MAUNG MAUNG was a distinguished lawyer, scholar and a prominent figure in contemporary Burmese politics. On 18 August 1988, amidst a series of large-scale demonstrations which shook the country, the People's Assembly declared Maung Maung President and Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the only legal party in the 26-year- old military-dominated regime previously led by the strongman General Ne Win. Maung Maung's appointment followed two extraordinary resignations, first of General Ne Win in July, after 26 years in power, and then of his immediate successor General Sein Lwin, after just 17 days in power.
Maung Maung was one of the two civilians who served on the Central Executive Committee of the BSPP and his rise to the highest political office provided a glimmer of hope to a much-troubled nation. In his emotional acceptance speech Maung Maung offered to investigate the demonstrators' demands for multi-party democracy and subsequently called a meeting of the ruling party congress to decide whether a nationwide referendum on the issue should be held.
There were significant changes under Maung Maung's rule: a free press was declared for the first time in 26 years; martial law was lifted; troops which had occupied Rangoon since the start of the anti- government demonstrations were withdrawn; dissidents and all those detained during the demonstrations were released. Maung Maung further offered to legalise student unions, previously declared illegal by the military regime, and promised to rebuild the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU) building, the hub of Burma's nationalist movement's activities throughout the 1930s, destroyed after the 1962 coup led by General Ne Win.
However, the promises of reform were regarded by some of the demonstrators as two weeks too late. Leaders of the 1988 uprising, including the student activist Moe Thi Zun, viewed Maung Maung as a puppet of the military, and despite the promises of sweeping changes they urged the demonstrations to continue. His presidency of the party and hence of the country was therefore short-lived. Anti-government demonstrations continued and widespread disruptions resulted in a military coup on 18 September 1988, bringing in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which remains in control to the present day. Some observers argue that, had Maung Maung been given the chance by the demonstrators, Burma would have a more liberal regime than the one we have witnessed with the SLORC.
Maung Maung's brief presidency of the country was the culmination of a distinguished career as a lawyer, scholar and a high- level government official.
He was born in 1925 in Mandalay, an old royal capital in northern Burma. He was an ardent nationalist and served as an officer in the Burma Defence Army during 1943-45 in Burma's fight against the British forces and later against the Japanese.
He was a highly educated man, graduating from the University of Rangoon with two Bachelor's degrees, in Arts and in Law. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn, and later studied at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where he took a doctorate in international law. In the early 1960s he went to Yale University as a visiting lecturer in political science and South-East Asian Studies. He was also a lecturer in English and in Law at the University of Rangoon and was popular with students for his clear grasp of the facts and his lecturing skills.
Maung Maung was a prolific writer both in Burmese and in English. His books include Burma's Teething Time, The Forgotten Army, Burma in the Family of Nations and Burma and General Ne Win - a complimentary biography of General Ne Win. He also edited New Times of Burma in 1948. In 1954 he started the Guardian magazine and two years later the Guardian newspaper.
In government, Maung Maung served as a government advocate under the civilian government of U Nu. He was Assistant Attorney General under the military caretaker government of 1958-60 and Chief Justice after the 1962 coup. He later became a civilian member of the Central Executive Committee of the BSPP. He was the author of the 1974 constitution in Burma and in the same decade undertook legal reforms in the country. Highly educated and deeply religious, Maung Maung was the intellectual and a moral force within the Ne Win regime.
After his brief spell in power in 1988, Maung Maung disappeared from the public eye, although it was rumoured that he helped draft the election law governing the 1990 general election.
As a person, Maung Maung radiated warmth and sincerity. He was soft-spoken and demonstrated a great national pride. My first encounter with him was in 1985 when he came to my family's house for dinner. I remember distinctly a tall and dignified-looking man. I was impressed by his sincerity, inspired by his intellect and moved by his love for the country.