RUPA Thein takes a seat at a cafe in Yangon, Myanmar. The 64-year-old is unmistakeably graceful and poise.
With her crinkle-free Burmese attire of longyi and blouse, her unassuming and warm demeanour makes you feel immediately at ease. Until she delves into her passion, that is.
“It’s a shame I left my swords at home. I should have brought them for you,” she remarks nonchalantly, with a trace of a smile.
I try not to gulp at this statement, for Thein’s name and reputation are as sharp as the weapons she owns.
She’s the only female Master to sit on the executive board of the Myanmar Thaing Federation (MTF).
Thaing is Myanmar’s traditional martial art, believed to have originated during the Bagan Empire in the 9th century.
Its history is steeped with tales of ancient kings, skilled warriors in epic battles and rebels who fought against the British colonial rule.
Thaing is a collection of Burmese fighting systems that are categorised into six types: bando (unarmed combat) banshay (involves the use of weapons), leppan, lepwei (both are forms of grappling), lethwei (bare-fisted boxing and head-butting) and naban (forms of wrestling).
Thein has practised this traditional martial art for more than 50 years. Her dedication and commitment to Thaing remains strong — from her early days as a student, to being a Master, teacher and currently, chief instructor at MTF — and she’s passionate about teaching Thaing to today’s youth. Her personal journey with Thaing also chronicles the martial art’s significance to Myanmar’s social, cultural and political spheres.
BANNED BY THE BRITISH
However, Myanmar (then Burma) became a province of British India in 1886 and they prohibited the locals from training with swords and spears.
As a result, there was a decline in the fighting arts and knowledge of it was not widely shared during this period.
Recalls Thein: “Thaing was banned by the British because it was associated with patriots. Under the British rule, various forms of Thaing had to be practised in secret. Its popularity only rose after we gained independence in 1948.”
Thaing in post-independent Burma saw a slow re-emergence, and girls were increasingly interested to learn it, although numbers were still few during those days.
The eldest of five siblings, Thein grew up learning gymnastics and swimming from a young age. Her mother encouraged all of them to be involved in sports, but it was their grandmother’s bedtime stories about ancient Burmese female warriors that first cemented Thein’s love for martial arts.
“She (grandmother) enjoyed telling us stories about female warriors from the eighteenth century. One of them was Mae Bayet. I was intrigued about these women, their courage and their contribution to the country,” recalls Thein, the only child in her family to pursue this passion. Her parents were aware that she was partaking in a long and rich Burmese tradition.
YOUNG FIGHTERS IN A YOUNG COUNTRY
In 1967, she began training under two formidable teachers, Masters U Chit Than and U Ba Than, who were responsible for many of the major developments for Thaing inside and outside of Myanmar.
The late U Chit Than, well-known for his writings and good command of the English language, formed the Youth Thain Group in 1946.
The same year, the unification of the martial art under a single banner was led by Ba Than Gyi who headed the establishment of the National Bando Association. MTF was formed in 1966 by U Chit Than who went on to become its Secretary.
He was conferred the Social Prominence First Class award by the government for his efforts to promote Myanmar Thaing worldwide.
Additionally, U Ba Than was a Bando representative in Europe and popularised the martial art in countries like France, Switzerland and Spain.
At the age of 12, Thein attended her first Thaing class – and hasn’t stopped since. Her training was vigorous, requiring her to follow a strict daily routine which included early morning jogs, practising with weapons and refining her armed and unarmed techniques. In addition to the physical demands, Thaing requires practitioners to have psychological hardiness.
She explains that her background in gymnastics gave her the advantage in flexibility and in mastering movements more suitable for females. Her techniques were firstly learnt through forms, then with a partner or partners and finally, utilised in competition.
She earned her title as a Thaing Master after obtaining 10 belts and being proficient in unarmed combat and in the use of single and double weapons, lance and rope, among others.
Although Thaing comprises blocking, defensive and offensive movements, misconception of it being solely a ‘fighting’ art initially caused apprehensions among parents and schools towards mainstream Thaing.
STRENGTH IN SOFTNESS
In 1979 at the age of 24, Thein started teaching the martial art to primary and high school students in Yangon, shortly after teaching aerobics as part of a physical education class in local schools.
“The assumption many people had back then was that Thaing was for ‘naughty students’.
“I had to convince parents, teachers, headmasters and even the Myanmar Sports and Physical Department that Thaing was especially useful for female students as a form of self-defense, and that they would not get injured if they practised it properly.”
For girls, basic postures, footholds and blocking techniques were designed by Thein to specifically cater to the female physique.
Soft, dance-like movements based on Myanmar’s traditional dance were adopted for close quarters blocks and strikes. Her gymnastic prowess also helped to solidify her classes and the students’ interest as they explored different uses of force, flexibility and forms of Thaing.
“While teaching a high school in 1996, I taught the girls how to use umbrella as weapons. I bought the umbrellas with my own money and provided them to the students and teachers. They really appreciated the benefits of Thaing and wanted me to continue teaching there.”
Interestingly, Thein’s handling of a range of weapons prepared her for the most unlikely one of them – an aluminium lunchbox.
After teaching a Thaing class in the city, she was approached by two men. “They attempted to snatch my bag but I used my lunchbox to defend myself and managed to escape.”
To date, Thein has taught thousands of students and currently teaches at three schools in Yangon. She is also the Chief Instructor at MTF and facilitates the Federation with classes for international Thaing associations.
She is also trained in other martial arts such as wushu, arnis and silat. Thein served as a silat referee for the Southeast Asian Games and is actively promoting Thaing through these regional platforms.
“Thaing’s philosophy is deeply rooted in Buddhism and therefore emphasises mindfulness, health of body and mind, discipline and respect for others. These are values and principles I would like to share with others.”
She also hopes to revive this ancient martial art amongst the younger generation in Myanmar, confides Thein.
“Learning Thaing is important not only as a physical and mental exercise; it’s also a conduit for something bigger -embracing the love for my culture, community and country.”