At first glance, Seit Tine Kya feels like any other teahouse in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city: boisterous with animated chatter, the sipping of milky tea, the slurping of greasy noodles, the shuffling of sandals on concrete, and the kiss-kiss of old patrons calling out to young waiters.
On a Saturday morning in late September of 2016, Seit Tine Kya appeared wholly unremarkable. Yet for its customers and wait staff, there was a conspicuous absence. The teahouse’s founder, a philanthropist and democracy activist named U Aung Htike, had died unexpectedly eight days earlier from septic shock brought on by prostate cancer. His passing was a blow to the community. For many, the soft-spoken restaurateur had come to represent the best aspirations of Myanmar’s nascent democracy: charitable, strong-willed, fair-minded and driven by high ideals in an era when high ideals could be fatal.
“We lost a man who helped us,” says Aung Naing, 46, a vendor who has sold sundry items – dried majyn fish, shrimp and cheroot cigars – at a small stall outside Seit Tine Kya for fifteen years. He has a black dragon tattoo running down his shoulder and a mouth stained red from chewing betel, a popular stimulant prepared with areca nut. “He was a philanthropist,” Aung Naing says through a translator, “but also a political man.”
New democracies always come with an origin story. Such narratives are usually driven by a central figure who, almost singlehandedly, turns a dark country into an enlightened one. Think South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, China’s Sun Yat-sen, India’s Mahatma Gandhi. In Myanmar, that person is Aung San Suu Kyi, otherwise known as “The Lady,” an eloquent opposition leader who spent over fifteen years under detention and house arrest and became the country’s de facto head of state last March after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the November 2015 elections in a landslide. It was an energizing victory. For half a century, Myanmar had existed as a pariah state under the clutches of a brutal and paranoid military dictatorship. Suu Kyi’s ascension from prisoner to president was momentous, reminiscent in its moral symmetry of a Hollywood ending – she, like all of the other aforementioned figures, has a biopic.
Yet in reality, revolution is never a solo project. Most of its participants are those that the world never hears of: the taxi drivers, bricklayers, auto mechanics, schoolteachers and, in Myanmar, the betel nut sellers, book binders, pagoda sweepers, and mohingya makers; the anonymous working class with dreams of democracy. In Burmese they are referred to as Yé baw, the fellow compatriots. Aung Htike the teahouse owner, whose life both traced and helped shape the trajectory of Myanmar’s democratization, was one of them.
For decades, Aung Htike had funneled his business success into anti-government activism. Money from his teahouses was sent clandestinely to families of political prisoners. When he could, he had food, books and other supplies delivered to the prisoners themselves. Maung Thura, a Burmese political activist and comedian better known by his stage name Zarganar (“tweezers” in Burmese), was one such benefactor. Buddha-bald with chubby cheeks and a wispy-haired chin mole, Zarganar is known for his relentless criticism of the former military regime, especially his damning satire. He has been arrested several times for his outspokenness and has spent over six years in various jails. Outside of prison, Zarganar was a regular at Seit Tine Kya. It was one of the few places where he and others could talk politics.
“At that time, our country was under the army boot. Everyone was afraid of political issues,” he remembers. Aung Htike, who gave him a venue for discussion, was a good friend, political confidant and, in the darkest of times, a support system. “He supported my family mentally and financially. Every week, he sent tea and Myanmar noodles for me,” he says. “When I transferred to Myitkyina in northern Myanmar he sent me money, books and clothes.”
The dangers for such activity were considerably real. Myanmar, an Orwellian police state, was full of government informants who did not wear uniforms. Any day of the week a person could disappear. Many did.
Minka Nijhuis, a Dutch journalist and author who has written extensively on Myanmar under military rule, first met Aung Htike in the early nineties. “We became friends even though we could not meet as freely as we would have liked to because there were times when that would have been too dangerous for him,” she says over email.
To Nijhuis, Aung Htike was a “quiet force.” She remembers a man full of wisdom, confidence, sharp wit and deep charity. “His generosity was unheard of. I cannot even begin to count the many people he supported in one way or another in his quiet but very effective way,” she says. Along with his assistance to jailed activists, Aung Htike put several students through medical school, which he himself never finished. He also built a number of schools throughout the country and, in 2005, he financed the construction of a hospital in his hometown.
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Aung Htike was born on July 26, 1953, around the time that modern Myanmar was. It was called Burma then (the name changed in 1989), and had only recently obtained sovereignty, in 1948. Before that there were twelve decades of occupation by the British and, from 1942-45, imperial Japan. Under the Crown, Burma was a backwater province of Britain’s most important colonial territory and seen as little more than a granary and rice exporter to India. Independence intoxicated the country with a fresh confidence, but postwar Burma, which had suffered heavy Japanese bombardment, was practically still smoldering. There was much work to do.
Aung Htike came from the southern center of the country, from a nowhere town called Myo Hla in Bago division. He was the fourth in a middle-class family of four boys and four girls of Chinese descent. A sharp-witted child, he kept close tabs on the foreign newspapers that came in on the slow train each week from Rangoon (now Yangon). His idols were political, figures like U Win Tin, a dissident writer, and General Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence and late father of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“He was a very curious boy,” his sister San San Nu remembers. She is sitting inside her home in Yangon, where Aung Htike also lived. “And very intelligent.”
In 1971, high marks at the local high school earned Aung Htike admittance to a medical college in nearby Taungoo city. There, his childhood interest in politics blossomed.
In December 1974, political events would alter his life forever. As Ne Win, an upstart general who had taken power in a military coup eight years earlier, solidified his control, a man named U Thant succumbed to cancer in New York. Thant, who had served as the third Secretary-General for the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, was a revered figure among Burmese nationalists. His political influence would outlive his death.
After Thant’s body was flown back to Burma, General Ne Win refused a state burial for the dead diplomat, who had been a close confidant of the very prime minister whom the general had overthrown. Many were outraged. Ne Win went further and banned most of the public from attending Thant’s funeral in Yangon. The only mourners allowed to visit Thant’s coffin were a group of three thousand students from some local universities. In the long queue to pay their respects, one student jumped up on the roof of a bus. He orated a seething denouncement of Ne Win and the security forces guarding Thant’s casket. His speech roused the students into action. They moved in on the casket, trampling a fence, then attacked the guards with the fractured fence poles. One later recounting of the episode from a student participant details a macabre scene:
It was a blood bath on the manicured lawn. Many officials were either bashed or stabbed where they stood trying to stop the young students rushing towards them with murderous intents. I even saw a senior driving his pointed iron pole through the fat body of a police officer already flat on the ground.
The enraged mass of students managed to lift the coffin and carry it to Rangoon University, where they barricaded themselves in the Convocation Hall. They built a memorial and buried Thant. The students remained there for over a week, guarding the grave. Government informants who were discovered were brutally beaten and some killed. When security forces eventually moved in to disband the movement, scores of students were slain and many more imprisoned. Following the assault Ne Win declared martial law.
The U Thant Uprising sparked a number of protests at universities throughout the country. One, at the medical college in Taungoo, would play a pivotal role in the life of Aung Htike. There, he emerged as a student leader of the protests. Months later, after the university had been shut down, police arrived at Aung Htike’s family home in Myo Hla to take him in. His family didn’t hear anything about him for four months. Through a relative in Yangon, they discovered that he was being kept at Insein Prison, a notorious jail for political prisoners in northern Yangon. He had been sentenced to eight years for anti-government activities.
But Aung Htike got lucky. He was released three years later, on April 10, 1978. To spiritually cleanse himself before re-entering normal life, he was ordained as a monk and spent a week at a monastery. He moved to Yangon and opened a pharmacy, living in a cheap boarding hostel. Initially he kept quiet about his experiences at Insein, but to those who knew him it was clear that he had been tortured.
“We know that he was brutally treated because he lost two of his teeth,” recounted Khine Khine Win, another of Aung Htike’s sisters. There were other indications. After Insein, his left eye began to gradually turn inward. A doctor told the family that it was likely caused by a severely pinched nerve in his neck. Later, Aung Htike said that he was often struck on the back of his neck in prison. The beatings apparently came because he had staged a protest against having to wear feet shackles, Khine Win says. His eye remained deformed for the rest of his life.
In 1987, Aung Htike closed the pharmacy and opened a teahouse. Its first location was on a corner down the street from the current one. He worked hard and had a way of making customers feel satisfied. It was the name of his business after all: Seit Tine Kya, “to one’s full satisfaction.” Business boomed and gradually he began to open new locations, each one with the same name. He came to own over a dozen teahouses throughout Yangon.
Seit Tein Kya’s most popular location and the one nearest Aung Htike’s house is in Myanigone, a working-class neighborhood in north-central Yangon. Historically an Indian enclave, Myanigone is now home to many Burmese and Chinese residents. Even if some of the residents didn’t personally know Aung Htike, most showed happy recognition at the mention of him. “I heard most of the people say that he is a very good man,” says Nwe Nwe Aung, 38, a teacher at the School of Genius English school. “Most people know about him here. He’s famous.”
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After the November 2015 elections, when the NLD came to power in their invigorating rout, Aung Htike threw a celebration at the Myanigone teahouse. It was a spirited gathering with people spilling out into the street. Everything was on the house. Khin Maung Lwin, Seit Tine Kya’s longtime parking attendant, who has a lame foot, must have had a real job on his hands. Aung Naing, the sundries vendor, might have run out of cheroots.
That night when Aung Htike returned home he sat down in his big teak chair. One of his sisters was in the living room with him and he turned to her. “Everything has changed,” he said, smiling in a satisfied way. He must have felt an enormous sense of gratification. The Ye baw had had their say: Myanmar, for five decades languishing underneath an army boot, was finally being allowed to stand. Aung Htike would have known that Suu Kyi’s victory was not a fix-all. The military still held considerable parliamentary and bureaucratic power. Other intractable issues in Myanmar – its ethnic wars, its poverty, its dismal infrastructure – loomed as formidable as ever. So who knows if Aung Htike slept soundly that night or not at all; one can imagine either. Still, the next morning, he went to work.