat except the bamboo shoots and wild rock melons from the jungle floor. To feed my mother and the wounded comrades Daw Moe Swe and her fellow nurses and medics had to forage the jungle.

My mother was seriously malnourished and she was so thin and thus produced an extremely underweight baby. I was just a tiny skeleton covered with shriveled skin. This was what she so often said so many years later when I became an adult fairly big and strong.

“I couldn’t watch whenever Aunty Daw Moe Swe tried to inject you with some medicine to keep you alive. You were so miserably thin, just bones and skin, she always had a hard time finding one of your veins and you were screaming with pain till you had no energy or voice left to cry out no more.”

I do not understand why these bloody Communists tried to breed in the jungle. Maybe they didn’t have condoms or contraceptive pills back then especially in a jungle. My sister born a year and half before me died within few days after birth and my mother was half expecting I could go the same way. But I survived miraculously even a brutal raid by the notorious Chin troops. According to my mother the Chins attacked the hospital camp one day and killed many and captured alive Daw Moe Swe and the rest but she with me on her back escaped into the jungle.

She and the baby finally ended up with the family of a Party sympathizer in nearby Pyimanar and a few weeks later I was given to her eldest sister from the Delta town of Moulmeingyun about 200 miles away from Pyimanar as she couldn’t take care of me anymore. She desperately wanted to go back into the jungle and joined my father and his rag tag gang of CPB’s Red Army. So she wrote to her sister to come meet her incognito at certain date and time at Pyimanar Railway Station.

The transfer of baby me was done unceremoniously on the noisily crowded platform of the Railway Station. According to my adopted mother her baby sister whom she hadn’t seen since she joined the underground CPB at least ten years ago suddenly appeared beside her in the crowd and handed her a small smelly bundle and a handwritten note and immediately disappeared without even saying a word.

* My birth place is now in the newly-established Naypyidaw area.
The bundle was three months old me in my own liquidy shit as I then had a non-stop diarrhea. And the note contained my name and my date of birth. My mother couldn’t hang around too long as she was shit scared of being captured by the police or the army or the town’s militia.

My dear mother didn’t see me again till I was ten years old and she was captured alive together with my younger brother by the Chin troops and then released only after they had been kept at their battalion compound in Magwe for more than a year as hostages till my father agreed to surrender.

She was extremely lucky as the CO, Colonel Min Kyi, of the Chin Rifles Battalion which captured her was a young cadet officer in my father’s guerrilla battalion fighting the Japanese in the last year of the Second World War.

I had basically no maternal or paternal bonds with both my parents for I grew up a civil war orphan. My mother’s desperate cure for repairing that serious detachment was frequently telling me stories and events about that three months immediately after I was born and before I was abandoned. Daw Moe Swe was always there in her stories.

How she took care of me, how she kept me alive, how she suffered in the hands of Chin soldiers because of me, and why she gave me a life worth living. After the old lady was captured she still refused to surrender to the army and they finally charged her with treason and jailed her 10 years with hard labor.

After so many times hearing the stories I even started felling guilty for her being in a prison for that long as if she’d delivered only one Communist baby in her life and unfairly suffered for it. Only later I realized she was the head matron of all the Communist midwives and personally delivered or helped deliver hundreds of babies in various Communist field hospitals. I was probably the last Communist baby for her.

Eventually she was pardoned and she went back to her hometown Pakoku and lived with her aging mother and passed away peacefully in late 1970s. She came to Rangoon only once just before she died and my mother and many ex-commie mothers visited her at where she was staying. I was then in RIT and I was the only one in a university among the sorry bunch of jungle-born teenagers accompanying their mothers that day.

CPB Colonels Chit Kaung, Myo Myint, & my father Htun Hla.
Almost all of them I met that day were troublesome kids as if their difficult jungle-births had basically damaged their brains. Drug-addicts and petty-criminals almost all of them according to their complaining mothers. But my mother didn’t say a bad thing about me to them even though I ran away from home at least three times. And she didn’t mention about me growing up basically in Aung-San-Thuria Hla Thaung Cadet Regiment the army-boarding-school for the miscreant sons of army officers.

Also she didn’t say anything about me trying to get into the Defense Services Academy (DSA) after the matriculation and how my father killed my lifelong dream by not signing the parental consent on my DSA application. I still remembered what he angrily told me then that he would never let me become an army officer and kill the Communists of CPB to whom I basically owed my life and thus my whole existence. 

She also didn’t tell them about me running away that year and joining the army as a private and the horrible fact that I’d fought and killed the Communists on the Chinese border in Kachin State for almost two long years in the army.

As my mother’s turn came to meet Daw Moe Swe and she introduced me to her the thin old lady said to me a few simple words that have stuck with me for the rest of my life.

“My sacrifices are well worth it as long as you’re doing something good for our country.”    

From that day onwards whenever I did something seriously bad I remembered her words and felt guilty. When I did have a chance to emigrate from Burma to Australia in 1986 I hesitated for over two years. Even today I still feel guilty for abandoning Burma in 1988 whenever I think of the thin old lady I met many years ago. 

Then one day in last week I accidentally clicked onto a Burmese democracy site called Myanmar ISP and pleasantly found an E-book named “Dawn Traveller” written by Yebaw Ngwe of CPB now in the Yunan Province of China. (For some reason the normally secretive CPB is now allowing or even seemed to be encouraging the old cadres to write their memoirs and I am now in heaven after discovering the books.)

In the book I found a whole chapter written about sister Daw Moe Swe the Red Matron of CPB.

The Red Matron
Yebaw Ngwe (a) Ma Kyi Lay had been with CPB since she was a 14 years old girl and she was once trained by Daw Moe Swe to become a Communist nurse in 1951 in Pakoku District in Upper Burma. She was captured by the army in 1959 and jailed for 2 years in Mandalay Prison. She rejoined the Party in the jungle in 1965 after she was released in 1961.

I translated Yebaw Ngwe own words about Daw Moe Swe to record her sacrifices for Burma and to honor the great midwife without whom I would have never survived the Burmese jungle and be able to write about Burma 50 odd years later. This translated and edited extracts is from Yebaw Ngwe’s Autobiography.

“In the summer of 1952 me and my husband were stranded at the base hospital of CPB Upper Burma HQ in Pakoku District on our way back from the Irrawaddy Delta. They discovered my husband had TB and he was immediately hospitalized and I stayed back to care for him.

The busy field hospital had so many patients and also many doctors and many medics since then was a time for the practice sessions for the students of 6 months long Medic Training School. There was also a Midwife Training School taught and headed by Aunty Daw Moe Swe.

A bit fair, tall, stout, and with fluid movement Aunty Daw Moe Swe was well-respected and loved by everybody there. Simple, straight forward, and not a hint of arrogance in Aunty. Being a Christian and also a Communist she was willing to help anyone and everyone and thus her job really matched her. We all loved her dearly and called her Aunty. All the people from the nearby Ingyinbin Village also called her Daw Aunty.

She wasn’t very pretty but she had a good heart and a gentle sprit. If one looked carefully at her face one would know that she had very thin and pinkish lips. And she spoke calm and quiet. At that time Party was in a better position to provide for the professionals and, as an elder, she was provided with nourishing foodstuff like Ovaltine, Milo, and Horlick.

Aunty never used that expensive stuff alone. She always shared them with the needy patients. The fruits and vegetables and eggs whatever she was given she shared with the patients from the hospital or from the nearby village. She had a beautiful and generous heart.

CPB's Yebaw Ngwe.
I still remembered an incident while I was in the hospital. One young red army soldier was recovering from his wounds and he was pale and drained of energy. So daily he got drips and Ovaltine to regain his strength. But for some reason he refused to eat. The young nurses had hell of a time feeding him. So they told Aunty Daw Moe Swe.

Immediately Aunty went and saw him. Once he saw her the young soldier started crying and saying mother, mother. She just held him and gently stroke his back while saying not to cry.

‘Please do not cry. You’re gonna lose your energy. The nurses are telling me you said you felt bitter in your mouth. Open your mouth and show me your tongue. Oh, look you have white spots on your tongue, that’s why you don’t feel like eating. Don’t worry I’ll take care of that. Okay, just tell me what you really want to eat right now?’
‘I do want to eat the Chinbaung dish my mother always cooked for me,’ whispered the young man while still looking up at Aunty’s face.
‘Why didn’t you say so?’
‘I wanted to, but my mother is in the faraway Delta,’ replied the young soldier with tears down his cheeks.
‘Okay son, I’m like a mother to you all here. I’ll cook that Chinbaung dish for you. Can you please tell me the way your mother cooked the dish?’ Aunty comforted him at the same time taking out her kerchief and wiping the tears off the young soldier’s cheeks.
‘She boiled Chinbaung leaves both sour and bitter ones together and added pieces of roast fish. Put 3 or 4 spliced green chilies really big ones and stirred well. At close to finish added either mince leaves or coriander leaves,’ tearfully told the young soldier.
‘Okay I know now. Tomorrow I’ll ask the supply to buy what we need from the town market and I’ll cook for you,’ comforted Aunty.

Day after next day together with some other patients the young man happily ate his favorite Chinbaung dish Aunty had cooked. Aunty even cooked a couple more times that dish for him and he got well quick. He was discharged from the hospital and returned to his unit in a month time.

Then in 1953, I didn’t remember the exact date, we had a celebration play in our hospital for the October Revolution. The play was one scene play performed by our young nurses. On the well-lit stage the play started with one young red army soldier seeing his lover a young nurse. They had only 15 minutes as a strict hospital rule (the rule Aunty had laid down for her young nurses).

As two lovers talked a young sentry man stood nearby and watched the clock ticking slowly. And as soon as 15 minutes was reached he started blowing his whistle. The young woman was worried but the young man wouldn’t go as the sentry kept on blowing his whistle.

First he just blew short shrills as warning but the lovers wouldn’t part and the audience started laughing at the angry sentry man. So he blew a very, very long shrill and as the audience was laughing wildly the sentry man suddenly dropped onto the floor as if he was shocked. The lovers ran to him and called out aloud for help and other nurses came and tried to revive but he wouldn’t recover.

Horlicks Ad (1916).
Finally one nurse said aloud that she knew a medicine for the sentry and yelled out aloud, Om … Horlick! The sentry shook a little bit and the whistle still in his mouth produced a quiet short shrill. Then the nurse said, Om … Milo, and the sentry shook more and produced a louder shrill. Finally the nurse said, Om … Ovaltine, and the sentry completely recovered and stood up and blowing his whistle non-stop.

The plot ended amidst the loud laugh of audience but the young director had disappeared and hid from Aunty as the play was indirectly criticizing Aunty Daw Moe Swe for her strict 15 minutes rule of visiting time to her young nurses.

Instead of being angry our Aunty was laughing and laughing till the tears came down on her cheeks. The people sitting beside her even felt uncomfortable. And she just told them that the young people looked from only point of view of love but for her 15 minutes could be a crucial time of life or death for a wounded patient and so the rule was laid down. She added the young nurses would understand her later once they got a bit older. She could forgive anyone and everyone.”

According to Yebaw Ngwe Aunty Daw Moe Swe was a nursing sister from the Mandalay General Hospital. She was personally recruited into the Party by Thakhin Ba Hein one of the senior leaders of CPB. She took to the jungle together with other two nurses Ma Soe Soe and Ma Khin Mya Si to help the people with their medical and nursing knowledge.

Aunty Dwa Moe Swe was also known as Major Daw Moe Swe as her rank in the Red Army was a major. Her home town was Pakoku and after she was released as part of general amnesty in 1960 she went back home and lived together with her aging mother. She died peacefully later after visiting Rangoon and meeting me and other communist babies she had delivered in the jungle. She was never married.

May her soul rest in peace!