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February 29, 2020

Sayagyi U Razak

A Patriot, A Visionary & A Dedicated Teacher

  • By Nyi Nyi
    B.Sc.(Hons)., Ph.D.(London). D.I.C

Six decades ago, we lost our beloved leader Bogyoke Aung San and his close colleagues in the assassination on 19 July 1917. It deprived the nation of a corps of leaders who would have provided wise and strong leadership in newly independent Burma in various spheres of life. Starting with the turmoil soon after independence, the impact of the loss is still being felt today. It was a tragic loss to the families, the nation and its citizens.
As a fellow educationist, I would like to write on the grievous loss of Sayagyi U Razak, a selfless patriot, a visionary of the future needs of the country and a dedicated teacher of repute who made the ultimate sacrifice together with Bogyoke Aung San. As the Principal (in those day known as Superintendent) of the Central National High School of Mandalay, he trained and nurtured generations of students to be patriotic, to love, appreciate and be proud of being a Burmese and proficient and excel in the areas of study they pursued. His school produced the greatest number of national and local leaders (including several Cabinet ministers) civil and military leaders, diplomats, scientists, sportsmen, artists, writers and journalists. To parents and the community, he was the headmaster of all students in Mandalay and Upper Burma/Myanmar. During the Resistance, in which he participated, he was unanimously elected president of the Mandalay Division of the Anti-Fascist Organisation (A.I.O. and also later of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (A.F.P.F.L.), its successor national front.
Some western writers referred to him as a muslim politician. While it is true that he was a muslim, it would be more appropriate to describe him as a national and regional leader whose faith was Islam.
Bogyoke Aung San was a secularist leader and he chose his team based on merit, regional representation and experience. He regarded religious as a private faith. He did not adopt Buddhism as a state religion despite the urging by some leaders, but a religion practiced by the majority of the people. Sayagyi was, in fact, proposed for inclusion in the cabinet as the representative of Upper Burma/Myanmar by the Buddhist sanghas of Mandalay.
Sayagyi was a secularist but felt young people need to respect and learn their religion and its teaching for its moral values and also as part of the national culture.
Every morning, he would make rounds of the school, after school assembly to ensure that all Buddhist students attend their prayers and religious lessons. Mandalay is, of course, the epicenter of the Buddhist faith and most students were Buddhists. Parents and later students themselves when they grew older, appreciated Sayagyi’s stewardship in giving them their cultural roots.
U Razak, born in Mandalay in 1898 was popularly known as “Sayagyi” in Mandalay and Upper Burma/Myanmar. His mother was Daw Nyein Hla, a Burmese Buddhist from Meikhtila and his father, Mr Sheik Abdul Rahman (also known as U Tun) was an Inspector of Police. His brothers (U Ba Kyu, U Ba Kyaw, U Ba Mu and U Ba Than) and sisters (Daw Yan and Daw Thein Thein) were all Buddhists. He retained his foreign sounding name, Razak, on the advice of his mentors that there was nothing wrong in retaining the name honouring his father.
Despite being in Senior B.A. class in Rangoon (and later University) College in 1920, on the verge of graduation, he joined the University Strike of 1920 as the students’s demand for alleviating the restrictions imposed by the new University was rejected by the authorities. While the nationalist leaders felt the need for more highly-educated people in the country to meet the growing needs and also to prepare for the home rule of the country, the authorities were; promoting an elitist approach, placing several hurdles including the prohibitive cost due to the compulsory requirement of all students to stay in the hostels, thus limiting each year’s intake.
He refused the offer of the government after the strike to join the police force at a senior level. Instead, he completed his formal degree at the National University and joined the newly-emerged national education movement whose schools could not even pay the salary regularly. But the movement enabled more students to be enrolled, and it reinvigorated Burmese/Myanmar studies, promoted Burmese/Myanmar culture and instilled patriotism and nationalism to all its students, making them to be proud to be Burmese/ Myanmar again. He became the Principal and a teacher of Mandalay Central National High School, one of the two biggest national schools in the country.
He taught English and Pali, the classical language of Buddhism Recognising the importance of English in colonial times and when the country attain its independence, and also to refute the reputation that national schools were weak in English, he enacted a rule that all students must spoke in English except in the Burmese/Myanmar and Pali classes. His knowledge of Pali was also profound and came in useful during the Second World War when he could explain the young novices and monks in Mingun studying the Buddhist scripture of what they were learning as Sayagyi and his family took refuge in a monastery in Mingun.
Sayagyi also believed in the need for a well-rounded education, promoting the physical development of the young people – his favourite sports being boxing, nurturing the future champion, Tigher BaNyein amongst others. He also established a boxing club and hired a professional coach to teach the techniques of boxing and sportsmanship systematically as one of his ambitions was to train his students to fight against the authority figures(like police, military, etc.) in the arena of a boxing ring – instilling the spirit of standing up against the authorities when required, and the practice of a fair fight.
He also founded the Yedat, a volunteer corps for paramilitary training in preparation for a future armed struggle for national liberation. It was an inspiring sight to watch him in uniform leading his corps in parades. His students were later found to be at the core of successive military establishments, such as BIA: Burma Independence Army, BDA: Burma Defence Army and BNA: Burma National Army. They also provided the leadership in the Resistance in many areas in Upper Burma/Myanmar against the Japanese later.
A major achievement during his short tenure as the Minister of Education was to lay the foundation and start the process of establishing a future University in Mandalay. He entrusted the project to U Ko Lay the future Vice Chancellor of the University of Mandalay to start higher learning in Mandalay without further delay even if not all the bricks were in place. He adopted the principle of not allowing “the best be the enemy of the good’’, Sayagyi U Razak and Sayagyi U Ko Lay were the tow architects of the first University for Upper Burma Myanmar, providing access to higher learning to the northern half of the country with its roots in Mandalay, the centre of national culture.
Sayagyi was loved and respected by his students, their parents and the community as a whole. They loved him for his integrity and sacrifice, fairness and generosity, kindness and care, foresight and leadership, and inspiration. And not least, they also remember the cane to instill discipline. I was with DrKaungZan, one of Sayagyi’s student, in London in the 1950’s doing our graduate work in the same college, Imperial College of Science and Technology (at the time, medicine had not yet been added). DrKaungZan was doing research in plant pathology and he became Chief Agriculture Research Officer in Burma/Myanmar. He later joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, serving in several duty stations around the world. Whenever we reminisced in the college about our younger days, two persons would invariably dominate his observations, Sayagyi and his ( DrKaungZan’s) future wife, ThetThet. He attributed his achievements to the training and discipline instilled by his Sayagyi.
Sayagyi was a leader of man with a vision for the future. He foresaw what would be needed in a newly independent country and started preparing its young people for it. Mas, the good died young. He was only 49 when he died.

The author is former Professor of Geology, Director of Universities, Permanent Secretary of Education, Deputy Minister of Education, Minister of Mines and Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand. He later joined UNICEF as its Director of Programmes. On his retirement, he served as Clinical Professor of Public Health in the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and also as a member of the Board of Directors in several international non-profit organizations.


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