Shoe issue which paved the way to the independence struggle in Burma

Lanka Daily News, December 25, 2004

Yangon, Myanmar -- 'To be a Burmese (Myanmares) is to be a Buddhist' is a proverb in Myanmar. In 1898, C.S. Dissanayake, a convert from Roman Catholicism formed the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA) at Colombo modelled on the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) to provide spiritual guidance and recreational facilities for the young men working and living in Colombo city and in the following years branches of YMBA were established in other cities of Sri Lanka.

In 1906, YMBA was established in Rangoon (Myanmar) modelled on the Sri Lanka YMBA. This YMBA of Rangoon, which was first almost exclusively formed by Buddhist laymen, turned its attention in 1917 to some of the crucial issues of the Myanmar national questions at the time.

It fought the British rulers segregation of the railways, which provided compartments for Europeans only and the sale of lands to foreigners and the most vital question they took up was the 'shoe question'.

The British rulers had made a proclamation that in disregard of the Myanmar Buddhist culture, that all those who visit temples should not remove shoes but have them worn in the precincts of the temples as well as pagodas, monasteries etc.

This Shoe Question became first phase of the YMBA Rangoon's struggle for the resistance of the people to free themselves from British rule.

The Shoe Issue symbolised this struggle in such a simple and elemental way and since close links between the Buddhist values and Buddhism were under threat, it became the perfect point of departure from diverse ethnic and other considerations to become a national movement for freedom, not as pleaders but as antagonists to the British rule to gain national independence.

Thus the YMBA movement and the Shoe Question became the common plank for the modernists and traditionalists to stand and co-operate without any reservation, to sustain the dignity of Buddhism, Buddhist culture and the sovereignty of the people and territorial integrity of Myanmar.

Thus the British Government with no alternative, took measures to weaken the nationalist movement through arrest and imprisonment of the members of the movement in 1919.

A considerable number of monks joined the politico-religious agitation in connection with the Shoe Issue. The famous monk and scholar Ledi Sayadaw wrote a detailed treatise on the subject called "The Impertinence of wearing Shoes within the Precincts of the Pagodas".

There were sporadic outbursts of violence on October 4, 1919 by outraged monks. Monks attacked a group of Europeans who had entered the precincts of Eindway Pagoda at Mandalay, wearing shoes.
The monks were arrested and four of them were convicted. Their leader monk U. Kettaya, was found guilty of attempted murder and given a life sentence.

In 1920, all the existing YMBA's branches were re-named, General Council of Burmese Association.
In the wake of this formation, there were great many non-violent confrontations with the British Government, arising from popular resistance to the colonial power who disregarded Burmese Buddhism based culture, traditions and conventions.

Fast unto death
The most important figure of the nationalist movement was the monk U. Ottama.

He had travelled to Japan in 1907 and later had studied at Indian Universities like the Benares Hindu University (one of the largest universities in the world today occupying a land area of 68 sq miles). He returned to Myanmar in 1921, with having gained experience in the Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent 'Quit India Movement' to rouse the entire Myanmar people.

This monk gave the political independence movement, the character of a movement for religious liberation, U. Uttama was repeatedly arrested and convicted for incitement to rebellion on imaginary grounds. He died in prison in 1939, probably the most popular martyr of the Myanmar Independence Movement.

The political activities of a large number of monks who joined together in monks' associations between 1920 and the Second World War, thus giving the message to the British that no politician could exist in Myanmar without the support and acceptance of the Maha Sangha.

Monk U. Wizaya went on a hunger strike in protest for prohibiting monks wearing robes in prison, while serving sentences or under arrest. He died in 1929 after being on hunger strike for 163 days and eventually emerged a national martyr.

After Japanese occupation and the short rule of the Government of Dr. Ba Maw (1942-45) under a Japanese protectorate Myanmar gained total independence in 1948 under the leadership of the Anti-Fascist people' Freedom league, which had evolved from the pre-war nationalist Thakin Movement.

General Aung San was murdered on July 19, 1947. His successor U. Nu, became the first Prime Minister of Myanmar.